Thursday, 6 December 2012

Great expectations, or, students and their reading lists

In these days of emphasis on the student experience and taking into account feedback from various surveys (the NSS is particularly important, but there are also other internal surveys), one area of dissatisfaction with academic libraries is regularly highlighted. "There are not enough books in the library", "I can never get hold of the books I need", or even "There are no books in the library". (Obviously the last comment is not exactly true, but it's what the student felt!)

The situation is mutually frustrating for students and for library staff. Managing expectation is something we haven't yet learned to do, and perhaps we should be thinking about how to do this (rather than raising unrealistic hopes).

I really like this page from Sussex University Library on its purchasing policy. It is intended for its academic staff, and gently asks lecturers to remind their students that there will not, despite their expectations, be a copy of every item on the reading list for every student. There certainly isn't the budget for it (despite the hike in tuition fees), and anyway the whole point of a library is that it is a shared resource. Sussex also suggests to lecturers that they tell students at an early stage to plan ahead. This is, of course, easier said than done, and it depends on the nature of the course and how it is being taught, but it is always going to be the case that leaving things until the last minute might mean that you cannot get hold of a book or resource in time.

The other reason I like Sussex's page is how reassuring it is for me! It is not only the students in my little neck of the woods who come to university expecting more of a 1:1 ratio of student to book (which they may very well have had at school, of course); and the ratio set out by Sussex is quite a bit less generous than I and my predecessors have tried to be in our own subject area. Where I have bought twelve copies of a book, I have had protests that "there are forty-seven students doing this module". Cue, mutual incomprehension! (That's a ratio of 1:4!) I have hunted round the web and asked on Twitter for other institutions' policies (admittedly not a very scientific way of finding out), and while there is some variation the most generous ratio I have found is 1 book per 10 students (more often it is 1:20).

Where I come more unstuck than some of my colleagues who look after more scientific subjects is that a huge amount of important Welsh material is out of print. "But you can copy it!" comes the cry. Yes, you can copy if it IF you have permission to do so - by no means a foregone conclusion - but there are still limits on the number of copies you may make (definitely not forty-seven!) If the publisher realises that there may be a demand for an item, they might say that they are considering reprinting it - in which case they will not give permission (but the reprint may be years coming). Some academic texts are becoming available electronically (on a rather haphazard basis), and some older material (by which I mean out of copyright) is also available electronically, but in between lies the whole vast expanse of literature of the twentieth century, much of it out of print and unobtainable and mainly subject to copyright restrictions. While it is frustrating for me to see titles which are so hard to come by appearing on reading lists (and knowing that I am the one who is deemed to have fallen short by not finding enough of them available second-hand), you cannot simply expect academic choice to be restricted to material which is readily available. If you are teaching late twentieth century Welsh literature, you will want your course to include the study of the most important texts, regardless of whether someone has considered them commercially viable.

There are some glimmers of hope: various informal suggestions have been made as to how to address the situation, and there has been the subsidised "Library of Wales" series which reprints English-language titles which are hard to find. Just recently, Wiliam Owen Roberts' "Y pla", a post-modernist novel first published in 1987 and much beloved of academics, has been reprinted in Welsh for the first time. It has in the intervening twenty-five years appeared in several other languages and sold particularly well in German, but in its own country it has been unobtainable (it was already out of print when I studied it at university fifteen years ago). Our perceived lack of copies has been the subject of many complaints over the years (it appears on reading lists roughly once every two or three years) - and yet, we do have fifteen, which really ought to have been enough!

The particular problems posed by the Welsh publishing scene in the context of an academic library are difficult, but there are other subjects too in which material is hard to obtain (particularly in the humanities).

We can't expect our students to understand the intricacies of copyright, the economics of publishing in a minority language, or dwindling library budgets, and our current emphasis on individual satisfaction doesn't really do much to encourage anyone to see the wood rather than the trees, as it were. I would love to know what to do about those high expectations, though! It feels as if we have led people to expect too much, and there is inevitable disappointment.