Who? Whom? Or, Who's Teaching What to Whom and What Information Services Will They Need

María de Jesús Ayala-Schueneman, Head of Reference Services
Bruce R. Schueneman, Head of Collection Services
Texas A&M University-Kingsville

Statistical Analysis by George Boatright, Head of Access Services
Texas A&M University-Kingsville


This paper examines the university in the context of postmodernism. The integrated ideal of the past is contrasted with the fragmentary reality of the present, both in terms of educational institutions and individual students. To further examine students' postmodern beliefs, the results of two studies are briefly presented. One examines general student beliefs around the world, the other is a preliminary report of a similar study focusing on information and libraries that the authors commenced in January 1997. Though students are described as traditional and modern in some respects, postmodernism also informs student values, especially in the area of the radical equality of ideas. A postmodern age may well find less value in the traditional library and especially in the hierarchical ordering of materials that has been the chief intellectual endeavor of the library professional.

Seigfried Sassoon opens The Weald of Youth happily returning from university on a dog cart, pleased with the sonnets he has just had published and full of the innocence and ardor of youth.(1) All that Sassoon represents, the privileged ruling class of the world's leading nation, will shortly blow up (both literally and figuratively) in the Great War that is only five years away. Sassoon represents the old traditional order, secure in its power and sure of its culture. That world passed away a long time ago, and whether we view its demise with regret or indifference or as a happy event, our world is more fragmentary and less sure of its value and its future. This paper will examine the current postmodern ambiance (suggested by a review of relevant research) and suggest possible future scenarios based on this research and on a preliminary survey conducted at our university.

The university that Sassoon attended assumed a stable, responsible personality in a fixed though constantly progressing world. The best description of the university in this secure world was given by John Henry Newman in 1852 in his series of essays called The Idea of a University. Newman championed the value of a liberal education, which he claimed would create "the repose of a mind which lives in itself, while it lives in the world" and which "has a gift which serves him in public and supports him in retirement."(2) Newman carefully distinguished between philosophical education and mechanical education, and firmly argued the value of the philosophical kind. Pratt defined Newman's liberal education as "the culture of the intellect which opens the mind, enables us to discern a truth, and gives us power over our faculties," and becomes a new social ideal in which the "expanding university system was the foundation for a functional democratic society."(3)

The postmodern university, in contrast, has tended ever more toward mechanical arts. The public, and our students, increasingly want results, which translates into skills that can be used in the job market. It is merely quaint now to realize the emphasis Newman's university placed on the classics and on religion. The university has become a means of getting a decent job, and for many students it means nothing else. Pratt notes that Cotton Mather singled out a library as the first objective of a university, but in the postmodern age a library may not even be needed.(4) The information required is not the best of ages past that Newman would recognize, but the means to acquire the skills to work in the vast global economy. While this may require reams of scientific reports, reviews, and articles of all kinds, it is by no means certain that a library will be required to obtain this kind of information. The library existed in the past as part of the scaffolding of what Neil Postman called narratives: "a story that constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and above all, gives a sense of continuity and purpose."(5) In the postmodern age, the defining narrative is exactly what becomes weakened and even lost.

Even more telling than institutional changes are personal changes. A postmodern self has emerged that will certainly have consequences for how and why we teach and what sort of library service will be required in the future. The integrated self (represented again by the pre-war Seigfried Sassoon) was the norm that underlay Newman's university. The self was an integrated whole until the beginning of the postmodern period, which may be said to begin in the 1960s (though elements of postmodernism are certainly visible throughout the modern period). Psychoanalysis, experimental literature, and the findings of anthropology and linguistics reinforce the fragmentary conception of self.(6) Part of the postmodern ethos arises directly out of social and economic reality. The industrial revolution required disciplined workers who were willing to delay gratification in order to produce the goods of the new industrial society. The consumer society, on the other hand, requires a vast consumption of goods, and this encourages selfishness and boundless materialism. As Sloan notes, the postmodern individual "always needs a new toy and given the power of commercials and peer pressure, it is usually clear which toy it must be, right down to the trademark."(7) Sloan goes on to note the characteristics of the postmodern self: less time spent with others, less time communicating and touching with others, and less consistency of the persons in one's life. Such individuals become shallow, less able to form lifelong intimate attachments, and often have their most powerful relationships with non-humans (video games, television). Because the caring and nurturing necessary for genuine child rearing becomes increasingly rare in the postmodern world, one result may well be a loss of the ability to empathize with others.(8) There may be great tolerance in such a society, but it is really indifference that threatens to erupt at the proper moment.

