“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? 

Library Jargon

 

German shepherd sitting in the grass, head tilted like he is confused or curious.
“Freya,” by Ashley Coombs

This is my first post for ACRLog in my new position as a community college librarian! Starting a new job, I see everything in a new light. Circulation processes, internal record-keeping, who to email for what: all this is fresh for me at this institution. My brain has to work much harder than when I’m settled and on autopilot. It’s a natural part of any transition, and though it’s sometimes uncomfortable, this perspective is also helping me re-evaluate my use of jargon is a big way.

Specialized library vocabulary can be an intimidating source of library anxiety. Erin L. McAfee says that “feelings of inadequacy, confusion, shyness, and frustration” are emotional barriers that create distance between us and our patrons. Jargon we don’t understand definitely leads to confusion and frustration, and I want to do everything I can to reduce that library anxiety and help all students feel like they can be welcome here.

I’m looking for ways to make my speech more accessible to new library users in the classroom and in teaching tools like LibGuides, but there is also research to show that students prefer a de-jargonized website as well. “Students prefer simple natural language,” and even if we include a glossary of terms on our website there’s no guarantee they’ll read it or get anything from it. Better to examine our language and meet students where they are, in my opinion. So what are some of the words I’d like to revisit?

“Reference” is a word I have increasing trouble with. When I call myself a reference librarian, I immediately explain, “That means I help you with research.” Should I start calling myself a “research librarian” as many institutions do? Luckily, my new institution has already dropped the word “reference” and just calls all their librarians “librarians.” And when “reference” means the start-your-research tools like encyclopedias and overviews, I’ve considered moving toward calling these simply “background info.”

There is also internal language that serves librarians but really shouldn’t be used when communicating with students. In my opinion, “PAC”/”OPAC” is internal language, and so is “serials.” Mark Aaron Polger’s study shows that while librarians prefer the term “database” on the library website, students are looking for a button that says “articles.” I think “database” is a word we’re all so comfortable using that we can’t think of a logical replacement. But based on these findings, I know I need to simply define a database as a place you search for articles.

Some people squirm at the idea of giving a definition that is not exhaustive. “A database doesn’t always contain articles!” or “Not everything that’s searchable is a database!” But isn’t it enough to get a first-time library user started? Couldn’t we get more specific once they’re comfortable or in a discipline-specific class?

Acronyms are another type of jargon that tempt librarians and college staff in general. Acronyms are often made in the service of speeding up communication, but they also create a group of people who are in the know and a group that has no idea what the alphabet soup means. Taking the time to spell out the acronym the first time it’s used is worth doing.

Tammi Owens’ presentation on library jargon concludes that “the library’s online presence should be engaging and empowering, not confusing, overwhelming, or anxiety-inducing.” Those words inspire me as a teacher too. There are plenty of teachers who project authority and expertise, and there are learners who benefit from that approach. But I like the idea of my classroom presence being engaging and empowering, not confusing or overwhelming. I want my students to understand me. I want them to feel like searching skills are within their capacity, and I’d rather be accessible than impressive. Acknowledging that jargon exists is the place to start, and endeavoring to define, simplify, or eliminate it is the way forward.

What words do you find yourself constantly defining? Are there words you wish librarians would stop using?

Supporting the other side

So far in my research career, I’ve put a lot of stock, energy, and passion around the benefits of hiring and supporting student employment in the library. It’s the topic that gets me most fired up at conferences, the thing I’ll tweet about until I can’t tweet anymore, and one part of my job that I keep coming back to, regardless of my job title. I believe in the potential of undergraduate employees to be crucial part of the library. I believe that if you set the bar high, undergraduates will rise to the occasion. But recently, I’ve realized that in that belief, I had forgotten about the other side: the role of the supervisor.

A few months ago, I worked with a colleague to put together a landscape survey around student employment in our libraries. The goal was to discover who in the library was supervising students and if we could find areas of synergy. We asked questions around hiring, on-boarding, continual training, and barriers to success. As we reviewed the answers, the one I remember the most clearly mentioned that as a supervisor, they felt unprepared because the rules and policies around hiring, training, and supporting student employees were unclear. It’s one of those things they never give you a manual for, you’re just suppose to know. And of course, any manual that might exist is in pieces, scattered throughout HR websites, the library’s intranet pages, and library legends told to you by your colleagues. This stuff isn’t clear or transparent and often requires lots of time to figure out. This was the first moment where I thought, “Okay, building a program is more than just for the students. The supervisors also are an audience to consider.”

Recently, I’ve been reminded of this fact when I was leading an informational session on our internship program. In the session, as we talked about the components of the program, including a new community of practice group I’m building, one participant asked, “Will the supervisors also meet regularly, just like the students?”

After a small beat, I nodded. “Of course.” I was reminded of the survey and once again reminded of my own assumptions around supervision. In reflecting on that situation, I think I assume that people who had studente employees for a long time just knew how to do in a meaningful way. But it’s becoming more clear that just because you have student employees, doesn’t mean that you know everything or feel supported.

