My “Step-Library”: A Joint-Use Library Experience

Do any of you have step-families? I do, and I recently realized how relevant that experience is to working at a joint-use library.

Starting out, there may be concerns on both sides about merging, just like with step-families. There may be assumptions and stereotypes to overcome: step-families get a bad rap (see: evil step-sisters; red-headed step-child), and different library systems can have opinions about how other types of libraries work, and not always positive ones. You’ll have to share resources and space, (whether that’s collections and meeting rooms or toys and bedrooms). You might worry about not seeing eye-to-eye on everything (study room policies or bedtimes). The trepidation is normal, but everyone should work together to overcome it and find similarities, and how the differences benefit everyone.

Opening a joint-use library is a lot like moving in with a step-family. You wind up with two of a lot of things: bedrooms, neighborhoods, pets, etc. Our “step-libraries” have two of a lot of things, too. We’ve been open for five years, and here are a few things we’ve learned about the things we have two of:

Institutional Priorities

On paper, the differing institutional priorities are probably the most obvious difference between the public library and the community college library. You can pull up the organizational charts and see where staffing is strongest for a hint at what the priorities are: the public library has a large number of programmers, and positions with the word “youth” in their job description, whereas the college library has reference and instruction librarians, and a focus on people who cover the computer labs. There are areas with overlap, though: we have a combined welcome desk, where staff from both institutions perform circulation duties, for example.

When I refer to institutional priorities, I also mean that the two organizations define success by different metrics. The public library records data on program attendance and library card issuance, whereas the college is more interested in library instruction attendance and reference statistics. The college has a reference statistics form that must be filled out every time a question is answered at a service point, every day of the year. The public library has selected weeks where surveys are made available and when data about services is collected at service points. During those weeks, while completing both forms, one can easily see the differences between the priorities and “big picture” interests of the two organizations.

The priorities of the two libraries overlap and support one another, though; that was the point of sharing a joint-use library in the first place. Both are focused on “life-long learning,” with the public library placing heavier emphasis on the years before K-12 schooling, and the college library focusing more on the years after.

Organizational Relationships

If you go back to the organizational charts of each library, you can also see how people are arranged: what departments exist, which people are responsible for which tasks, and what kinds of hierarchies there are (who reports to whom).

We all realized, however, that the realities of the workplace are less clear than an organizational chart makes it look on paper. Some general rules apply that are obvious to both groups: managers set schedules and approve time, for example. But changes to how any given employee’s time is structured, or how new tasks are assigned, might complicate matters for one library system more than the other would guess.

Another, stickier problem arises when complaints or conflicts arise between employees from each library system. Mediation procedures may differ between the systems, and the supervisors of each party don’t report to the same administrator (or even the same Human Resources department). A great deal of careful communication and compromise are required.

The good news about this is, in most cases, the problems can be solved by just asking questions and learning about the structures that make up each system, not just in the building, but in the bigger picture. The college employees learn about the other branches of the public library, the public library employees learn about the other campuses of the college, and everyone has a better understanding of the broader range of parties involved. We were fortunate to have, for a while, several employees who worked two jobs in our building: part-time for the college and part-time for the public library. They were very valuable resources for understanding the inner workings of both sides at the same time. (This also helped minimize the us/them rhetoric among the staff, which is another thing you get in both step-families and joint-use libraries.)

Once that understanding is achieved, we realize that we also have a bigger and broader pool of skills and knowledge, with all these liaisons and working relationships we’ve created. One great example is a public library employee who is incredible at creating huge, gorgeous displays, and has used her talents all over the building.

Workplace Cultures

All of the other little differences I can think of between the two libraries fall under this catch-all “workplace culture” category. There are a lot of little day-to-day things that we have picked up on a little bit at a time. The public library has a dress code, and the college does not. The public library tends to schedule people for separate one-hour shifts at the service points, while the college prefers to give people multi-hour blocks in the same place. We’ve had to sort out the details of how to celebrate birthdays (and baby showers and going-away parties and holidays), who cleans the refrigerators and when, how to cover the service points during one side or the other’s staff meetings, whether public and college items can (or should) be used on the other’s displays, and so many other little details that have come up over the years.

One of the big ones, from day one, was hours and closures. Long story short, we follow the college’s holiday and weather closure decisions, so we might be open when other public libraries aren’t, and vice versa. This has many far-reaching implications, but one that I find interesting is how the staff members react to weather predictions. A public library employee knows they may be required to work at a different branch that doesn’t close if the college (and therefore our library) closes for snow, but a college employee would just be excited at the prospect of having a day off.

