Academically Illiterate: An Undergraduate’s Perspective into the Library System

November 9th, 2015

Part Two: Public Outreach

As of the time of writing this post, I’ve been working at Steenbock for two-and-a-half weeks. That isn’t a long amount of time in the grand scheme of things. It isn’t even enough time for a single lunar cycle. But in this time, there’s one thing I’ve noticed everyone talks about. Given how little time two-and-a-half weeks is, that makes the commonality of the topic even more noticeable.

That topic is, of course, public outreach. You probably guessed that when you read the title, so I guess I wasted seventy-six words building up to that point. Regardless of how obvious it may have seemed to others, it was a surprise for me. Fortunately, it worked to my advantage. I’m doing something that I love—writing about things I find interesting, with a huge amount of creative freedom, because of this desire to reach out to the public. But I find it worth noting where the library’s need for outreach comes from, and why it’s important. And maybe this story will be able to reach out to some other undergraduates like myself. This can be a bit of a heavy topic to deal with and I would still prefer to talk about it with as much detail, explanation, and trademark wit [citation needed] as I can provide.

This post may run a bit past my 500 word suggested maximum. Which makes this a good time for a small story.

When I was a freshman, I was focused on my classes, but did not know much regarding the library. When I wrote a research paper for one of my courses, I bought a book for research (no, not this one). The book itself was fascinating, but when I looked later, I saw that it was in the library’s stacks, and the money I spent felt a bit more valuable. The few times I did go to the library were to check out fiction books. As it is probably clear, I wasn’t aware of all that the libraries had to offer.

Iceberg Which Is A Metaphor

Above: A ham-fisted metaphor.

This year, things have started to change. Not only am I working in a library now; I’m also noticing more of the opportunities they present. If I had to study with a group of people, renting  out a room in Steenbock would be the first thing I would do (sadly, one needs friends with shared academic interests in order to achieve that). Perhaps I would rent out a similar room in one of the other libraries, which I recently learned they have. Including Memorial Library, so my apologies for the comment last time. I still might not know everything, and I may not attend much, but I’m more aware of what the library does. And I feel like I’m one of the few that do.

If that sounds like a big problem, that’s because it is. It’s such a problem that I’ve gone past 500 words just trying to illuminate what it’s like. The average student, I dare to say, knows little about the libraries and what they do. Even I don’t know much of what they do, sadly. And that’s why public outreach is important, especially for two main reasons:

  1. Resources. They exist, and there’s no reason not to use them. The library is a fairly renewable resource, and on a faster scale than geologic. But a resource that isn’t utilized is one that’s practically worthless, like sunlight hitting an asteroid. Yes, sunlight is good, but it requires a baseline atmosphere and ecosystem for the most benefit to be taken out of it. I suppose that benefit tastes like glucose. My point here, if I ever had one, is that students who are unaware of the resources at their disposal are much worse off than a student who doesn’t use those resources: at least the latter student can change their mind. For example, a student who doesn’t know about the UW Writing Center can’t get help with their paper while a struggling, but knowledgeable student can decide to go and obtain feedback.
  2. Funding. Let’s be entirely honest, tuition at UW-Madison is high. I’m lucky—my family is in the upper middle class, and so the impact due to the price of college has been minimal. I’m thankful for that. I know other students who are practically broke because all of their funds go towards tuition and housing. It isn’t pleasant, but the University isn’t trying to suck away at student’s livelihoods. Rather, it has to make its own ends meet. All parts of the University are feeling the cuts that have been made to its budget in recent years, one notable example being the cut of $250 million this July under the leadership of Governor Walker. Regardless of personal feelings on the politics of the matter, the reality remains that the system is feeling pressure. And without students knowing about the resources of the library, and without using those resources, they’re more likely to be removed from operations with later cuts. It’s simple logic that something which isn’t being used is something that should be cut in order to save up more room, but what are the consequences if the removed resources were only left unused because they had been left undiscovered.

As such, the libraries want to communicate about the events they have. Sometimes these communications work, but I’m not convinced that they’re successful. What’s even worse, I don’t see an effective way to improve these matters. At the very least, none initially present themselves to me. As far as choices go, there are worse ones—Sophie’s comes to mind—but that doesn’t make our limited options any more appealing.

This blog is one way Steenbock is trying to reach out to others. But the only place it is advertised is on Steenbock’s own website, which not many students will go to. I put links to this series on my Facebook page, but not many people read that, and those that do are most likely old friends and family, not students here. Furthermore, this blog relies on my own writing to project the library into a public space where other people will listen. I’m a young student who can barely talk to someone I have a crush on, who has yet to write professionally, whose words may not be convincing. So not only might the message itself not reach the right places, but the messenger themselves may be inadequate at presenting the issues at hand. Even when the human element of a fundamentally flawed author is not in play, presentation of UW materials can still be a problem.

The UW Library system also subscribes to hundreds  of thousands of academic journals, allowing students to read the entire journals rather than the small portion that would otherwise be available. It’s another resource the library presents that enables the students to better achieve academic success. It’s also a tool that goes overlooked. One of my coworkers described how she talked with a student who had believed that it was simply that different journals showed different amounts of their findings, rather than the amount of reading material he had received being dependent on the library (there are journals which are entirely public, but those and the nature of shared information are the subject of a different and equally lengthy discussion).

But how do we advertise these services? If we post about it on Facebook, then we hit the same audience as before, the people who are already interested in us. If we advertise when students click on a journal, perhaps with a little line saying that the article was ‘made possible by the UW Madison Library system’ it just comes across as bothersome. The library becomes that one ad on the side of your screen : “Librarians hate him! Learn this man’s shocking secret to jip people by having them click on an ad!” As much as the library needs the publicity, it wouldn’t be the best of ideas to be in the same space as scam advertisement. Hopefully people would acknowledge the differences, I think they would be fairly major. Though we too have our share of scams. For the record, any library or school email that asks for your account information is fraudulent. Just like an email from Canadian royalty about sharing millions of dollars. That money doesn’t exist. Quite like Canadian royalty.

Maple Taffee

Here we see the final step in creating the Canadian Royal Scepter.

I remember saying to myself at the start of this that I was going to make a difference. Through some snarky banter, and perhaps some witty insights, I was going to advertise for the library, showcasing everything it had to offer. I’m less sure about that now. I don’t feel that going about these posts trying to “advertise” for a space or a feature is the right thing to do, and a witty tone only distances the problems within infrastructure. Perhaps that’s the point of comedy, as alleviation. I’ve already gone well over time, perhaps I should just a—leave you with that.

But in all seriousness, I’m happy to have gotten this position. It isn’t solely for the experience, or the fact that I have my own desk. While the fact that a picture of a velociraptor with the words “Read a book” emblazoned on it is staring down at me from my co-workers corkboard makes me giddy, it wasn’t that either. It’s because I get to talk about issues like I did today. And who knows, perhaps reaching out about the problems of reaching out will be for the better.

Text by Alex McKenzie

Photographic Media by Alex McKenzie, Jamie Walker, and the United States Department of Agriculture

About the Author: Alex McKenzie is an undergraduate student in the UW-Madison Libraries’ ISIP program, majoring in Environmental Studies and East Asian Studies, and is actually a member of Nigerian Royalty.