Rethinking the power of libraries

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Students see libraries not only as a place to study but also a community space within the campus.

Photo: Bigstock

Beyond academic difficulties, students often have to learn to balance their responsibilities, personal lives, and finances. In addition, they must face problems such as lack of access to technology and other resources to complete their studies.

Although there are different support programs in most universities, they are sometimes not utilized because students do not know about their existence, do not have time to go to the departments to ask for help, or are simply ashamed to go.

In a study conducted by Ithaka S+R and Northern Virginia Community College, more than 10,800 students from seven community colleges were interviewed to learn about their needs and what services and support programs would address their learning challenges and goals. 

Reinventing libraries

The study seeks to motivate universities to consider reinventing their libraries to offer personalized services to students. According to the study, students see libraries not only as a resource for knowledge and place to study but also as a community space within the campus. Libraries that are only focused on their academic role are not taking advantage of their potential to serve students more integrally. 

The fundamental use of libraries is to be a research and reference center that helps students enrich their goals. Alia Wong explains that even new "digital" generations continue actively to seek traditional books, printed on paper. The campuses of Webster University and Northern Virginia Community College that are located near Washington, D.C., report that the use of digital resources has not taken off as much as expected and that the resources typically available in a library remain the most popular.

On the other hand, the library is also seen as an orientation center for various activities accompanying university life. Not only do students come to do their research but also to find tutors, register for different courses, and even apply for scholarships that cover the cost of tuition. The use of technological devices such as 3D printers and virtual reality equipment, although they are an important part of the future of education, still rank below the use of physical books and the search for a good internet connection among students, explains Wong.

The library has the potential to directly impact student success. Still, this fact often gets lost when university administration does not envision the library’s contribution to student life and sees it only as a book repository. It is a center for orientation.

According to the Ithaka S+R study, the library could become a point of contact to support students throughout university life, from enrolling in classes, requesting financial aid, and tutoring, among others. To make this possible, library space needs to be equipped with sufficient resources such as support programs, technology, social workers, and support staff. However, this can be difficult for some institutions because such an adaptation represents a restructuring of the campus and, sometimes, requires reassigning and relocating several departments to the library, not to mention the costs this could entail.

Seventy-five percent of the students who answered the survey said they would greatly appreciate having all the tools mentioned in one place.  The seven institutions that participated in the study decided to engage and collaborate in an interdisciplinary way to align the services in their libraries based on the results that show the students' core needs. For their part, Ithaka S+R and Northern Virginia Community College will be closely monitoring the reinvention of participating libraries so that they can measure the impact of the changes and report the data in an upcoming report.