Partners in Retention: Collaborating with Student Affairs

We have reached the end of the summer and thus the end of my summer outreach series. You can check out Parts I, II, III, and  IV for a refresher.

As campus readies itself for the influx of new students, it seems only appropriate that this installment focuses on partnerships with student affairs. Librarians are talking about ways to demonstrate their value, both in terms of  maintaining and growing collections and providing important services to their institutions. In our new higher education landscape, there is a push toward more accountability and I agree that demonstrating value is a part of that. But as Barbara Fisher suggested yesterday in Inside Higher Ed, “Libraries are suddenly obsessed with demonstrating value, but measures of value that become unanchored from philosophical values can be destructive. (This is an issue for all of higher education. In the rush to prove our value, leaders sometimes toss our values overboard.)” Well said, I say. Beyond supporting research and knowledge creation, I also believe that librarians play a role in supporting our students’ success in other areas of their life on campus beyond the classroom. For me, supporting student success across campus in collaboration with student affairs is in line with librarianship’s values around community.

Courtesy of the Hampshire College Archives

Fully supporting students requires different departments and individuals to work together in and out of the classroom. At Hampshire, one great example of this are the partnerships librarians forge with our office of First Year Programs. Last year, an amazing woman took on First Year programming and met with us during the summer to talk about possible collaborations. In exchange for some food budgets and free advertising, we put together programming for research lunches and late night research consultations in the library at peak times.  These programs were great for two reasons:

1. We learned more about how student affairs worked and more on challenges First Years face.

2. Students met us in different contexts, discovered that we are friendly and helpful, and become repeat customers.

3. First Year Programs had successful sessions, we had support to market ourselves, and thus everyone involved came out as winners.

While these collaborations really embody our library’s mission to support student research and development, partnering with student affairs and first year programs allows us to put names with faces in different parts of campus that can guide students through other roadblocks they encounter. So often, a student will come to me with a research question that is actually a screen for another crisis. By making connections with folks across campus that can help with any variety of student distress, I know who to call on to refer a student towards a successful outcome. That’s huge. I am not suggesting that librarians are an extension of student affairs – or that we should be in the business of fixing our students’ problems – but we can and often do play a role in supporting our students’ emotional lives. And often times, one caring adult at college can be the difference between a student staying and leaving. Retention is a huge metric of success in higher education, and I want to suggest that librarians can and do contribute to students staying, thriving, and graduating.

Librarianship is as much about service as it is about collections. Measuring service can be tricky and imperfect, but I believe that we can tie our services into  the actions colleges and universities take retain students. In a landscape where higher education is faced with making tough decisions that force us to confront compromises in our values, librarians can feel secure that working at the intersection of student affairs and academic services  can provide our campus communities with tremendous value, and value we as librarians can be proud of.

Reciprocity: Collaborating with Faculty in the Library

As we near the end of the summer, we are nearing the end of my outreach series. You can check out parts 1, 2, 3 & 4. Today’s edition is about collaborating with faculty on the librarian’s “turf.”

Courtesy of the Hampshire College Archives

In our age of embedded librarianship, librarians are forging collaborative relationships with faculty in their classrooms and in the planning of their syllabi. However, it seems like there is a limited discussion about how librarians can invite faculty to collaborate with them in the library. Rachel Beckwith (the Arts Librarian at Hampshire College) and I explored these issues during our presentation at ACRL-New England this spring some examples of how we at Hampshire aim to invite faculty into library to work with us to develop collections and resources to benefit our students. We encourage faculty to help us build our collections through conversations and through the creation of Amazon Wish Lists, and we invite faculty to collaborate with us on developing LibGuides.

Hampshire College’s Library recently revised its collections statements to affirm that our mission is to support our unique curriculum; we rely on our consortial partners to support faculty research through our borrowing agreements in the Five Colleges. We selectors keep abreast of course developments and buy resources that best support them. Naturally, as faculty revise courses and develop new ones we expect to buy new items as they are needed. I set aside 25% of my budget for faculty driven acquisitions to support their coursework. Some of my other colleagues have set up Amazon Wish Lists to track faculty requests. This is not to say we green light every suggestion, but we do take faculty input seriously as we manage and grow our collection.

By the same token, I am always trying to improve our research guides, adding links to new resources purchase by the library, working towards integrating successful examples of work for students to emulate, and also including links to websites on the open web like successful digital humanities projects, or interesting news sites that students would not ordinarily think about on their own. While I have broad subject knowledge and a master’s degree in history, I realize that my faculty are the subject experts and have a wealth of knowledge about their areas of expertise I will never have. So why not invite faculty to participate in the creation of subject guides? I had a particularly successful experience with my Africana studies LibGuide last spring. A faculty member and I met and discussed his curricular needs and we shared our best resources with each other. He felt empowered in having a a voice in how we shape our resources and market ourselves, and I learned more about African diasporas that will benefit community members in and beyond his class.

Faculty and librarians collaborate together to support student learning. In order to work effectively together, we need to invite each other into our own spheres to be successful. Such collaborations can’t rest on faculty inviting us into their classrooms, but librarians inviting faculty into our libraries, too.

The Gender of “The Stuff”

In June, I attended the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Preconference in San Diego, California. It was fantastic few days filled  with informative sessions, an engaging back channel on Twitter, and inspiring face to face conversations.

One such conversation was about “the stuff.” What kind of people should comprise the next generation of special collections librarians? Is it more important to love the “stuff,” or to love sharing the “stuff” with people? Should special collections librarians be teachers or gatekeepers?

