The spring semester always has a unique kind of newness to it, different than the fall semester. Returning students who participated in various orientation events and the campus convocation have a sense of what they are doing and clearer expectations. But there are a handful of students for whom the spring semester is their first semester. Their orientation experience is limited at best and often lacks an opportunity for contact with the library.
We talk a lot about outreach in academic libraries, but this semester these students have been on my mind, and in thinking about them I realize I’ve been the fortunate beneficiary of an illuminating kind of “reverse outreach.”
In recent weeks, a few new students have made it clear they they’ve chosen me as their person in the library. One introduced himself to me, letting me know he was new this semester and planned to be in the library—a lot. He wanted me to know who he was and that he would be calling on me for assistance as well as stopping by to visit. After ALA Midwinter, he asked “where were you?” and “what’s that?”, and followed by recounting what he was doing during my absence.
The second student came to my office the first day of the semester wondering where to buy his books for class. I told him about the bookstore and even walked him over there. He confessed he didn’t know we had a bookstore on campus. Out of curiosity I asked what made him come to the library and he said he thought it was the best place to go for help. The next week he knocked on my door, something that impressed me because so many view a shut door as impenetrable. Where could he print something for his class? Again I helped him with a smile, asking what class he was doing work for and how his first week had gone.
These interactions with new undergraduates made me think. It is obvious to the two of them to come to the library to ask for help. While their status as new students at the start of the spring semester leads me to believe they are on slightly different paths to earning a bachelor’s degree than their peers who started in the fall, all students have the potential to start their college careers with the same outlook as my new charges. They felt the need to know me, to connect, and to build a relationship.
Our students construct their education communities. I am reminded of the important role of libraries and librarians as a part of that community, the intersection of reference help, mentoring, and advocacy. I believe most students do not know or understand the different facets of what we do on campus. Other campus faculty and staff are seen and available in multiple stops of the academic journey: the prospective campus tour, the acceptance, the orientation, registration, and finally course delivery. While the library may be one of many stops on a physical or virtual campus tour, it is a point-of-need component in the way that the business office is point-of-need for when it is time to pay the tuition bill. What impact could academic librarians have if their role, and in turn the role of libraries, were more closely aligned to that of student affairs, the registrar, academic advising, or the department of intended major?
Academic libraries play a key role on campus beyond providing access to the book required for that assignment because the instructor insists the student use a “real” book. What other ways do we need to connect to students? How can we foster those relationships? How do we advocate for students in a meaningful way? Sometimes telling a faculty member from another department or a student affairs member that a student was not aware of a particular service will only draw shakes of heads or comments the student failed to acquire the appropriate information. But is that fair?
Librarians and library staff seem by nature tuned into the student perspective and the fact that this is new to our students every year. Meanwhile, even the student who does have the hang of things gets thrown for a loop when long-standing policies change all of a sudden.
For example, this semester, our campus shifted from an open printing model to an allocated printing model. Every student (and staff and faculty member) received a credit of 110 sheets. While information about this change was sent out, some returning students were quickly faced with the inability to print out those PowerPoint slides for the next three lectures because those 43 pages exceeded the 22 prints they had left. Where are they when this suddenly descends from the sphere of abstract administrative policy note to an immediate, mission-critical assignment issue for the students? They’re often in the library. And this is where that personal touch comes in.
Staying student-centered on campus takes more than providing one-shot course-related instruction, quiet study rooms, or flexible seating. It will require us to be engaged with more components of the student experience, educate other campus faculty and administrators as to why we should have a seat at the table to influence and affect student programs and services, and talk with students to find out what challenges currently exist.