What does this postmodern world view portend for university libraries? While granting that the postmodern period has brought about great changes in values and in self-regard, has the older integrated ideal entirely vanished? Are we perhaps in a transition period that holds both the hint of promise and possibility of disaster? What is needed is a more definitive look at our "postmodern" students, and finally an analysis of what this may mean for education and for libraries. To gain this greater detail, two surveys are described. One, conducted by Norwine et al, studied college students' values. This study speaks directly to the general postmodern values of students. A more specific study whose very preliminary results we are presenting for the first time at this conference, concerns students' values in regard to information issues generally and libraries specifically.

Norwine et al. produced several articles describing their international survey designed to elicit the postmodern views of college students.(9) Two Texas A&M University-Kingsville professors, Dr. James Norwine and Dr. Allen Ketcham, helped designed and execute the study. (One author of this paper participated in the survey as one of an older group of adults that also took the survey.) An original survey instrument was designed over a two year period. Its purpose was to gauge the depth of the postmodern Weltanschauungen of late 20th century college students. The authors of the survey defined postmodernism as a word view which "denies the utility of knowledge and thus represents a break with both traditional and modern outlooks."(10) The survey tried to determine the beginnings of a paradigm shift in such things as a perceived lack of sense-making in the world, a preference for difference over sameness, a denial of authenticity and thus the elevation of the image or the imitative, an equating of knowledge and information, the belief that freedom is autonomy from others, and the authority of the self over any entity outside the self. The survey conceptualized four worldviews: traditional, nontraditional, modern, and postmodern. The survey was administered at 19 universities from 10 different countries from 1991 to 1995.

The first round of surveys was administered to three Texas universities. Of the 143 statements on the survey, convergence of opinion exceeding 75% was reached on 27 statements, 80% on fifteen statements, and 90% on three statements. Of the 27 statements for which there was a convergence of opinion, ten represented a traditional worldview (the value of honor, law, discipline, family, duty, selflessness). Six convergent statements were modern (the value of technology, happiness). On the other hand majorities (but not convergence) supported postmodern statements such as "happiness is whatever makes me feel good," "my opinion is as valid as that of a more knowledgable person," and "all ideas have equal worth." Especially interesting was a group of statements where there was no agreement or disagreement. Some expressed divided opinion, while others expressed ambiguity of opinion. An example of a divided response occured in the statement on abortion (a solid core both against and for the statement), while an ambiguous statement typically had a large undecided percentage. The authors conclude that some traditional concepts still hold sway among college students; that modern and nontraditional ideas are accepted by most college students in the area of personal self-interest and happiness; that sharp differences indicative of a shifting of values is also in evidence; and finally that "a largely complete paradigm-shift to a postmodern outlook in the limited area which might be characterized as the radical equality of ideas" has already occurred.(11) While some differences between different regions of the world are described, the authors conclude that students worldwide remain traditional in some areas and deeply modern in others, and that a movement toward postmodern ideas was discernible in every university studied. (The only exception to this movement toward postmodern thought was the College of Science and Technology in Gaza, which the authors claim as a unique case.)

