Libraries, Information and Student Learning

juanillooo via Flickr

juanillooo via Flickr

Arguably the most important invention in educational history was movable type by Johannes Gutenberg.  Around 1439, mass communication and literacy became possibilities as they never had been in previous human history.  The implications for universities were obvious: a great university needed a great library since that was where information and knowledge were stored.

As books spread and their cost came down, individuals had significantly more access to information, but no single individual could have a library that ever rivaled the great universities.  This was the state of knowledge and information for over five hundred years, and it explains why, at least among academics, the greatest university libraries could even be known by their own names: Widener (Harvard) or Bodleian (Oxford). They were like rock stars—Sting, Cher, Madonna or Bono.  The correlation between library quality, usually measured by the number of volumes, and university quality was extremely high.  This was in part because a well-resourced library usually meant a great endowment, but access to the information and knowledge in books also meant the potential for a fine education.

In the late 1990s, of course, another information revolution happened.  The internet brought the democratization of information much further than cheap books ever could.  In less than two decades, anyone with a computer and a good internet connection had access to information that rivaled or even surpassed the great libraries of the world.  The internet changed the world of information, data and knowledge.  While Widener arguably remains  the best academic library in the world, the gap between the information a Harvard student has access to and what a Saint John’s University student can get in Collegeville has become almost indistinguishable for the typical undergraduate’s needs.

The academic playing field in terms of information access has leveled in ways that were once unimaginable.  That is not to say that education quality has necessarily become identical across institutions. Information is only one input into the process.  Faculty quality and commitment, the importance of peer quality and behavior (cohort effects), the extra-curricular experience and many other factors are part of a great educational experience.  But, nonetheless, something fundamental changed because of the internet.

For educators, one of the most interesting questions and challenges is how students use this amazing gift of information: texts, data, images, sounds, videos, etc.  A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article explored one aspect of this new world. Using data from the Association of Research Libraries, Brian Matthews looked at the number of “reference queries” that research libraries received annually.  Basically, how many questions did students ask professional reference librarians over the course of a year?  The two tables below show the top ten research libraries by reference queries for 1995 and 2014:

Reference Queries: Top 10 Libraries, 1995


Reference Queries: Top 10 Libraries, 2014



Clearly student behavior has changed dramatically in the 20 years since the information revolution spurred by the growth of the internet.  What is less clear is what this means.  Assuming the nature of assignments and student work has not changed dramatically (the same number and type of research projects and papers are being assigned), there seem to be two possibilities:

  1.  Students are simply finding most of what they think they need for their work on the internet, and therefore they are asking fewer questions.
  2. The nature of the questions is changing and reference librarians are doing a different kind of work.

It seems that one obvious way to test these hypotheses is to look at what has happened to the number of reference librarians.  If the questions are the same but fewer in number, we would expect the number of reference librarians to drop, as it would take fewer of them to answer significantly fewer inquiries.  If the questions have changed and the nature of the reference librarians’ task has become more complicated, the number of librarians could stay the same or even grow.

A quick internet search revealed that in 2014 there were 26,000 academic librarians employed in the US and 59,000 other paid staff. However, comparable data was not readily available for 1995.

Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, overall librarian employment was predicted to grow by 7% between 2012 and 2022.  Nothing very definitive here, but there does not seem to be a drop in demand for librarians, suggesting that the changing number of reference queries might also reveal a change in the type of queries.

One librarian, commenting on the data above, offers a description of how his or her work had changed since 1995 that is consistent with what faculty at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict have observed:

I worked for 34 years as a reference librarian up to five years ago and my experience was that the nature of the questions changed from fact based to more evaluative inquiries. For instance a question in 1995 would have been, “What is the population of Sudan?” A more recent question would be, “What effect have refugees from Sudan had on the society and economy of Kenya?” Fact and figures, the bread and butter questions of yesteryear, are readily available on the internet or one of the many library subscription databases. The more recent questions call for more critical thinking skills and evaluation skills. Library instruction and higher expectations from the classroom faculty are in part responsible for this trend.

I think educators observing this change in behavior among students as a result of the second information revolution would have at least two reactions:

  1. A cause for concern: as students seek out factual data, are they capable of evaluating its quality?  To simply say, “I found it on the internet” is hardly a confirmation of legitimacy.  Well-educated students swimming in an ocean of information and data need to be discerning consumers of the incredible resources they have access to.  It is here that reference and data professionals continue to be necessary, even if students are not always aware of their own needs.  Colleges and universities now spend much more time on information literacy than they ever did in the past, and that educational process begins with learning how to evaluate sources of information.
  2. A cause for celebration: students all over the world are quite literally capable of more and better work than they were before the internet revolution.  The “evaluative inquiries” described by the librarian above are much more sophisticated and subtle than merely factual questions.  They also readily lend themselves to being framed as hypotheses: refugees from Sudan have harmed (or helped) the economy of Kenya in X ways for Y reasons.  Rather than spending many hours gathering factual data, students can move quickly to research questions that were not possible for undergraduates before the internet existed.  Faculty know this and teach accordingly. Personally, I have directed senior theses in economics that were undoubtedly masters’ quality work in the late 2oth century,  yet were “merely” good but not extraordinary work for the 21st.


