Supporting Student Parents in the Academic Library: Designing Spaces, Policies, and Services

ACRL announces the publication of Supporting Student Parents in the Academic Library: Designing Spaces, Policies, and Services by Kelsey Keyes and Ellie Dworak, a guide to engaging with and aiding the student parents in your libraries and leading the charge in making your institutions more family friendly.

Learn more about Supporting Students Parents in the Academic Library in this excerpt from the Prologues by Kelsey Keyes.

© Kelsey Keyes and Ellie Dworak.

Seeing Student Parents

The seeds of what would become my next decade or so of research were planted in 2014. Perhaps because I fairly recently had my first child myself, I began to be more aware of the children who occasionally came into Boise State’s library. During shifts at the reference desk—which was centrally located near both the front entrance and the circulation desk—I noticed more and more that students (and perhaps staff and faculty as well) would come into the academic library with young children in tow. More often than not, it would be a rushed visit: I could see students coming in just to drop off their books, to print something quickly, or to pick up an item. I would hear parents frequently shushing their children or giving them reminders that libraries are quiet places, even though the first floor of the library is an active, collaborative space that is rarely silent. The parents were often harried and clearly projected an air of hoping their children would behave. I began to suspect that many of them were probably unclear on whether or not their children were even allowed in the library, so they ran their errands as quickly as possible—keeping their children as quiet as possible—in hopes of not violating library policy (or unspoken norms).

I realized I did not know if children were allowed in the library, and I looked for a policy; the library didn’t have one. And then I began to wonder how many students on campus had children. I had no idea—at the time—that this would be such a difficult question to answer.

I started to ask some of my colleagues what our library’s expectations were regarding children in the library. Anecdotal and observed evidence from librarians and staff at the Access Services (Circulation) Desk and Information (Reference) Desk at Albertsons Library at Boise State University suggested that students accompanied by children were frequent library visitors. Access Services workers told me they sometimes received noise complaints from non-student parents who didn’t think children should be allowed in the library. One co-worker told me that just that day she had had a male student, accompanied by two children, come to the Reference Desk to ask about our library’s policy on children—he wanted to know if he was even allowed to enter the library with them.

My interest was piqued and I began researching the topic further. I started approaching students who came into the library accompanied by children to chat with them briefly and perhaps get their contact information, with the thought of possible future focus group discussions in mind. I never had a student unwilling to talk to me, and many of them were willing to provide contact information as well. Often, they seemed pleased that anyone was paying attention to their particular situation at all.

One response, however, stands out most clearly to me. A female student was using a library computer, struggling to type while also dealing with a wiggly toddler sitting on her lap. On the floor next to them was a baby in a car seat who was happily babbling and laughing. They were not being overly loud and they were on the first floor, which, again, is a noisier and collaborative floor in our library, not a dedicated quiet area. I saw this woman from my office and decided to approach her. My intent was simply to talk to her and maybe see if I could lend a hand with her children briefly while she completed her work. She noticed me walking toward her and the look on her face was panicked as she attempted to type faster. “I’m really sorry about him,” she said quickly, indicating the chatty baby, as I approached. “I’m almost done here. We’ll get out of here soon, I promise. I just need to get this paper printed and turned in.” She was so apologetic and frantic; I rushed to reassure her that I was coming over not to chastise her or shush her children but to make sure she knew she (and her children) were welcome in the library and to see if I could help her at all.

Her relief was palpable and it forced me to realize just how unwelcoming the library can seem (or actually is) to student parents. She assumed that I was coming to reprimand her when she was simply trying to complete a task dozens of students do in the library every day: finishing a paper and printing it before class. She was already being forced to accommodate our space: she had her toddler on her lap and the car seat on the floor, shoved close to the chair; she’d have to take both children with her to walk across the first floor to the printer; she was trying to keep both kids occupied and entertained while also typing. Conversely, our library had made no visible effort to accommodate her needs or to provide a useful space. After that encounter, I resolved to learn more about student parents—their presence and unique needs—in higher education and to find ways to support student parents in the academic library.

I soon learned that the data tells us this woman is not alone. A report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research analyzing federal education data (gathered by the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics) found that “more than one in five college students—or nearly four million undergraduates—are parents.”[1] And I learned that student parents are a widely overlooked part of the student population in higher education. I learned that student parents face different challenges than their non-parenting peers and that they tend to have higher average GPAs but lower rates of degree completion and retention. Moreover, student parents are much more likely to also belong to other historically excluded groups (URM). Perhaps most distressingly, I soon found that almost no institutions of higher education collected data about the parenting status of students. Without data, student parents literally weren’t being counted, suggesting that they metaphorically “don’t count” either. In other words, student parents were—and are—being ignored, overlooked, underserved, and excluded in higher education.

As I continued to research, I came to realize that the academic library is uniquely situated to lead the way in supporting student parents on campus, through changing our policies, our spaces, and our minds. Academic libraries are not only a critical resource but also often a central hub on campus. It is paramount that academic libraries and librarians work toward our core missions of providing resources, spaces, and services to support student success, no matter the student’s background or current circumstances. And it is time for student parents to receive the attention and support they deserve.

  1. Contreras-Mendez and Reichlin Cruse, “Busy with Purpose,” 5.