Informational Holism: Humanities librarianship, liberal arts, and the limitations of quantitative metrics

Benjamin Dueck is a General Librarian in the Arts & Humanities Division at The University of Manitoba Libraries. They are the liaison librarian for Religion, English, Catholic Studies, Theatre & Drama, and Peace & Conflict Studies. Their role includes collection development, teaching information literacy, and providing reference services for faculty, students, and staff.

I am writing this article in the midst of a major life transition. Earlier this month, I began working as a full-time Humanities Liaison Librarian at the University of Manitoba. This is both my first academic job and the only time in recent memory that I haven’t been a student. I am feeling proud and excited to be embarking on this new journey! Still, despite the stability that this position provides, I remain plagued with feelings of uncertainty. As someone who falls somewhere in between the proverbial “millennial” and “zoomer” generations, I’ve become accustomed to a certain sense of precariousness. As a child who grew up on the internet, I struggle to remember a time where there wasn’t a global crisis happening around me—be it the 2008 economic crash, the COVID-19 pandemic, or the omnipresent threat of climate change. Be that as it may, I remain resolutely optimistic about the role that academic librarians have to play in the future of teaching and learning. More specifically, I believe that the qualitative research methods supported by humanities librarians like myself will become vitally important in decades to come.

Historically, the capacities I am referring to have been transmitted to learners through the artes liberales (or liberal arts), a Greco-Roman ideal based on the assumption that a flourishing and cooperative society requires a population that is systematically trained in critical, interdisciplinary thinking. In this blog post, I want to reflect on my experiences as a humanities librarian and explore how the philosophies that inform my work contradict many of the demands being placed on universities by neoliberal governments. I hope that those working in similar positions will be able to relate to the ideas explored here and come away from this article feeling empowered and reinvigorated.

Informational holism

As a subject librarian serving the English and Religion programs on my campus, my day-to-day work involves thinking about domains of experience that elude empirical measurement: ethics, theology, and the great wisdom traditions of the world. In order to support the information needs in my subject areas, I take an integral approach to my reference work and in-class instruction. I strive to teach my community to master a form of inquiry that I call informational holism, the ability to intuit across disciplinary boundaries, think in gestalts, and cognize around clusters of datapoints (figure 1). Informational holism can be contrasted with linear-procedural thinking which emphasizes step-by-step instruction and a hierarchical connection between concepts (figure 2). It is also different from decentralized or “non-hierarchical” network thinking which maps the connections between concepts but lacks the dimensionality needed to render relationships of transcendence (figure 3). While the latter two styles do a good job of modeling workflows and making them more efficient, they tend to flatten out the qualitative depth of the objects they represent. If this all seems overtly abstract, worry not! In the sections that follow, I will ground these concepts with some more concrete examples.

Figure 1: Informational holism. Figure 2: Linear-procedural thinking. Figure 3: Network thinking.

Quantification & the neoliberal university

One of the things I love most about working as an academic librarian is the open-ended nature of my job. Aside from daily duties of reference service, teaching, collection development, and committee work, I have the privilege to choose the kinds of projects that I work on. While I remain grateful to have this liberty, the freedom to choose arrives bundled with the gift and the curse of unstructured time. Lindsay O’Neil gives some much needed strategies for managing this freedom in her articles on time management and academic culture shock.  Still, I frequently feel torn between two competing inner voices—a wise and encouraging voice that advises me to slow down and reflect and the voice of a factory foreman chastising me for not using this time to the best of my ability.