The second information revolution is almost exclusively a good thing as it democratizes access to information for students (and non-students) around the world.  It does suggest that colleges and universities need to think carefully about what it means to graduate well-educated digital natives, as the millennials are sometimes called.  Among other outcomes:

  1. Information literacy is likely to become as essential as good writing and communication for future students.
  2. Faculty will need to continually evaluate their assignments and expectations as the availability of information and data continues to grow.
  3. The already close relationship between library staff and faculty is likely to grow stronger as information and data professionals are needed to keep faculty abreast of the constantly growing availability of information in each professor’s specialty.
  4. And students are going to continue to need ongoing – and maybe growing – help from reference professionals as they navigate the sea of information to ask deeper and more complicated questions.

Our plans to renovate, re-design and add to Marcel Breuer’s beautiful Alcuin Library at Saint John’s University are driven in part by these new realities brought about by the internet revolution.  The result of these internal and external changes will be graduates who are likely to be better educated than any previous generation in history.

Athletics and Academics: Incompatible?

hutchins_0Recently I have been reading some essays on education by Robert Maynard Hutchins (the collection was a thoughtful gift from an alum).  Though they were published during the Great Depression, they contain some timeless insights on the value of education and the role of the university in society.  Hutchins was president at the University of Chicago during a period in which it was becoming one of the preeminent universities in the country.  One of Hutchins’ innovations was the famous Chicago Core Curriculum.  “This famed Core curriculum, a model for American general education, is the University of Chicago student’s introduction to the tools of inquiry used in every discipline—science, mathematics, humanities, and social sciences. The goal is not just to transfer knowledge, but to raise fundamental questions and become familiar with the powerful ideas that shape our society.”

As I explored Hutchins’ biography a bit more, I discovered he was also famous for his views on athletics at the University of Chicago.  As the University’s website tells it,

The one thing which drew more attention than any other, of course, was his elimination of varsity football. Hutchins heaped scorn upon schools which received more press coverage for their sports teams than for their educational programs, and a run of disastrous seasons gave him the trustee support he needed to drop football in 1939. The decision was hailed by many, but few other schools followed Chicago’s lead.

220px-University_of_Chicago_logo.svgThis move was particularly striking as the University of Chicago was, at the time, a member of the Big Ten, had won a national championship in 1905, had a Heisman trophy winner in Jay Berwanger in 1935, were known as “the Monsters of the Midway”  and had been the home of Amos Alonzo Stagg for 40 years.

This storied history left Hutchins unmoved.  “By getting rid of football, by presenting the spectacle of a university that can be great without football, the University of Chicago may perform a signal service to higher education throughout the land,” Hutchins wrote, calling the sport “a major handicap to education in the United States.”

In The Saturday Evening Post Hutchins had written, maybe somewhat intemperately: “In many colleges, it is possible for a boy to win 12 letters without learning how to write one,” the university’s president, had written acidly of sports in The Saturday Evening Post. He particularly disparaged football, deriding as myth the idea that the game produced men of good character or instilled a sense of fair play. Indeed, for a college to be a success on the field, he said, it must be something of a scoundrel beyond it.

Hutchins is something of a hero and inspiration to those who continue to worry about the impact of big-time college sports on the academic mission of the university.  There is even an award named after him that “is given annually to faculty or staff members who take a courageous stand to defend academic integrity at their institutions.”

I was thinking of Hutchins last week at our mini-commencement for seniors on the Saint John’s University baseball team.  On our Commencement Day, the team was competing in the post-season MIAC playoffs to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament (which they secured by sweeping the University of St. Thomas), but the timing forced them to miss Commencement with their classmates.  As we have done for athletes with conflicts in the past, we organized a dinner and commencement ceremony for the baseball seniors, their parents and folks from our athletic department.

The nice thing about these special commencements is that you actually get to meet the graduates and their parents and have more in-depth conversations, things that are much more of a challenge with 425 graduates and families in the Abbey Church.  As I interacted with the students and their parents that evening I discovered, not really to my surprise, the following:

  1.  All the students were graduating in four years.
  2. All of the students I talked to had jobs that they were starting in the next couple months.
  3. One student was still deciding between graduate school and a job offer.
  4. One student had turned down a Division II baseball scholarship to play at Saint John’s because the balance between athletics and academics seemed better—a decision that four years in Collegeville had confirmed.
  5. The percentage of baseball players graduating with honors was over 20%, compared to the university’s 15% overall.