Another of the big ones is something we still work on: the definition of customer service. Our public library staff strive more to find a final answer for a patron, while our college librarians are more focused on showing a student a resource and teaching them how to use it on their own, to avoid accidentally doing the student’s coursework for them. We have spent a great deal of time and effort training everyone to do things both ways, and to discern when each approach is appropriate. In my opinion, it has made all of us better at our jobs, because we have learned a lot about the diverse needs of our patron population and how to meet them in a variety of ways.

Your “Step-Libraries”

You don’t need to work at a joint-use library for these concepts to apply. I know of many college libraries who report to multiple deans, or have combined library and IT departments, or even just have multiple campus libraries that need to work together to avoid becoming silos. Anywhere you have multiple parties at the same level working together to provide services to your patrons, these concepts are relevant and important.

One of Today’s Lucky Ten Thousand

If you aren’t familiar with the webcomic XKCD, go take a look now. I have been a huge fan for years, and find his comics relevant to many areas of life. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this one:

XKCD, “Ten Thousand,”

As a reference librarian, I get a lot of the same questions day in and day out. (I know that a lot of you can relate.) How do I find a book on my topic? How does the printing system work? Can you help me connect my laptop to the Wi-Fi here? Where is the bathroom? How does citation work? It happens in the classroom, too. How do I narrow these results down to scholarly journals only? What do I do if it says “no full text available”? Can I put a book on hold from off campus?

I’m going to take a moment to clarify that today, I’m not talking about the questions like, “I wasn’t paying attention; can you show us how you got to that page again?” I’m also not talking about the same person showing up every single day to ask for help logging into their online homework system but they don’t remember their own username and password, or where they wrote that information down when you helped them yesterday. I’m only talking about the questions that we answer over and over for different people every day, week, semester, and year.

Sometimes, I used to get frustrated or annoyed by having to answer, “Where is the classroom?” twenty times in a row for each individual student attending library instruction that hour, or showing different students how to find books over and over on the same three argument paper topics all week. And I see the same thing happen to my colleagues, especially during this time of semester, when midterms are gearing up and every other student we see is working on one of a handful of similar assignments.

But then I remembered this XKCD comic, and it reminded me of a few things.

One: We are here to teach people the things they don’t already know. If students already knew how to find resources or write citations or even where the classroom is, what would they need me for at the reference desk?

Two: Everyone has to learn a thing before they know it. That sounds really obvious, doesn’t it? To dismissively think, “You’re in college, you should know this!” is to do your students a disservice.* It reminds me of all the times I’ve said I haven’t seen a particular movie, and someone reacts with an overly dramatic gasp and, “But you’re in your thirties! How have you never seen The Godfather?” It makes me feel guilty, like I’ve avoided that movie on purpose, instead of just not being shown the movie or being prompted to go find it and sit down and watch it. I know it exists (like a student knows the library exists), and I’m aware of several of the more famous scenes (like a student knows that libraries can help students with research); I just haven’t watched it myself (like a student who hasn’t used library resources or asked a question at the reference desk). A better reaction, in my opinion, is, “You haven’t seen The Godfather? I highly recommend it. Here, borrow my copy, or let’s watch it together this weekend.” Or, in our case, “You haven’t used the databases? They’re really great, and I think they make it easier to find what you’re looking for than using Google Scholar. Here, let me show you where to find them and how they work.”

And that’s the attitude I try to conjure up in myself three times per semester: week one, midterms, and finals. Because the student standing in front of me needs to find a journal article and does not yet know about the wonders of EBSCOhost, and they are one of today’s lucky ten thousand.

*Side note: At some point, yes, you have to be able to say, “Didn’t you ever have to write a paper before this point in your education?” But if they haven’t, it’s not exactly their fault. I do not present this as an excuse for learned helplessness or not doing the work. We just need to remember that we don’t necessarily know a student’s background or experience when they first approach the reference desk. My college has a lot of non-traditional returning students who may not have done this kind of work in a long time (and during the intervening years, the majority of the process has changed), a lot of students from underprivileged schools (who may have been focused on different priorities from citation and evaluating sources), and a lot of students who are not high academic achievers, and just want to fulfill degree requirements so they can learn a trade, so their English paper is not the high priority it is to some other students, who may want to transfer to a four-year university and major in literature. This “one of today’s lucky ten thousand” concept does rely heavily on giving each student the benefit of the doubt, and not being discouraged by the ones who do ask the “I didn’t listen to what you just said; can you repeat it verbatim?” questions.

