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.


  1. For any books where the right to publish is available, print-on-demand would be an option. Setup costs are minimal. If this could be of use, please let me know I'd be happy to help.

    1. Love this idea. Will certainly bear it in mind (though our biggest problem is material we don't have the right to do anything with) - would be great!

  2. Interesting post!

    I've taken to making out of print books "Library Use Only" and I'm hiding an increasing number of books in our Rare Books Room, as they cost £500 to replace due to insanely short print runs. Of course this raises objections, but, whilst I support teaching, learning and research, I feel I'm also Keeper of the Lovely Books, and have as much of a duty of care towards them as I do our students and staff.

    Mindful of the particular stresses first year undergraduates feel at being unable to access set texts (of which there are thankfully few in architecture), I bought about 1:8 of some books a while back. Then one module was pulled and I'm left with a huge pile of "Dwellings" by Paul Oliver that no-one ever borrows. Argh! Such a waste of money and space! I don't want to withdraw them, though, lest it suddenly become fashionable again to study the vernacular architectural form.

    Conversely, one of my particular frustrations is how little students ask for what they want. I had a conversation with a fifth year yesterday, undertaking dissertation research. "Did you find enough information for your research?", I said. "No.", he replies. "So why didn't you ask us to find stuff for you?", I say. "Oh. I didn't realise I could.", comes his response. This, despite my standing in front of his cohort on six separate occasions and likely each time telling them to ask for what they want. This, despite there having been a message from me on the fifth year notice board since October saying, "Recommend books for your library by emailing me". Maybe five years of occasional disappointment in his Library has resulted in him expecting too little? How depressing that sometimes our users' expectations of what we can deliver aren't high enough.

  3. I think there is far too much anecdotal comment and not enough specifics in what we get as feedback. You can't do very much to address sweeping generalisations. Not sure what you can do either about students not taking on board what you have told them in person! Also, it is frustrating when people get to the end of three, or in your case four or five years, not ever having asked for anything, and then complain when given the chance to do so anonymously and in such general terms that you have nothing to go on to put it right. I wonder if people are just reluctant to make a personal approach? Perhaps we are intimidating? (but email is a way round that). As for all the copies of books which used to be on a reading list and now sit unloved and filling the limited available space on the shelves, I could use a Teaching Reserve rather than a Research Reserve for those, if there were such a thing. I can't risk getting rid of things which might well be wanted again, as I know they would very probably be unobtainable. A novel reappeared on a reading list recently after a gap of more than ten years - something which would certainly have been weeded by anyone using any mechanical usage rule.