Reflecting on library space through the lens of the pandemic

Before the pandemic turned our world upside down, I was working on some space-related projects at my library. A recent update to a small lounge area had a notable payoff. Collaboration with my colleague in the Learning Center was making slow but steady progress toward a renovation to expand and enhance our spaces and services in a Learning Commons model. The need for and value of this work were clear. The progress and outcomes were gratifying.

I’ve written a few times about some of this work and the opportunities and challenges of my lovely but tiny library space. The public health crisis has cast our space and these efforts to improve it, like pretty much everything, in new light. Obviously, slashed higher ed budgets and broader economic challenges suggest that there will be increased competition for limited resources to fund any space project, particularly a large and pricey one like our Learning Commons proposal. But the pandemic will affect higher education’s short-, medium- and long-term future in many arenas, not just fiscal; the impact on demand for and nature of library space is difficult to anticipate, reducing our ability to plan and advocate strategically.

In the short-term, space has featured prominently in the many meetings about the fall semester at my commuter campus and across my institution. Currently, my institution is planning for a mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote courses. At the core of our many space-related conversations has been the recognition that access to physical space matters even in this very virtual incarnation of higher ed, particularly for our most vulnerable students. On a practical level, we need to offer on-campus space (and resources) to students who don’t have access to reliable technology at home or whose home environments aren’t productive or safe. We also need to offer on-campus space for students to participate in Zoom classes sandwiched between in-person classes. Like many folks, we’re working out how to safely open and manage access to our space. 

Then, there are the more theoretical conversations about the sense of identity and community that physical (library) space fosters. We’ve cast our proposed Learning Commons, for example, as a welcoming learner-centered space where students can focus, study, collaborate, and access academic assistance. In our advocacy, we’ve cited the impact of the library’s and learning center’s physical constraints on students; they have had to vie for limited space or even leave campus, thereby missing out on opportunities to engage with services, programs, faculty and staff, and peers. We’ve argued that these missed opportunities reduce their ability to make connections on campus and build community. Library space helps our students dig in, connect, and belong. How can we attempt to recover or replace what we’re losing during this time? While perhaps not our most pressing concern given all the demands of planning for fall classes, it’s still an important one–for this coming semester and beyond. 

The medium- and long-term vision for our space projects, then, feels murky. Surely, expanding the physical library with more square footage would mean that we could accommodate more library users while complying with physical distancing guidelines. But it’s more than that. In our newly upended world, the assets and liabilities of all public space are thrown into sharp relief. The pandemic calls on us to reconsider how spaces are designed and how they’re used. How do we plan for library space projects in this time of uncertainty not just in higher ed but in our world? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

“Student Needs Are Academic Needs”: My 2 Cents

This week I watched a new report, “Student Needs Are Academic Needs,” make the rounds of community college listserv discussions. I watched the discourse around this report get kinda heated, so I thought I’d share my reaction.

As a community college librarian, I was interested to read a study with community college students in mind. While our population overlaps with 4-year institutions, it’s meaningful to see the experiences of community college students examined here specifically. The researchers found that students “see the library not only as an informational resource, an academic resource, or simply a quiet place to study, but also as a community resource within the campus context.” 

I think that’s the part some readers are taking issue with: the idea that students see the library as the place for both academic support and personal assistance with things like childcare, wifi hotspots, and help navigating college.

I recognize the anxiety that comes up when strapped librarians read a report that says students would like to find social services and childcare at the library. There’s a legitimate fear that the library’s mission will become so broad in scope that our original vision is obscured, and that expanding our services will come at the cost of burned-out library workers. 

But I think we should be redirecting the conclusions of this report outside the library; share these results with our larger institution or funding body as an indication that the library needs more resources to provide or host desired services. It’s certainly not the intentions of the co-authors of this report to suggest that libraries must become all things to all people; they’re quoted in Inside Higher Ed as saying libraries shouldn’t take all of these ideas literally.

A report is just that: it reports on the state of things, in this case what students need. Students say the library is one of the most likely places they’d go for non-curricular help. If that is the case, then we should think creatively about how that help can be waiting for them where they are seeking it. I’m not threatened by these conclusions because my first thought when I hear that a student would access a social worker’s services if they were in the library is “Great, let’s collaborate with a social worker,” not “Oh, I guess I have to become a social worker now.” As Christine Wolff-Eisenberg said in that same IHE piece:

“A lot of these services are going to require deep collaboration so the library is not reinventing the wheel when other resources exist.” 

