In praise of Librarians!

In praise of Librarians!
Jane Carlin,  Director, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound. May 2017

It’s that time of year when academic libraries across the country see a startling increase in the number of users.  Students who might never have ventured into the building are drawn to the library like bears to honey no doubt hoping the knowledge contained within the hallowed space will seep into their pores like the Red Bull they are consuming to get through final exams.

As a college librarian, it is gratifying to see the library filled more than ever with students. This time of year, the chairs, sofas, and tables, and even the floor are all filled; the white boards are covered in formulae and writing; and laptops, phones and tablets are plugged in and powered up.

Like many libraries, writing centers, and other academic support services across the country, we offer extended hours during final exams.  Our library is open 24/7, and while this may result in a few end-of-the-year shenanigans, as evidenced by the discovery of used condoms (yes, this really happens) or champagne bottles in the mixed recycling, our dedicated library staff keep their doors wide open to help students during this critical and often stressful time.

Reflecting on exam week, after a lifelong career in libraries, I wonder, can’t we do better?  Students come to us with panic written all over their faces.  They often have three to four final research papers to complete, and they worry about how to approach this. 

I know a lot of recent discussions in higher education have centered on “executive function” skills and the need for students to learn time management and to plan.  But, let’s be realistic.  How easy is that to do when you are juggling a job (sometimes more than one job), you are involved in co-curricular activities, and you’re making arrangements to move out of your residence hall?

Just the other day, one of our most seasoned librarians mentioned that she had spent close to an hour with a student who had not even managed to come up with a thesis statement for her research paper— due in three days.  Another student employee, who was struggling to complete coursework, refused time off from the job, simply because, in her own words, “I need the money.”

Librarians are used to this end-of-the-year panic, and we are good at dealing with it.  We don’t judge a student or chastise them.  What good would that do?  We work with them to help complete the project, the paper, the thesis statement.  We direct them to useful sources and help them map out a plan.

We breathe a sigh of relief when the couches are no longer covered in bare feet and the keyboards are cleaned of the grime.  But with the end to the panic, to the grueling push to finish an assignment, and to the sheer frustration we see students suffer, we ask ourselves: “Can’t we do better?” College faculty and staff everywhere could start by asking these questions:

Are final papers and exams truly beneficial?  Can courses and assignments be scaffolded over time to decrease the stress at the end of the semester? In fact, do students truly benefit from the end of the semester exams or papers, as there is no time to reflect and discuss?  Is there value in considering reducing the sheer volume of work placed on students during a critical period?  And how many faculty members engage their academic librarians to help develop assignments that build progressively toward a final project or paper? ( Just think about having to meet a deadline for more than one scholarly article at a time.)

These are important questions that through dialogue and reflection may yield some new approaches for reducing end-of-the-year stress.  In the meantime, I am proud to be part of a profession that rolls up its sleeves, takes on extra hours, and works patiently with the anxious student, without judgment, to get the job done.  Though, just to be clear, we might need a few Red Bulls as well.


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