In Fall 1996 the authors of this paper decided to conduct a study similar to Norwine et al. This survey would be designed to focus on how postmodern beliefs affect the information world and especially libraries. While highly preliminary and still ongoing, the preliminary results are suggestive. We have already seen that a major conclusion of the Norwine study was students' belief in the radical equality of ideas. This finding in itself has consequences for the often hierarchical traditional structure of knowledge as conceived in our classification schedules and the traditional way libraries organize information.

Our survey was begun in January and February of this year at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. We emphasize the preliminary nature of these results. The survey is in fact still in progress and will be extended to other universities. The survey consists of two parts: a personal information section and the survey proper. The survey proper consists of 50 statements designed to elicit attitudes toward information and libraries. Statements could be answered "strongly agree," "agree," "disagree," "strongly disagree," and "undecided." In general, the authors have identified postmodern values as those which emphasize short bits of information over longer discursive works, electronic media over paper, hierarchical methods of determining value over mere ubiquity, and an attention to the packaging of the message rather than its substance.

The postmodern age goes hand in glove with technology. The different demands of late capitalism emphasize consumption rather than production and so may influence postmodern individuals to save less and be more attuned to "toys." It is therefore no surprise to find that 81.7% of respondents use a computer regularly and 54.8% use email and/or the Internet regularly. Books and print media are by no means slighted; 73.6% of respondents liked to read as a child, 86.6% agreed with the statement, "Books are important to me," 86.2% said that books are the backbone of scholarly endeavor, and 93.5% thought it was important, in our society, to be literate and well-read. The value of information is recognized as well. Over 99% agreed that information is power.

Libraries also appeared to be appreciated by the students in the survey. Seventy-six percent agreed that the library was the heart of the university, and fully 92.6% agreed that the library would always be a necessary component in our society. Libraries were even viewed as the most important source of information. [Insert Table 1.]

Table 1.
Attitudes Towards Technology, Books, Information, and Libraries. (in percent)
Statement Agree Undecided Disagree
"I use a computer regularly." 81.7 2.4 15.9
"I use email and the Internet regularly." 54.8 0.8 44.4
"I liked to read as a child." 73.6 0.0 26.4
"Books are important to me." 86.6 2.4 11.0
"Books are the backbone of the scholarly endeavor." 86.2 4.9 8.9
"In our society, it is important to be literate and well read." 93.5 0.8 5.6
"Information is power." 96.8 2.4 0.8
"The library is the heart of the university." 76.0 7.4 16.5
"Libraries are the most important source of information." 83.7 4.1 12.2
"The Library, as a separate place to find information, will always be a necessary component in our society." 92.6 1.7 5.8

In other respects, though, the worldview of college students seems to be moving away from the primacy of print and towards electronic media. The statement that "electronic resources will soon make paper information obsolete" brought a divided response: 44.7% agreed, 49.6% disagreed. A strictly utilitarian view of information ("knowledge is only useful if it serves a purpose") resulted in another divided response: 49.6% agreed, 46.3% disagreed. The usefulness of information in getting a job was nearly unquestioned (95.1% thought so), and most respondents thought it important to know history and science. Despite the heart-warming support for libraries in several responses, a statement that libraries may be replaced by online access to information received a more divided response, with 47.2% either agreeing that libraries might be replaced by online access to information or undecided. This response is difficult to square with several of the responses noted above. Though the older universe of books is supported in the responses to several statements, 39.3% enjoy looking up electronic sources (in contrast to paper), while 41.8% still favored paper sources and 18.9% were undecided. While 60.9% disagreed with the statement that most information is best presented in video or computerized form, only 52.1% disagreed with the statement that "a video can present an historical era just as accurately and with as much detail as any book." Clearly the library and the print universe that is still often associated with it have huge reservoirs of support but this support may not be strong support. Over 90% think of the library as the center of the university and as necessary to society, but more than half also believe (or are not sure) that libraries may be replaced by online access to information. [Insert Table 2.]

