My first visit to Yale University was Friday, Oct 19, for the Ivies Plus Meeting of librarians. Quite a lot of beautiful stone buildings and a fair amount of scaffolding and reno work going on to maintain those beautiful buildings!
The meeting focused on undergraduate students. The first talk was by Susan Gibbons, University Librarian at Yale, on “Enhancing the Undergraduate Library Experience.” She spoke about the well-known anthropological work done at Rochester, and some about Yale.
Gibbons is a wonderful speaker, zeroing in on the teaching and learning rationale behind innovations. For example, lots of libraries have adopted cafes or coffee shops within library space “so students don’t have to leave the library.” Gibbons pointed to the key teaching & learning reasons for a cafe – designing it to foster the kinds of conversations that enrich and deepen student learning. She pointed to the coffee shops of the 18th century as great places for intellectual exploration, and talked about the way comfortable coffeeshops near campus were places where students were intermingling even with faculty and discussing their work. I’ve certainly seen a lot of library cafes in the last decade. Some café spaces really foster those conversations, and even attract faculty as well as students.
Designing spaces to foster a community of scholars was a thread throughout her talk. She told a story about a physics library where group spaces were set up with whiteboards – not only were students gathering there to work on problem sets, but because of the open set up, faculty and grad students would sometimes wander by and volunteer help to students who needed a little extra explanation or coaching. I’m fascinated by these examples of faculty being in the library… Again, I would say the key to this innovation is not just “lots of whiteboards” but the activity and interaction that the overall design fostered.
Gibbons briefly pointed to the value of photos as a way to get student answers to questions – something I would like to copy. Her example was having students take pictures of where in the library they felt lost. Of course, the stacks were highly featured in these photos, and in response the library enlisted fellow students–known as stacks ninjas–to help as guides.
She also pointed out how students don’t feel necessarily welcomed or included – and that the library is a welcoming space (or can be) because it belongs to everybody. It’s neutral. Her discussion of ethnography also made me think of how students might think they are unwelcome, or be somehow less likely to use, library spaces that seem to be for some particular purpose. Many libraries I have worked in have lots of “rooms” that seem to be special purpose even though anyone is actually welcome to study in them….
Gibbons highlighted the value of ethnography in breaking down wrong assumptions, such as the idea that students sleep in late. As has been repeated many times, the initial ethnographic studies showed students were up and about their busy lives early in the morning, often carrying everything they would need for the day, all day long. And that because they are so busy, they don’t start studying or research work in earnest until late at night much of the time. Libraries I have worked in have yet to really shift their services substantially toward late evenings….
Gibbons also noted that furniture on wheels not only allowed to students to design optimal work spaces flexibly, but it also allowed the library to quickly reconfigure spaces for different kinds of events.
Gibbons said that in designing collaborative work spaces in the library, it’s helpful to know what spaces on or near campus people already use in that way, and why they like those spaces. She also remarked that good students can be fairly intentional about the way they “design” their study situations – for example, not bringing a laptop cord, knowing that they then have to buckle down and study before their battery runs low. Or finding particular spaces in the library that are free of distractions (such as poor internet connections). Her overall point was, of course, that there are a plurality of study/research space needs even for a single student, and that we need to look at our buildings to see if we’ve provided in a balanced way for these multiple contexts.
A big part of Gibbons’ talk had to do with the way universities have separate administrative units to handle aspects of what seems, to students, like a single messy problem. Students experience their work as the intermingling of technology, writing, and research – but support is not offered seamlessly for these areas. I think libraries generally know this by now, although it still is a hard problem to solve.
At Rochester, evidently, some librarians were trained as writing tutors, and the writing tutors spent some time at the reference desk. That seems like a great step forward in reducing the intellectual distance between these services if not the administrative and geographical distance. Especially in places where a good part of the library’s ability to reach undergrads is through a first year writing course.
Gibbons and the next Yale speaker, Emily Horning, talked compellingly about their Personal Librarian program and how – given the context of Yale and the key features of campus life for freshmen – this was a successful program. There is a strong identification with one’s college, for example, and that provides a good way for personal librarians to connect with their students. The actual service uptake is 15-20%.
One of the common themes throughout the day, for me anyway, was the way all these places are leveraging student workers in new ways. The stacks ninjas were one example (they had a real sense of camaraderie, it was clear from the photos, and had designed their own Tshirt), but several people I spoke to were using students throughout orientation to promote the library. The student workers were seen almost as advocates in some instances – part of their job was promoting the library.
There was talk throughout the day about the late hours students keep. One “library opening” after a renovation project happened at midnight and drew a huge crowd of students (the food, if I remember, was gone in 12 minutes …) Emily Horning also spoke of “late night study breaks” being offered for relaxation during crunch time, realizing that even at that late hour – 11pm or so – students were really just getting started with their studying.
The Yale librarians clearly applied ethnographic research methods and thinking to their own context. I wonder how well the rest of us would do in answering the question “What are the key defining features of undergraduate life on our campus?” as we seek to develop our services and products?