Here’s some good reading-related news: Contrary to what a lot of librarians (and other people) believe, college students still like to read. They just don’t have the free time to do it as much as they’d like. So say Barbara Fister and Julie Gilbert, two librarians at Gustavus Adolphus College, in “Reading, Risk, and Reality: College Students and Reading for Pleasure,” a paper being published next summer in College and Research Libraries. The preprint is freely available now. The survey sample was a little too narrow for my editors at The Chronicle, so I thought I’d share some of the highlights here.
During the spring of 2009, Fister and Gilbert surveyed Gustaphus Adolphus undergrads to get a sense of “their attitudes and experiences with recreational reading” (defined as “any reading voluntarily undertaken that has not been assigned for class”–so magazines, newspapers, and reading online counted, although students were asked not to count the reading they did on social networks). The librarians got 717 completed surveys from students. The bottom line: “We were surprised by what we learned. Students may not find time to do much voluntary reading, but if what they tell us is true, they do take pleasure in reading and would welcome efforts from libraries to help them discover reading material.”
If you like stats, here are a few from the study. Ninety-three percent of respondents reported that they enjoy leisure reading. Women were slightly more likely to say they enjoy it than men were (95.7 percent versus 88.7 percent). Men, however, were “twice as likely to read science fiction.” Humanities majors were “almost unanimous in their enjoyment of leisure reading” (99 percent), while pre-professional and social-science majors were a little less enthusiastic (approximately 90 percent).
As for genres and types of reading, general fiction “is by far the most popular, followed by mysteries, classics and general nonfiction.” (An aside here: Fister is not only a librarian and a well-regarded blogger on library issues, she’s a mystery novelist.) More than half of the respondents said they like to read newspapers; two-thirds said they like to read magazines.
So that’s all good, yes–even if one might find the definition of recreational reading a little slippery and even if the study only tells us about the attitudes of one school’s undergrads. The trouble, according to what Fister and Gilbert found, is that students are so busy they don’t have time to read much beyond what they’re assigned for class. And if they happen to go to the library looking for something fun to read, they’re not likely to have an easy time finding suggestions or options.
Fister and Gilbert supplemented their survey of Gustavus Adolphus undergrads with a broader survey of librarians nationwide. Almost 40 percent of the librarians who participated said they did not think students were interested in reading for pleasure. One in five said they believe students “lack access to recreational reading materials” in their academic libraries. Which is understandable: Limited budgets and shelf space–and the need to focus on research and teaching materials–don’t encourage academic librarians to keep their libraries stocked with popular fiction.
Fister and Gilbert included an interesting open-ended question on their survey of librarians: Should academic libraries play a role in promoting recreational reading? From some of the respondents’ comments, it sounds as though a lot of academic librarians think this would be a good thing to do but feel constrained by limits on time, money, and staff–and in some cases by institutional culture.
“I constantly have to defend my sci-fi and fantasy purchases to folk who think students should be reading more intellectual material,” one said. Another said that “we have many students asking for popular material” but “our collection policy doesn’t provide for it and the reference staff is seeking to change that policy.”
It seems to me that anything that gets students reading more–even if they’d rather read Twilight than Tolstoy in their limited free time–is hard to argue with. What do you think? Should college and university libraries be doing more to encourage students to read for pleasure?