The ideas in this report spark my imagination more than my temper, but maybe I’m just in a particularly optimistic mood. Has your library tried or considered any programs like the service concepts posed in this report? 

What is library space for?: Reflecting on space use and noise management

On some days, my library feels like it’s bursting at the seams with students. The library is a popular destination for students seeking space for their varying work needs, not to mention the myriad other reasons libraries make a great destination. Yet our space is quite small. And, as you might imagine, lots of people using a small space for different reasons presents challenges. Perhaps chief among those challenges is noise management. Handling noise conflicts is not fun or, at first glance, particularly interesting. But grappling with noise management and space use conflicts at my library this year has, I think, uncovered some interesting reactions, conversations, and questions.

The libraries I’ve worked in previously were large, even huge. Their ample square footage, multiple floors, and layouts provided natural zones that lent themselves to differing uses and inherently provided sound barriers. Even with those advantages, though, we still sometimes struggled with noise problems. I’ve been working at my current library for just about eight months so its particular noise challenges are relatively new to me. We’re lucky to have such an aesthetically pleasing space with attractive furnishings and lots of natural light. The architect made good use of the space, creatively lining the walls with the collection to maximize work/seating areas. Despite these assets, we are still hampered by its size (did I mention it’s small?) and open layout (essentially a string of rectangular classrooms with the walls removed). Noise carries across the space with surprising ease.

Students come to our library for many of the same reasons they visit any library: to find a quiet, even silent, space to study; to work with a partner or group; to do individual work, but in a group setting; to borrow library materials; to ask library staff for assistance; to use our computers, printers, and scanners; to socialize; to nap or relax; and more. Our small size inhibits our ability to be a place for all of these things for our students, but we’re trying to do our best. We have, for example, attempted to create zones designated for silent study and collaborative study at opposite ends of the space to help reduce noise contamination. We have experimented with a variety of approaches to noise management: signage, active monitoring of noise levels and intervention when noise spikes, white noise machines to help drown out noise, and so on. Noise still bleeds throughout the library’s close quarters.

Since I’ve joined this library, I’ve had a number of conversations with students about their space frustrations and needs. Because space is tight, I think students’ uses of the library space are more often subject to scrutiny and judgement by others seeking space for their own needs. I’ve been rather surprised by some students’ requests that library staff police and restrict access to the library space, set strict policies governing use, and impose harsh punishments for violating said policies. Why, some have inquired for example, should students be permitted to nap or relax in the lounge area when others need space for academic work? On a campus where space is such a hot commodity and silence is so hard to find, some have suggested, why isn’t the library entirely devoted to silent study?

These noise management challenges and conflicts over space use have led me to reflect on and question my values and assumptions regarding library space. What responsibilities do library staff have for policing students’ uses of the library? What library space needs and uses should take priority? What is library space for? So far I’ve landed here… I care and am concerned about our students’ needs. I want our library to be responsive to our students. Yet I’m wary of taking any steps that limit the library’s function as a learning space. As educators and leaders on our campus, I think it’s our responsibility to promote a more multi-faceted vision of what learning means and looks like, and all the ways library space is learning space. I think it’s our responsibility to work to balance students’ differing needs and make the space as welcoming and usable as possible for as many students as possible.

How do you manage noise challenges in your library? How do you balance and promote library space as learning space for various needs? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

Supported Vulnerability and Help-Seeking

Early in my career I was my library’s liaison to the Graduate College of Social Work. The commonly held sentiment among my colleagues was that I would have no trouble encouraging social work students to meet with me or ask for help outside of class. In fact, the trouble I might have would be in finding the time to meet with all them individually. There was an unspoken judgement that, I’ll admit ashamedly, I initially bought into. It was that these students, who were primarily women, were needy. They needed a lot of “hand-holding” and “reassurance” and I would have to “set appropriate boundaries,” to do my work well.

