The student-centered library and the university community

Camilla Reid, Associate Director of Libraries

University libraries are student-centered. They are part of a university “infosystem” which is critical to student success. This system includes the faculty of the university and all the student and academic support areas. Each student moves within his/her individual network of family, friends, co-workers, professors, classmates, student support employees, as well as being exposed to information-rich media of all kinds. The university network should provide students with the knowledge and skills to use information appropriately and effectively to make decisions and to solve problems.

As the center of the campus infosystem, the student body not only requires access to and relationships with approachable and knowledgeable people, but also information resources in self-service, web-based formats that provide accurate answers to predictable (FAQs) and unpredictable questions. They need physical and virtual spaces that encourage collaboration in learning, decision-making, and problem-solving.

What students want from their university library is:

  • free access to information resources and technology.
  • a search box (Google-like) where they type their questions and immediately get accurate and current answers.
  • faculty and staff who are approachable, friendly, well-informed, and able to connect them to the information needed to complete assignments and research projects.
  • comfortable space for independent study and group collaboration.

One important role of librarians is to collaborate with classroom faculty to teach students where to find and how to use high quality information for decision-making and problem-solving. Borrowing from Samuel Johnson’s (1709-1784) concept—librarians possess two kinds of knowledge: the subjects they know themselves and the knowledge of where to find information on it.

555115_380576211965180_1821750039_n (1)The traditional role of librarians has been as trusted leaders in the information age and as key contributors to academic development. Libraries are progressive and vibrant communities of service- and information technology-oriented people. University libraries are essential components of the educational system, enriching formal education and supporting lifelong learning. Many university libraries also provide formalized public access to government information and e-services.

Libraries are essential to intellectual freedom and to free, open access to information. They are indispensable in advancing learning and scholarship and preserving the cultural heritage. They are collaborative organizations in tandem with museums, historical societies, archives, and other cultural organizations. Libraries are accessible and welcoming to a diverse population, including persons with physical, and other personal, challenges.

For centuries libraries have been acquiring and preserving intellectual content. Today’s libraries gather information resources in a vast array of print, electronic, and other media formats. People who work in libraries describe these materials and create documentation in online catalogs and databases so people can locate them. They manage these collections of content in buildings, on local servers, and in “the cloud.”

Technology is used to develop discovery tools and portals which help provide 24/7 access to information. Librarians also provide physical access to the materials, but virtual access to information through a variety of technologies and open access initiatives. They provide orientations, skills training, and information literacy instruction to enable students and faculty to efficiently and effectively accomplish their research and complete projects and assignments.

In the midst of organizational and fiscal challenges university libraries should not keep doing “business as usual,” but reinvent services to better address the needs of students. Collaboration between classroom faculty and academic librarians continues to be essential. The library as a place must continue to evolve as a primary informal learning space on campus, while offering virtual information-rich environments for students.

There are gaps that the university library can address: the gap between students’ confidence in using the internet effectively and their actual understanding of the complexities of discovering accurate and useful information; and the gap between students’ actual information literacy competencies and their self-perceived skills. These gaps can be addressed with campus-wide teaching and learning strategies.

Academic professionals must understand who their students are. Each student has his/her own backstory. They may be unemployed or laid-off adult workers heading back to school to finish a degree or to retool; or 18 to 20 year olds who are first generation college students.  They enter college with an expectation of increased access to sophisticated technology and with a familiarity with social networking tools.  Most are substantially dependent on financial aid. They are constantly seeking ways to reduce the cost of their textbooks. Some may be more interested in online courses than the traditional classroom experience.

“No man should escape our universities without knowing how little he knows” (Robert Oppenheimer, Partisan Review, 1967).  The university library, as an essential part of the university, has a significant role in creating lifelong learners who continue to seek information, create knowledge, solve problems, and make good choices. With the support of the university “infosystem” students can graduate with the abilities for continual learning and for successfully applying their growing knowledge and skills within their workplace and society.