“But I Work with Adults”: What Academic Librarians Can Learn from Working with Children

Editor’s Note: We welcome Alex Harrington to the ACRLog team. Alex is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Tidewater Community College, at the Virginia Beach campus Joint-Use Library. Her research interests include classroom technology, improving UX in libraries, marketing & outreach, and diversity and inclusion.

As a college librarian and a self-described “not a kid person,” I do not feel equipped to work with children of any age. Therefore, one of the great things about our joint-use library (part community college library, part city public library), in my opinion, is that any kids in our library usually head straight for the children’s room, run by public library staff.

Despite this, I have made a concerted effort to work with kids in our building anyway, and I’d like to offer some opinions on why you should try it, too.

Our community college hosts a series of week-long summer camps for different age groups with themes like career exploration or creative writing. The kids learn from different areas of the college, like the planetarium, the technology labs, and, yes, the library. We usually give them a tour and have some activities related to their theme, most of which are tried-and-true public library program favorites: usually STEM experiments or art projects.

My experiences with these camps have run the gamut from “what a sweet and polite group of young people” to “I am never doing that again, and if you ask me to, I quit.” The most common question I get from my coworkers about this work is some version of, “But why? You’re a college librarian; you work with adults.”

It is true that I was not hired to give pre-teens a tour of the library, highlighting features such as our 3-D printer and the young adult manga collection, guide them through writing a mystery, or teach them how to most effectively stack old encyclopedias to make a book tower. However, part of our college’s mission is “life-long learning.” The college usually talks about this in terms of senior citizens enrolling in classes, or teaching job skills to adults, but doesn’t it also include learning that takes place before college?

Our summer camps began as a way to boost enrollment. The idea is that, although these kids are ten years away from graduating high school, they have family who might be prompted by the summer camp experience to take some classes, and it gets our name out there. I think, though, that it’s valuable to give the kids a good college (and library) experience too.

The kids feel empowered when a college librarian, who usually only works with adults, shows them library services and resources that adults and college students use, and teaches them how to use them for their own purposes. I hear from them that they feel special, getting to do things that most kids their age aren’t normally doing, whether it’s touring the inner workings of the library or using a career database we show the first-year college students.

Kids are smart. Given the opportunity, they can make good choices, develop creative solutions to problems, and learn complex subjects. They deserve to have agency and respect like anyone else who walks into the college library. The kids appreciate being treated more like adults, and associate that empowered feeling with our college and our library.

The kids and the college aren’t the only ones benefiting from this situation, though. I have found that working with such a different audience has improved my reference and instruction skills.

As many of you may be, I’m accustomed to seeing our library, services, and resources in a certain way: through the eyes of our college-level students doing college-related work. The problem is, children don’t want to hear about scholarly journals, citation, printing, or any of the other things we frequently show our college students. In order to give an engaging library tour to children, I had to step back and think about our library in a new way. We have a 3-D printer, circulating video games, a giant chess set, downloadable comic books, and many other things I don’t normally mention at the reference desk or in the classroom. Now that I think about those things more often and have some practice talking about them to library patrons, I think of them while talking to students. A student might begrudgingly admit that they need the library’s help to finish their paper, but they’ll be delighted to learn that we have a digital media lab where you can make stop-motion videos.

My approach to instruction has been, for a long time, to use games, humor, and fun active learning activities to appeal to a student’s inner child to get them engaged with the class, making it easier for them to learn the library instruction content. Working with actual children in the same library space has taught me new ways to do this more effectively.

Now that I realize this, I make a point to attend more of the public library’s programs in the building, to observe how children and families use and think about our spaces. (The added bonus is that I get to see a magic show, listen to the opera, or pet cows and goats, while I’m at work!)

You don’t need to have a joint-use library partnership with a public library to gain these benefits. Just step back and look at how a child might engage with your library. Better yet, create opportunities to see it in action. Consider offering child-friendly programming, a partnership with your college’s early childhood literacy or K-12 teacher programs, hosting your local school district’s Battle of the Books or a Summer Reading Program event, or start a summer camp. Have you brought kids into your college library? How did you do it? What did you learn from it?