The Google Generation debunked II: Grauniad catches up

I have said this before, I do not get you, readership. I’ve been quite busy the last few days, and have been neglecting you. So I logged in guiltily on Wednesday, knowing that I’d not posted anything for you all, and there’d been double the number of readers from the previous day, quite close to my best day ever. Then I come in today and discover that yesterday, when the drought continued, there were almost as many again. It’s tempting to leave it and see how much longer this trend goes on for; I bet if I actually post something you’ll all disappear again… All the same, if you’re reading presumably you want writing, and I seem to have some, so…

Back in February, you may remember, I drew the readership’s attention to a report that the British Library were circulating about the so-called Google Generation and modern habits of research and information access. The British daily newspaper The Guardian, affectionately known as The Grauniad because of a legendary propensity to typoes,1 was apparently aware of that report, and on 20th April came out with an eight-page supplement called “Libraries Unleashed”, reporting on it, responding to it and getting other responses from various academic libraries. Those of you who were interested in my post may want to explore this further.

As you can tell from their title, the Guardian‘s spin of the report is more optimistic than mine was. Though everyone consulted and writing seems to agree that there is a basic lack of critical faculty among their students and userbase, and that that is the real problem, people not reading deeply enough, they seem contrariwise relatively optimistic about them actually reading. I remember the report‘s conclusions rather differently, and see the sort of whole-essay-question search queries that referred to every day; it has made me think that if I get hold of some students at a basic level again one of the things I am going to have to teach them is how a search engine actually works, viz. on keywords. But the Guardian is spinning the upside, about the undeniable benefits of the wealth of information that is online, and the opportunity that libraries have to enlarge their newly exciting rôle in bringing that information to the user.

They have a number of success stories from libraries already facing these issues. I can’t help noticing that the ones best placed are those whose institutions have sunk an awful lot of money into redeveloping the actual environment of the library so as to make it a place people come because it’s pleasant to work there. That seems like a really obvious thing looking back, but perhaps we have been dominated by the need to store books at maximum effectiveness. The University of Warwick’s Learning Grid (pictured above) is perhaps the best example; most other places just try and make sure there are desks and computers near the books somewhere (but never seem to give you enough space to have a book at your computer, have you noticed?), but here the book storage, while close by, is second in priority to the working space. Once the students are there in the first place, you see… and that seems to work. But if you’ve got no money to entirely redevelop your library, you have to put the money into IT provision and staff training to help people use it correctly, it seems, and that tends in the opposite direction, more and more content online, fewer and fewer students actually present in the library. And a viciously tempting circle of buying fewer actual books, which cost space and time to store, and more e-books, thus reducing further the utility of the actual physical space of the library. These two trends seem to me to lead in exactly opposite directions, but I know which I like better. And fewer buyers means higher per-unit publication costs and therefore more expensive books. Mind you, too many books are published, but still.

Once you have your resource, of course, you have to ensure it will still be there in ten years. The Internet Archive is trying to expand to meet this rôle, but it’s not what it was originally intended for; instead, the Guardian draws attention to an initiative called LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) which is trying to ensure at least six copies of various academic subscription packages are kept on disk somewhere against the day that the publisher goes bankrupt and their web service ceases to exist, at which point an e-journal might just disappear in the way that a print one never could.

Another theme that they barely touch on, but which also needs considering is, it’s all very well digitising vast swathes of stuff, especially when as in the case that they highlight, the British Library’s sound archives, the machinery to access them is getting hard to find or keep going. But firstly you then have to store it, and keep updating its format to keep it readable (plain text is all very well but there is no standard format for sound), and then you have to have people know what’s there. Catalogue interfaces and indexes need a lot more thinking about. People aren’t going to go and hit up individual library pages in the hope that they have something relevant; they’re going to expect that the FWSE du jour turns this stuff up. So website design and catalogue servability is an issue we need to spend more time on perhaps.

