Teach Where They Live: New Opportunities for Library Instruction and Outreach in Residence Halls

By Michelle Bishop
Acting Coordinator of Reference
Penfield Library, State University of New York, Oswego

It was 7:30 p.m. and the student actors were beginning to arrive to review their roles for the “Experience World Libraries” workshop that would start in 30 minutes. As a live-in Faculty Resident Mentor in Hart Hall at SUNY Oswego, I had designed the workshop as an experiential learning activity meant to illustrate the critical role libraries around the world play in facilitating access to information. It was rewarding to see that after going through the three scenarios, students were actively discussing the impact that limited access to information has on societies. Two years later, I can still say this has been one of the most exciting teaching experiences I have had as an instructional librarian. It is important to point out that this experience occurred in a residence hall and not a traditional classroom. This workshop and other residential outreach experiences I have designed are as a result of the educational mission of Residence Life and Housing on the SUNY Oswego campus. Like Oswego, an educational focus is a key element of residential life missions on other campuses. As such, there is exciting potential for wide-ranging instructional outreach opportunities for librarians in campus residential settings.

Historically, residence halls have aligned their goals with the academic missions of their respective institutions. There is a growing body of literature describing how college libraries have worked to support the academic goals of residence halls. Library-residence life collaborations have included: house libraries, residence halls designed with library collections unique to each hall, assigned live-in librarians, and other initiatives (Morgan, 1931; Strothmann & Antell, 2010). Here at SUNY Oswego, Residence Life and Housing’s mission is to “provide a secure and inviting learning community focused on academic and personal success.” As First-Year Experience (FYE) Librarian and a Faculty Resident Mentor, I have used this focus to develop library-related programs and initiatives tailored to the specific goals of the learning communities housed in Johnson and Hart Halls at SUNY Oswego.

Building a sense of community and supporting first year students through their initial year of college are the primary goals of Johnson’s First Year Residential Experience (FYRE). The hall is home to 250 students supported by the FYRE Coordinator, the Faculty Master, and student staff called Resident Mentors. The other residential learning community, the Hart Hall Global Living and Learning Center, was created with the mission to foster student awareness about world issues. Hart is home to 340 students with a significant population of international students. Students are supported by live-in Faculty Resident Mentors, a Faculty Director, a staff of graduate students called Graduate Resident Mentors, and the Hall Director. From 2013 through 2016, I served as a Faculty Resident Mentor. In this unique role I contributed to the intellectual life of Hart by developing academic programming with a global focus. Sharing a home with students also permitted me to connect with students on a less formal level. I have talked with some curious international students about my perspectives as a Black American woman, explained my journey to becoming a librarian, and sharing in end-of-year celebrations. I like to think that these interactions have  added another dimension to students’ perceptions of librarians.

Best Practices

While the college residential setting is ripe for exciting instruction and outreach opportunities, my experience has shown that simply transplanting traditional classroom instruction to a residential setting is not the best approach. Successful residential life outreach will largely be determined by the unique culture or educational mission of the specific residence hall, librarian academic and personal interests, flexibility in librarian schedules, and most importantly, effective collaboration with residence hall administration and staff. A plan for successful residence hall outreach should include:

  • Establishing and maintaining good communication with residence hall administration and staff.

Access to the residential sphere, in practically all cases, will require permission from residence hall administration. Meet with senior staff to communicate your goals and the benefits of collaboration. Keep communication channels open to continue to develop meaningful collaborations. Once you have been granted access from senior staff, work directly with hall directors and other local residence hall staff to gain help to promote programs and to encourage strong attendance.

As FYE Librarian, I designed a new student library orientation called “Rep Your Hall.” Healthy competition among all the residence halls on campus was critical to the success of this experience. I realized I would need the support of hall directors in order to promote the program and encourage the participation of first year students living in each hall. I first contacted the head of Residence Life and Housing to gain support for the idea. This first step led to helpful introductions to busy hall directors and funding for a trophy for the winning hall and gift certificates for individual winners. I also gained helpful advice about the training schedule for the local residence hall staff and was able to pinpoint the best time to speak with hall directors about the program. Throughout the two weeks of the “Rep Your Hall” orientation I maintained contact with Resident Mentors who communicated any issues or questions heard from students on their floors.

  • Planning outreach around learning communities and themed events

Programming in most residence halls is typically themed-based or centered on the focus of the learning community. You will need to find creative ways to integrate instructional outreach into existing thematic activities. What may not readily appear to be information literacy related might spark an innovative approach to teaching IL concepts.

