“Yeah, I skimmed it”: Librarians and Reading Comprehension

by Kris Turner

One of my favorite kinds of questions at the reference desk are those that allow me to ask this question right back: Do you want that in print or digital?


The answer to this deceptively simple question has given me, in my informal survey-keeping way, a unique look into which kind of resource students and faculty most want. While I have observed the old chestnut of the “digital divide” to be true most of the time, the assumption that older users will want print and younger ones tend towards digital sources can mask the larger divide between light reading (skimming) and more comprehensive reading.

Last year, the Washington Post had a fascinating article about the ways in which humans are consuming information in the digital age. Basically, online content is making it much easier to skim* and move on, which can lead to less comprehension while reading. Libraries (public, law, or otherwise) are feeling this change in reading as print books continue to lose ground (albeit slowly) to e-books, online sources, and other non-analog resources, especially for leisure reading.

So what does that mean for law librarians?

I don’t think the sky is falling and that students no longer know how to conduct research or easily comprehend their texts. Since the legal profession is, as a whole, cautious in adopting new technologies, we still have mostly print textbooks and many other resources in print which are still used extensively (at least in my experience). However, I find the shifting of reading from comprehensive to skimming a potentially ominous sign for law students and law librarians alike.

How do we as librarians work with students who may be used to reading webpages that include images, use shorter sentences, encourage clicking and skimming, and lend themselves to a keyword-centric way of reading?

I think the answer lies in communication and being an opportunistic teacher. I usually have students ask me, “How did you find this article?” or for one-on-one research consultations. These are excellent opportunities to instill in students not just sound research techniques, but also reading skills that are important in the classroom. I have been able to nudge students in the direction of deeper reading comprehension while showing them how to read articles with citations or doing checks for plagiarism. Reading for plagiarism and intent especially spurs students towards deeper comprehension.

If a patron specifies print or digital, I always try to accommodate them. A patron is the one who knows what version they are most comfortable reading…but a librarian, as usual, can provide pointers on how to read smarter regardless of format.

Has anyone else seen a change, subtle or otherwise, in how students or other users are reading? Is there any way you feel librarians can help students with reading skills when so much reading is now done online?

*Bonus points to the reader if you skimmed to this note!

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