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.

Adulting 101

One of the biggest shifts I’ve had to make since changing jobs has been reframing my thinking around the audience for any resources. I spent a good chunk of my professional “growing years” as a children’s librarian, and therefor have internalized a lot of stuff that mostly applies to kids. Simple language, simple topics, bright colors, bold images. I’ve started dipping my toe into the world of creation for college students and have had to fight back the urge to simplify too much. Yes, I can use cursive fonts if I want and our patrons will be able to read them. (And no, lessons on the art of cursive writing are not going away! Not yet, anyway.)

Another change in my thought process has come from brainstorming what younger adults need versus what the ten-and-under population need from the library. I spent a lot of time at my previous job making booklists that categorized books by AR reading level—a system I don’t necessarily support in a professional capacity but completely understand why parents were so thankful I had a list of 15+ 3.0-3.9 books ready to go and organized by author name. Booklists aren’t so much in demand on a college campus, partially because students get their research help from reference and searching our databases and who really has time to read a whole book when pursuing a college degree? I know I didn’t.

So instead, I decided to create something that might present some value to our students, provided I can get it into their hands: a guide to adulting.

For those of you who don’t speak Millennial, Time has a nice article on what “adulting” means, and why its use has grown exponentially in the past few years. Basically, it’s a blanket term for all those things you find yourself doing when you are an independent person living on your own, from the mundane (laundry), to the unforeseen (fixing a broken washing machine), to the ridiculous (cleaning your washing machine on a weekly basis so hopefully it never breaks again and coming to enjoy the process at some point for reasons you cannot explain).

If you want a more thorough look at the etymology of the word, Merriam-Webster has you covered. And if you want more pithy, quotable examples, I recommend Twitter.

Tweet by @rashida_farhath: Adulting is being tired even after getting 8 hours of sleep
https://twitter.com/rashida_farhath

I’m utilizing LibGuides for this Adulting 101 resource list, and while I’m not ready to unleash it onto the world just yet, I can give you a small preview of what lies within the unpublished drafts. Before I started my guide, I did some Googling, and found that I’m certainly not the first academic librarian to see this kind of a guide as useful. I’ve actually referred back to quite a few LibGuides, including:

And there are many more out there, no doubt. In fact, if you know of one with some great resources, feel free to comment here or send it my way.

So far, I’ve divided the guide into 5 sections: Housekeeping, Digital Citizenship, Food & Nutrition, Finances, and Jobs & Career. I’m about 75% of the way through filling in all the information, then I’ll be able to put the polish on the final result and get it published to our Research Guides.

Adulting 101: Harder than we all thought, right?
Header for the Adulting 101 Libguide, as made in Canva.

While I really hope students can use and benefit from the information I’m giving them in this guide, what I really hope to accomplish is a little subtler. One of my goals as a Programming Librarian is to foster a sense of belonging at out libraries, and I’m hoping that providing this kind of information to students who may be living on their own for the first time in their lives, they feel supported and seen. There seems to be an expectation that you understand how to do everything on your own the moment you start attending college (especially for women, but that’s too big to unpack here). How often do you hear about college students not knowing how to use a laundromat, though? Or filling their dishwasher with dish soap and flooding their apartment? Or having their utilities shut off because they didn’t realize power wasn’t included in their rent?

I’ve been spending more time on TikTok lately. I hear these stories there.

So if I can provide information to a student on renter’s insurance, how to clean an oven, what future employers look for on their social media, and how to avoid bouncing a check, it’s so worth the time and effort to do so.

Maybe eventually someone will be as thankful for my adulting guide as those parents were for those AR level booklists. And this feels far less like a compromise of my principles.

Finals Week is Different Now

It will be ten years since I earned a Bachelor’s degree this upcoming May. In 2012, I graduated from the University of New Mexico where I had attended classes in person since 2009. And while that both feels like forever ago and like it happened yesterday, I do remember one particular aspect of college student life:

Finals Week.

A pink blobby person says "oh no." An arrow pointing to them says "you."
The Oh No blob, copyright Alex Norris. https://www.instagram.com/webcomic_name

As a new academic librarian, I knew I wanted to make sure our various campuses did something to support our students during finals, because I remember the stress and the strain. Graduate school was different—I did that from home and spent most my time just pacing my apartment or playing with my two cats and the laser pointer to put off finishing my final projects. Undergrad was the “authentic” experience. I went from classroom to classroom with my blue books and my mechanical pencils and took the exams necessary to pass, and by the end of each day I was exhausted, even if I’d only had one or two tests to complete. It’s the anxiety and the worry that wears you out. Will I completely forget everything I’ve been studying? What if my chronic stomach issues act up? What if I forget the date and time entirely? (Note, that only happens in nightmares. Unfortunately, I still get said nightmares.)