During my time as a Faculty Resident Mentor in Hart Hall, I was challenged to create learning experiences that combined library topics and global issues. Although I had been teaching IL topics for a year prior to moving in to Hart, I quickly realized that neither these topics nor the teaching methods I had employed in formal classroom settings would easily be translated to this learning environment. Moving away from teaching traditional IL topics was anxiety-inducing, yet it also liberated my instruction. During Hart’s annual Global Awareness Conference, I presented “Libraries: Safeguarding the World’s Cultural & Natural Heritage.” The presentation was meant to inform the audience about the response of libraries and archives to preserving culturally significant sites in Nepal, Syria, and Iraq after ISIL attacks and natural disasters.

“Experience World Libraries,” the workshop mentioned earlier in this article’s introduction was also designed around Hart Hall’s global theme. Like the Global Awareness Conference presentation, I was forced to move beyond the traditional focus of IL instruction. This shift in thinking freed me to think more deeply about the discipline of librarianship and its connections to the world. Based on the discussion that followed that experience, I could detect a new awareness among the audience about the role libraries play in this issue. As an educator it was exciting to share my subject knowledge in a new way that also engaged students.

The “Faculty After Dark” series is one of many opportunities at SUNY Oswego for faculty to engage with students outside of the classroom. In this series faculty and staff present informally on topics of interest to them, personal or academic. As a former first-generation student I led a discussion that was a mix of personal and academic called, “I’m First, Now What?” During the session we discussed the meaning of the first-generation label, discussed the potential challenges this group of students face, shared my experience as a first-generation student pursuing my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and encouraged those students who are identified as first-generation to reach out to me if I could be of help beyond my role as librarian.

  • Co-teaching and soliciting input from student staff (Resident Assistants)

Partnering with student staff can lead to meaningful learning experiences. Resident Assistants or Resident Mentors are very aware of the specific interests of their peers. These students tend to do well with added responsibilities and may welcome co-teaching opportunities that would allow them to demonstrate their leadership skills. Seek their input to integrate fun learning activities and new ideas into library-related workshops and other events. The training that these students receive in preparation to teach may help create library ambassadors who can then point students to library services or research tools. In addition to helping create engaging learning experiences, students who co-teach can also gain practical experience that could be added to their résumés.

In classroom instruction and while providing reference help, I have become well aware of the areas where students struggle with research and using research tools. First year students, in particular, pose a unique instructional challenge. They tend to overestimate their readiness for college-level research and as a result, may not be very motivated to learn more about the library. To address this particular challenge, I continually work to find new ways to make instruction for this population more engaging. When possible, I seek out the help of peer leaders in designing instruction. In Johnson Hall, I began by recruiting willing Resident Mentors to share their input and ideas for creating fun learning experiences. Some Mentors helped by leading ice breaker activities at the start of workshops and some helped with organizing teams and leading group activities during workshops. On one occasion, I co-taught a workshop on citations with a Mentor. I used a game format to reinforce basic rules of APA and MLA citation styles. In preparation, I met with the Mentor to review APA and MLA citation styles and the design and rules of the game. During the workshop, she led the APA teams while I led the MLA teams through the game. The input and contributions of Resident Mentors have helped me to create more engaging learning experiences which appeal to their first year peers.

  • Identifying available space tailored to the specific instruction or outreach activity

Most residence halls today will have some formal instruction spaces that look very much like a typical classroom. However, consider the opportunity to teach in some of the non-traditional learning spaces found in residence halls. Speak with hall directors and student staff to identify potential spaces based on audience size and activities planned. When instruction moves beyond the standard classroom or library setting there are opportunities to teach in less formal settings such as a floor lounge, outside on the lawn, in a dining hall, a theater, or sitting near a lake (Johnson Hall at SUNY Oswego sits steps away from the shores of Lake Ontario).

While living in Hart Hall, I was one of eight Faculty Resident Mentors assigned to a floor in the hall. Although there was one formal classroom on the main floor, we were encouraged to turn floor lounges into teaching spaces. So when I needed space to lead a graphic novel book discussion, I met with students in the comfort of the lounge on my floor. The soft couches and smaller space helped to create a more comfortable and intimate learning experience. The sense of community that comes from living together on the same floor or in the same building likely helps to reduce some of the anxiety of participating in a classroom full of people students may not know well. While our library has comfortable seating and smaller spaces for individual use, the sense of intimacy created in that lounge space could not be easily recreated in the library.

  • Scheduling work days to create maximum outreach

What outreach looks like should be dictated by your target population. When our traditional work day is ending, student life is just getting started. The life of a student also extends beyond the classroom. To improve opportunities to reach our target populations, librarians with instructional and outreach responsibilities, should adjust their work hours to be able to participate in informal learning and activities happening on campus after 5 p.m., when possible. Ask for support from supervisors or the library director to create a flexible schedule that balances the demands of outreach with other library responsibilities.

