There’s a lot of talk about the problems facing academic libraries. Talk about marketing. Talk about services. Talk about facelifts. “Students just don’t know what we have to offer” and “I can find it all on google” are the two loudest refrains. The idea from most libraries is that success is based on getting students to understand. Better marketing. Better product placement.
This is all fine and good. It’s true – there’s a lot that libraries offer that students aren’t aware of. Students for the most part have very low information literacy – or, to use terms non-librarians would understand (which is important, by the way) – students often don’t know how to navigate the information world. They don’t know that the information they find isn’t that great and they don’t know how to find better.
But I’m not so ancient now that I can’t remember being a student. I can’t say I used any services – let alone library services – all that often. I used the library, but not the services. But if I had needed to, I would have had a confusing and difficult choice. Do I need help writing the paper? The professor sends me to the writing center. Oh, but wait … I’m kind of having problems with the bibliography, too. I’m also supposed to go to the library? Ok, fine. Paper’s done and submitted … but my professor can’t read my .pages file. So I have to talk to tech support also?
Student academic services in my opinion should be a one-stop-shop. If you bring everything in the same building, it’s easier for the student. It’s also easier to streamline services. And I don’t just mean that the writing center has an office in the library – I mean true integration. A student should be able to walk up to the person at the desk and know that no matter what they are asking, they will get a response – maybe that person has to fetch someone with the right specialisation sitting nearby, that’s fine – the important thing is that the student doesn’t have to run around trying to figure out who to talk to.
For one thing, anybody who’s worked on the reference desk knows that students come to us with tech questions constantly. More often than reference questions, on some days. We also sometimes read papers and give advice on grammar, style, structure. They’re in the library already – why trek over to the writing center for that part of it?
Moreover, sometimes these functions overlap. Students might ask the IT help desk what programs they should use to keep notes while doing research. Often, the writing center does not notice that the student isn’t citing sources or has blatantly plagiarised. If everything is integrated into one set of services, then there’s more mutual awareness. A person helping with a paper for one reason can point out other weaknesses. The student doesn’t have to go through the same process multiple times.
Naturally, the ideal location for such services would be the library, which usually has both physical study space to offer as well as print resources (though fewer and fewer of those, these days). Most academic libraries have computer labs and it’s often when students are working on their papers on the computers that they encounter difficulties.
Academic libraries seem to be trying to join the modern world wearing the same old dusty clothes. We need to think about what students need and how to provide it – but as long as academic libraries hunker down and defend their territory, they won’t be able to grow enough. We need to stop being on the defensive and start thinking about what is needed. Libraries exist because of need. If we only defend our previous roles, the need might disappear. If we redefine ourselves, we can serve students much more effectively.
In sum: we should not be “the place with the books” but rather “the place to go when you need help”
***For the record, I also think that public libraries have needed to rethink their role – but they seem to have done so pretty well in many places. If you think of the library as a source of information, the public library seems to be doing pretty well: providing access to technology and helping those who struggle with it, offering programming which provides information on the most essential issues for individuals today – and of course, offering access to information resources. There are some things I would like to see – more engagement with local government so that the librarians could offer information on municipal services. Also, more training in issues that people seek help with … legal and medical issues, for one. Of course, these are sensitive areas – but I’d love for people to see the public library as the place to go for help of any kind. A citizen information center which might not provide all the answers, but at least knows the best path to the answers.