I’ve come to realize that this pressure to maximize my work output is only one ripple in a broader current. I am employed after all in the Canadian province of Manitoba, a place where a neoliberal conservative government is making moves to restructure public education as part of a larger effort to stimulate private sector growth. In this landscape, publicly funded universities like mine are being pressured to align themselves with the economic goals of the state by demonstrating their value and accountability. One of the ways that this manifests in the lives of academic workers like myself is through the use of quantitative metrics designed to save time and money. Generally speaking, these metrics leverage networked technology as a means of meeting the goals delineated by linear-procedural strategic plans. In my own institution, I have seen them implemented in various ways: key performance indicators (KPIs) that track the form and frequency of library reference appointments, usage statistics used to determine the value of library subscriptions, and alumni employment surveys that inform how funding is to be allocated to specific academic programs. Quantitative metrics have their place and are undoubtedly useful from an organizational perspective. In my library, the teams that are implementing these metrics are doing so in good faith, working as best they can within a strategic plan that has been set by the university. Nevertheless, if these measures are used at the institutional level to support a program of economic austerity, they can become harmful to the academic community as a whole.

The limitations of scholarly metrics

To understand how the biases of linear-procedural logic become materialized through networked technology, I want to talk about scholarly metrics. As an academic librarian, this topic comes up quite often in my reference appointments, particularly with graduate students who are preparing to enter the academic job market. Broadly speaking, scholarly metrics refer to technologies and programs that are used to measure the “impact” of digital objects (journals, papers, researcher profiles etc.). The most common are the citation tracking features available through platforms like Google Scholar, PLoS, BioMed Central and ResearchGate. Within these systems, impact is measured quantitatively. The greater the total citation count of a digital object, the greater the impact and influence it can be said to have. The problem is not that these tools are inaccurate, it is that they do not tell the whole story.

To understand why this is, I pose to you a hypothetical question. Which is more impactful, a research paper that is cited 100 times or a book chapter that while only being cited once, plays a central role in an emerging scholar’s PhD dissertation? If this were my own work being referenced, I’d tend towards the latter. I’d much rather my work be engaged with in a thoughtful and rigorous way than referenced many times in passing. You may have a different opinion and I respect that. Your answer will depend on your own definition of what is valuable and your own tendencies as a thinker. Nevertheless, the question sheds light on the way scholarly metrics are biased towards a particular definition of what constitutes valuable knowledge. More perniciously, when quantitative metrics become central to the budgetary decisions made by universities, academics feel the need to choose research topics that yield the highest possible impact. If left to continue, I can see this trend posing a threat to academic freedom, particularly if research tied to industry is prioritized over work that contributes to human knowledge in the long term.

The future of humanities librarianship

In their book The Evolution of Liberal Arts in the Global Age (2017), editors Peter Marber and Daniel Araya show how the liberal arts model has survived centuries of economic and technological upheaval. This is because it teaches timeless skills that help learners to navigate periods of social and economic change. In order for subject librarians working in the humanities to best serve our communities, we need to become vocal advocates for the artes liberales as both a guide to action and as a philosophical ideal. On a practical level, this means fighting back against metrics that impose a reductive quantitative logic onto our work and proposing sustainable alternatives that leave room for informational holism.

Valuable guidance on this front can be found in Kevin Adams writing about integrating Critical Information Literacy (CIL) into library instructional design. Pedagogies of this kind will be crucial in the coming decades. Still if these initiatives are to have an ongoing structural impact, they must be paired with a commitment to the liberal arts at the institutional level and a broader societal shift away from neoliberal economics. I am aware that I have only diagnosed the most general contours of this phenomenon here. To use a scholarly cliché, a richer engagement with this subject goes beyond the scope of a single blog post! Nevertheless, this is a topic that I plan to expand on in future research projects. I encourage anyone who shares similar interests to get in touch with me or to leave a comment below.

Our TBR Lists

Summer is often the time where we hope we can dig into the articles and books we’ve put off reading during the academic semesters. In this collaborative post, ACRLoggers share what they have been reading, watching, or listening to and what’s on their TBR list for the summer.

Things we have read, watched, or listened to

Hailley: A colleague in my department was part of a learning community this spring where they read Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World by Paul Hanstedt. She recommended I read it, especially as I was preparing to teach a five week credit course this summer. As soon as I started reading, I was hooked! I appreciated the way Hanstedt talked about course creation and how we can design authentic projects for our students to encounter in a course. While I was reading it with my eyes on credit-course design, I still think this book is relevant for folks not teaching a full semester long course. 