At Oswego the library is located some distance from the FYRE program in Johnson Hall. Knowing first year students to overestimate their research abilities (Head 2013), I realized that this group of students would not be easily motivated to seek out the library on their own. Being tasked to find a way to increase their awareness of the library’s services and resources, I needed to bring the library to the 250 freshmen living in Johnson. Thanks to the foresight of my supervisor, flexible scheduling had already been built into my job description. From the middle of the semester through finals week, I began offering drop-in librarian help from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. During those hours, I partnered with a tutor from the campus Writing Center to help students with citations and finding good sources. Since beginning the service, I have had the flexibility to adjust my working hours to meet the demand for this service and to accommodate changes in my responsibilities.

Assessing Impact

Developing outreach initiatives to residence halls will likely demand additional investments of your time and energies. How do you measure the return on these investments? How do you determine success or failure? Just as new approaches are critical to providing instructional outreach, so too are new approaches to assessing impact.

Historically, reference statistics, volume of classes or students taught, or some formative assessment of student learning have been used to measure the impact of librarian-student interactions. However, these data cannot fully capture the impact of instructional outreach. Factors like gaining the support of library and residential life administration and adapting instruction to address new spaces and new collaborations are just some of the critical outreach activities that are not considered in the assessment of traditional instruction and reference work. Yet, these activities are key to developing instructional outreach and should be included in assessing the impact of your efforts.

Traditional measures of librarian-student interactions may be used to assess IL instruction offered in the residence halls with the understanding that the data collected from these differing instructional experiences will also need to be analyzed differently and supplemented with additional outreach-specific data. For example, higher attendance would be a piece of data to prove library impact. However, lower attendance in residence halls may be the result of space limitations (e.g. floor lounges), timing of the session, and support of hall staff. In the case of the workshop described at the beginning of this article, participation was limited to 12 students in order to make it easier for me to manage the simulation. Attendance numbers would not have effectively captured what impact that learning experience had on students. Instead, I looked at the level of student engagement to assess the success of the workshop which, according to the assessment literature, is an effective measure of learning (Carini, Kuh, & Klein, 2006). As a teaching librarian the insightful questions asked during the post-experience discussion demonstrated a level of engagement and critical thinking that I aspire to in more formal classroom instruction.

Conclusion

Librarian-student interactions have traditionally been restricted to the formal learning environments of the classroom or the library. These interactions have also tended to be faculty-mediated or student initiated, rather than librarian directed. As an instruction librarian I am well aware of how this traditional approach can dictate how, when, and if librarians and students interact. Outreach to residence halls, on the other hand, can lead to unique opportunities for a host of instructional outreach experiences that are librarian directed. The many levels of potential librarian embeddedness in residence halls offer incredible instructional potential and additional opportunities to teach information literacy and to promote libraries and their services. Though my tenure as Faculty Resident Mentor has ended, as First-Year Experience Librarian, my collaborations with residence life will continue to facilitate access to my core demographic: new college students. Supporting our partners in residential learning can result in creative and highly collaborative teaching experiences that are exciting and engaging for students and librarians, alike.

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank Karen Shockey for laying the groundwork for SUNY Oswego’s first First-Year Experience Librarian position, Linda Lefevre for actively collaborating to deliver IL instruction to all of Johnson Hall’s freshmen, and Beth Young for her feedback on the writing of this article.

References

Carini, R., Kuh, G., & Klein, S. (2006). Student engagement and student learning: Testing the linkages. Research in Higher Education, 47(1), 1-32. doi:10.1007/s11162-005-8150-9.

Head, A. J. (2013, December 4). Learning the ropes: How freshmen conduct research once they enter college. Project Information Literacy Progress Report. Retrieved from http://www.projectinfolit.org/uploads/2/7/5/4/27541717/pil_2013_freshmenstudy_fullreportv2.pdf

Morgan, K. (1931). The Harvard house libraries. Library Journal, 56(6), 536–539.

Strothmann, M. & Antell, K. (2010). The live-in librarian: Developing library outreach to university residence halls. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 50(1), 48-58.

SUNY Oswego. Residence Life and Housing (2016-2017). Our goals, missions, and values. Retrieved from https://www.oswego.edu/residence-life-and-housing/our-mission-goals-and-values

4 thoughts on “Teach Where They Live: New Opportunities for Library Instruction and Outreach in Residence Halls

  1. What an interesting piece, Michelle! Thanks for sharing your informative idea about going beyond the library to help students with research! Through the years, I’ve had lots of conversations with librarians about how this might be achieved. You did it! I was pleased to see that you cited PIL’s freshmen study, too. On a small aside, you may want to change the title in your bib to PIL’s freshmen study; should be: “Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Research Once They Enter College.” The link to thee report, BTW, is right on.

    Best wishes,

    – Alison

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