But here’s the thing: I’m realizing now that my finals experience, and those of others who graduated before 2020, is completely, totally different than what students are dealing with now. That’s been made more obvious by the response we got to our finals support event. It was a good response, mind you, but no where near as large as we would have had in the past. That’s because most finals have moved online, and after the penultimate week of the semester, students have disappeared.

Okay, not all students. We still have those that come to use the computers and print, we still have students whose exams are in-person due to needing hands-on evaluations. Largely, though, most our students are back to being online. And that makes perfect sense to me. We’re dealing with new variants in a global pandemic. When I was in undergrad, my biggest health issues during finals were food poisoning (Summer 2009, also my first semester back at college) and the flu (Fall 2010, the last time I will ever go without a flu shot). Now we’re dealing with Delta, Omicron, and potentially more variants of COVID-19 on the horizon. Yes, if you can stay home during a very stressful time when your immune system is probably being affected by your anxiety levels, please do so!

But what does that mean for our finals programming? I remember seeing events like “stress-free week” where libraries provide massages and aromatherapy and even cute animals to cuddle. Then there are the scavenger hunts, the movie screenings, the coloring sheets… All great stress-busters, but not possible when your student population has moved online.

A week-long schedule of events being held at the University of Dayton during finals week.
That’s a lot of stuff. Schedule from Katy Kelly’s article on Programming Librarian “Finals Week: We’ll Be There for You” https://programminglibrarian.org/blog/finals-week-we%E2%80%99ll-be-there-you

I don’t see things changing in the immediate future. So what can we do to address this sudden shift in the Finals Week experience? Well, for one, we can shift our events to when we know students will still be around. Our library had guitar performances in the week before finals, which was soothing for both our students in the library as well as for our busy staff. Additionally, the guitar students got to practice their recital pieces in a place full of little distractions like opening and closing doors, ringing phones, and people going here and there. We even had a tour of high schoolers come by.

A group of guitar students and their instructor stand in front of a Christmas display in the Pecan Library of STC.
Guitar instructor Jaime A. Garcia and his students performed at the Pecan Library at South Texas College.

Another option is to just dial it back. Our other event this year involved handing out popcorn and prizes. That’s all. It worked really well for most of our campuses. We aren’t booking masseuses or asking participation of frazzled students, but we’re still telling them hey, we’re here for you. We see you. Best of luck with this Finals Week, we know it’s tough. And I think that’s a good way to go about it. Students appreciate little gestures. Stopping to get popcorn and play a Plinko game for a prize might have been the first time they paused to do something other than study that day. I could see myself, more than a decade younger and on the verge of tears after a frustrating final exam, grateful for a snack and something fun to take home. Bouncy balls are still surprisingly popular.

That’s what’s important, after all. Maybe the big Finals Week bashes are a thing of the past, but that’s okay. We can still show students we care about them and be there. And that positive experience will bring them back next semester, so we can do it all again.

It’s The End Of The World as We Know It, and I’m Not Fine

This is a hard time of year even under better circumstances in Chicago. We are over winter, but winter isn’t over us. Spring is such a tease with a week of blue skies and sunshine, followed by one of sleet. These beautiful days give us a false sense of hope, leading to a harder betrayal when ice freezes to my windshield. During a more typical year, we are all in a poor mindset after having our hopes toyed with by the weather gods.

This is not a typical year, and we arrive into March already burned out and tired from the pandemic. Living in a constant state of fear has left the best of us shell shocked. Meanwhile the weather and the vaccine availability tease us that better days are ahead. Then reality comes crashing through the door–it isn’t really spring yet. and as of my writing we have 538,269 dead. How do you even begin to process a number like that? More vaccines are rolling out, but that doesn’t help if you can’t get an appointment.

Last semester, lots of the faculty made cold calls to students who had yet to enroll for spring 2021. I signed up to help, nervous, and expecting an earful. I was having flashbacks to my early days of fundraising when I was cursed at, told off, and once mistaken for a middle schooler. (Being mistaken for a 12-year-old when I had a master’s hurt far more than being called names.) The student reactions surprised me: they were happy to talk. They thanked me for calling. Most had good reasons for waiting to register and they had questions. And as a group…they were not okay.