Table 2. Electronic and Paper Resources. (in percent)
Statement Agree Undecided Disagree
"Electronic resources will soon make paper information obsolete." 44.7 5.7 49.6
"Knowledge is only useful if it serves a purpose." 49.6 3.3 46.3
"Information will help me get a job." 95.1 2.4 2.4
"It is important to know the history of the U.S. and the world." 91.0 1.6 7.3
"It is important to know the rudiments of science and math." 88.6 4.1 7.4
"Libraries may eventually be replaced by online access to information." 35.8 11.4 52.8
"I like getting information electronically rather than looking it up in paper sources." 39.3 18.9 41.8
"Most information is best presented in video or computerized form." 28.3 10.8 60.9
"A video can present an historical era just as accurately and with as much detail as any book." 39.7 8.3 52.1

What information packaging is preferred? A question that linked the changeableness of information and electronic format brought a mixed response: 46.3% disagreed that electronic format was best while 33.1% agreed and 20.7% were undecided. Electronic discussion groups were seen as an important source of information by just over 50%; twenty-five percent disagreed and 24.2% were undecided. Even more interesting was the response to the statement, "Extended arguments and discussion that require hundreds of pages of text are, for the most part, no longer needed to explore most issues." Only 50% disagreed with this statement; 30% agreed and 20% were undecided. A statement that a give-and-take situation among many participants was more informative than listening to one person lecture found agreement with 69.2%; only 21.7% disagreed. While a strong majority (83.5%) agreed that some information was more important than other information, a follow-up question elicited a more ambivalent response concerning its relevance to anyone else. (Nearly equal percentages agreed/disagreed with the statement, "While some information is more important to me, its importance has no relevance to anyone else.") A similarly divided response was recorded in response to the statement, "Newspapers and magazines are more thorough in their coverage than electronic sources like the Internet." Nearly 44% agreed with this statement while 24.6% disagreed and 31.7% remained undecided. [Insert Table 3.]

Table 3. Formats and Relative Importance of Information. (in percent)
Statement Agree Undecided Disagree
"Because information is changeable, it is best presented in electronic format." 33.1 20.7 46.3
"Electronic discussion groups are an important source of information." 50.8 24.2 25.0
"Extended arguments and discussion that require hundreds of pages of text are, for the most part, no longer needed in order to explore most issues." 30.0 20.0 50.0
"A give-and-take situation where many participate is usually more informative than listening to one person lecture." 69.2 9.2 21.7
"Some information is more important than other information." 83.5 3.3 13.3
"While some information is more important to me, its importance has no relevance to anyone else." 45.5 13.2 41.4
"Newspapers and magazines are more thorough in their coverage than television." 68.0 12.0 20.0
"Newspapers and magazines are more thorough in their coverage than electronic sources like the Internet." 43.7 31.7 24.6

The picture that emerges from these preliminary findings mirrors the results that Norwine et al. obtained in their more general study. (Indeed, most respondents agreed with the statement that "truth and beauty are relative concepts.") Students remain clearly traditional in their support for paper materials and for libraries. This support may be a holdover from the purely paper scholarly universe that existed just short decades ago. Students also express ambivalence, however, about "detailed" information sources like books and newspapers; apparently many believe that the brief communication of a web page or a listserv, (or a television advertisement, for that matter) is nearly equal or better than the more extended argument that traditional paper allows. Libraries are viewed as the heart of the academic community, but many students can envision a world where online access makes a physical library superfluous. The paradigm of a scholar and his (her) books / periodicals seems to be shifting to a web-type model. Unlike the hierarchical model of the past that emphasized the wise professor imparting knowledge to students, and the library as adjunct that contained the accumulated knowledge of the ages and the tools to access this knowledge, the web paradigm emphasizes the ubiquity of information, its packaging in smaller containers, and the increasing equality of all information.

