Librarians vs student ignorance

Library staff carry out many functions.  Not just the obvious – issuing and returning books, shelving stock and so on.  Nor even just the things that librarians are supposed to do – cataloguing and classification, organising information, providing electronic resources, that sort of thing.  There are many other functions which they can, and do, perform, at least in an academic environment.  Offering advice on how to find the nearest toilet, bank, supermarket or bowling alley, for instance.  Providing the sort of listening ear that you would more traditionally associate with a barman in a small pub.  In extreme times, providing a place for people to be together (on 11th September 2001, for instance, when almost all of the students on campus were American, and most of them gathered in the library, needing human contact and sources of up to date information).  Upholding the law, from time to time – generally copyright or data protection legislation, but sometimes finding themselves part of a drugs investigation.  And, perhaps far too frequently, offering general education beyond the boundaries of information and research skills, which would be the traditional areas where library staff would be expected to blur the boundaries with teaching staff.

I have mentioned before that some students make me want to weep and/or commit murder when they betray their lack of general knowledge, or sometimes their lack of knowledge about their own subject.  I have been in situations where I have had to define ‘botany’ for an environmental scientist, question a history teacher in training about whether they really wanted to ask for photographs of the Great Fire of London, inform a literature student that David Copperfield is a book by Charles Dickens and not the name of another nineteenth-century novelist and, one of my favourites, explain that you can borrow a seven-day loan for… well, for a week – that sort of thing.  Just minor gaps in an otherwise flawless knowledge base, one hopes.

Last week, a colleague told me a tale which left me shocked, even after eight years of exposure to student ignorance.  On this particular day, a sunny day in September, she was approached at the issue desk by two students who looked a little cross.  “Don’t you have any books on nursing?” they asked.  Of course we have books on nursing, and on the allied health professions – the NHS would be a little worried about the training offered here if we didn’t.  So my colleague duly informed them that we do indeed have quite a lot of books on their subject, and was asked where they could be found.  Deciding to be helpful, but also teach them something they would need to know, she asked if they knew how to use the library catalogue.  “Yes, but nothing comes up!”  Interesting.  Very interesting…

My colleague took them over to one of the standalone catalogue machines, wondering whether the system had crashed.  When informed that the search they had carried out was simply ‘nursing’ and not something ridiculous like ‘hello catalogue, do you have any books on nursing or whatever?’, she assumed the worst and thought it might be time to run and hide until the technical people could kick the computers into gear.  But, brave soul that she is, she suggested that they show her what they’d done.  As one of them typed, the problem was immediately apparent.  The search box soon had seven letters in it:

N – E – R – S – I – N – G

Strangely, we have no books with nersing in the title or subject, but over 2000 records mention nursing.  Before long, the students had enjoyed a brief spelling lesson and were pointed in the direction of the books that came up using the new search.  The library staff who witnessed this event soon passed the details on to the rest of us, and certain questions naturally arose.  How did they manage to apply for the course in the first place?  Should we be worried?  Or should we be more tolerant of similar events?  Does this explain why people so often ask us not to ‘renew’ their books, but to ‘renue’, ‘reknew’ or ‘reknoo’ them?  Should we blame the madness of English spelling?  Or are we justified in being perplexed by such situations? 

Spelling is not easy, and there are many words that make me stop, think and choose a synonym if I’m nowhere near a spellchecker.  I can understand if someone looks for Jane Austen’s classic book and uses pride, not prejudice, as a key word.  I’m also well aware of dyslexia and other very good reasons for finding such things very challenging.  But perhaps I’m just very nasty, as this example simply caused me to despair.  A nurse who can’t even spell her job title?  That’s surely not good.  Or rather it wasn’t good.  The two students in question do now know how to spell ‘nurse’ – if the library staff can do nothing more for them, I feel we have made a valuable contribution to their education.

I wonder whether we’ll have to do the same for teechers, sport sighentists, pollease officers and lore students as the year goes on?


Postscript (25th September):

It slipped my mind as I wrote this post, but there was another worrying student encounter this week.  I was about to start on a library tour for English Literature students, which was joined late by one student who had been talking quite animatedly to one of my colleagues.  It transpired that there had been some confusion, as her timetable said she should be on a tour, but when she got here, she saw that it was a tour for completely the wrong subject.  “I’m not doing English Literature!  I’m studying poetry and that.”  Oh, dear…

  1. That reminds me of when people call you up at the reference desk and ask you to check the dictionary for spelling of words they are putting in letters. Wonderful worlds like delicious or happening.

    • pao
    • September 26th, 2008

    Oh you have utterly made me laugh out loud.


  2. Oh dear. Oh dearie dearie dear dear. The whirring sound you can hear is Miss Nightingale spinning in her grave.

    Do you think it has anything to do with multiple choice and the lack of actually writing essays?

    On a different subject, I’d love to know more about your experience of 9/11. (“9/11 – how was it for you?”)


  3. Sounds a lot like a good number of my students. I mean, to be in a nursing program and not even know how to spell “nursing” is simply not right, no matter who defends the students (like Bell does in ACRLog, which is how I got here). I feel your pain. And I am certainly adding you to my feed reader.

    • Ellen
    • October 15th, 2008

    From the spelling and date, I’ll guess you are British or from the Commonwealth. The problem in the U.S. is Bush’s No Child Left Behind act and years of dumbing down our educational system. “Let’s teach to a test” is the way it’s done here. God forbid students be drilled in spelling, arithmetic, geography etc. It might damage their delicate psyches. Far too much self-esteem being inculcated in these pups! In spite of the many whiplash moments I encounter in my work, it continues to be enjoyable. I just wonder at times how some people can be so unconcerned by their ignorance. You should hear what some have to say about our upcoming election … it’s enough to make a body weep.

  4. Thanks for coming by and commenting people. The situation with education in this country (indeed the UK) worries me greatly, and I think it is partly due to the same “teach to the test” mentality. Students learn how to pass exams, which is not really the same thing as gaining useful or relevant knowledge, and certainly has nothing to do with common sense. I think I need to think further on this theme and write another post on it without any half-amusing, half-depressing stories in it.

    Aphra, a post on what happened in the library on 9/11 is a good idea. Maybe soon.

  1. September 25th, 2008
  2. October 15th, 2008

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