I think these calls were part of the inspiration for my monthly student blog. Students needed a space where it was okay to not be okay, and they needed practical advice on college as a concept. The bulk of Prairie State College students are first generation, meaning that they don’t have a parent they can ask about the day-to-day of being a student. Everyone they could ask is connected to the school, and that could be uncomfortable if they already don’t feel like they belong. I wanted the blog to be a space where they were welcome to come as they are.

With the framing that it is okay not to be okay, I have created this month’s blog space for our students to write and reflect on their semester so far. I recognize that I’m writing about writing for the sake of writing. Cheap? Meta? You decide. My hope, though, is that this can help our students work through their feelings, their schoolwork, or whatever they need. I wanted it to be open ended so they could use it best. 

My hope is that writing can help us to be okay not being okay. I want us to be able to find hope in the writing itself, but if all it does is pass the time until the world opens up just a little more, then that’s still a win. After all, spring is here, and we don’t have to be alright. 

Open Libraries, Closed Spaces

Though we’re a month into this unprecedented continuing pandemic semester at the college and university where I work, I’m still finding myself getting used to these remote working conditions. I work at a commuter college in New York City; at our university campuses have been mostly closed since last March, and we’re offering classes overwhelmingly online this semester. At my college there are a few health sciences courses that require specialized equipment that are being held on campus, adhering to social distancing and health reporting requirements from the state, but other than that our campus is inaccessible to our 16,000 students, including the physical library.

Among all of my other thoughts and feelings, I’ve been mulling over how very strange it is that I’ve spent over a decade researching how and where students study in (and beyond) our libraries, and now there are no students studying in our library. I’ve been in the library sporadically to check on the facilities, and while it’s odd to be in the completely empty space, I’m grateful for my office there as an occasional complement to my workspace setup at home. I also appreciate that my 2BR apartment has enough space for my spouse, kid, and I to each work mostly privately if need be (though I wouldn’t say no to an extra room if one were to spontaneously appear). Walking or biking to work is an option for me, so I’m lucky to be able to avoid public transportation, too.

My colleagues and I are hearing from students on chat reference and via email and social media, many with the kinds of questions we’ve come to expect: Can I return my book? (if you can, please hold onto it until campus reopens) Am I being fined for returning books late? (no, we’re waiving fines while campus libraries are closed) Can I access databases and ebooks from home? (yes, here’s how to login). And while we have had a few students seeking access to our physical space for studying and computer use, those requests have been much less numerous than I would expect given what my research partner and I have learned about the challenges our commuter students face in doing coursework at home. The general caution among many NYC residents after the enormous toll that Covid19 took on the city last spring is probably a factor, as is the college’s location in downtown Brooklyn; while we’re very convenient to public transit, not everyone is comfortable returning to the subways and buses yet.

I suspect that the pre-pandemic challenges that our students shared around finding a suitable location to read and study for their classes, and to research and write papers and assignments, have grown enormously for them in the past six months. They may have inadequate computer or internet access at home, and shared technology may be even more stretched as siblings, parents, roommates, and others need access for their school or work (though I should note that the university has provided laptops and hotspots to many students). More people in the same amount of space for more time means more activity and noise (in our neighbors’ apartments, too), making it even harder for students to find a distraction-free space for studying. And the virus is still with us — students and their loved ones may be sick. I look at the empty carrels in the library and think about the appreciation so many students expressed for them, how the enclosed desk afforded them the privacy and interruption-free space they needed to focus on their academic work.

How can we support students’ need for study spaces while campuses are closed? Here in NYC there are still limited indoor spaces open, so many of the third places students may otherwise have had access to are still unavailable. There are outdoor locations with wifi, plazas and parks, and I’m sure some students are studying there. Are there digital ways we can support students, virtual study groups, perhaps, or would that just lead to more Zoom overwhelm?

It’s hard to figure out how to fill some of those academic needs that our physical library space satisfied for our students. While the college has faced budget cuts this year, we’ve been able to keep some of our part-time library assistants this semester working remotely. Many are students or former students, and I’m hoping to find time this semester to plan a few informal meetings with them, if they’re amenable, and to listen and learn from them about what their academic experience has been like, and how the library might support them in digital spaces while we wait until it’s safe to return to our physical spaces.