Alex: I’ve been reading Writing from These Roots by J. M. Duffy (2007) for my summer M.Ed. class on literacy and its intersections with culture, identity, and language. It’s not directly library-related, but it details a unique case of literacy: the Hmong people. It has really broadened the way I look at how not only literacy happens and what it is, but how information is shared in different cultures.

Justin: I’ve been reading up on information literacy instruction, specifically in the sciences since I was recently hired as a Science librarian at the University of Manitoba. In mid-June I attended ACRL’s Sciences & Technology Section’s annual program, where they presented a draft of a sciences companion document to the ACRL Framework. Some really good examples were shown of how the Framework was adapted and being used for sciences students – I’m looking forward to using this in my own instructional sessions. I also found Witherspoon, Taber, and Goudreau’s recently-published article “Science Students’ Information Literacy Needs” really helpful in providing evidence for when to introduce specific info lit concepts throughout a science student’s program.

As I’ve been developing some new sciences-focused library presentations, I’ve been rereading Bull, MacMillan, and Head’s article on proactive evaluation, published last summer. I’m trying to figure out where to put and how to frame proactive evaluation and other evaluative frameworks in my sessions for sciences students.

Stephanie: I’m often listening to podcasts, and one that is currently in rotation is 99% Invisible. I greatly enjoyed their recent episode, Meet Us by the Fountain, which focuses on the heyday of indoor shopping malls. As someone who began working in a mall when I was a sophomore in high school and continued working there until I graduated from college, the mall holds a place in my heart as a place where I discovered who I was, from my clothing likes and dislikes to my social circle and extended group of friends. Listening to the episode reminded me that it’s hard for me to imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t worked at the mall for nearly six years; returning to my shift on a regular basis kept me grounded during an age and time of much uncertainty. The episode also shines insight into the gravitational pull of the mall and the history of suburbia in general. 

Jen: I’ve become more and more interested in the idea of storytelling as a pedagogical technique–allegories, analogies, anecdotes, case studies, memes, real-world problems–to make abstract or technical research concepts more accessible to students, facilitate students’ recall and meaning making, and/or provide general interest in the classroom. So reading about how instructors in a wide range of disciplines use storytelling and to what effect–things like Frisch and Saunders’ “Using stories in an introductory college biology course”–has been helpful so far.  This exploration has led me into a bit of research on how instructors think about their teaching and how they make changes. Articles like Kirker’s “Am I a teacher because I teach?: A qualitative study of librarians’ perceptions of their role as teachers” and Baer’s “Academic librarians’ development as teachers: A survey on changes in pedagogical roles, approaches, and perspectives” have been helpful here. Both of these areas have started to lead me to think about these concepts in other contexts: storytelling as a tool to improve clarity and connection in communication in other arenas (say, administrative) and also what contributes to openness to change in other parts of our professional (not to mention personal) lives. 

Things we hope to read, watch, or listen to this summer

Hailley: I’m hoping to spend some time reviewing the recorded presentations from CALM this spring. I wasn’t able to attend the virtual conference at the end of April, but I’m excited many of the sessions were recorded. I recently watched (and loved) “Flying the Plane While You’re Building It: Cultivating a New Team Through Organizational Change” from Mea Warren and (fellow ACRLogger) Veronica Arellano Douglas so I can’t wait to learn more from those who presented!

Alex: I’ve barely started it, so I don’t count it in the “have read” section, but I’m looking forward to working my way through A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders, because who doesn’t want to read a history of alphabetical order? (That’s a little adjacent to library work, but probably has some interesting insights into shelving schemes, if nothing else.) I also have a lot of driving ahead of me this summer (we’re talking 7 hours at a time) so I’d like to get into some podcasts to pass that time more quickly: The Librarian’s Guide to Teaching, Dewey Decibel, and Book Club for Masochists have all caught my eye (ear?) recently. Even though a lot of library podcasts are focused on public libraries, I think there’s a lot for an academic librarian to learn there.

