Archive for the ‘ Education ’ Category

How not to email the library

I have been perplexed in recent weeks.  This is not unusual, for there are many sources of perplexity in my life, some of them self-inflicted.  The thing that I am currently finding perplexing is email, specifically the email we receive from students in response to our automatically-generated reminders that their books are due back soon or, if they ignore these, are overdue.

A favourite trick has always been to frustrate our efforts to help them.  “Can I renew my books that are due back tomorrow?” is a perfectly acceptable message, but it is less helpful if that is the entire text of the message and it is sent from  We may possess astonishing powers where information is concerned, but even librarians have their limits and are not generally blessed with special powers that allow us to divine people’s names from their email addresses.  We can trace internal university addresses quite easily, but hotmail, yahoo and gmail accounts are not so easy to marry up with the relevant overdue books.

Then, of course, there are the swearers, the SHOUTers, the people who communicate in something close to txtspk and the people who are very creative with language.  Renue, reknew, renoo and rinew are all interesting variations on ‘renew’ that I have come across, as are re-borrow and re-loan, along with the puzzling re-stamp – do they want us to somehow send the ink of the date stamp to their books electronically?  These people are much easier, for communication is achieved happily.  The spelling or vocabulary may be unusual, but the intent is clear, so all is well.

The current cause of frustration as I sift through the library inbox is not a new one, but does seem to be increasing in frequency.  The exchange generally runs something like this, with the student responding to a reminder email, which they have helpfully included below, above or around the text of their response:

Student: Why are you saying that these books are due back?  I returned them on Monday 24th November in the morning and that lady with the long hair served me.  Maybe she didn’t take them off my account or something, but I’m not paying the fine and I think this is very unfair!!!

My inner monologue: Oh, dear.  I wonder what happened?

My inner monologue (after checking their account): There aren’t any books on loan to them, so maybe they have already contacted someone else.  Let’s see if their fines have been waived…

My inner monologue (continued a few moments later, looking at their email): Argh, not again!

Me: Dear student, the email you are responding to was sent on the morning of 24th November, shortly before you returned your books.  Please allow me to reassure you that these items were indeed cleared from your account two weeks ago and there are no books currently on loan to you.

The bad librarian is not allowed anywhere near the keyboard, but if he were, his response to the twentieth offender or so would probably be along these lines:

Dear student, why are you wasting my time with this message?  Please note that the date of the message is included at the top of the text, before your name and certainly before the list of books.  Also, you may like to know that the date and time of an email can be seen quite clearly in its header and in your inbox.  I know you haven’t checked your email for several weeks, but really, do you not understand?  Just because you opened your email this morning does not mean that all your emails were sent this morning.  May I suggest learning about the concept of the passage of time?  Please be aware that I have added a £5 ‘annoying the librarians’ charge to your account.

Now that letters so rarely cross in the post (since there is so rarely any post worth speaking of), the idea has faded from our collective consciousness to some degree, so maybe emails crossing in the ether is not a thought that naturally occurs to people.  Emails are seen as ‘instant’ communication – letters take time to get from A to B, even if A and B are in the same town, but emails do not (well, they do, but they generally don’t take a very long time to make the journey).  It does seem strange, though, that a number of our students do not seem to be able to cope with the concept that an email may have been sent at a time other than the time it is read, and sits patiently waiting in an inbox until rescued from obscurity by the click of a mouse or the press of a key.  It is particularly strange when you consider that I have seen all the forms our internal email system can take, and all of them display the date and time of messages very clearly, as does the text of the template for our automatic messages.

In a higher education environment where librarians, lecturers and administrators are growing ever more concerned about how best to deliver teaching, provide information and generally engage the ‘digital native’ student, it strikes me that the use of email by many of these students suggests that they are not quite so native as we believe.  My institution does have a higher than usual percentage of mature (and therefore theoretically ‘digital immigrant’) students, generally taking vocational courses in order to advance existing careers or switch careers.  This could explain it, at least in many instances.  Or perhaps the idea of the digital native is overblown and/or misdefined, perhaps higher education does not need to tie itself up in knots getting twittered and facebooked up.  Or, ultimately, perhaps some people just aren’t as accomplished as we might hope with communications technology.  Whatever the reason, I do wish that everyone would do as the majority clearly do, and think for a moment before they send their email to the library.

Talented youth

This week, I have been privileged to see talented young people performing in two different venues in Canterbury, and it has inspired and encouraged me.

The first was a performance of a musical by two of the local grammar schools – the Bernstein/Sondheim/Laurents masterpiece West Side Story.  I am not frequently in attendance at school shows, but this one starred a talented young guy who I have performed alongside in Kiss Me, Kate and My Fair Lady, and I wanted to support him, so turned up to the opening night along with a couple of other members of the operatic society.

