December 17, 2018

The Changing Role of Staff in Libraries

Managing Change

By Emily Kessler

The purpose of today’s academic library is steadfast in its support of scholastic achievement, but the nature in which it achieves that purpose is changing. Indeed, libraries are responding to shifts that are happening within and outside of their institutions, including a renewed focus on student success, alternative methods of teaching, and new approaches to research. In many cases across the country, libraries are altering how they fulfill their purpose by placing the student experience at the center of planning efforts to enable student success.

Prioritizing Student Success on Campuses

Across the country, colleges and universities are prioritizing student success as a means to increase recruitment and retention and remain competitive in a dense marketplace where students have many choices. Campus leaders are re-thinking the whole higher education experience, including engaging in more active teaching and learning styles and supporting more faculty-student interactions. Importantly, schools are recognizing the barriers students face in completing and succeeding in their education, removing such barriers to create a more seamless and supportive experience. The Brookings Institute recently released a report on “Improving community college completion rates by addressing structural and motivational barriers,” calling out the difficulties in navigating the varied steps students need to take in order to complete college, referring to “unclear pathways” in a “complex environment” with a multitude of options.

As an important academic partner on campus, libraries also recognize the importance of prioritizing student success and are taking a more student-centered approach to their work. Libraries are seen as critical collaborators in teaching and learning, and have had to adapt as more active pedagogical styles are being adopted on campuses.

Libraries are also concerned with accessibility and visibility, breaking down barriers to valuable resources and offerings that can contribute to academic success.

In their study, “The Impact of Academic Library Resources on Undergraduates’ Degree Completion,” Krista M. Soria, Jan Fransen, and Shane Nackerud found that “students who used any library resource at least one time were 1.389 times more likely to be enrolled in four years or 1.441 times more likely to have graduated in four years than peers who did not use any library resources.”2

How are Libraries Responding to Shifts Towards Prioritizing Student Success?

These shifts on campus are changing how libraries fulfill their purpose – resulting in both spatial and service model changes. Libraries are responding to changes in current pedagogies towards more active learning by offering space that supports more group work and opportunities for collaboration. To be sure, institutions are re-allocating library space and decreasing back-of-house spaces to provide more user space in the form of additional specialty and general study spaces, event space, and informal gathering spaces. Dedicated special collections reading rooms are hosting classes in which librarians partner with faculty in integrating original materials into the learning experience, such as the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) within Temple University’s Charles Library that brightspot helped to develop to provide access to rare and unique materials in close proximity to other library offerings.

Quiet Reading Room at Temple’s Charles Library (Architects: Snøhetta and Stantec, Photo: Michael Grimm Photography)

New and deeper services allow librarians and library staff to have a direct impact on the classroom. Professional staff are working with faculty to develop curricula and integrate new technology into the classroom to better support new methods of teaching, such as the flipped classroom, and more experiential models. As an example, library liaisons at the UCLA Library work side-by-side with faculty and graduate teaching assistants to develop course materials, shape overall student engagement, and provide individual and group academic support. Library leadership report greater impact on information literacy, academic success, and retention. Additionally, librarians and other staff are leaving the confines of the library to work with students in their classrooms or to set up temporary service points in other buildings where students are working in order to better reach them.

Some campuses are consolidating locations so that staff can focus less of their time on operating space and more on providing expertise to students and faculty. Having fewer small locations often enables libraries to maintain or increase their service hours as well. brightspot worked with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries to develop a campus facilities master plan for the next 25 years in which the library network will reduce their physical footprint in an effort to offer more consistency in, and depth of, valuable research-related services.

Other campus departments and groups focused on student academic success are moving into the library to better support students where they are studying and researching. These groups will often partner with libraries in providing services, such as trainings and workshops, to leverage resources and provide a more complete student experience. These partnerships can range from temporary, drop-in programming to a more permanent presence, like a satellite location or primary service point within the library. A writing or tutoring center is a natural partner to house in the library, since students often find they need this type of assistance while writing research papers or completing homework. As an example, the King Library at Miami University in Oxford, OH features the Howe Writing Center on its main floor where it is easily accessible and visible to students.

Howe Writing Center at Miami University of Ohio’s Library

Libraries are working hard to make their services more visible and accessible to students. Librarians and staff who had traditionally worked behind an imposing desk or in their own private office are now sharing space with colleagues or sitting among students and patrons in very public settings. In some cases, service models have been overhauled and staff are given touchdown service points and are expected rove the floors and approach students in their workspaces. The library at UC Santa Cruz employs student workers as roving staff (easily identifiable by their yellow vests) to provide assistance on the spot wherever library users are working and in need of help.

What Do These Changes Mean for Staff?

These changes and shifts in their work processes and workspace are having an impact on the people who work in libraries. Library staff and librarians are being asked to forge relationships with new team members, develop new competencies and skills, and adapt to new environments. Firstly, staff are expected to develop cooperative working relationships with external groups that have been brought into the library to partner on services–and to work on a more cyclical basis with the ebb and flow of moving from project to project rather than constant, predictable process work. Next, in order to adapt to a more innovative landscape, they are required to learn skills that were previously considered outside the domain of library studies. As an example, brightspot recently worked with the University of Michigan Libraries to transform their service model by prototyping and then piloting new services at Hatcher-Shapiro Library. During a series of service design bootcamps, staff learned how to use new skills and methodologies, such as design thinking, to consider experiences from the user perspective and brainstorm possible solutions.

The library atmosphere has shifted from an introverted, quiet, individual learning experience to the extroverted, buzzing, collective learning and working experience of today. Staff are expected to adapt to, and work effectively within, these more stimulating environments in both their front-of-house and back-of-house work spaces. brightspot worked with North Carolina State University on designing the award-winning Hunt Library, in which a hub of shared informal work spaces was developed to support staff collaborative work. (More information on how libraries are rethinking the staff workplace can be found here.)

Open collaboration space for staff at NC State’s Hunt Library

Staff work space may be shrinking to make room for more student-centric spaces, while they’re expected to work more collaboratively within and outside of their departments. Or, their work space may have changed location from a private back office to being out in the open among students or in non-library buildings. The Inquiry Labs in UCLA’s Powell Library blends student and staff space in a flexible and comfortable area for staff meetings, student consultations, workshops, and studying to make it easier for students to reach out to librarians for help.

Improving the student experience continues to be a priority for many colleges and universities. The campus library is no exception. In our next article, we’ll explore how shifts in research are changing the library and having an effect on its people. We’ll conclude the series with a number of tips on how to address these changes and ensure more engaged and satisfied library staff.

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