Library as Tümmler: Party hard! Work hard?

Posted by jlubans on October 31, 2010

I first picked up on the term tümmler from a delightful off-Broadway play this summer. In the play – set prior to his international fame - Danny Kay winces when told by his agent – soon to be his wife – that she has found a great job for him, as a tümmler at a Catskills resort. The job is to keep the guests happy, to be “on” all the time, a sort of social director, roving comedian and jester, all in one. Not exactly the nightly headliner.
As it happened, one of my bed time readings on that same New York visit happened to be the "What happened to studying?" story by Keith O’Brien in the Boston Globe.
He suggests what we, in the library, and the admissions office and parents like to believe: “It is a fundamental part of college education: the idea that young people don’t just learn from lectures, but on their own, holed up in the library with books and, perhaps, a trusty yellow highlighter.”
Unfortunately, Mr. O’Brien shatters our rose-colored glasses: “You won’t hear this from the admissions office, but college students are cracking the books less and less.”
O’Brien explores recent longitudinal research studies and reveals that: “the average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week. Today’s average student hits the books for just 14 hours”. Yes, a ten-hour per week drop-off. It does seem the much vaunted campus adage is now only half true: Play Hard! Study Hard?

O’Brien barely mentions library use, but as I read his article, I found myself wondering about the library’s role in this precipitous decline. How are we dealing with it? Starting in the 90s, I exposed a rapid downward escalation in the numbers of students served at the reference desk. The library I worked at was not unique in this finding. It was national. I attributed this phenomenon to stand-alone CD databases, the rise of the Internet search engine, and the WWW. Now, I wonder if the ever-diminishing hours students lucubrate (see the illustration below) was and is an influential factor in non-use of the library.

When, after much wincing and gnashing of teeth, academic librarians finally admitted to the precipitous drop off in library use, they engineered a variety of programs to shore up the customer head count. It proved to be a bonanza for a few architectural firms, particularly those that could convince provosts and presidents that the library was the intellectual emblem of the university’s “brand”, and one that visitors should see and be dazzled by. Overnight, many libraries acquired a country club look, with comfortable furniture and calming club colors – a few would disparage these decorator schemes as more funeral home than classic hotel lobby, but what did they know! The library did become an inviting place – not that it wasn’t inviting enough already for many students of a scholarly bent happy to sit in wooden chairs at wood tables.
So, in our new roles of "user experience director" and jolly-up-the-customer tümmler we jettisoned our food and drink bans and introduced coffee bars, pastry shops, pizza and chicken wing delivery, game nights, movie nights, poetry slams, media centers, around the clock hours, upholstered furniture (for study and sleeping) and the Computer Commons. The last does attract large numbers – free computers and high-speed connections have a tendency to do that. How successful have we been as entertainment directors? Some libraries indicate increases in books borrowed, users served and questions asked. Many are silent.

Well, seven decades ago, Harvie Branscomb envisioned an entirely different role for the library, one that partnered with the teaching faculty in getting students to use more books.*

I was initially drawn to Mr. Branscomb’s “Teaching with Books” because of his un-mincing of words about how the library had been duped into doing what was a classroom teacher’s housekeeping: reserve reading. In a perversion of the library’s admirable core value of Service, we became reserve reading room wardens, and acquired all of the frustrations therein, semester in, semester out. We gave up first floor library real estate, more than a few staff, and part of our collections to serve, in uncertain ways, the artificially induced demand for reserve reading.
Too often we became unwitting scapegoats. I recall being on the end of a speakerphone with an exalted professor who claimed the library had lost his list of reserve readings. The truth was he had never sent it in, but I am sure the students in his office whom he was impressing with his tough talk were nodding about how the library had once again screwed up!
When teachers failed to tell us of new assignments or when they simply forgot to send over lists of new readings, or when a back-busting list of 300 labor law state document readings showed up two days before the start of the semester, guess who got the blame for the delay?
And, in pre-e-reserve days, when users got into tugging matches about which borrower had dibs on a single copy of a wanted reading, we got to be the referee. To this day, even in an era of e-reserves, the unhappy and unclear relationships among teachers, librarians and students continue.

Branscomb was 20-20 in his vision of “Wasted resources in reserves" and the “unclear purpose of assigned readings”. When he asked professors and librarians, he failed to get conclusive answers to his questions: Were reserves essential to the course? or Were they not essential? (P. 57) In his survey of colleges and reserve reading he concluded there was much more ambiguity than certainty about reserve reading. And, many reserve readings were untouched all semester long. Branscomb's studies showed that about half of all reserve items were never used.

Branscomb revealed – in several cases - that when teachers did not use assigned reading, student use of the general collections went dramatically upward, 40 – 50%. The students took out many more books. As we have known for many years, faculty assignments drive library use. But, very likely that increased use that Branscomb found came with a price – faculty involvement with students, reading and commenting on drafts and completed term papers and the time consuming necessity of guiding students through their self-learning discoveries.
O’Brien spells out many reasons for the decline of studying – Internet, extra curricular activities, social media, but the one that rings truest is that there’s been a power shift between faculty and students – if you leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone. O'Brien: "Instead of a dynamic where a professor sets standards and students try to meet them, the more common scenario these days, ..., is one in which both sides hope to do as little as possible." Grade inflation is one indicator of this shift, as are the fear inducing “Rate My Professor” web sites. Because faculty may no longer have the time to teach like they should or once did, the students have less reason to study. Remember, these students are not failing, they are regarded by most as succeeding.

Ithaka's Kate Wittenberg relayed to me the findings of a recent anthropological study about how students study. Researchers followed students while they completed writing assignments. One assignment was to find and discuss recent writing about an economic theory. Some students went only as far as J-STOR, not a current source. When they handed in the paper, the professor gave out A minuses. Not a C or a D for using an inappropriate resource, rather a grade just short of a stand alone A.

In light of the decreased time spend studying, along with grade inflation, Kate is less concerned with how this relates to their jobs than she is with what it may mean for the rest of their lives; a life of reality (vast waster-land) programming, endless hours of You Tube and Facebook updates, Second life living. Lives largely empty of meaning.

Is this irreversible? I have seen enough collaboration between bright librarians and dedicated professors to know that students can be held to high standards and can be taught to write well in many disciplines. Some of these students learn that there are many more resources beyond the Internet, they rub shoulders with books and discover a serendipitous experience, they learn. Those students that are immature, acquire an awareness that there are indeed higher standards and they tuck away vague concepts, authors and book titles for a later time – perhaps decades away - to reflect on who they are and why they are here and what beauty is.

Copyright Boston Globe, 2010.


*Harvie Branscomb, Teaching with Books: A Study of College Libraries, Chicago: ALA 1940 239 pp.

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