Justin: A couple of my colleagues are really into Anne Helen Petersen’s writing and recommended her book, co-written with partner Charlie Warzel, Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home. I switched from working-from-home back to working on-campus in February of this year. I think a lot of us have been moving towards this over the past year or so. I’ve heard Warzel and AHP’s book layout ideas for a healthy work/life balance, rethinking what your real work means, and getting more involved in your community, so I’m looking forward to reading it. (Also: if you haven’t seen it, AHP’s CALM keynote is shared here, which I highly recommend reading, The Librarians Are Not Okay.)

I just finished up a research project on relational-cultural theory and Canadian academic librarians, and now that that’s done, I’m hoping to do some reading into LIS mentorship programs and other supports for librarians to start up a new project; articles like Malecki & Bonanni’s “Mentorship Programs in Academic Libraries” and Ackerman, Hunter, & Wilkinson’s “The Availability and Effectiveness of Research Supports for Early Career Academic Librarians.”

Stephanie: Following up on the 99% Invisible episode I was listening to earlier, I’m eager to pick up the book the episode is based on: Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall by Alexandra Lange. While I haven’t started reading the book just yet, I’m looking forward to gaining more insight on how malls have both become something we remiscenice about while also being something we also malign. I’m drawn to social histories in general, and I appreciate that this book focuses on how malls played a vital role in creating and maintaining suburbs, and how towns are faring during the ongoing reinvention of the mall.

Jen: Geez, there’s so much I’ve been meaning to catch up on. What isn’t on my to-be-read pile is perhaps a more accurate question for me. But I’m thinking here especially about some synergies in a few projects I’m working on related to open pedagogy and the “students as partners” movement and information literacy. So I’m adding things like “A systematic literature review of students as partners in higher education” to the pile to round out some of my foundational understanding in these areas. 

In the Weeds

Jonathan Kemper

This is my first summer keeping up with a whole yard’s worth of weeding. When I was a kid, weeding the family garden was a sweaty neck, mosquito bites, and work that never seemed to end. As an adult, I might still sweat and itch, but now I get the appeal of weeding — it’s oddly satisfying, similar to peeling sunburn or plucking a stray hair.

Weeding in an academic library is satisfying in its own way. It’s also an essential summer project for us; our library is only 2 stories, with the majority of the circulating collection on the lower level. After 2 summers postponing weeding due to the pandemic, the collection is bursting at the seams. 

It’s going to be a lot of work for all departments. In addition to librarians weeding, the circulation department is doing a library-wide inventory. And on top of that, the Director is planning a diversity audit of the collection. So we’ve got 3 projects that have us scrutinizing the collection, or as my coworker says, “communing with the books.” I think these overlapping projects will yield good results for us, as we learn what we have too much of and what we’re missing.

We have a paperbacks collection that I tackled in one week, with the help of our Circulation staff. We weeded about 740 titles, largely based on condition and circulation stats. While we send qualifying titles to Better World Books, they don’t accept mass market paperbacks, so these would normally be put on our book sale cart.

But since we were weeding so many paperbacks at once, my coworker had the great idea to host a Paperback Giveaway to kick off the summer. We arranged all the books on two folding tables, all their spines facing up, and faculty, staff, and students could come to the library all week to take as many books as they wanted. We also provided canvas totes with the school’s logo on them, and that made patrons take even more books home with them.

Patrons sometimes feel alarm when you’re removing a bunch of books at once, even if it’s to make room on the shelves for new things. Inviting our campus community to pick up free discards gave us a chance to explain this sometimes-controversial phase of collection management. One library’s trash, another patron’s treasure!

Things I Didn’t Know I Needed to Know

Hindsight is 20/20, right? In this collaborative post from our ACRLog team, we’re reflecting on the lessons and truths about libraries, librarianship, and higher ed that we wish we had come to understand sooner — the stuff we didn’t know to ask about earlier on in our careers, the stuff we didn’t know that we needed to know — and how our current understanding can perhaps help us to more clearly see the things we need to do differently. 

