Balancing the needs of students in the community college library space

As I write this, I’m sitting at the main service desk in my library. I can see all of the computers in the library from my viewpoint. We’re a small library on a small campus – but each of my 22 computers is in use.

Here’s what the students I can see are doing. There are students working in pairs, talking and discussing what they’re doing. There are students working independently on their classwork. There is a small group of students having a great time at the computers in the corner.

With all of this comes noise. Lots of noise.

In the rear of the library we have study carrels and tables. Many students are currently using these – they are attempting to use the library as a reprieve from the chaos elsewhere on campus and at their homes – yet I wonder how it’s working for them. Do they notice the noise? Is it bothersome?

How can we balance the needs of these varying groups of students in our very small libraries? We have no funding (or space) to build additional study rooms – we already have a small conference room (with no computers) and a very tiny “quiet” study room (that’s adjacent to my very noisy library instruction classroom).

It’s exciting to see so much activity in the library – but as a person that needs quiet to study, I cannot see how many of the students in the back are managing to get their work done.

How do you manage the different needs of different students in your library?

New Library Classroom: Possibilities for Active Learning and Flipping

My library has a classroom again!

We just completed a nearly year-long renovation, and I taught a few classes in the new room before the semester started winding down. Of all the new features and spaces created during the renovation, this is the one I’ve been most excited about.

The rest of the library looks great, too. One of the best parts has been overhearing students talking about the changes. Students especially like the bright colors, additional computers and study spaces, and wide open spaces. We didn’t add any square footage, but the first floor looks much bigger now, thanks to clean, white surfaces and unimpeded sight lines.

We’re experiencing some growing pains as we return to normal operations in the new space. For instance, we still don’t have an intercom installed, making closing announcements tricky. The library classroom is no different.

I’ve only taught in the new space a few times, but I’m already thinking about how I’ll change my approach to one-shots to take advantage of the possibilities and peculiarities of the room.

For context, you need to know what our pre-renovation classroom was like: no windows, no tables, no desks, and one computer in the back of the classroom projecting onto the front wall. It was almost impossible for students to take notes or do any hands-on activities. This room now stores microfilm and a repository of government documents.

During the renovation, we taught one-shots in instructors’ classrooms. A few are computer labs, but most are equipped with just a computer podium and projector. While those rooms at least have writing surfaces, they still preclude hands-on practice and opportunities to begin researching in class.

The new classroom is on the second floor, occupying space that used to be held by a tutoring center (now expanded and located downstairs). The room is long and narrow, with high ceilings and plenty of natural light, thanks to tall windows on one side of the room.

Here’s the view from the main entrance, and the view from the teaching podium.

When I first saw the room, I made a note to ask my boss to make sure they hung white boards in the room. Then I realized that the entire wall opposite the windows, as well as the front wall, are floor to ceiling whiteboards. Students don’t realize that at first, and the look on their face when I casually make a note on the wall is priceless. Once they realize, everyone wants to write on the walls!

I was excited to let students use the wall to create concept maps and brainstorm keywords, but soon discovered a problem: the markers don’t erase as completely as a traditional whiteboard. Ghosts of old classes remain unless you use a heavy-duty polish to scrub them away. I’ve solved the problem by using these tabletop flip chart/whiteboards and hanging giant sticky notes on the wall, but the whiteboard walls are just one aspect of the new classroom that presents opportunities and challenges.

The room is equipped with forty computers arranged into eight rows, with the teaching podium situated at the front. The fact that students will have access to computers during one-shots is the biggest adjustment I’ll have to make in the new classroom.

On the one hand, access to computers opens up a slew of new possibilities for active learning activities. Now instead of just telling students that preliminary Google and Wikipedia searches are a good way to find keywords for a topic, we’ll be able to put that into practice for keyword brainstorming activities.

Instead of lecturing, I can assign students in each row to work together to answer a specific question (How do you request a book from another campus? or How does EBSCO’s folder feature work?) and invite groups to the teaching podium to demonstrate what they learned for the class.

Computers will also allow me to experiment with flipping my classroom. This semester I am embedded in a 100% online class for the first time (previously I’ve only been embedded in face-to-face sections), prompting me to create my first screencasts.

My hope is that as I develop more screencasts and partner with willing instructors, we’ll assign students to watch videos, answer some questions about the content, and come prepared with a research topic for homework. When students enter the library classroom, I’ll assess their knowledge with a LibGuide poll or PollEverywhere, and spend a few minutes on targeted review. Then we can get started on active learning exercises to refine topics and brainstorm keywords before diving into hands-on practice with research. My goal is to spend as little time lecturing as possible and let students’ point-of-need questions drive the lesson plan.

However, the computers definitely have downsides. I wasn’t prepared for both the literal and figurative barrier they present to connecting with students. I’m used to teaching to students sitting at tables, with whom I can make eye contact or share a quick aside. Now that there are computer monitors between us, it’s disconcerting to lose that connection.

Apart from the physical barrier computers impose, students are too easily distracted when they have a computer in front of them. When students arrive before class starts, almost all log on immediately and open a browser without prompting. I find myself working harder to get students’ attention now that I’m competing with a monitor. They’re so used to turning to the nearest screen and too overconfident that they can use the computer and pay attention to lecture and discussion at the same time.

Is flipping the classroom the answer? If the lesson plan is devoted to active learning rather than lecturing, students will use classroom technology to explore their topics and get started on their research, not as a distraction. Of all the new renovation changes and challenges, I am most looking forward to experimenting flipping my lesson plan now that I have a long-awaited, welcome laboratory in the new classroom.

The Community College Library and the Prospective Student

In Jan. 27’s Inside Higher Ed, Joshua Kim wrote about his impending trip with his daughter to look at eight different college campuses, all in six days.  Kim is the Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, and guess where he wants to go first when his family arrives at a prospective college?  The library.