From the overture onwards, I was frequently impressed by the skills, energy and enthusiasm of those involved.  The orchestra negotiated Leonard Bernstein’s difficult score very well, and seeing the show performed by people of around the right age for the characters was a rare treat.  Though there were some iffy moments, these were far outweighed by the good bits.  ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ exploded with energy, and the boys were clearly loving every moment of that song.  The ‘Tonight’ quintet was impressive – not perfect, but very, very good.  It is an incredibly tricky piece of music.  In terms of stage craft, I was amazed at the ensemble’s ability to hold a freeze at the end of the ‘Somewhere’ sequence – it seemed as though not a muscle twitched.  The leads acted most of the adult characters off the stage.  My young friend had an entirely natural, relaxed and convincing air to his performance as Tony and both the main girls impressed me greatly.  The girl playing Anita had an incredible voice, with immense power and control far beyond her years.  I was so glad I had gone and I was encouraged that the schools were supporting talented young performers – involvement in a project of that nature can teach many things which cannot be taught in conventional lessons.

Then on Saturday, I was a steward at the semi-final of a talent competition run by the local churches for the city’s secondary schools and further education institutions.  This competition has many aims.  To encourage and develop local talent (the judges are from a local stage school and offer helpful advice as well as giving out scores).  To demonstrate that the church is not a remote and cold institution.  To have fun. 

The talents on show at the heats and the semi-final were diverse – dancers, singers of all varieties, solo musicians, bands, a comedienne and even a pair of roller-dancers.  Some are better than others, but most of them perform with such joy and enthusiasm that it is infectiously exciting, even if their particular brand of performance is not the spectator’s normal cup of tea.  Particular highlights from the semi-final include a girl who had written a song after hearing someone on the radio say they’d never been given flowers or a card on Valentine’s Day.  The song was well-structured and moving, and her delivery very engaging, using her deep voice to great advantage.  And then there was the boy who did an Irish dance routine, who was able to do amazing things with his knee joints.  It was also encouraging to see the acts cheering each other on and giving fulsome applause.  Next week’s final should be an absolute delight, though I fear the pressure of counting the votes may get to me!

It is a joy to see talented young people perform, perhaps even more so than talented people who have had time to refine their craft.  There is a raw energy and excitement to what they do which is wonderful to behold, and there can be a surprising amount of talent locked in the youngest of bodies.  I can only hope that their teachers, relatives and friends continue to encourage them to use and develop their gifts into adulthood and that young people (particularly boys, who seem to have more inhibitions than girls) continue to be brave enough to act, sing, dance and create music.  It is a privilege to have shared in what they do.

Flatpack university

The University of Doom is running out of space.  Not just for its library books, which continue to laugh at all vain attempts to get the collection to fit on shelves, but for its students, for living space and teaching space.  The library situation is being addressed, in the form of a swanky new Learning Resource Centre which will be built, eventually, on the present site of an ugly concrete monstrosity of an office building from the mid 20th century.  This being an old town with more History than you could shake any number of sticks at, this will involve an archaeological dig at the site before reconstruction begins, and the destruction of the building is already behind schedule, so it is most definitely the ‘mythical new learning centre’.

The students are a rather more tricky proposition.  A large herd of them has been stabled in accommodation belonging to one or other of the London universities, which randomly has a satellite site in a small town which is only three stops away on the train.  Free transport is provided (in horseboxes for all I know) and I’m sure that every effort is being made to ensure that these youngsters don’t feel too cut off from the rest of the student body.  A series of e-mails also came the way of all staff of the University, imploring us to offer any accommodation we could in return for a farthing or two.  Sadly, given that my house is (due to a mad conversion project, transforming it from a dental practice to a shared home) mostly a large pile of boxes with a few beds hidden here and there, I didn’t feel I could help in this matter.

Teaching accommodation is also at a premium.  Local residents have been remarking for years that we seem to be buying up half the property in the city, and it is true that our logo appears on a wonderfully random selection of buildings and we may well rival the cathedral for ‘most property owned’.  But no matter how much the University buys, it never seems to be enough.  Particularly when a new room bookings software package is purchased and then throws a wobbly, hiding bookings under the sofa and behind the fridge every so often.  And so, this week, the University of Doom has begun the wonderful process of dealing with the problem.  Temporarily.

A fleet of flat-bed lorries has been making its way through the twisty turny streets with the shells of mobile classrooms on their backs.  Fantastically air-conditioned, as they have no side walls, these have been winched by crane over the flint walls that surround the campus and moved into position.  However, it was observed on Friday that there seemed to be far more mobile classrooms arriving than could possibly fit in the two places which have been set aside for them – the back of the student support services building and the tennis courts.  No, no more tennis for anyone – I’m sure the Sports Sciences department doesn’t mind.  Even assuming that side walls are going to arrive for these classrooms, what are they going to do with them?  Pile them up on top of each other and allow access via rope ladder?  Float one on the pond?  Set up an outpost in the neighbouring prison’s exercise yard?  The mind boggles.  The Head of Library Services suggested that it looked like they were setting up a very large-scale game of Jenga.