What’s something you wish someone had told you or that you wish you had asked in a job interview in order to get a clearer picture of the work, institution, or culture? 

[Alex] I wish I had the foresight to ask for more detail about what the tenure process looks like for a librarian, as this was not something I had encountered before. I had the rare opportunity to choose tenure-track or fixed-term when I was hired, and I assumed tenure-track was inherently the “better” choice and did not give it much critical consideration. 

[Hailley] A colleague and I were just talking about this recently – we wished we had asked about what the culture is around start and end times. At my current institution, we have a pretty standard 8:15-4:30 workday (university-wide). Knowing this might not change your mind to take or not to take a job, it is helpful to know what the general rule of thumb is before entering a new institution. 

[Veronica] It’s incredibly important to ask what the organization is doing to ensure their workplace is equitable, inclusive, and accessible. Both the answer, and the way that it is answered are especially important for librarians with marginalized identities, but should be a concern for all librarians. You can usually get a sense of a place by how the people you are talking to react to that question. 

What’s an unwritten rule at your current or past institution(s) or within your area of librarianship that you had to learn as you go?

[Alex] At each institution I’ve worked at, the unwritten rules are mostly workplace culture, processes for the way things are done. My best example is that I have had scheduled reference shifts at both of my librarian jobs, and it is done very differently at each: on a weekly basis vs. six months at a time; in hourly shifts vs. 90-minute shifts; all open hours vs. a six-hour period of the day on weekdays only. It demonstrated to me that not only are types of libraries very different, but so are individual locations. 

[Maura] When I started at my current institution as Instruction Coordinator 14 years ago, I also noted a few things about workplace culture that were perhaps a bit more formal than I expected. Most of my library colleagues dressed up a bit for reference shifts and teaching, and across the college when faculty referred to each other in front of students they tended to use “Professor So and so” rather than first names. The former has definitely changed somewhat since the pandemic though I’m not sure if the latter has.

[Jen] When I moved to my current institution to take on this job almost five years ago, it was my first time in a faculty position. I had already worked in libraries for a long time by that point but always in positions classified as staff. I didn’t take this job because it was classified as faculty; I saw it as a plus, but certainly not the deciding factor. It’s taken me some time to fully grasp what it means to have faculty status in terms of planning my work and organizing my time, as well as in terms of my opportunities and responsibilities–not only of the position itself, but also as a faculty member. Of course, faculty classification while working in a public service-oriented unit and also being an administrator and manager is different from a typical faculty role. But I think this vantage point has given me new perspective on what a position’s classification can mean with respect to autonomy, advocacy, and the like. Having worked from both sides of this coin now, though, I still believe that it is up to us to not only practice and embody the full potential of our roles, but to also challenge it (or, perhaps more accurately, to challenge others’ assumptions and expectations of our roles). Whether because or in spite of classifications, we can play a significant part in making our places in our library and institutional landscapes what we want them to be. 

What’s something simple or fundamental about higher ed, libraries, or your current/past job(s) that you wish you’d understood sooner?

[Hailley] Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how decisions are made. Overtime, and especially as a current middle manager, I can more clearly see the many people above me who might influence, inform, or make a decision. Even if I don’t love a decision, I try to keep in mind the bigger picture and context for that specific decision. 

[Angie]  Absolutely what Hailey points out. I try to share this perspective with others as well.  Another reality I wish I knew sooner is how people in higher ed – from students to faculty to administrators – understand so little about the work of libraries, and how even those who communicate well, it remains a constant endeavor.  I am starting to accept this as work that is never done.

