I was invited to attend a roundtable discussion at De Montfort University – also in attendance were librarians from universities of Loughborough, Nottingham, Northampton and Warwick. The invitation was timely, because our National Student Survey score for learning resources in history fell considerably in 2012. In the last academic year, I have been working with the School of History to improve library resources and student satisfaction.
The Higher Education Authority (Carrigan 2010) found that history students were dissatisfied with Learning Resources (NSS questions 16 (library) and 17 (IT)). This was an experience shared by all (but one) of the librarians at the roundtable. It was heartening (but also saddening), to find that I am not alone, and that our experience is ‘normal’.
The roundtable started with presentations from Chris Powis (Head of Library and Learning Services at the University of Northampton), and Neil Skinner (Assistant Librarian and History PhD Student at De Montfort University). Chris outlined the problems and solutions of history and learning resources; and Neil described his current research project into history and learning resources. We then began our discussions, which I have attempted to summarise by theme.
Problems with history and learning resources
- Length of reading lists (500+ items per module)
- Lack of differentiation on reading lists (essential/background)
- Preference for monographs on reading lists (over journal articles)
- Availability of items on reading lists (out of print, print only, no ebooks)
- Focus on directed reading (reading lists do not encourage independent research)
- Theft and vandalism of the library’s history books
- History students seek help from academics (not from librarians)
- Attitude of (some) history academics towards the library
Solutions to history and learning resources
- Liaison librarian (increased liaison with history department)
- Liaison librarian (increased contact with history students)
- Library recovery plan for departments with low NSS scores
- Use evidence (statistics) to support case for change
Research project on history and learning resources
- Review of available literature
- Survey (online questionnaire) of history students
- Interview with history academics
- Roundtable discussion with history librarians
NSS Question 16
In the NSS, the library is evaluated by a single question:- “the library resources and services are good enough for my needs”. The question is rather simplistic, and open to different interpretations. The question relates to library resources and services, not to facilities or the environment. Yet student comments often relate to opening hours, study spaces, and noise. A library refurbishment often leads to an increased NSS score. This may have increased our NSS scores in 2010 and 2011, with the 2012 cohort returning to pre-refurbishment levels. It was noted that the library tends to perform better in other surveys. However, we can not change the NSS question, and it is our key performance indicator.
Our School of History offers a large number of modules, including special subjects in second and third year, which reflect their academics research interests. Core modules have large student numbers, but optional/special modules have comparatively small student numbers, yet the library must resource all modules, and each module comes with a lengthy reading list (see below). Also, staff changes means that new academics bring new research interests and develop new modules of study, which again need to be resourced by the library. It takes time to develop a collection of library resources.
Is the history reading list part of the problem, and not the solution? What is the purpose of a reading list? Should it provide students with key introductory readings to a subject, or should it be a complete body of knowledge on a subject? The history reading list is a work of wonder – perhaps more accurately described as a bibliography. Students (rightly) expect all items on their reading list to be available in their university library. However, financial constraints mean that the library struggles to provide one copy of each item on a history reading list, let alone providing multiple copies to cope with high student demand.
All of the universities had an electronic reading list system (either proprietary or in-house), but were at various stages of implementation, with some university’s mandating it’s use, and others using in on a voluntary basis. There is a reluctance to use electronic reading list systems from academics with long reading lists. While the electronic reading list system gives the library access to reading lists; it does not appear to resolve problems regarding resourcing reading lists. All universities experienced problems purchasing adequate resources – regardless of the generosity of their library budget.
Skinner found that history academics want their library to provide a broad range of resources (multiple titles not copies), and they are generally pleased with their library’s collection. However, the history students’ most common complaint is that the library “does not have enough books” (multiple copies of a single title). Academics want their students to become independent learners and researchers, and to go beyond their reading list. Yet they continue to provide long reading lists for modules, including recommended reading for essay titles, which does not encourage their students to conduct independent research, and use other library resources.
To what extent can librarians advise academics on best practice in teaching?
eBooks and Short Loans
Electronic books (particularly multi-user licenses) can be useful in making high demand titles more widely available (replacing the need to purchase multiple copies). New titles are often published in both print and electronic formats, yet history reading lists often include old and out-of-print titles, which are not available electronically. Where e-books are available, the format may not be popular with students. In my focus group with history students in 2012, I was surprised to find that students preferred short loan print books to e-books.
Traditionally, high demand titles were placed in the library’s short loan collection. For history, this often meant that the only copy was placed in the short collection. Short loan collections are unpopular (hard to find, short loan period, and high overdue fines), but perhaps a necessary evil if we want to circulate resources effectively. One university had interfiled their short and normal loan collections (to the horror of their history department) – but had found that use of resources increased.
All librarians had some contact time with first year students, however this varied from 15 minutes, to 1 hour to 8 hours (as part of an academic skills module). Follow-up sessions tended to come in the second year, as students prepared for dissertations. Outside library inductions, librarians had little contact with history students, who appear to be quite self-sufficient. Yet, the students do not communicate dissatisfaction with library resources or services during their course, just in the NSS survey at the end of their degree programme. Perhaps we can improve our liaison and marketing with history students as well as history departments and academics?
We briefly touched on student access to primary historical resources. Do we expect our undergraduate students (to travel) to use archives and special collections at other libraries? Along with the Russell Group universities, we are fortunate to have a good special collections department, and to have purchased digital collections of primary resources. Others are less fortunate, and do struggle to provide adequate primary resources to support study and research.
The roundtable discussion was very interesting, and has left me with more questions than answers. The afternoon passed very quickly, and we could have talked all day. We can not change the NSS question, the reading lists or our library budgets. Perhaps we can change the attitudes and expectations of history academics and students? I will be very interested to read Neil Skinner’s final research report.
Carrigan, B (2010) History Departments and the National Student Survey (Coventry: Higher Education Academy) http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/documents/subjects/history/br_carrigan_nss2009_20100526.pdf
National Student Survey (2013) http://www.thestudentsurvey.com/content/nss2012_questionnaire_english.pdf