Our profession has been examining the value of libraries for the past few years.  How does the library contribute to retention?  How does the library contribute to student success?  Personally, I’ve only heard a bit about how the library contributes to admissions.  As Lindsay Miller noted in an article in the November 2012 edition of C&RL News, “As far as the campus tour, it may include a quick stop into the library lobby, and a few mentions about numbers of books and a few services. Is that enough?”

My daughter and I took a trip across the country four years ago to look at colleges that offered a Geology major.  (Tip to parents of high school students:  If your child has an inkling of what they want to study in college, avoid the admissions department, and make an appointment to meet with the head of the department in question.  If the department head refuses to meet with you, or if, during the interview, they speak to you, and not to your child, do not send your child to that school.)  When we finished interviewing department heads, we went to … the library.  Like Kim, I wanted to check out the responsiveness of the folks at the reference desk, the overall vibe of the space, and how engaged students seemed to be.  Were they just using the computers to check Facebook?  Or were they actively engaged in their studies?

My daughter is enough of a library junkie to appreciate what I was doing.  Part of our assessment rubric for the college libraries we visited was the extent of the library collection in her field, the availability of a library liaison to her department, and the overall comfort of the space.

How many of us in the two-year world are an active part of admissions tours?  Are tours run during busy times of your day, or are they held in off hours?  Are you an integral part of an Open House?  Do tour guides at your schools even give correct information about the library?

My responses to these questions would not be positive.  What about yours?

Future Libraries, Part I

When this community formed and this blog activated, I volunteered to contribute a monthly post.  Luckily for me, there was no strong incentive (beyond guilt) to follow through, because I haven’t posted since August and am finding it difficult to write this one.  Certainly I have some valid reasons, but the underlying block has been a paralyzing feeling of uncertainty about the future of libraries and librarianship.  Is that enough of a downer for everyone, if the post-holiday January blues are not enough?  Well, I’m tired of mulling it over on my own.

Let’s gloss over for a moment that higher education has been in self-proclaimed flux for the past decade if not longer, and that technology-inflected rose-colored predictions about the end of libraries have been around since at least the 1930s.  Let’s also set aside what most library employees know: That the toil accompanying the practical considerations of physical collections can lead us to genuinely welcome non-physical components even when they do not actually mean a reduction in workload.

Instead, let’s focus on the purpose of a library.  What is a library meant to do?  Is a library supposed to be a repository for all human knowledge?  Personally, I have never thought so, but some of the loudest anti-library sneering I’ve heard seems to come from folks under that impression.  I’ve also seen some correlation between this attitude and the idea that librarians don’t know about the internet.  But back to the question:  What is the purpose of a library?  The answer I like best is that the purpose of a library is to collect, organize, and curate broadly-accessible, relevant materials for the benefit of a certain user population.  (At a community college, this would include introductory materials to as many of the various academic disciplines as possible; materials to support success in careers, academics, and home life; faculty-oriented materials to support teaching and practice; and yes, even some textbooks.)

To me, with this purpose in mind, a library seems like an obviously beneficial and fundamentally useful thing for a group of people working toward a common mission, such as at a college.  And yet the vibe locally that I’m picking up right now is that libraries are nice but not essential, and fundamentally vestigial.  As spaces, it’s true libraries can be lovely, but devoid of their original purpose of housing materials that were once only available in a physical format, they can also seem merely symbolic and expensive, decorated with printed ornaments.

As I go about dismantling our physical collection in favor of an electronic one, the more creating a robust, shared library collection of electronic materials seems strange and unnatural.  Strange because where once the materials had a physical presence — living proof, in a way, of something’s existence — we now have to guarantee it’s there on the computer and cross our fingers that all the technology is working today.  Strange also because of the artificial boundaries:  Do we have ten thousand academic e-books in the collection today, or twenty thousand, or one hundred thousand?  How does that number impact student outcomes and the mission of the institution?  Is a higher quantity always better, or at a certain point do we begin to stray into information overload?  At what point do we betray our goal to be relevant in favor of the sheer number of things that are now available to us electronically, where once we were limited by space?  And unnatural because often these electronic objects were not designed to be used as part of a shared, durable library collection in the way that libraries have traditionally operated.  Arguably neither were printed materials, but past a certain point these at least had an inherent immutability.  Immutability is not part of the appeal of electronic materials, and with the pace of technological change it seems possible it never will be.  The result is that libraries end up with an oddball assortment of electronic versions, in various stages of obsolescence, which many of us are not currently equipped or staffed to deal with.

Then there’s librarianship. How distracted and insulated must we become before acknowledging that there is a sea change going on in libraries that affects the very core of professional librarianship?  What kind of skills, besides management, must an individual possess in order for an institution to justify the expense of someone with a Master’s degree in Library Science? [Side note: Perusing the really exciting-looking librarian postings on listservs, it appears part of the answer is at least a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, and/or knowledge of specialized programming languages.]  Relying on tradition and established practice will prolong the game, particularly in academic libraries, but ultimately it will not preserve the requirement of a graduate degree from a library school.

The point I’m trying to make is that the way forward for libraries is unclear, at least to me.  The libraries that I see being being celebrated as forward-thinking and futuristic seem like basically bland, anonymous, technology-enabled conference rooms, and they don’t thrill or inspire me.  So even though on the one hand I think libraries and librarians are more necessary than ever, on the other I feel oppressed and stymied.  But I’d like to end on a hopeful note, so maybe I should acknowledge that if I’m going to work in this field I had better darn well get excited, or exit.  New Year’s Resolution: Part II here will include some optimism and enthusiasm. Until then, apologies for being such a grouch.