For those readers left wondering, “the stuff” refers to manuscripts, rare books, letters, and ephemera. It is at the heart of special collections librarianship, and increasingly, the fuel that feeds digital humanities projects. Often, “the stuff” is what inspires people to work in special collection. Working in special collections is an extraordinary  opportunity to work with the old, the special, and the unique. “The stuff” is amazing. “The stuff” inspired me throughout my undergraduate years at Smith College. I still can’t get over how amazing it was that the Sophia Smith Collection (SSC) was there for me to use carte blanche in my undergraduate library. I used primary materials from the Smith College archives in nearly every research paper I wrote as a history major.  I often joke that those history classes, those amazing hours in the reading room pouring over letters, books, and photographs, set me on the path to ruin that I am on today: libarchivism. I love “the stuff.”

But central in my mind, even as an undergraduate, was the question of access and the politics of collecting. Who gets to access “the stuff,” who gets to use “the stuff,” and who gets to be the arbiter of the memory around “the stuff?” Who decides what of “the stuff” is valuable to collect, keep, and preserve? And so began my now decade long love affair with the politics of history and memory.

During one of my history seminars in my junior year (Trauma and History), we read an article in the American Historical Review by Bonnie G. Smith called, “Gender and the practices of scientific history: the seminar and archival research in the nineteenth century.” In it, she talks about the professionalization of  history during the nineteenth century, a movement that saw historians shift from amateurs to professionals, “training [them] in a distinct methodology, endowing them with expert knowledge, and providing them with credentials.” (Smith, 1153) Not only did this change serve to create professional boundaries, it also happened to be one that largely excluded women. Smith writes, “Seminars and archives were spaces reserved mostly for professional men.” (Smith, 1153).

New York Public Library

Smith contexualizes the historical underpinnings of special collections librarianship as guardianship of “the stuff,” an awesome responsibility viewed as one that only a man could take on effectively. Beyond that, the collecting parameters ensured that material worth saving fit into a narrative appropriate for scientific history, one that suggested an objective truth was out there for someone to find among the documents. As Smith suggests, “young professionals set out for the archives, where they hoped to break up the gates of the documentary  “harem,” save the “fairy princesses” residing therein, and find truth in that process.” (Smith, 1153)

In the nineteenth century, the only truth worth remembering was from the public sphere – the man’s world – as opposed to the women’s world of the home. Women’s higher education in the United States has not had the long, storied history that men’s education has. There were real questions about whether women could physically handle the rigors of education. So, while women undertook the similarly rigorous exams during the 19th century to gain admission to Smith that their male counterparts took to enter Harvard or Yale, they did so with firm boundaries, limitations, and caveats. Inherent in Smith’s physical design is the idea that women could be educated, but also continued to be socialized to remain eligible for marriage. You could learn, but  couldn’t wander too far off your preordained path.

So, was the work of women considered valuable? Did the bright men of the historical profession believe that those “truths” were worth seeking? Until the middle of the twentieth century, no, that was not the case. In the academy, writing women’s history did not happen systematically until the 1970s.

The Library of Congress

Which brings us back to “the stuff” and special collections librarianship. For many generations, the only “stuff ” worth preserving was the evidence of the accomplishments of white men, edifices to their  memory, steering historical narratives to their experiences. Danzy Senna’s Where Did you Sleep Last Night? Where Did You Sleep Last Night? clarifies that trend with remarkable stories and insights. Where are the markers of memory for people of color, for queer people, for the working class? How do text and traditional documentation privilege the white, the heterosexual, the individuals who had the privilege to lead public, open lives? Where are those stories?

The State Library & Archives of Florida

Fortunately, institutions like the Sophia Smith Collection, The Centro Library, The Human Sexuality Collection, and others across the country are working to collect materials about the lives people across genders, sexualities, classes, and races to give researches an opportunity to explore new aspects of history.  But it should not be the exclusive work of a handful of institutions to collect materials from traditionally underrepresented individuals and groups. Special collections librarianship needs to broaden the scope of the “stuff,” its formats, its applications, of who uses the “stuff” and whose “stuff” we can and will collect. I hope that this work won’t be confined to reading rooms and to the monograph, but innovative avenues through the digital humanities and through public engagement to preserve and remember the work and lives of many different types of people, not just the great white men.

Consortial Change Agents: We’re Better Together

Along with Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College, and the University of Massachusetts, Hampshire College is one of five colleges in the Five College Consortium in the Pioneer Valley. Students enrolled in any of the five schools can take courses at the other campuses, and can borrow books from the other colleges. As a Five College graduate, I took advantage of the reciprocal lending agreements frequently during my undergraduate and graduate years in the Valley. Now, as a professional librarian at Hampshire, I work closely with my colleagues across the Valley on a number of different projects, usability questions, and topics in the digital humanities. While these collaborative relationships have nearly a forty year history in the Five Colleges and enjoy institutional support and strength, I want to talk about an informal – and sometimes invisible – consortium of librarians across higher education, a fellowship that exists on Twitter and through relationships forged through programs like Immersion and at national and regional conferences.

As academic librarians tackle difficult the questions of how to support students in online environments, how to promote open access and new forms of scholarly communication, and how to collect for a twenty-first century library, they should not despair; while looking to colleagues at home institutions for support, they should also look towards other librarians across the profession for support, to act as a sounding board, for information, for advice. In the last few months alone, I’ve gone to Twitter for collection development questions, a colleague in New York City about digital directions in science, and joined the Program Committee for ISIS, a decentralized online community of technologists and librarians. Twenty-first century librarians are better together; collectively we can tackle the challenges that lie ahead at our home institutions, during webinars, through crowdsourced conversations on social media, and at conferences. Together, we can.