Why I...believe university libraries can make a real difference in widening access

July 11, 2003

Librarians have an important but largely unsung role to play in helping students who are having difficulties coming to terms with studying. The imagination and the will are there to meet the government's ambitious challenges for widening participation.

First, libraries must be genuinely focused on the needs of the student.

Some just pay lip service to this but, in practice, fall short of the mark.

Can you really be student-focused without providing a service tailored to the needs of every individual? It is certainly a challenge. At the very least it should be an aspiration.

Fund providers need to recognise that helping students who are not used to a culture of study is labour intensive. They need time devoted to their individual needs. E-journals and the automation of library processes are gradually releasing staff to help students become e-literate. But library managers need to ensure that "freed-up" time is channelled into individual support and not allowed to "disappear" into the 1,001 other service demands.

Library staff need time to identify individuals who are experiencing difficulties. Some will mask their problems because they are ashamed or have no idea where to start. Many students see librarians as better positioned to help than their academic counterparts. In my experience, students view us as impartial and objective.

Librarians offer advice and guidance at help desks or via drop-in sessions where individuals can avoid the stigma attached to culture adjustment.

Furthermore, an electronic-support network needs to be in place to help the "invisible" students such as distance learners, e-learners, work-based learners or those at partner colleges of further education.

Building on a student-focused approach, with sufficient staff and time to devote to individual needs, there are some specific services that can make a difference. A library induction programme that students can genuinely engage with is vital. They want to know how the library can make their lives easier. Library jargon, rules and regulations, and the arcane steps to constructing the perfect catalogue are the last thing they need.

University libraries are likely to be the largest libraries most students have encountered. Some will be daunted by the prospect of grappling with the mysteries of e-journals or the plethora of passwords.

Librarians need to instil confidence in the students so that they learn to get the most out of the "system". Regular information-skills sessions are essential. These could be carried out jointly with academic staff. An ideal example would be the evaluation of internet resources.

Staff need to become involved in collaboration of all sorts. For example, arranging "taster days" for schoolchildren to visit the university library, organising imaginative exercises to stimulate them and make higher education attractive. Why don't library staff go into local communities and preach the higher education gospel? A small contribution to attracting future "bums on seats". Such activities can break down barriers and ease the transition into a university culture.

Collaboration between different library services would make sense from a learner's point of view. For example, other than the will and the resources to do so, why shouldn't higher and further education libraries cosy up to libraries in the community for the benefit of students. Such cross-sector activities, although on the increase, are in their infancy.

Many universities, including my own, are making strides in the right direction. If good practices are promoted and more funding is diverted into study-support initiatives, the students who need our help will benefit a lot sooner than they might otherwise.

Steve Morgan
Deputy head, Learning Resources Centre
University of Glamorgan


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