February 17, 2018

Academic Librarians are Stress Busters | From the Bell Tower

Stress levels are high on college campuses. Students and faculty carry significant workloads that they try to balance with hectic lives. There are deadlines. They need stress relief, and the academic library can deliver it.

Here’s a simple thought for increasing the value of your library to its academic community. Figure out what the community members need that they get nowhere else, and then make it easy for them to get it from the campus library. Actually identifying what the need is, coming up with a way to let every member know the library offers it, and simplifying access is where things get more complex. What’s relatively easy to recognize is the high level of stress under which many our community members operate. Students are juggling multiple classes and assignments with jobs and other life pressures, all while trying to fit in and find themselves. Faculty, particularly those on the tenure track, struggle to find time to blend teaching, service, and research while achieving balanced lives. It’s hard, and as academic support professionals, we occasionally see the tears in the fabric.

Stressed out students

The first week of classes this semester I was helping out at the reference desk. A student approached me and let loose with a stream of pent-up anxiety about her inability to get needed books and a rapidly approaching assignment. After a minute or so of listening I simply said, “Welcome to the Library. What can I do to help you today?” along with my best smile. I wish I could share the look on this student’s face as she just froze and realized with no small degree of embarrassment that a stressful situation had turned her into, well, a jerk. Then we started over with a proper hello. Working together we came up with the solution she needed, and with great relief she went on her way, realizing the library just made her day that less stressful. We do that, like, a hundred times a day. Now the picture becomes clearer. Campus community members need stress relief, and academic librarians are the campus stress busters.

Give them solutions

Some experts will tell you that people are less interested in catchy slogans and other marketing techniques than they are in just discovering the solution to their current need or problem. I tend to disagree to some extent. Solutions are important, but there’s a place for an experience that facilitates the elegant and memorable delivery of that solution. In the example above, the response to a jerk could be to respond like a jerk. The solution might be the same, but there’s a distinct difference in converting a community member into a library fan rather than a library foe. That’s especially true when people need support along with the solution, and it’s particularly important when dealing with people who are already stressed out. New survey data suggests that on college campuses we will encounter many stressed individuals, and librarians offer no solutions to many of the challenges they face.

Impact on academic performance

In his September 18 column, Insider Higher Ed’s technology columnist Josh Kim shared that 41.4 percent of faculty reported experiencing stress from digital technology. Kim recommended that “faculty stress reduction” should be an explicit goal for campus IT—and that goes for the academic library as well. Then on September 30, also in Inside Higher Ed, Herman Berliner shared student survey findings that indicated today’s students are uniquely impacted by financial stress. One third of respondents said financial stressors have had a negative impact on their academic performance or progress. Seventy-four percent of respondents are working during the academic year, and 15 percent are working full-time. Students working in excess of 20 hours reported added stress on their academic performance. As Berliner points out, there are profound implications for the quality of a student’s academic performance and chances for lifelong success that come as a result of their stressful existence.

What we can do

While academic librarians may lack appropriate solutions to help students manage their tuition debt, better balance academics and jobs, or help faculty cope with their daily technology stress, there is something significant we can do to help alleviate their overall stress. We can deliver the resources, strategies, learning materials, and most important of all, the support and human touch needed to keep the lid on the stress pot before it boils over. Academic librarians are the campus experts when it comes to research solutions. We create guides, tutorials, on-the-fly solutions, long-term support—just about any way you can think of to help students and faculty solve their research challenges. We can accomplish even more by committing to take a proactive rather than reactive stance when it comes to saving our community members time, energy, and effort.

Make it about productivity

With some better experience design, we could put more emphasis on our resources and services as productivity tools that students and faculty can leverage in advance of deadlines to minimize their stress. We see this all the time. The faculty member who realizes at the last minute that a key reading is no longer on a free website, but who could have easily had the library put that reading on e-reserve. The student who discovers it’s too late to get an essential book from another library, but who could have navigated to the library website’s ILLIAD page where requesting an interlibrary loan is easier than ever. Just knowing how to find the tools, before the onset of desperation, boosts productivity and eliminates the stress created by the threat of last minute academic disasters.

But if they can’t get it

We know what our community members need and we offer the right solutions, but where we fall short is in the “easy” part of the equation. While some of the solutions, by their nature, are difficult to simplify, what should be simple is finding out how to connect with librarians. Too often we hear something along the lines of “Oh, if only I had known about that,” which informs us we have something of great value to offer, but not so great that people will go out of their way to make the discovery before they need it. Perhaps our solution is to leverage the high levels of stress we know of anecdotally and which is confirmed by surveys. Citation managers, search skills, research strategy advice, and more should be promoted as the best defense against personal stress. It may be premature to call yourself “stress buster” instead of librarian, but somehow we need to get out the message that the two are in many ways one and the same.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Tugboat anne says:

    and they both wait until the last minute……….go figure.

  2. Seriously? . I don’t need to be a stress buster; I need to be given the money and tools necessary to be the best damned librarian I can be in order to help people find what they need IN ANY FORMAT in order to complete the assignment at hand. I need administrators and faculty to be interested in what the hell I and my colleagues are trying to accomplish here. I need authors of articles in popular library literature-land to realize that many of the problems I face are not, in fact, generated within the structure of the library. And, most of all, I need a curious clientele.

    • If you want to get your needs satisfied perhaps you need to consider how to better match or connect the services your library offers to what the community members need. Focus on what they need instead of what you need. That’s the point of this column. Thanks for reading the column and sharing your comment.