And upon even further reflection, I realized that since I started trying to create some program structures for our interns, I’ve done my share of complaining about how I never hear from some interns and that I can’t seem to get through to some of their supervisors. I often chalk it up to structural issues, or a desire for an official announcement to the library about my role with our interns. However, the more I think about this angle, the more I realize part of the problem is that while I logically understand having an intern takes a ton of time and energy, I’m not valuing that idea in practice. I’m not recognizing or finding ways to support my colleagues who do this work. In other aspects of my job, I talk about how I am there to support my colleagues who do student engagement, and this also applies to student employees and their supervisors. This support can happens in many ways — from having intern community of practice meetings to getting the supervisors together to let them know they’re not alone in this. I’m a coordinator and that means both for students and for my colleagues.

For every program that we create to support our student employees, we are also responsible for creating the necessary structures and support for our supervisors. If we want unified programs, complimentary training modules, and a shared vision for student employment in the libraries, we have to create the network for our supervisors. This lines up so nicely with George Kuh’s definition of student engagement, where institutions must be willing to provides the resources and support for these opportunities. If we want meaningful internships or purposeful part-time employment, we have to be willing to provide the support (through professional development, regular meetings, and honest conversations) to our supervisors. Neither the students nor supervisors can do this work alone and both groups need to feel supported in this endeavor.

So where do I go from here? I’m trying to be more intentional and start thinking of how I can help build those structures in my role. I’ve started using the word “support” in talking to supervisors about my role with our interns. I’ll probably add monthly intern supervisor meetings to my calendar this fall, and start to note down obstacles that this group might face (and how we can problem solve together). As the moderator for both groups (students and supervisors), I’m in the best position to provide feedback to either group and translate each other’s needs to one another.  

At your library, how do you (or others) support the supervisors who oversee your student employees? Do supervisors meet on a regular basis? Are they given chances for professional development or ways to gain new supervisory skills? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!


Featured image by Riccardo Bresciani from Pexels

Digital Musings on the High School to College Transition

This year my kid is a senior in high school, and we’ve spent the past month recuperating from the flurry of college application activity last fall. As should not be a surprise, college admissions have changed lots since I applied to colleges in the pre-internet era, though I somehow still found parts of the process surprising.

It’s 2019, so of course all colleges use online applications. All of the schools my kid applied to accepted one of the common applications, which allow applicants to use one platform to submit the same application to multiple schools. My kid took the SAT and several subject tests, which required registering and sending scores to colleges via the College Board’s website. We were also required by his high school to use an online platform to manage their part of the application process — sending teacher recommendations and transcripts — by linking up that platform to the common application platform. And don’t even get me started on the FAFSA.

There are about 1,500 students in my kid’s senior class, and four (4!) guidance counselors. He attends one of New York City’s public specialized high schools and lots of students apply to selective schools, each of which require additional essays, video uploads, or other materials. Throughout this whole process last fall — which we were fortunate to be able to complete in our apartment where we have broadband internet access and laptops — I could not stop thinking about all of the kids in his school who don’t have that kind of access. They’re filling out college applications in the school library, the public library, maybe at their parents’ workplaces. They may have questions; they definitely have questions, it’s a complicated process on platforms that are not always intuitive to use, and they might have to make several appointments with counselors to have their questions answered.

Throughout my kid’s high school years I’ve thought about the digital divide. The classes he’s taken have required multiple accounts on multiple online systems, some provided by the NYC Dept of Education, some homework systems offered by other entities, and of course the everpresent Google for his high school email account. From talking with other parents in and outside of NYC it seems like most K-12 students are required to use multiple different digital platforms throughout their schooling. In our experience there has been little guidance or training for students or parents on how to use these systems, and no way to opt out of their use.

While I’m concerned with digital literacy, and the assumptions that the persistent “digital native” trope encourages us to make about how students use these required platforms, I’m also concerned about data privacy. My kid’s high school and all of these various college application systems have so much information about him and created by him. Each college he applied to required him to set up an account on their system to communicate admissions decisions. How many schools — primary through higher ed — have digital information about students who are no longer enrolled or perhaps won’t even be admitted? Yes, educational institutions retained student (or prospective student) data in the past, but file cabinets full of paper applications in an admissions office don’t have the same information security implications as a digital database.

While it’s certainly been cathartic for me to write out my frustrations, how does this connect to libraries? I continue to keep in mind our students’ experiences with technologies, remembering that they’ve likely had varying exposure to training on digital platforms for school use, as well as varying access to the technology needed to use those platforms. Not every student has a computer with broadband internet access at home. It also feels ever more urgent to me for libraries to strengthen our data privacy practices, a huge issue that we don’t have complete control over, with so many of our digital platforms controlled by vendors. I’m cheered that there are librarians and others doing great work on data privacy issues, including the National Web Privacy Forum (which I was fortunate to participate in), focusing on how we might protect patrons from third-party tracking, and the Data Doubles project, which is examining students’ perspectives on data collection by libraries and institutions of higher ed. I’m looking forward to digging into the results of this work as these projects progress. And in the meantime, perhaps I’ll work with my kid to see what data we might delete from all of these systems once he no longer needs them to have it.

