Recognizing the value of community college libraries

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Community college libraries play an important role in advancing student success. Library leaders see increasing student learning, developing community and providing technological resources as their most influential contributions to the college. But those contributions aren’t always understood by others at the college, according to a new report from Ithaka S+R.

In February, the research group surveyed 321 community college library directors to get a snapshot of services provided, the impact of Covid and challenges faced in making decisions and navigating change.

This is the third phase in a research project that started in 2019 with surveys of chief academic officers (CAOs) and student affairs officers (SAOs) about academic and student support ecosystems at community colleges.

A disconnect

Library leaders see their libraries as part of an ecosystem that’s responsible for student success. Eighty percent believe that their library contributes significantly toward increasing student learning, and 56% believe it contributes significantly to helping students develop a sense of community.

That’s not necessarily how their contributions are viewed by others. For instance, when asked how important it is that the college library helps students develop research, critical analysis and information literacy skills, 71% of library leaders said “extremely important.” But in the 2019 survey of CAOs and SAOs, only 46% said the same about the college library’s function.

That disconnect could be due to organizational differences and a lack of data on libraries’ contributions toward student success. While libraries are collecting some data, such as door and download counts, evaluations and anecdotes, only 46% of the library leaders surveyed indicated they collect and analyze data on library contributions toward institutional outcomes.

Collecting and reporting these data to college leaders may help demonstrate the library’s value – and help with arguments for increased budget allocations, suggests the report. That’s important given that 45% of library leaders noted experiencing budget cuts during the pandemic, and there’s uncertainty about whether these budget cuts will be permanent.

“Community college libraries provide such a variety of functions, from supporting student learning to helping students in developing a sense of community to providing technological resources and acting as a hub for many other services available to them,” says Melissa Blankstein, surveys analyst at Ithaka S+R. “It is really important that leaders across the community college ecosystem understand these functions so that opportunities for investment and collaboration can surface.”

Shifting strategies

Despite budget cuts, Covid has led libraries to shift their strategies to increase student learning. They’ve increased remote and digital support and scaled up technology loaning services.

For some of the college libraries in the survey, technology lending existed prior to Covid, but the pandemic has provided an opportunity to review policies. Some library leaders are considering long-term changes to lending policies, such as extending the length of time students can borrow technology. A majority (76%) also anticipate the need for significant investments in digital resources, such as online journals or databases and streaming media services and e-books, after the pandemic.

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The pandemic has put a spotlight on inequities in higher education and “this is an opportune time for libraries to reconsider existing policies and services, and center equitable, accessible, and holistic policies and services to support students’ needs both inside and outside the classroom,” the report says.

Increasing need for technology services also has led to an increase in cross-institutional collaborations – something that library leaders expect will continue to grow.

“Prior to the pandemic, we worked with a cohort of institutions to get a variety of new student-centered services off the ground, including laptop lending programs. Even at this time, before the impacts of Covid-19, it was incredibly challenging for their libraries to secure funding and staffing to support these efforts, so the more recent, rapidly-scaled provision of these devices are especially impressive given current circumstances,” Blankstein says. “However, eventually these technologies of course will become outdated and need to be replaced or need major maintenance. Long-term, libraries will really need to grapple with the extent to which they can keep up this scale of provision, and what kinds of collaborations can be utilized to maintain and strengthen these services.”

In particular, libraries are partnering with their college’s IT department more closely to purchase and maintain equipment. Collaboration with IT is nothing new, though: 70% of library leaders said their libraries already work with their IT department to a great extent.

Expanding collaboration

Sixty-eight percent of library leaders expect cross-departmental collaboration to increase. But, again, collaboration is nothing new. According to the survey, 56% of library leaders say they collaborate closely with other units on campus, and about 54% indicated that the library is part of a learning resource center on campus or co-located with another service department – which can streamline services for students, the report suggests.  

Besides IT, about half of the libraries in the survey partner with the college’s tutoring and writing centers. However, collaborations with student affairs departments, such as student life and academic advising, haven’t been “fully realized,” according to the report. That’s a missed opportunity since the objectives of libraries and student affairs are often aligned.

Most often, libraries collaborate and engage with other departments by referring students directly to other departments and services.

“Library leaders see their libraries as hubs of student activity and information seeking,” the report says.

They also use their spaces to host career workshops, student art exhibitions, makerspaces and more, which often involves cross-institutional collaboration. 

In a concluding thought, the report’s authors make the case for better understanding of the role of the community college library: “Today’s students face increasingly complex challenges inside and outside of the classroom, and it will take all leaders across the college working together, with a deep understanding of each other’s contributions, to achieve the most positive outcomes for students.”

The Institute of Museum and Library Services funded the research.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.