I say `we’, and of course here I write as someone who regularly spends his working days up to his virtual elbows inside a catalogue database that goes to the web. As academics, we might think this is other people’s work. But if you’re teaching, and your library has these resources, you want your students to know. You also want them not to use stuff that’s really dodgy when there is the good stuff out there. One of the other things that the librarians in the articles are to be found saying is that they can’t be expected to teach the students critical reading of sources themselves; the faculty staff have to help. And of course we do, because we have to, but what’s going on here? I learnt my source criticism studying the Peasant’s Revolt at A-Level. Who can’t get the idea of source bias when comparing Henry of Huntingdon to Thomas of Walsingham? and the British curriculum is still stressing this with those materials. So why aren’t the students coming up to university with all this familiar? Why do we still have to tell them “the Church was not a unit and not everyone in it was biased about the same things”? Why do we still have to say, not everything on the Internet is true? Is that the result of the web flattening everything out? Because this is all stuff I thought I knew when I was 18, but it’s hard hard work getting it into the heads of the young now. Did I just have good (and cynical) teachers? Well, I certainly did, but they didn’t make me read very much, because I hardly needed to (sorry—I was a smug A-Level pupil). The whole deep reading thing came at University, but because I knew that the sources were all crook. I hadn’t really internalised it but I knew to keep it in mind. So was I just lucky, or is the real danger in this report’s findings that the web has helped to erode that by making authority so much easier to assert, and even to find? I don’t know the answers to anything in this paragraph, but it’s where I think the real problems are, and what we maybe need to act on soonest.

A friend of mine in astrophysics has a talk online called “Saturn Tricked Us All With Magnets”. Maybe all of our courses should open, year 1 session 1, with a class called “They’re all lying even if they don’t know it: searching for truth in history”. If you kept it to one session, you might be able to stop it going all post-modern and just leave them with a basic ringing warning to consider the author. But I fear not.

1. A reputation that, I’m glad to say, they manage to defend by repeating a word on the front page of the paper version right in the middle of talking about the lack of critical reading among the young. Always best to typo stupidly when you’re calling others thick, isn’t it? Gaw bless you Grauniad, long may you rein.

4 responses to “The Google Generation debunked II: Grauniad catches up

  1. Or you just need to do a *really* traditional English medieval history survey course and start with either Gildas/Bede versus other evidence and it becomes immediately obvious to the students that written sources have all kinds of problems. (Unfortunately there isn’t so obvious an author to start with for early medieval European history i.e. one who is both central to the story and demonstrably wierd. Even Gregory of Tours isn’t quite as clear a case).

    As for the ‘students weren’t like that in my day’: who are you comparing? You have yourself, who was presumably one of the ablest students at your school, went to a top university and went on to do a PhD, and then you have the average student (or even the less than average student) not necessarily at a top university, who comes to your site and can’t think straight. I suspect it would probably be useful to all us academics and would-be academics to go back and talk to some of our fellow undergraduates who weren’t the academic high-fliers, and ask what they found hard and how long it took them to grasp these fundamental research skills.

  2. highlyeccentric

    I wonder more departments should have a compulsory 1000 course covering basic skills for the discipline?
    I’m told that ENGL 1000 here is an absolutely brilliant introduction to academic writing and literary analysis, but sadly it’s not compulsory, so few people take it who aren’t required to do so by their Media degrees.
    The history department don’t do their basic skills course until third year, and it’s only compulsory for honours.

    It occurs to me that a 1000 level course (or several 1000 level courses, to teach the same skill set but with different periods/ thematic approaches) which was compulsory for the major would go a long way to straightening out the ickle firsties. And it’d *have* to be compulsory, because otherwise brats like me who think they’re too brilliant for that wouldn’t bother taking it.

  3. Magistra, to be fair, I was explicitly comparing me, but the content of the A-Level syllabus seems to be the same on that count, viz. one module of hard-core source-criticism which might for example be the Peasants’ Revolt; so with the months spent on that that we’d like to have, why isn’t it sinking in? What could a week of comparing Gildas and Bede to archaeology and Ian Wood articles do that that can’t?

    Highly, the idea of leaving a basic skills course till the third year is just so broken already that there is little I can do but boggle.

  4. highlyeccentric

    Indeed. I think you CAN take it in second year, but not in first. It’s all about learning historical theory and whatnot, and is one of the major reasons I’m not doing history honours. Terrible idea, that course.

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