By Steven Bell
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Nicholas Kristof, New York Times Op-Ed Columnist, ignited a firestorm among faculty with the publication of his February 15, 2014 column “Professors, We Need You.” Commenting on the increase of American anti-intellectualism, Kristof called on faculty to engage in more public discourse. Leave your cloistered medieval monasteries, urged Kristof, suggesting that faculty should engage the public in a better understanding of the issues of the day. Though understanding Kristof’s good intentions, the professoriate reacted strongly to rebuke what they claimed was Kristof’s failure to acknowledge all the work faculty were already doing to connect with their communities. (Potter, 2014). Many who commented on Kristof’s column pointed to the growing popularity of science cafes (Reiss, 2012). Faculty and even academic librarians appeared as guests on media programming to provide expert insights and explain the everyday impact of their research (Bell, 2012d). The conversation pointed to the important role that colleges and universities play in contributing to the intellectual and social liveliness of their communities.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Higher education institutions must shed their image as isolated, ivy-covered towers where aloof intellectuals commune, ignoring their immediate surroundings and those who live in these communities. Those days have passed. Enlightened presidents and trustees now realize that the colleges and universities that receive support from neighboring communities are the ones who pay attention and strive to build good relationships with community members (Goral, 2006). They also invest in the infrastructure by funding improvements to schools, retail and housing. What form that relationship takes may depend on the nature of the surrounding environment and how much help the college or university can provide. “Town-gown” relationships are a familiar source of tension between higher education institutions and the neighborhoods or cities in which they are located. Now these areas of potential conflict are moving beyond the payment of property tax or rowdy students creating noise at 2:00 am. The stakes are much higher as communities expect colleges and universities to provide significant resources, both financial and human, in helping the community thrive.
|SIDEBAR – New Roles – Neighborhood Liaison and Public Education Specialist. Connecting with the external community, call it the surrounding neighborhoods if you will, requires establishing relationships with those external leaders who are able to leverage people and resources to create sustainable services. This specialist may work through an existing college department of community relations or it may require an entirely new outreach initiative to identify, locate and communicate with the people who can get things done. This Liaison is the face of the library that extends beyond the campus, but the focus is on extending the education mission of the academic library to the neighborhood. The Specialist accomplishes this by establishing locations where satellite computer access, job information, technology support and other services can be delivered. The Specialist also seeks out community partners to help improve the quality of access to information in and beyond those neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the campus.|
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 Academic libraries, both public and private, are well positioned to adopt or expand their role in supporting the institutional mission to serve the surrounding community. To what extent they do so would most depend on the nature of the community and its needs. Those most likely to benefit from support from an academic library are those suffering from urban neglect, low-income households, high unemployment, a significant digital divide and other urban ills, though rural areas may be equally susceptible to these same problems. Among the ways in which academic librarians can establish a role for their library as a community support are computer and internet access, inviting community members to use the library’s physical resources, extending borrowing privileges, providing job assistance and making the community welcome at library social and cultural events. When it comes to delivering these types of services to the external community, the academic library is often the best suited unit on campus to organize and offer community outreach, though it does create opportunities for collaboration with the community relations department, an office more commonly found within the academic administration.
|SIDEBAR: New Roles – Outreach-Community Engagement Specialist. As the competition for prospective students heats up, and regional colleges and universities battle each other for their share of those students who will make up the next freshmen class – as well as transfer students – institutions will be open to new ways to boost enrollment. While the library is said to be a factor that students and parents consider when making the college choice, it could be doing more than just opening the doors and allowing prospective students and their parents to take a tour of the building. The new road calls for a more aggressive approach by the library in this more competitive environment. Imagine a new and expanded role that embeds a librarian in the community beyond the institutional walls. The Community Engagement Specialist is tasked with connecting with high school students and their parents at the schools, community meetings and at public libraries. The Specialist is there to create more recognition for his or her institution, and to demonstrate that the Library is an active participant in contributing to student success.|
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Accepting the new community service role is good for the library and the institution. As state and federal funding declines, local governments struggle to adequately support the public library system. Under-funded public schools are deciding to eliminate books and librarians. When academic libraries support the community it in no way aims to replace the public library, but it can provide some additional service to those who might otherwise be shut out. It also helps to make the case for the benefits that higher education institutions give back to their local community when there is increasing pressure among local governments to question if colleges and universities should be paying taxes or fees for municipal services. With many more citizens taking online courses and self-educating, academic librarians can serve these individuals as a source of learning support that contributes indirectly to the betterment of the community.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In this role shift academic librarians will find themselves with some new challenges familiar to their public library colleagues. Embracing a new community service role requires a willingness to be truly open to all. That means everyone from those seeking computer help, to the homeless, teens and latchkey children. It can require rethinking access policies and existing security measures. With proper planning and thoughtful consideration, academic librarians can adopt this new community service role without degradation of existing services to their primary population of students and faculty. Here are some factors to think about:
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- Provide staff with the proper training and development to equip them with the skills needed to deal with difficult situations that might arise from dealing with community residents who suffer from mental illness, poor health or any other issues that might lead to friction.
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- Review policies to ensure they accommodate the public without infringing on the service expectations of students and faculty. Minors wandering the building, for example, may call for a policy requiring them to gain access only when accompanied by adult guardians.
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- Put in place the appropriate technology that enables staff to serve community residents who will lack the familiar campus networking credentials. To maintain order and control over who is using computers, and most academic IT departments will require monitoring, consider computer control software of the type used in public libraries.
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- Anticipate community members lacking the computer know how taken for granted with average college students. Consider adding student workers who can serve as “tech tutors” to help the less computer savvy to use e-mail, download documents or fill out online forms (e.g., job applications).
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- Reach out to public librarians who also serve your community to share information about services to the public. In transitioning into a new community center role, collaborating with other community providers will help avoid offering competing rather than complementary service, as well as providing an opportunity to learn from the experience of those providers.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 While academic administrators are unlikely to expect their librarians to establish a bond with the external community in the ways that might be expected of faculty or the community relations department, the library can emerge as a premier campus service that community residents will truly appreciate. Adopting this new role on the road ahead may seem intimidating to some because of fears that it will turn the academic library into a public one. Opening up the library to the public community will invite in challenges that the walls of academia traditionally keep out. But in communities where the social fabric is beyond fraying and support networks are failing, be they inner city or remote rural, the academic library has the potential to be a grassroots campus leader in demonstrating that delivering value means more than contributing to student and faculty success. With proper planning and execution, transitioning to a community center will have rewards far beyond the walls of the campus.