The more I worked with and got to know these students, the less inclined I was to buy into this characterization of them as somehow deficient, less-than, or needy. They were intelligent, motivated, and eager to do good work. Meeting with them was easily the best part of my day. I remember eventually discussing my feelings towards these wonderful students with a colleague who shared a great bit of insight: Maybe they, as individuals entering a helping profession, were more comfortable with help-seeking and more confident that the people who say they are there to help you are actually, well, happy to help you. It was the best explanation I could muster for these students’ behavior, and their openness and acceptance at the time. I was a 26-year-old new librarian. Many of these students were returning to graduate school to bolster or change careers. They trusted me when I said I was there to help them and I was so thankful that they did.

The Courage of Asking for Help

It’s a decade later and I’ve never been able to shake the early connection I felt to students in that program and social workers in general. I’ve recently joined a Relational-Cultural Theory reading group, inspired to focus on this branch of scholarship by conversations I had a few years ago with a social worker friend of mine. In our reading group (shoutouts to Alana Kumbier, Anastasia Chiu, Lalitha Nataraj, and Jo Gadsby), we’ve been focusing on The Complexity of Connection, which are a series of writings from the Stone Center’s Jean Baker Miller Training Institute that explore the concept of connection and relational activity as central to human growth and empowerment. In a chapter on Relational Resilience, which is not the kind of resilience that’s proven so problematic in libraries in recent years, Judith V. Jordan writes:

Asking for support directly…is…putting the person doing the asking most at risk–we feel most vulnerable when we let people directly know about our need.

…we live in a cultural milieu that does not respect help-seeking and that tends to scorn the vulnerability implicit in our inevitable need for support (p. 33-34).

Reading these lines was mind-blowing. It completely reframed the way I remembered those social work students operating in an academic setting and has made me rethink the ways in which I conceptualize help-seeking in students now. Those social work students, who had no qualms about sharing their research ideas, talking through their searching dilemmas, and asking for feedback on their understanding of an issue, were brave. They were making themselves vulnerable to judgement, but were willing to take that risk in an effort to forge a connection with me, and seek empowerment for themselves as students, scholars, and clinicians. They couldn’t have known that I would be supportive or that I wouldn’t judge them in silence (or in conversation). But they took that risk, and that took so much courage.

Those students were practicing what Jordan refers to as “mutual empathy,” the willingness to be open to growth through connection. Our meetings always started off with what I initially thought of as “just a talk.” They always, without fail, wanted to learn about me–my background, my day, my semester, my work–and it in turn really made me interested in them as people and students. I never realized how rare that was. To me, it was just a part of library-work, but really, I was learning from those social work students how to engage in mutual empathy and understanding. They were modelling a method of fostering connection and affirmation, and it’s a practice I continue to engage in to this day.

The Judgement in Our Questioning

We are the profession of “Ask Us,” and “Get Help Here.” We lament that reference statistics keep dropping and encourage/cajole/beg our students to come to us for help. We are anxious about library anxiety and work to actively create positive interactions with students/patrons who come to us. What I think we don’t do enough of is considering the courage and vulnerability it takes for students to come to us for help. The onus is on them to seek us out and to admit what they may see as their own shortcomings. And how do we respond? We do the reference interview, which is built on the assumption that people don’t completely understand their own (information)needs. We ask questions that seem to be value-neutral:

  • when is this assignment due?
  • when did you start?
  • what have you done?
  • where have you looked?
  • what do you need?
  • is that really what you need?
  • really?

Yet I have seen far more students than not who, in the face of these questions, look guilty and ashamed. I’ve had students apologize in response to these questions. I’ve seen their bodies hunch over and their eyes look away. I’ve heard their voices get smaller or louder and defensive. I’ve listened to stories that explain their answers to these questions that broke my heart. I’ve had to actively work to combat the judgement inherent in those seemingly innocent questions. I’ve explicitly said, “there is no judgement in this space between us right now.” How can I, who am sitting on a pile of email that I’m too afraid to respond to, in good conscience be frustrated at any student who has decided to start researching at a time that is close to the project due date?

Supported Vulnerability

Jordan advocates for a model of connection that encourages “supported vulnerability.” We all need help and support to grow and be our best selves. As librarians, I think we need to stop advocating for two very different ideals that are in direct conflict with one another: the notion of the independent, information literate researcher/student and the researcher/student who feels supported in the vulnerability necessary to seek help. By holding up the independent individual as our ideal we are implicitly saying that the help-seeker is dependent, weaker, and not quite fully developed. There is no way to full-development in this model unless what you want is a researcher who is so afraid of appearing wrong or vulnerable that they just persist in their ignorance without bothering to learn from the people around them.

