The Live-In Librarian: Developing Library Outreach to University Residence Halls

Molly Strothmann and Karen Antell

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Because of the proliferation of remote resources that allow users to complete research without visiting a library in person, many academic librarians have responded with outreach initiatives that extend library services to a variety of campus locations. Residence halls, however, have received little attention as an outreach venue despite the fact that most universities stress the importance of housing’s educational mission. In the three years that University of Oklahoma librarian Karen Antell lived as Faculty-in-Residence, she developed extensive library and educational programming for the students in her residence hall. These experiences formed the basis of a successful continuing outreach program to students in university housing even after Antell was no longer living in the dormitory. This article describes these programs and places them in the context of other institutions’ outreach efforts, identifying factors necessary for successful library outreach to residence halls.

Many University of Oklahoma (OU) freshmen and their parents are surprised on move-in day to find tricycles, toys, minivans, pets, and other accoutrements of family life in and around their residence halls. They don’t expect to be welcomed to their new neighborhood by a faculty family, let alone one who actually lives in the dormitory. Many parents are relieved to learn that the building houses some “grown-ups.” (Some students are a bit less sanguine, suspicious of a potential encroachment on their territory.)

What’s going on here? It’s the OU Faculty-in-Residence (FIR) program, which is guided by the university’s commitment to supporting a sense of family and community in the residence halls and to promoting lasting inter-generational friendships. To these ends, the housing department places one volunteer faculty family in each of the campus’s six housing centers. They reside in spacious apartments, take many of their meals in the student cafeteria, and spend about three years living as neighbors to hundreds of students. In exchange for housing and meals, the FIRs assume two goals: (1) to bring some of the campus’s intellectual life into the dormitories, and (2) to help foster a greater sense of community between students and faculty.

OU librarian Karen Antell and her spouse, Associate Professor of Philosophy Wayne Riggs, served as FIRs from 2002 to 2005, along with their two children, who were six and nine years old when the family began its stint in residence. As a new academic librarian with a strong interest in outreach, Antell was eager to incorporate library programming into her FIR responsibilities.

As it turned out, 2002 was a fortuitous time for her to undertake this project, as it coincided with the burgeoning of online library resources that began to reduce the number of visits college students must pay their campus libraries in person. At many colleges and universities, academic librarians have responded to that trend with increased outreach efforts intended to connect with students outside the library building. Librarians have created outposts in student unions and classroom buildings, established themselves in online classes and social networking sites, and offered reference via instant messaging and instruction by podcast. In familiar parlance, these librarians are reaching out to students “where they live” (a phrase that has been in use since the 1960s).1 However, few academic libraries appear to be providing services where students actually live—in the residence halls.

Yet at many colleges and universities the residence halls are an ideal venue for library outreach, as they typically allow one to encounter large numbers of students in comfortable spaces designed for collaborative learning. Unlike most other campus spaces, they also come equipped with a potential partner for academic programming of all sorts: the housing staff. Many modern housing departments emphasize the living environment’s role in ensuring that students thrive academically, believing that beyond simply quartering students, residence halls contribute actively to creating successful college experiences. This commitment to creating a living environment that complements academic pursuits inclines many to be enthusiastic partners for librarians who hope to extend services into their demesne.

During her FIR stint, Antell had an opportunity not available to many librarians—not only to become acquainted with hundreds of undergraduate students in an informal environment, but also to organize a variety of library outreach programs in this underutilized venue. She experimented with a number of scholarly programs for her student neighbors, ranging from fiction discussion groups to library orientations for new residents. Her experience as a “live-in librarian” informed her work later when, in 2006, she accepted a new position as head of reference and outreach services and included the residence halls among outreach targets. Using the framework of her experience with residence hall outreach, this article outlines the important considerations in planning a successful residence hall outreach initiative and offers suggestions for librarians interested in expanding their outreach horizons to include the relatively uncharted territory of the undergraduate dormitory.

Literature Review

“Outreach” is an encompassing term referring to any of a great variety of library initiatives, be they virtual or physical, occasional or ongoing.2 Westbrook and Waldman define it succinctly as “services designed to reach patrons outside of the library—wherever they are accessing, evaluating, or manipulating information.”3 At academic libraries, that is often taken to mean extending services beyond the university community; however, it also includes targeted efforts to encourage greater library use by students and faculty.4 In recent literature, the particular version of academic outreach that has garnered most attention is arguably the simplest: taking librarians out of the library.

Academic Library Services Outside Libraries

Academic outreach librarians have established a presence in academic departments, student unions, computer labs, clinics, and residence halls, bringing the library to patrons wherever they are conducting their academic work. The University of Central Florida Librarians on Location project encapsulates the impetus for establishing outposts that many librarians express: “By having librarians go out into the campus and meet students on their own turf, we are seeking to proactively meet the information needs of the campus, increase our visibility to faculty, address the different information-seeking styles of the digital generation as well as decrease student anxiety about the library.”5

In 2004, an Association of Research Libraries SPEC Kit reported that forty-one member libraries (of the seventy-five that responded to the survey) “have offered or are offering scheduled, in-person services in academic departments or other institutional spaces outside of the library,” generally including reference and consultation services as a major focus.6 Rudin’s 2008 article provides a thorough overview of the current literature on “the embedded librarian, liaison librarian, blended librarian, outreach librarian, diffuse librarian, disembodied librarian, librarians without walls, and librarians on location,” all the incarnations that she charmingly dubs “the troubadour approach to reference.”7 Without unnecessarily duplicating her work with a complete survey of the current state of outreach efforts, it is relevant to discuss briefly the benefits of outreach-by-outpost and the considerations necessary to ensuring a service’s success.

Benefits of Outreach

Librarians cite “increased visibility for library staff and the libraries,” “user convenience,” and “relationship building” as the major benefits of well-conducted satellite services.8 Some judged their outreach initiatives successful if they attracted a satisfactory number or type of questions: a University of Buffalo outreach service to academic departments, for example, was considered a success in part because it generated a “number of quality interactions [that] usually matched a ‘good’ shift at the reference desk,” while Simon Fraser University librarians were pleased that most questions received at outreach locations “involved true reference.”9

However, many of the benefits are less easily quantified. Many outreach advocates note that their efforts created goodwill among users, increased the library’s visibility, and built positive relationships.10 Indeed, some librarians even considered those intangible benefits so valuable that they outweighed somewhat disappointing reference statistics.11 Moreover, librarians champion outpost services as allowing for serendipitous or chance encounters in a way that traditional services do not. As Wagner observed, “many of the questions and interactions would never have taken place had so much as an email or phone call been required. The most common opening line ran something like this, ‘I was just passing by and was wondering if . . .’”12 Outreach settings benefit from their usual informality, as it can encourage users to approach who might be reluctant to seek help “officially” by visiting the library reference desk.13 As Rudin reminds us, “The entire foundation of outpost librarianship rests on the supposition that in a digitally dominated environment, there is still inherent value in the personal encounter.”14

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