May 11, 2018

Academic Libraries and Learning in Zombieville | From the Bell Tower

Researchers are discovering that sleep patterns among high school and college students are significantly different than adults. Still, we have them getting up early for classes. How’s that impacting your work?

Academic librarians are always on the lookout for trendy ways to connect with students and get them engaged with the library. Picking up on popular culture themes is one way to do that, so it’s no surprise that a few of our academic libraries have integrated zombie themes into their orientation or instruction programs. When it comes to hot trends you can’t get much hotter than zombies. But guess what? We don’t need to dress up as zombies and play act. There are plenty of zombies on our campuses already – and they’re our students. Technically they’re not the walking dead, but given their late-night lifestyle and sleeping patterns, when you encounter them before noon, they might as well be.

Starts in high school

Our students’ sleep cycles are disrupted before they get to campus. According to a Wall Street Journal article, “Understanding the Zombie Teen’s Body Clock,” the shift begins in high school. Late nights and early mornings combine to deprive high school students of sleep. Only 7.6 percent of teens get the recommended 9 to 10 hours of sleep, 23.5 percent get eight hours, and 38.7 percent are seriously sleep-deprived, at six or fewer hours a night. Take the case of a student who wakes up at 6:30 a.m. and tries to get to sleep by 10 p.m., but, owing to large amount of homework assignments – and a considerable helping of electronic distractions – this student typically stays up past midnight. What happens to teens as their body clock adapts to late hours is that they actually become more like vampires than zombies. The research indicates that teens actually lose some of their sensitivity to morning light, the kind that spurs awakening and alertness. And they become more reactive to nighttime light, sparking activity later into the evening. Zombies or vampires, take your pick. Either way an academic librarian may face challenges meeting either one in the classroom before noon.

Do they change in college?

On most campuses, the earliest classes begin around 8 a.m. Many of them have decent enrollment. High school students have no choice if assigned the first class of the day. College students can choose, except in the case of a required course where there are no other section options. Yet students do show a preference for the earliest class. Why is that, if they zombify in high school? One possibility is that given the choice, college students prefer to use the afternoon for napping, study, or part-time work. That may explain it, but there’s no conclusive evidence that opting for early classes means that students will be fully awake and ready to engage with a librarian’s instruction activity, no matter how much active learning is involved. Chances are, the early bird academic librarian will meet his or her share of zombies.

Some like it early

Adam Shambaugh, Temple University’s business librarian, always opts for the first instruction session of the day, typically 8 a,m., when given a choice. I asked him why that is, and if his experience supports the zombie student trend. An early riser himself, Shambaugh prefers to get his instruction activity in when he’s most alert and ready for the challenge of working with thirty groggy freshmen. He finds that many of the students in the first session of the day are ready and responsive. Sure, there are a handful that seem like they are still in bed, but the students Shambaugh encounters hardly fit the zombie mold. We considered the possibility that our institution, with nearly half of its student population falling into the commuter category, is more zombie resistant. I arrive by 7 a.m. each day, and we already have students waiting to get in the library. To beat rush hour traffic and land a quality parking space, it’s likely we have many students ready and willing to start early. Do they turn into zombies once they get to their early morning class? No doubt some do, as Shambaugh finds is the case, but overall, the students are remarkably zombie-free. Still, I would find it hard to believe most of them get to bed before midnight, given that many work part-time jobs that they balance with regular course loads.

Should we start later?

Our education system faces the perennial question of whether the current structure, based on an agrarian society that exists for few, still makes sense in a digital age. Why do we start classes so early in the day? In general, to maximize the productivity of their classrooms, most higher education institutions will want to run classes for as many hours of the day as possible. Some have even experimented with classes that run between midnight and 6 a.m. Librarian educators, like Shambaugh, who tackle the earliest classes, should perhaps pay special attention to the likelihood that a portion, and possibly even a majority, of their students may be in zombie mode.

Preparation may help

While our instruction literature addresses the need to get even the most sedate students activated and engaged, there’s probably little said about those early morning sessions where students are barely awake. Perhaps it’s best to communicate in advance with the instructor to get his or her take on the zombie quotient of their class. It may be that it’s already a group of excited and engaged students who are ready to start learning first thing in the morning. If that’s the case, great, but if the outlook is less enthusiastic, knowing in advance what to expect may make a difference. Activation strategies may certainly be of some help, but in the absence of other recommended techniques, perhaps we just need to equip our instruction rooms with plenty of strong coffee and some of those energy drinks. According to zombie lore, the walking dead are hungry for live human flesh. For those who find themselves engaged with college students early in the day, the challenge is leveraging librarian-educator skills to make those zombie students hungry for knowledge – the kind they get only at their academic library.


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.

Fund Your Library: Tools and Tactics for Getting to Yes!
Whether you’re going to voters, city councils, school boards, college board of directors, or any other funder, the fundamental issues are the same: how do you convince the stewards of a limited budget that the library is their best investment?


  1. Jacqueline Seewald says:

    During the years I worked as an academic librarian, a writing instructor, teacher of English and an educational media specialist, I always preferred teaching early morning classes. I found students paid better attention. As the day wears on, and perhaps because they do not get enough sleep at night, student attention levels tend to wane.

    Jacqueline Seewald

  2. Rachel Sperling says:

    I too prefer the early morning classes. At the college where I work, they start at 7:50AM, which means I’m in the library by 7:30. I’ve taught both early morning and evening classes, and the students seem more alert in the morning. I know that *I’m* more alert in the morning, and I’m usually able to inject a little of my own enthusiasm into the classroom.