[Jen] I decided to go to library school without much library work experience, really. I had a job at the circulation desk in my college library, but my experience doing research for my senior thesis played a much bigger part in prompting me to take this path. While in grad school, I worked at the reference desk in one of my university’s libraries. This was a valuable experience that helped me solidify my grad school (and job search) focus on reference, instruction, and outreach work in academic libraries, but I don’t think I gave other areas of librarianship as much thought as I should have. All that to say, I didn’t come to this field with much pre-existing foundational knowledge about libraries. I feel particularly lucky, then, to have had a supervisor in my first professional position (a one-year stint) who took great pains to connect me with colleagues and projects in a wide range of areas and departments to help expand my awareness and skill set. And I feel very lucky, too, to have spent a significant chunk of my career early on at a small liberal arts college library. Because our library team was relatively small, collegial, and collaborative (read: everyone wore a lot of hats), I had many opportunities to get involved in projects outside the scope of my specific position. Moreover, the daily work of each person and department was literally visible to me. As such, I feel like I got a broad view of how libraries work. My current position at a small branch of an enormous university library system still requires me to wear a lot of hats and also still regularly offers me new insight into how libraries–and higher ed–work, too. But had I started my career in a system of this size, I don’t think I would have had occasion to participate in or observe so many aspects of academic library work so closely. I would have very little understanding, for example, of the technical work of my cataloging, serials, and licensing colleagues or of what’s involved in implementing a new discovery system. I regularly rely and expand on the broader, foundational understanding those early positions afforded. I’m grateful for the opportunities I had to build it.

[Veronica] Like Jen, I also spent a significant chunk of my career at a small liberal arts college library. What that time taught me, and what I wish I’d realized sooner, is that everyone in higher ed–staff, faculty (tenure track, adjuncts, lecturers), librarians–is trying to do their best with the limited time, bandwidth, and resources that we have. There can be this tendency in larger institutions to feel like it’s us versus them, or fall into victim-villain thinking, when in reality everyone is trying their best and no one is ignoring you on purpose. Yes, there will always be people who are rude, but the vast majority of folks are really just trying to get by as best as they can. I think the more that we can listen to our colleagues and get to know them and their wants, needs, worries, and hopes, the better we can support one another and show solidarity in higher education. 

What’s something in higher ed, libraries, or your area of librarianship that everyone just does but doesn’t work well or should be re-thought?

[Angie] I truly don’t understand how, especially as information scientists, we haven’t prioritized the problem that is email. When I first moved into my own place after college, I remember the internet offerings advertised “up to 5 email accounts!”, and I thought why would anyone need that many? In my work within technical services, we have more than that; I know their purpose, and still wonder why these systems can’t serve us better. Many band-aids out there endeavor to help us “manage” email, but not a lot of solutions recognize the problematic level of reliance on email in the workplace. I don’t want to manage email. As ubiquitous as email is, it ought to more effortlessly help or at least get out of the way.

[Maura] I am so grateful to my colleagues that we are a well-functioning, kind, and thoughtful team. Not that we don’t have challenges, because every workplace has challenges, but we’re committed to asking questions and taking responsibility for our inevitable mistakes (because everyone makes mistakes). I was in academia right after college and then took some time in the publishing industry before returning to academia as a librarian, and I’d forgotten about the conflict avoidance that seems endemic to so many academic settings. I wish that institutions offered more support for doing the necessary work of moving through conflict thoughtfully and respectfully.

[Jen] We need to increase transparency around salaries. To withhold salary information from position descriptions and during the interview process can make what is already a difficult undertaking even more uncertain and fraught–not to mention a waste of time for everyone involved if candidates drop out late in the process after finally learning that salaries don’t meet their needs. And then, once hired, the lack of communication within and across institutions about salary data leaves library workers siloed and in the dark about potential earnings equity issues and missing key information with which to advocate for themselves. On a related note, we need to create more internal advancement opportunities in libraries. It seems that the general thinking is that in order to move up, one has to move out. I agree with that approach to some degree–transition is typically healthy for an organization and individuals (fresh perspectives and new horizons!). However, the lack of growth potential for folks within an institution can result in stagnancy, frustration, and low morale. While an organizational culture that supports experimentation and innovation can keep motivated library workers interested and invested, the lack of structural elements to support such folks to move into new positions (with real salary growth) is hurting us on both individual and organizational levels.