So what does that mean for our reference practice? One of my reading group buddies talked about a time when they had a 30 minute conversation with a student about their research. There was no “help” involved, no bestowing of knowledge from librarian to student, but it wasn’t really about that. It was about fostering a connection. Now the librarian knows what the student is working on and feels invested in them as a person and interested in their research. It’s the beginning of a foundation on which to build a relationship.

I don’t just want students to come to me when they have a problem or need help. I don’t want them to feel like they have to put themselves out there without me having to do the same. I want to get to know them as people and foster a connection that will help both of us grow and learn. I’ve seen students eager for even the slightest kernel of connection and relatability during a one-on-one. It’s both heartening to know they want this and depressing to think it’s so rare.

I don’t think this focus on connection and mutuality is a part of the model of research support and reference we currently adhere to collectively, as a profession, but I do think it’s one that we could easily shift towards. I know that I am writing about vulnerability from a position of privilege. I am tenured. I read as white to others (despite my best efforts to the contrary). I am a femme ciswoman. But I do think that there is a place for this kind of supported vulnerability in our profession if those of us with privilege could be courageous enough to support the vulnerability of our peers and characterize it as an asset and a strength, not a liability.

 

Reflecting on Reference Services

A colleague recently invited me to speak in an LIS graduate class she teaches on information services. I was delighted to have the chance to talk with her students; it was even more of a treat since I attended the same graduate program for my MLIS, and the information services course was the very first course I took in my program (mumble-mumble) years ago.

The students in the course are varied in their career goals, and not all are aiming for academic librarianship or public services work. So while I did speak about how my coworkers at City Tech and I think about reference work in the library at our large, public, technical and professional degree granting college in New York City, I also tried to contextualize reference services not just within the organization of the library, but also within the college, university, and city.

As I’m sure is not unusual for colleges like City Tech, reference for us is not just about answering questions about staplers and printers, or helping students navigate databases and the catalog to find sources for their research projects. Reference at City Tech also involves questions about the college and university. The library is the only place on campus that is open for many hours in the evenings and weekends (and we don’t even have overnight hours). We’re also one of the few spots on campus with a person sitting at a desk that’s highly visible (our reference desk is just inside the library entrance), and that features a sign that directs folks to ask for help (ours reads “Ask a Librarian”). At our reference desk we get all the questions: about technology, logging into wifi, the learning management system, registering for classes, filling out financial aid forms, etc.

So lots of what we do at the reference desk at my college looks like answering questions though also sending students to other places on campus. And that has led to discussion among our library faculty; do we still need a traditional reference desk when traditional reference questions are not always the kinds of questions we get?

Lots of academic libraries have shifted to reference by appointment only, or personal librarians, or other models, but at this point we don’t feel that those models will best serve our students at City Tech. Most of our students have come straight from the NYC public high schools, where they may not have had a school librarian. Many are in low-income households, or are in the first generation of their families to attend college. Some have library anxiety — City Tech’s library is only two floors in the middle of a building and can seem so small and unassuming to me, but I have heard students say that they found it to be big and confusing when they first got to the college. Having a staffed reference desk can help the library feel like a welcoming place for students, especially new students.

We schedule a library faculty member at the reference desk during all hours that the library is open while classes are in session, and most hours during semester breaks. That said, we have made some changes over the past couple of years. Moving a technical support staff member to a slightly different location allowed us to reduce staffing by library faculty at the reference desk from two librarians to one. This arrangement definitely serves students better, and relieves librarians of having to spend lots of time reviewing details of our printing system with students (as I alluded to in a post last year). This change has also proved helpful in accommodating some expected and unexpected staffing shortages this semester.

However, there is still some tension in managing information services in relation to everything else that my colleagues and I want librarians and the library to do with our campus community. I’m not quite sure how things will change for us in the future — while we are interested in doing more course-integrated instruction and other information services work with City Tech students, faculty, and staff, it’s unclear whether we’ll need to shift reference, too.