Change and decay

November 24, 2008

Some years ago a senior Massey academic explained to me why students were reading less than they had in his day. The blame, it seemed, lay squarely with libraries. He had fond memories of long tables, squeaky linoleum floors and librarians who could silence you with a single stare if you so much as sniffed – in this environment you had no choice but to read (or to avoid the library entirely and play cards in the Students Centre).

Since this golden age libraries had become infected with modern liberal ideas in the form of carpet, individual study tables, armchairs and video players, had become in fact little more than social centres, and as a result students were not reading nearly as many books as he had done. Somehow, I sensed, I was personally to blame for this state of affairs and stood condemned, like Socrates, as a corrupter of youth.

Follow up:

Well, change and decay in all around I see, as the old hymn has it. From where I sit, in the library at Turitea, the situation has become exponentially worse – the large study tables have returned but they are now occupied by groups of students who are not only talking but eating food and drinking coffee, some of which they have purchased on the premises. The area where the card catalogue used to be is now full of computers with students checking their email, using sms English to talk about their lives on Facebook and watching a snake eating an egg on Youtube. Meanwhile librarians glide apathetically by as if all this were totally normal, pausing only to offer advice on how to print six PowerPoint slides to a page or to download an article from the Journal of Happiness Studies. Is any reading being done at all? Should we be ditching the word library, with its dated connotation of books, and calling it the infozone instead?

Maybe we should, or maybe the modernisation of university libraries is simply a desperate attempt to keep up with “young people today” rather than to guide them towards more scholarly paths. (Massey is not alone in this by the way – University Librarian John Redmayne recently returned from a study tour of British universities where the trend for libraries to become social centres is well underway.) But I’m not convinced that a golden age of quiet libraries really did exist, and I’m also not sure that students really are reading less (or that librarians are to blame). My recollection of studying in the Victoria University library was that, when I wasn’t staring out the window at the view, I was listening to multiple narratives going on around me about Saturday night parties, breakups with boyfriends and hopeless parents. The library staff were truly terrifying, but they were pretty much confined to the green zone around the lending and reference desks while out in the suburbs mob rule prevailed – if we didn’t mess with them by asking questions they didn’t come upstairs and tell us to shut up. If I wanted to do any serious reading I took the book back to my flat and blotted out any distractions by turning up my stereo.

Expecting young people in the same space not to talk is always difficult, but I think that we have done pretty well in designating some areas of the library as quiet zones and allowing talking in others. Certainly complaints about noise haven’t increased. When it was first suggested that food and drink should be tolerated a lot of us waited for the sky to fall but, apart from the odd plate of wedges or pizza, it is no big deal. Libraries have always performed an important social function and, just as the ambience has moved beyond polished wood and deathly silence , so the selling of food and coffee in libraries has made the transition from fashionable to normal.

So are students reading less? They certainly borrow fewer books than they did, but then they also have access to a vast bulk of online material that did not exist ten years ago. My view is that all sorts of factors probably impact here – semesterisation, the internet, part-time work, different types of assignments and courses – but that libraries and librarians are still effectively doing what we do, connecting people with information and readers with books. If writing an essay means using a computer, and if coffee comes with everything, then it seems to me that we are there, as central to the lives of students and academic staff as we have ever been. Although we librarians like to think of ourselves as masters of the universe the truth is that as the world changes so do we. And that’s no bad thing.

Bruce White
College Liaison

5 responses to “Change and decay”

  1. Jane Brooker says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your conclusions Bruce. I too have vivid memories of the old catalogue drawers as a central meeting (leaning) place on a Monday morning for students recounting the details of the weekend – evenings at the Fitz and so on!
    I suspect that some of that chat now happens online – but still in the Library.
    The online environment seems to encourage multi-tasking, and that is no bad thing either. There is certainly lots of reading and writing going on – it just doesn’t take quite the same form as it did when I was a student here 3 decades ago (gulp!).

  2. Louis says:

    Interesting post, Bruce. At my old university the Library’s name was changed to “Academic Information Centre”. Sounds flash, but confused a lot of people and earlier this year, after being the “AIC” for more than a decade, they reverted back to being called the Library.

  3. Darelle Thomson says:

    Thanks for finishing ‘the conversation’ we started last Thursday Bruce. I haven’t been to the Turitea library for awhile as I’m on the Hokowhitu campus, and I only noticed the food and drink sign at the entrance last Thursday. My first question to you Bruce was “So are you able to talk now as well?” I’d always associated the need to whisper with either church or the library. Bruce said that both had changed. What I did notice was that the sound level was no greater than when talking was frowned upon. Reading was in evidence all around. Books are only one form of knowledge exchange, so I think that ‘reading’ has actually increased in the library of today. And like you Jane, my first student days were three decades ago.

  4. Bruce White says:

    Yes, I gather that the librarians at Hokowhitu can be pretty severe and forbidding and that they run a pretty tight ship. That’s the great thing about the Massey library system, though, the diversity between the different libraries.

    My favourite “long tables” memory was of sitting making notes one afternoon when the very cool Gordon Campbell, who went on to become a notable journalist and commetator, sat down and produced a large brown rat from his coat which he set to run around the table. I resisted the urge to shriek like a headliner from Les Girls but a few minutes later packed up my stuff and very nonchantly walked out.

    Actually I was just kidding about the Hokowhitu staff – hi guys! 🙂 In fact I believe they’re even cool with ghetto blasters to the maxx and that on a hot afternoon they’ll bring you a cold beer …

  5. Geoffrey Hunt says:

    What a well-written, thought provoking and interesting article. It certainly is fascinating to see what has changed over the years. I personally believe we are reading a lot less. It is so much easier for us to find the information we need instantly. As a result, I wonder if we become lazy.

    Enjoyed this article very much.

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