Student Workers: What do they owe us, and what do we owe them?

Whether you want to start a new habit or break an old one, the new year is a popular time to reconsider our patterns. In the academic library, the switch between semesters gives us a chance to start over – in the classroom, with our colleagues, and with our student workers. The questions I’ve been asking myself have to do with my role as a student supervisor: What do I owe these students and what should I expect from them?

We owe them mentoring.

Whether it’s in my job description or not, I’m more than a supervisor to our undergraduate student workers. I’m one of the main “adults” (by which I mean non-student, non-teacher) in their lives at school, a sounding board for homework questions but also the delicate issues of college social life. I can think of conversations from last semester where I thought, “Should I give my honest advice here, or let her make the mistakes I made and learned from when I was in college?” Mentoring student workers can be tricky and emotionally taxing, but it is very rewarding.

One of my colleagues says that part of our role as student managers is to be a campus ally, and I agree. Undergraduates face all kinds of real world obstacles during their time in college, from stress and mental health to poverty and family needs. Our student workers view us as a stable presence that can help them navigate campus resources and personal dilemmas. Even as I recognize the emotional labor cost of this work, I believe we owe our students a mentoring relationship, interest in their lives and their success. It’s worth our time, and absolutely part of our job.

We owe them meaningful work.

There’s been a conversation at my library lately about giving our student workers more meaningful work, beyond administrative and clerical duties. We’ve been brainstorming how to ask more of our student workers while still honoring their pay grade and what’s fair. But I don’t think we quite know what we mean by “meaningful work” yet – should we give away all the fun tasks like social media and event planning? Don’t our students expect to get homework done at the desk?

Recently I’ve encountered two models for student work that I found interesting. Hailley Fargo makes a good case for encouraging student employees to provide peer-to-peer reference services in her article for In the Library with the Lead Pipe: “Just like we value a librarian’s subject or functional expertise, we should also value our students’ expertise and the experiential knowledge they bring into their role as peer mentors/leaders…Just like we speak the language of library and information science, our students speak the language of their peers and this can be incredibly powerful.” Careful training and building student worker confidence so that they can handle more complex questions at the reference desk might be one answer to the meaningful work question.

I also had the privilege of meeting with the librarians at Gettysburg College and learning about their Peer Research Mentor (PRM) program, which was created to give student workers a high-impact learning experience beyond the traditional responsibilities of a library student gig. In both of these cases, the authors emphasize the importance of thorough and on-going training, and in an understaffed library that makes me tremble. But even if I am not sure how to find the time for this yet, I admire how the librarians at Gettysburg have worked to make the ongoing training fun and connected to real-world work responsibilities – from “research question of the week” activities to attending and running department meetings. Every library harnesses their student workforce differently, and comparing notes with other librarians will help our library find the way that works for us.

They owe us their labor – within reason.

If job creep bothers me in my position, then I should be a guardian against responsibilities sneaking up on my student employees as well. The librarian at Gettysburg who described the PRM program to me emphasized that these students are separately recruited, trained, and paid to reflect their additional responsibilities, and I think that’s key to harnessing student labor ethically.

I think that job descriptions should be as transparent as possible, regularly revisited, and created in collaboration between manager and employee. I don’t like the words “other duties as assigned,” because I think they crack the door for job creep, and I don’t want to exploit our student workers. And for good and bad, this is the first job of many of our student workers. It’s a good sandbox for them to learn professional norms like reliability, work attire, and taking initiative. It’s also a chance for their supervisors to demonstrate healthy management and boundaries.

We owe them respect.

In my tour of the library at Gettysburg, I was struck by how the staff worked to honor the contributions of their student workers. Student employees who work in rare book repair or the college archive are credited for their labor in archives publications and on the rare book containers themselves. The PRMs, with guidance from their librarian advisors, are trusted to design drop-in workshops and even help teach information literacy sessions. We should show that we value our student workers and their contributions to the library.

We often say they’re the public face of the library, and the assistance they provide makes a lot of things possible. At our library, student workers make regular shelving (and my lunch break!) possible. With great responsibility should come at least a little power – a say in programming or marketing materials, a voice at staff meetings perhaps, or their work memorialized by bookplates and other employee celebrations. Connecting the shelving, printer restocking, and front desk management to our larger mission makes those tasks meaningful too. It’s worth taking the time to help our student workforce see how they advance the mission of the library, and celebrating their contributions how we can.

As I conclude this blog post, I realize that I’ve been thinking out loud and I don’t have a simple definition for the give and take of the librarian/student worker relationship, but I’d like to continue this conversation. How does your library manage and/or mentor its student workforce?