[Veronica] Like Jen, I definitely feel as though pipelines to leadership are something that need to be addressed within libraries with equity in mind. There is a strong push towards diversifying the profession, but it often stops with the hiring and onboarding process. What happens after that? Why do people leave the organization or the profession? At my library we are looking into how to help all librarians access professional development and support that will help them advance their careers within our library or elsewhere. Some things we need to ask ourselves are: Who are we sharing leadership opportunities with and why? Who within the organization has access to training, mentoring, and coaching? Who is missing from conversations about leadership potential and career advancement? If we, as a profession, spent time on these ideas we might be able to ensure that people stay within librarianship.

What are some of the lessons and truths that hindsight has helped you to see better? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 

Thinking About Space, Still

About a year ago I was knee-deep in scheduling focus group sessions with students at one of the colleges at my university, along with my fellow team members as part of our Data Doubles research. The focus groups were terrific — I always appreciate the chance to talk with students and hear their perspectives, in this case on data privacy and learning analytics. Recently I’ve found myself thinking about one student in particular. We’d shifted the focus groups from in person to online, and with campus access still restricted at our university last Spring, most of the students were zooming in from off-campus, some from laptops, others from phones. As we progressed through the questions and discussion in one focus group, I noticed that one of the students had moved from sitting at a table to walking outside. And a few minutes later, that student climbed onto a bus, swiped their MetroCard, and sat down with their phone and laptop, all the while continuing to participate in the focus group during their bus commute.

I’m sharing this anecdote in part because it’s still, even nearly a year later, amazing to me that the student could so seamlessly move into a commute while thoughtfully considering and responding in our discussion. But now that we’re back on campus more fully, I’m also thinking more about space, and how the library’s spaces can meet needs for students that may have changed since the pandemic began.

ACRLoggers have written a lot about space over the years, both before and since the pandemic, and I confess that I am almost always thinking about space when I’m in the library where I work. Like so many academic libraries at institutions with high enrollments and space constraints (sometimes but not always in urban areas), pre-pandemic we were regularly one of the most crowded spots on campus; at our busiest students sat on the floors when all chairs were occupied. Pre-pandemic we were also a nearly completely in-person college, with I believe less than 10% of courses offered fully online. This semester we’re closer to 50% in-person, 50% online, and while it has been truly lovely to see more students in the library space this year, our onsite use is not nearly what it was before March 2020. And in many ways that’s fine — every student who wants a seat can get one, and it’s much quieter in the library, too, which I know many students really appreciate.

Perhaps the biggest shift we’ve seen (and I’m sure we’re not alone in this) is the drastic reduction in demand for our physical computer labs in the library. I’ve heard from the director of academic technology that she’s seeing something similar in the other computer labs on campus, too. While a huge change (and, honestly, a relief from the long lines we used to have), it’s not entirely surprising to see this shift: lab use is down, but we have many, many more students bringing their own laptops to work in the library. Printing is also down, and it’s clear that our terrific tech team’s efforts to implement printing from students’ own devices, beginning before the pandemic, are meeting the needs of students who do still want to print their course materials.

The return to our physical space has also meant a return to students sharing feedback with us. It’s been gratifying to read students’ comments, which have been overwhelmingly appreciative sprinkled with occasional grumbling about the noise of students taking their online courses in the library (and we’re likely going to restart lending headphones). We’re also back to our pre-pandemic practices of walking through the library to take a headcount a few times each day, and continuing to observe how students are using the space. It’s clear to us that students who are taking both in person and online classes aren’t necessarily coming to campus as often as they did before the pandemic, how can we shift services and spaces to better meet their needs? And the library is still in need of a renovation. I’m looking forward to revisiting our renovation proposal — especially for one underused area that might be reimagined for more student seating — and thinking about ways that we might make our space more accommodating and flexible for multiple different kinds of use by students.