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Dean’s Update: The Role of Libraries in Building Community

April 27, 2023

This past month, I was challenged to address a topic that I do not recall explicitly tackling before—the role of the library in building community. This came as an invitation to stimulate conversation among a group of librarians from small colleges and universities in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey during the Tri-State Library Cooperative’s spring conference.

I developed a deeper appreciation for the importance of building community within higher education as I prepared for my keynote presentation[i], strengthened by the energetic perspectives of passionate professional colleagues working in far more resource-limited institutions than the research universities where I have been employed.

I share here three observations that emerged from that experience, concluding that the explicit role of embedding community building in what libraries do is critical to higher education.

1. Library contributions to building communities that strengthen learning are critical to the primary mission of higher education.

What library staff do to foster learning helps us think about the role of libraries and our opportunities to remain relevant in higher education. No one disagrees that education is the purpose of higher education. However, when asked, there is less agreement about the way some colleges and universities prioritize support of education as a process for change in acquiring knowledge, skills, and ways of making sense of the world, versus a production business of certifications.

These questions resonated widely among the conference participants, with some recalling explicit expectations to build community through maintaining library facilities and to provide faculty or student programs. However, many also nodded in recognizing the frequent requests for demonstrating how libraries contribute to student retention, graduation rates, achievement of curriculum and course-defined learning outcomes, and net tuition revenue.

2. Learning is the purpose of education—and through community, learning grows.

This proposition comes with shared assumptions of what learning is and its relation to higher education. Learning is “a process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential for improved performance and future learning.” [Ambrose et al 2010].

The change in the learner may happen at the level of knowledge, attitude, or behavior—and there are many other frameworks to characterize the change. Among them is research and teaching practices that illustrate learning is a social process, better achieved with engagement among learners with diverse ideas. In a community, learners are “enriched by collective meaning-making, mentorship, encouragement and an understanding of the perspectives and unique qualities of an increasingly diverse membership.” [Blickford & Wright]

Librarians of course help foster shared engagement with diverse ideas expressed by authors in books, articles and other artifacts to which libraries ensure convenient, affordable, and free access; and our staff guide use and discovery of these resources.

3. Library staff need to go beyond the role of serving as a source of wisdom, to building wisdom within a community of learners.

Academic librarians have traditionally assumed outreach roles to foster literacy instruction though service to communities of students and faculty. We build programs and partner with faculty and staff to deliver both the academic and student life missions, and we customize our contributions to meet the needs of specific cohorts. In this mind set, we tend to serve rather than collaborate in shared efforts to strengthen learning. Though the service-oriented role has endeared librarians to diverse campus communities, that role does not always leverage professional knowledge and skills to build true partnerships.

A librarian’s role to mentor and inspire a quest of learning may be more impactful than giving answers and crafting guides to questions based on our preconceived and mediated understanding of their needs.

The program’s breakout sessions and conversations around posters and refreshments illustrated how libraires are asserting more genuine partnerships, particularly with departments and centers focusing on writing, performing arts, accessibility, neurodiversity, wellness, and vendors. The event itself was a prime example of how librarians, as learners themselves, continue their own professional habits of shared development.

Building Community at Drexel

I came away from this regional conference with reinforced appreciation of Drexel Libraries’ strategies to support higher education by developing a library as a community of learners and our continued exploration of whether the journey of personal inquiry and change through engagement with others is more impactful than meeting pre-defined learning outcomes. Ideally, those who select to learn within our environments take ownership of their learning, identifying problems or gaps in knowledge they wish to resolve for their own edification. Effectively using the modern library as a place to apply what was learned in class, with some aspect of inquiry that has personal interest, is evidence of higher education growth and successful impact of the library.

Articles featured in this issue of In Circulation address a few recent ways Drexel Libraries is building community.

Read how the University Archives’ newest collection bridges past and present connections between communities at the University level, the local level, and the national level. An interview with one of the Libraries’ most recently hired librarians describes how she connects DUL clients with resources and builds information communities. And a summary of our recent ScholarSip event again captures how the Libraries builds interdisciplinary community at Drexel, now for over 11 years!

We also note the reopening of the Library Learning Terrace, a space that had been used by the University as a COVID-10 vaccination and testing site since spring 2020. We look forward to engaging with our students—many whom have never known the Learning Terrace as anything other than a COVID testing site—to understand how space can help students build learning communities and pursue their intentional inquiries.

Thank you for continuing to be in our community. Let us know if you took time to consider your own communities and how you help build them, but also what role libraries can take to help in your own organizations.

Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries

[i] The following list of references influenced my comments, some liberally taken from these publications.

  • Bickford, D. J. & Wright, D. J. “Community: the Hidden Context for Learning” Chapter 4, Learning Spaces, edited by D. E. Oblinger; Educause 2006.
  • Keeran, P and Forbes, C [editors] Successful Campus Outreach for Academic Libraries. Rowan & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2018.
  • Nitecki, D. A., and A. Alter. "Leading FAIR adoption across the institution: A collaboration between an academic library and a technology provider." Data Science Journal 20.1 (2021).
  • Nitecki, D. A., and M, E, K. Davis. "Expanding academic librarians’ roles in the research life cycle." Libri 69.2 (2019): 117-125.
  • Reale, M. Communities of Practice in the Academic Library: Strategies for Implementation. ALA, Chicago,2022. ISBN : 9781466683938
  • Stark, M., et al. "Building a Community of the Students, by the Students, for the Students: Collaborating with Student Government Organizations." Innovative Solutions for Building Community in Academic Libraries. edited by Bonnand, S. and Hansen, M.A IGI Global, 2015. 73-96.