Posts Tagged ‘ students ’

Laptop rage

Some people think of me as very calm.  Others, who know me a little better, think I’m always tense or worried about something (or some things, or possibly everything), but I doubt many of the people I know would see me as angry.  As a rule, I don’t do angry.  I get cross with myself.  A lot.  Or I get frustrated about world events or uncooperative inanimate objects.  But I just don’t get angry.  Very few people have ever seen me shout for any reason other than audibility or theatre.  A few unfortunate souls have experienced the moment when I grow icily cold, and my voice becomes even quieter than usual as I simmer.  Recently, though, I experienced laptop rage.

In the shiny new(ish) learning centre, we have a laptop loan scheme.  This involves cabinets housing a couple of hundred mini laptops which can be used in the building by anyone who needs them, vastly increasing the computing capacity of the space.  The laptops are  cute little things, which sometimes start to smell a bit when too many students have carried them around under their arms.  They are a much valued resource, but they can be irritating from time to time.  There is a tendency to leave them in strange places around the building.  On shelves, under chairs, out on the terrace (in the rain) and so on.  This is irritating because each laptop can only run for a few hours before needing to be plugged back in to a cabinet to recharge.

You can imagine, then, my joy when I found a laptop abandoned on a desk at the end of a day and took it to a cabinet, to find that said cabinet was almost full.  People had been returning them to their little house rather than leaving them to fend for themselves.  Wonderful!  Except…  I noticed several dangling cables.  Pulling out one laptop after another, I discovered that they and the cables that recharge them were only united in terms of proximity, not in terms of carrying out any useful function.  In the whole cabinet, containing a couple of dozen laptops, only one had actually been plugged in to recharge.  For some reason, this really irked me, beyond my usual levels of irritability.  Technically, this showed more thoughtfulness than the usual trick of abandoning the laptops as soon as they were finished with, but it seemed to show less sense.  Did they assume that the whole cabinet functioned as a powermat?  If so, what on earth did they think all the dangling cables were for?  By the time I had plugged each cute little laptop in to a power cable, sitting cross-legged on the floor like a 21st-century gnome, I would have been quite happy to strangle the next student that came along, preferably using one of the remaining charging cables.  Thankfully, as it was the end of the day, there were no students sufficiently near by to carry out this desire.

In theory, a failure to plug something in to charge is no great crime, but on this day I must have been tired, or caffeine-deprived, or otherwise unable to cope with the daily ups and downs of library life.  Whatever the reason, I now know that some of our student body do not understand the concept of charging (one can only assume they replace their phones every time the battery runs out) and that this is one of the few things in life that makes me genuinely angry.  The Singing Librarian suffers from laptop rage.  Who’d have thought it?

The blonde factor

Moving from the Library of Doom to a state of the art learning centre has been an interesting, exciting, tiring and sometimes frustrating experience.  The new building has been open for 10 weeks now and everything is beginning to settle down.  We understand the technology, we no longer forget which floor everything is on and we are adjusting to the open plan office etiquette rules and the students’ newfound freedom to talk, eat and drink almost anywhere in the learning centre.  One thing, however, has not settled down, and that is shelving.  In any library (sorry, learning centre), shelving is a major logistical issue involving more trolleys and members of staff than you could ever imagine.  In fact, the task seems to consume as many trolleys as are available – you can purchase a couple of dozen extra trolleys, but within a week you will find yourself needing more.

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Show the librarians some love!

Sometimes you find the most surprising things in the book return box.  First thing on a Thursday morning, this is one of my tasks, carried out as part of the routine of getting the temporary library up and running for the day.  Gone is the hideous wooden thing lurking in the corner, replaced by a much older, but more aesthetically pleasing blue metal drop box.  Given previous form and stories of drop boxes across the world, you might expect to find bacon rashers, dead squirrels, old underwear or hastily stashed contraband in there.  However, the only item I’ve found in there so far which wasn’t part of library stock was much more unexpected.  This:

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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.

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…

Whales, jumpers and spoons

Communication.  The key to the successful functioning of any organisation or social unit, yet something we seem to be terribly bad at.  Each day is filled with dozens of misunderstandings, ambiguities and missed opportunities to connect in any way.  Something which all trainee librarians learn is that the question being asked by a user is not necessarily the question they want answered, and even if it is, you may not understand it in quite the way it was intended.

The classic example is the librarian sat at an enquiry desk who is asked to help someone find information on ‘migration in whales’.  The immediate response is to send the user in the direction of biological information, specifically the behaviour of Cetaceans [599.51568 or thereabouts in Dewey].  However, it may be necessary to pause a while.  Did the librarian really hear an ‘h’, or did they just assume it?  Their enquirer might well have no interest in the movements of marine mammals, they may be researching economic migration in the United Kingdom, specifically in Wales.  Dewey would class a treatise on this subject with a hideously long number somewhere in the 300s, but journals and collections of statistics would be a more likely source for this information.

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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.

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