Whom are we teaching and what information services will they require? If the Norwine study discovered that college students around the globe have accepted the radical egalitarianism of ideas and the loss of any sense of authenticity, our preliminary survey has reinforced those findings and added the radical commoditization of information. The lofty view of knowledge (which may be viewed as a hierarchical structuring of information), and which was never absolute in a democratic society, has increasingly become a web-based model whose authority is the web itself (we mean "web" in its widest sense; as a dispersed method and model of gathering and authorizing information) and its democratic / chaotic structure. Of course this does not mean that books or libraries are necessarily passe in the postmodern world, though this is a possibility. It does mean that students increasingly resist the authority of libraries and the educational paradigm they represent. If libraries view students as mere consumers, then our future course is clear. Students still esteem books and periodicals but increasingly prefer electronic access to information and consider it as valid as paper. (And often, of course, it is.) One scenario would see the disappearance of the library as we know it and the substitution of an electronic entity of some kind; to the extent that a library is needed it will be as a mere warehouse of old materials. Scholarly publishing would adapt itself to this paradigm by publishing short monographs (along with periodical articles) on the Web. Even the ubiquity of the keyword search may be seen as a new egalitarian tool whose allure is precisely its democratic non-hierarchical structure. The study of English literature (or any other kind) would become strictly voluntary; the only required kind of English would be language learning or technical writing. Indeed, the end result may be the end of any required course that does not fit into the major field. This scenario would favor the "mechanical" education delineated by Newman. According to this scenario, the entire purpose of the university, and its library and information services, is to provide students with a marketable skill.

The most likely scenario, in our view, is a mixed future. A postmodern reality will be superimposed on the old hierarchical structures of higher education. The hierarchical structures will never entirely go away if only because much of reality is hierarchical (or must be so organized by the human mind to have any meaning). Some institutions will go farther than others, but libraries will continue to offer a variety of formats, though machine power may replace number of volumes as the key indicator of a library's brute value.

Finally, teaching involves not just a consumer emphasis on what the student wants. Certainly student wants should be accommodated as far as possible, but to give way entirely to student wants is to abandon teaching -- after all, the assumption must be that the professor naturally knows a bit more than the student. If the book and the extended (and even leisurely) discussion it allows is important, we must say so, no matter what students may say, and if information is inevitably hierarchical (and not just for ourselves alone) then we must insist on building the discrimination that fosters knowledge. The pull of postmodern radical egalitarianism will tend to push this mixed scenario toward the new and different, but we must always ask ourselves if new is better. No one doubts the utility of many of the tools that aid each one of us each day. A tool, however, whether it be a computer, the World Wide Web, or the latest email package, is after all a means to the goal. That goal should be the state of being educated, a state of being which conflicts, at least in its traditional formulation, with much of the postmodern ethos. To teach may mean, even more than it has meant in the past, to draw meaning out of chaos. With the flood of information available in the postmodern era, formulating this meaning will require ever more expertise in winnowing the wheat from the chaff. That this will be challenging in the postmodern future goes without saying.


  1. Sassoon, Siegfried, The Weald of Youth (New York: The Viking Press, 1942).
  2. Linda Ray Pratt, "Liberal Education and the Idea of the Postmodern University," Academe 80(6) (November-December 1994): 47.
  3. Pratt: 47.
  4. Pratt: 47.
  5. Postman, Neil, The End of Education (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995): 5-6.
  6. Tod Sloan, "Beyond the Postmodern Self," Composition Studies / Freshman English News 22(2) (Fall 1994): 111.
  7. Sloan: 112.
  8. Sloan: 112.
  9. Jim Norwine, Bakama BakamaNume, Michael Preda, Allen Ketcham, Michael Bruner, and Sergej Flere, "A Preview of 21st-Century Values? A Summary of an Ongoing International Study of Changing Undergraduate Weltanschauungen," SPG: The Society for Philosophy and Geography Newsletter 2(2) (July 1996): 2-6; and Michael Bruner, Allen Ketcham, Jim Norwine, and Michael Preda, "The Meaning of Meaning in a Post-Meaning Age," International Social Science Journal 46(2) (June 1994): 285-293.
  10. Norwine: 2.
  11. Norwine: 3.