The University, needless to say, seems to have been surprised by this space crisis, as one assumes it would have been more useful to address the issue in August.  The cause seems to be a mystery as well.  Not to library staff, though.  We spotted a slight clue in the most recent staff newsletter.  “Record student numbers recruited.”  I think that may have something to do with it…

Good librarian, bad librarian

One of last week’s strips over at Unshelved/Overdue Media, a wonderful web comic about a public library, struck a particular chord with me, as it features the staff battening down the hatches in response to someone asking ‘What day of the week is the second Thursday of the month?’, unsafe in the knowledge that this query heralds one of those days.

Here at the Library of Doom, we certainly have those days, when an outbreak of ‘thick’ hits the student population.  Of course, as librarians we are immune to the horrible disease of thick, but we can certainly be badly affected when the symptoms manifest themselves in the student body.  Dealing with stupid queries is one of the times when I have to keep the greatest amount of control over myself, as an immense urge to be sarcastic, demeaning or just plain rude comes over me.  Thankfully, the good librarian in me tends to win, and the bad librarian has to be contented with repeating the story about the latest thick outbreak at every opportunity.  But what would happen if the bad librarian won?  I beg to put before you a few real examples from the Library of Doom, with what the bad librarian wanted to say, and what the good librarian chose to say instead.

Student: How long can you borrow a 7-day loan for?
Bad librarian: How long do you think you can borrow a 7-day loan for?  If you need to ask that question, then you’re in the wrong place.  You, personally, can’t borrow any 7-day loans at all.  Everyone else can borrow them for 7 days.
Good librarian: A week.

Continue reading

Shouting at the telly

Until recently, my television viewing was fairly passive.  I’d enjoy (or not) what was being offered, and perhaps discuss it with those who happened to be in the room.  The news is an exception, but it probably is for everyone.  Shouting at one’s leaders (or the leaders of bigger nations) is a satisfying occupation (though to have any point it should be followed up in the form of letters or e-mails), and occasional whoops of joy creep through from time to time as well.

Recently, however, my housemate decided to subscribe to Sky television, and through the wonder that is the Challenge channel, I have rediscovered the Crystal Maze.  Has there ever been a show that encouraged more shouting at the screen?  ‘Get out!’,  ‘It’s over there!’, ‘The square of three is nine, you idiot!’, ‘Listen to your team-mates!’, ‘Not like that!’, ‘Yes!’ and lots of variations on ‘Aaaarrrggghhhh!’  Continue reading

Boundaries of ignorance

The further you progress in the education system, the more you realise that there’s an awful lot you don’t know.  My MA in English Literature means I know a bit about the field in general, quite a lot about eighteenth-century novels and far too much about Henry Fielding.  But it also makes me realise how much there is about even my chosen fields that I don’t know.  Higher degrees mean learning more and more about less and less, but would I really want to study dozens of GCSE or A Level subjects and be frustrated, knowing that I had now scratched the surface of an awful lot of things?

A post elsewhere on WordPress really challenged me to think again about how little I know.  Continue reading

The trouble with students

I think I’ve worked it out.  The trouble with students these days is that they don’t really come to university to learn any more.  They come to be taught.  And there is a difference that goes beyond spelling and transitivity.  You see, I think it comes down to money.

Students today have to pay an awful lot of money to come to university, and they’re not shy about reminding you of it.  ‘I pay your wages’ is a relatively frequent cry of the man, woman or monster who isn’t satisfied with the responses to their questions.  To a certain extent, I suppose that could be true, but each student probably only pays me a penny or two per month, so I’m not all that worried.  However, they do indeed have to pay a lot of money to come here.

So they expect to be taught, not to learn.  They want to know what the answer is, not how to find out what the answer is.  They want to be told what to think, not how to think.  In the library, they want the three books on the reading list and nothing else.  No reading around the suject, which was one of the most interesting parts of study for me (and I’m only 27, can things really have changed that much?).  No forming of opinions.  No righteous anger at social injustice.  Just an endless frustration, for they all want the formula for how to get a first class degree handed to them on a plate, and most don’t understand that such a formula is impossible.  It’s about curiosity, imagination and reason.  It’s not about regurgitating facts A, B and C in the correct order.  It’s about disagreeing with your tutor and arguing your case, not blindly accepting what they say.  Or at least it should be.  Or is it just me?

 There are exceptions, of course.  The students who really want to learn, who want to expand the boundaries of their world view, who deliberately seek out authors with views that contradict their own.  And these are the students who make working in a higher education library worth while.  They are few and far between, but they bring a smile to my face like a breath of cool breeze on a muggy day.  The enthusiasm to learn is a rare and precious thing which needs to be encouraged.  If only I could work out how to do that…

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