okay, library twitter, how SHOULD we go about connecting with our incoming first-year students, if not through random historical facts?— M is for Rachel (@RachelMFleming) August 24, 2015
Academic libraries want very much to be seen as an integral part of the learning process and of the student experience. We take pride in our collections and in our services and we try very hard to. We devote resources to outreach and marking and administer surveys like LibQUAL+ to assess the areas in which we can improve service to attract more users. We send collections off site to make more room for collaborate work spaces. We use patron-drive acquisitions as a method for collection building in order to provide our users with exactly the material they need at exactly the time that they need it.
User engagement is important. And when those efforts succeed, we engage students in a meaningful way. But those efforts aren't authentic, we just end up talking past our users.
I think that part of being seen as an integral part of the learning process and of the student experience is to see our student users as an important constituency and to convey that to them by developing and implementing services and programs to help them succeed in the university environment. To that end, what would happen if we ran our libraries more like a student affairs division and less like an academic college?
Let's start by considering what we we mean when we talk about student affairs. Wikipedia's entry on student affairs breaks down student affairs into a few functional areas: academic services; admissions, financial aid, orientation; alumni and advancement/development; campus life; counseling, health, and wellness; diversity and inclusion; residence life; and sports and recreation. It then digs down into each of these functional areas like academic success skills and orientation.
When it comes to engaging students, academic libraries live at the intersection of academic services and campus life. We provide instruction and support to students that not only helps them navigate our collections, but also helps to make them information literate people in much the same way that an academic success skills program teaches students how to acquire study skills that help them succeed in college. I think that ACRL's movement from information standards and outcomes in the Information Literacy Competency Standards to frames and threshold concepts in the Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education shows a movement toward developing information literacy skills that transfer far beyond finding articles in a database or a book in the catalog.
I think now is a good place to acknowledge that academic libraries are engaged in other activities than helping students develop information literacy. Traditionally, academic libraries have seen their purpose in the academic community as acquiring, describing, and making available to researchers items in our collection. This material covers a variety of subject matter in a variety of formats and lives on a continuum between unique and commonly held. And let's be clear, providing access unique collections is arguably the most important service an academic library provides to its users. But as more resources become available to a wider range of people, as as we reconsider what authority means when it comes to information, library staff grow less and less to be be the gatekeepers of information.
And I would be remiss if I didn't also acknowledge that undergraduate and graduate students are not the only user group an academic library serves. Academic libraries also work closely with faculty members, developing collections in their research areas and providing assistance with the management of research data. And those services definitely meet a need that can't be met anywhere on campus. But I sometimes worry that our need to be taken seriously by faculty and treated by equals means that we meet their needs in a way that doesn't reflect, percentage-wise, their impact as a user group.
I think that this circles back around to asking and answering the question that Rachel poses to us quite often: What are we trying to do here?
Acknowledging that it isn't practical to model all of our programs and services after those in student affairs, I do think we can learn a lot from our colleagues there when it comes to engaging and supporting undergraduate and graduate students by treating them as a valuable user group. It requires a shift in thinking, but I believe that the outcome is an authentic, meaningful relationship with our users that puts us squarely in the center of the student experience.