Advice & News

March 6, 2024

The Campus Librarian Role Has Evolved, but Its Mission as a Helping Hand Remains

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A library is where we embrace the quiet tranquility. It's a place you go to get work done, seek a source for your assignment, or get away from the world and study or read in peace. Above all, the library, even with the changes it has gone through in the past decade, is still a place where many students go to get help.

Joe Hardenbrook (director of library services at Carroll University), Dr. Sarah Garifo (former library director at Washington Adventist University and now researcher analyst), and Kelly Laas (librarian and ethics instructor for Illinois Institute of Technology) sat down with me and discussed the library's current state in today's quickly changing world, following the COVID-19 pandemic and amid the rise of AI. How much have university libraries really changed throughout the years and how different are they from your local county library? These experts explore these questions with me as we look at today's college libraries.

The root role of the librarian hasn't changed throughout the years. It has always been there to help both faculty and students. However, Laas explains how the role of the librarian has evolved. "Campus librarians are taking on expanding roles in universities, often teaching not only library instruction sessions for courses but also co-teaching or solo teaching courses in their area of expertise," she says. "They are also at the forefront of the open-access movement in scholarly publishing and helping faculty manage and archive data from sponsored research projects."

"We answer questions about research, find data, evaluate sources, and help people cite the content they are using," Hardenbrook adds. "The books and databases we subscribe to are more geared towards an academic audience and tie directly to the curriculum. Unlike public libraries who weed their collections continuously to offer the latest bestsellers, some of the books in an academic library tend to be retained much longer for research purposes."

University librarians aren't so much recommending books to read as they are offering literacy sessions to a specific clientele -- university students. Rather than working on big outreach and community programs during the summer, university librarians' busy season is during the school year. Hardenbrook says, "At a university, this could be anything from collaborating with a nursing student to formulate a strong PICO (population, intervention, control, and outcomes) question, to a business student needing proprietary data to create a SWOT analysis, to a humanities student doing interdisciplinary research on gendered differences in communication." Throughout the years, Hardenbrook has noticed how the services they provide have changed. "What we see now at the college level are students needing remedial help -- help they didn't get in high school -- with writing, reading, and research. Remember, a lot of learning got interrupted at the start of the pandemic and it causes a ripple effect down the road." Working with students directly to help with assignments is a critical part of the job, as Laas states. "I visit classes and work with individual or student groups to help them craft research strategies for their class assignments or projects," she says "I also do a lot of teaching on how to access information sources, navigate databases of scholarly journals, and using library resources."

Additionally, with the rise of AI, librarians are seeing more AI-generated papers, which lead to deeper discussions about authorship and plagiarism. Garifo adds, "We were years behind in preparing for the effects of these new technologies, so we're now in a position of having to be reactive instead of proactive. For as long as AI evolves faster than we can, we're going to continue to be in a reactive position." However, it's not all doom and gloom. Hardenbrook says, "Academic librarians spend a lot of time helping students hone their information-seeking skills and use a critical eye when evaluating the sources they find."

With so much information readily available at our fingertips, it's hard to imagine a library keeping relevant printed material, especially with new editions released every year. However, it's more expensive to purchase e-books than it is to have hard copies and would use up the library budget much faster. Additionally, Hardenbrook says, "The American Library Association released a report in 2023 that found that Gen Z and Millennials prefer print books over e-books and visit their local library frequently. At my academic library, we have a small Popular Reads collection of around 500 books that is organized by genre, not call number. It has everything from Colleen Hoover to Ibram X. Kendi. This small collection accounts for nearly 1 in 5 print book checkouts for us. It's great to see our students reading for fun or enrichment!"

The presence of the library is something that is valuable to university students. Understanding the role that librarians play in a campus setting can help students find the right people to assist them with their research. In Garifo's ideal world her vision is "to significantly enhance the level of collaboration with faculty and have a more (positively) intrusive presence in the classroom." Bringing the library and faculty closer and working together will keep the library relevant. Hardenbrook agrees that the library centers around people. "For me, being a librarian is not about the books, it's about the people," he says. "We are nothing without our community. We want to collaborate and partner with you, so we have the resources you need for your learning and leisure needs."

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