Like a Real Library?

I’m a regular reader of Matt Reed’s Confessions of a Community College Dean blog over at Inside Higher Ed, and last week he published a post that has had me thinking ever since. His post “Like a Real College” reflects on the experiences that hybrid and online learning in colleges and universities sometimes leave behind, like graduation ceremonies and in-person social interactions. Reed notes:

I’m consistently struck at the resonance that some of those traditional trappings have for non-traditional students. They may need scheduling flexibility and appreciate accelerated times to degree, but they still want to feel like they’ve attended a “real college.” I’ve heard those words enough times that I can’t write them off as flukes anymore.

How does this translate to academic libraries? Lots of recent research has shown that many students appreciate what we think of as a traditional library atmosphere for doing their academic work: book stacks, good lighting, table and carrel desk seating, and quiet (see Antell and Engel, Applegate [paywall], and Jackson and Hahn, to name just a few). My research partner Mariana Regalado and I heard similar preferences from the students we spoke to in our research, several of whom also specifically mentioned their admiration for the the very formal, serious library at one CUNY college. To me this suggests that our library space planning and renovations need to balance collections and study space, and acknowledge the importance of books and other physical academic materials for environmental as well as informational reasons.

But what about online learning or competency based degrees, as Reed refers to in his column? How can the academic library contribute to the “real college” feeling that students say they want? Online learning seems to pull apart the collections and workspace roles of the library. And while not always the easiest or most user-friendly experience, online access to our college and university library collections is often (and increasingly) possible.

Is it possible to replicate, or even approach, the traditional academic library experience for studying and academic work with online-only students? One question I have sounds almost too simple to be asked, but also seems fundamental to the online student experience. Where, exactly, are our students when they do their online and hybrid coursework? At home? At the public library? At a coffeeshop (or McDonald’s)?

The college where I work is still very focused on our students in face-to-face classes, and we don’t have any fully-online degrees (though the university that my college is part of does). Anecdotally, we do see students working on their coursework for online or hybrid classes in our library computer labs, though I’m sure they also work on it elsewhere. But I’d be interested to hear about other academic libraries that have grappled with this: are there things we can do to bring the traditional, library-as-place to online-only students? Is the “real library” experience possible?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

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