As impressive as these young men were, they are typical among our athletes.  I could tell similar stories about every one of our teams, including football, President Hutchins’ views notwithstanding.  What the evening simply reinforced was that there is no inherent conflict between a passion for athletics and a seriousness about academics and education.  Hundreds of students on our campus have both, as do many thousands around the country.

I suspect that the numbers are greater in the NCAA’s Division III, which is the division that the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) competes in, because there are no scholarships, minimal commercial support, and the coaches, fans, parents and athletes are all committed to maintaining the proper balance between athletics and academics.  This is certainly not to say that balance cannot be found in Division II or Division I, but the incentives that come with scholarships and serious outside money make it more difficult.

For all of Hutchins’ wisdom about higher education, his views on the role of athletics are certainly not borne out by the experience of most student-athletes at Saint John’s or DIII more generally.

Football returned to the University of Chicago as a varsity sport in 1969.  The Maroons now play in the University Athletic Conference rather than the Big Ten, competing in Division III, like most other fine liberal arts schools.


Monks in the World



Last week was a big week for Saint John’s on the world stage.  On Friday a small group from Saint John’s had the pleasure of delivering the last volume of The Saint John’s Bible to Pope Francis in Rome.

On Thursday the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) marked the 50th Anniversary of its founding.  Both were important reminders of the exceptional community the men of Saint John’s Abbey have formed.

The Saint John’s Bible project, which reached the end of a particular chapter in its history with the delivery of the last of seven volumes to the Pope, was an ambitious undertaking that began in the late 1990s.  Artist and calligrapher Donald Jackson had long dreamed of a hand-written Bible, which had not been done in 500 years, but it took the vision of Fr. Eric Hollas and Br. Dietrich Reinhart, and the support of the Saint John’s community, to bring the dream to reality.  The project was not without its bumps: the financial breakeven point, while in sight, has not been reached yet and there remain more than a few skeptics.  But I think it is safe to say that the final work and its impact in the world have exceeded the initial hopes of the cultural entrepreneurs who undertook it.

Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, and his microfilming team at the Kodak offices in Vienna, Austria (September 1971) via Books from the HMML Basement

Both the audacity and generosity of the vision are striking.  The creation of the The Saint John’s Bible was not for Collegeville, or even just for Catholics.  It was an ecumenical act for the world, “to fire the spiritual imagination” of those who experienced the art and theology of the illuminated text.  It was financially risky and certainly beyond the previous conception of Saint John’s mission.  Yet the monks felt it was important to give this gift to the world.

In many ways HMML was an even more generous decision.  Monks had long played a role in preserving culture and, in 1965, the Saint John’s community decided to use technology to continue this longstanding Benedictine charism.  Fr. Oliver Kapsner was the visionary in this case, but the Abbey made a commitment of time, treasure and labor to build a microfilm library of ancient manuscripts, both to preserve them and to make them available to scholars.  This was a pure gift to the academic world.  Unlike The Saint John’s Bible, there would be no commercial opportunities to repay the financial investment in HMML.

Monks traveled the world, negotiating with various communities and governments for the privilege of microfilming ancient documents.  The microfilm was brought back to Collegeville where HMML has cataloged the materials and hosted scholars from around the world.  This project has made the University well-known among historians, even as the rest of the world sometimes can’t quite place Saint John’s.  Modern digital technology has made capturing the images easier and the internet has made dissemination potentially world-wide.  At the same time, the need to preserve cultural artifacts appears to be just as great, if not greater, than it was in 1965.  Terrorism and war in Africa and the middle east in particular threaten ancient cultural artifacts and the prescience of monks in 1965 has been rewarded with an even more pressing mandate with each new conflict.


Saint John’s Abbey Church

The presence of Saint John’s in the news this past week is a powerful reminder of the spirit of the monastic community.  Monks might quite understandably choose a quiet life of study, prayer and contemplation.  The community could live apart from the world: ora et labora.  But from the beginning, when they came west to serve the German Catholics of Minnesota, the community has been outward looking, fully living in the world and serving those both near and far.

The Saint John’s Bible and the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library are but two of the innovative things that can be credited, at least in part, to the monastic community.  The list is long and varied: the ecumenical movement that spawned the Collegeville Institute, the liturgical reforms that were part of Vatican II, the founding of Minnesota Public Radio, the decision to invite Marcel Breuer to design and build some of the most striking modern architecture in the world,  the creation of the Abbey Arboretum and Outdoor University, bringing one of the first mainframe computers to a Minnesota college, the establishment of the Saint John’s Pottery and surely others of which I know too little.

Those of us who have studied at the University, as well as the faculty and staff, have benefited from the ferment, energy and entrepreneurial spirit that the monks bring to all they do.  It is one of the things that makes our educational experience unique and truly differentiates Saint John’s University from the many other fine residential, liberal arts colleges in the United States.

By |April 21st, 2015|Categories: Alumni, History|0 Comments