An Area Studies Pilot: Faculty Engagement, Public Space and Reference Service

By Charmaine Henriques
International Studies Librarian
Indiana University
Herman B Wells Library
Bloomington, Indiana


Indiana University Bloomington (IUB) Libraries noticed a decrease in student (predominantly undergraduates) usage of its services and resources. This ongoing concern had been noted in the library literature and library panels/presentations. Administrators throughout the nation repeatedly surveyed students, put together focus groups and convened committees to discuss and find solutions to this phenomenon. These investigations unearthed recurring issues: students didn’t know how to navigate the
library or where and from who to get help. There was a segment of this population that either grew up without access to or did not make use of the library during primary and secondary school. For certain post secondary students, a college or university library will be the first library they ever encounter which can be an overwhelming experience, while to others that have already been enrolled for a few years the library is an unknown, unwelcoming place that they do not understand. Even so, where many saw a problem, a group of Area Studies librarians at IUB Libraries saw an opportunity.

The undergraduates

Library angst has always been a concern for librarians in relation to their patrons and this is especially true in a scholastic setting. Students will visit the library to study, socialize, type papers, work collaboratively with their classmates and even eat. But the deep rooted fear of the library due to its size, not knowing where things are located, what to do and how to begin the research process has been documented since the 1980’s. Further exacerbating this problem is students not asking for help because they worry they would be exposed as ineffective at library use in comparison to their peers who are assumed to be more competent (Mellon 1986, 278-279). Gatekeepers have been aware of these issues for some time. In 1991 a Chronicle of Higher Education article noted that, over the past 25 years, “the number of students who have checked out even one book or journal from their high school library declined 40 percent” and “students are less prepared for college now than they were in the 1960’s and 70’s” (Dodge 1991, A38-A39).

The growth of the World Wide Web and advances in computing technology gave rise to a group of young adults who spent their lives online. In fact, these crops of students were more tech savvy than any other generation before them and were perceived to be more worldly, sophisticated, and confident. These perceptions were not baseless, in 2002 it was reported, “Ninety percent of children between the ages of 5 and 17 (or 48 million) now use computers” and “Seventy-five percent of 14-17 year olds and 65 percent of 10-13 year olds use the Internet.” (A Nation Online 2002, 1). From 2007-2015, a quarter of incoming freshman were steadily spending 6 hours or more a week on social media, by 2016, that number jumped to 40.9 percent (Eagan et al 2017, 20). Therefore, upon entering the higher education system, it was presumed that these “Digital Natives,” native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games and the internet, were extremely adept and capable of processing, understanding, and locating a wide range of information. Ultimately, however, this presumption was found to be incorrect (Prensky 2001, 1).

The mid-2000s brought increased scrutiny on how students, chiefly undergraduates, used and searched for information in the library. One of the more notable studies of this period was the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL). The ERIAL Project was fund by a LSTA grant and ran between 2008-2010. It included 2 full time anthropologists, around 25 librarians and five Illinois universities (Green 2013, 5). The purpose of the project was to use ethnographic interviews to gain a better understanding of the undergraduate research process so libraries could tailor their services to better address their pupils’ needs (Howard 2010). ERIAL produced a significant amount of scholarly output on undergraduate information seeking behaviors and showed their attitudes and impressions about the library.

Via the ethnographic process, librarians were able to closely observe student searching, database choice and how they looked for materials in the stacks. Some of the major revelations were undergraduates overuse simple searching by treating all search boxes like a Google search box which led to too much or too little information. Instead of using advanced search methods to expand or refine a search, students either changed databases or search terms when confronted with undesirable results, as if by coming up with just the right terms or resource, they would get everything they needed to compete their work and would not have to look further (Asher 2011, 5). Students made quick judgements about a source’s usefulness solely based on the title or by skimming the abstract and when presented with search result they rarely looked at results past the first page, assuming anything of true merit would come up first (Asher 2011, 9). When choosing a database for research, students would constantly return to databases they were familiar with or had success with in the past, regardless of whether those databases were appropriate for the research they were currently conducting (Asher 2011, 6).

IUB would conduct its own study on undergraduate use of the libraries on the Bloomington campus. During the 2010-2011 academic year the Board of Aeons, a 12-member student research and advisory organization that works closely with the President of Indiana University (IU) to seek feasible solutions to complex problems confronting the university, was tasked with interviewing librarians and students, surveying faculty and students, and reviewing practices of peer institutions. One of the questions they were asked to answer was, “Why don’t undergraduates more fully utilize library resources?” (Cui, Van Kooten, and Goins 2011, 3).

The culmination of this inquiry resulted in the submission of the 2011 document, IU Bloomington Libraries: A Report Prepared for President Michael McRobbie by the Board of Aeons (unofficially known as the Board of Aeons Report) which was distributed and shared with IU Bloomington Libraries faculty and staff. In creating the report, the Board of Aeons met with librarians, surveyed faculty, and undergraduate students, conducted undergraduate student focus groups, and researched other university libraries (Cui, Van Kooten, and Goins 2011, 7). The report stated among other things, the libraries’ environment was not conductive to student use and this was a barrier to undergraduate utilization of library resources (Cui, Van Kooten, and Goins 2011, 3). This concept was further detailed in the “Environment” section of the report  where specific to Wells Library, the East Tower where tangible materials are held, was deemed not user friendly for undergraduates and was described as intimidating and uninviting. There was also an issue of convenience. The disparate locations between work areas, assistance and the collections made it unclear to the students that these areas worked in consort (Cui, Van Kooten, and Goins 2011, 27).


Known for supporting Indiana University’s research and curricular needs in International and Area Studies, the Area Studies Department in Herman B Wells Library provides the tools that lead to intellectual discovery. It develops and manages a noteworthy multi-disciplinary collection that includes African Studies, Russian and East European Studies, Uralic and Altaic Studies, East Asian Studies, European Studies, and Latin American Studies resources. Employing these impressive collections, Area Studies librarians serve as a conduit between faculty, researchers, students and library collections and services.

Furthermore, 2012 proved to be a watershed year for the University. IU Board of Trustees approved the founding of what is presently the interdisciplinary Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies (HLS). In addition to seventeen area studies institutes and research centers, HLS is comprised of over 350 principal and affiliated faculty members from across the University (Indiana University Media Relations 2012). With the establishment of the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, two new librarian positions in the Area Studies Department were established: Librarian for South Asian and Southeast Asian Studies and International Studies Librarian.

Case study

While Indiana University’s dedication to Area Studies created new opportunities, certain challenges remained. The collections and staff in the library’s Area Studies Department were physically dispersed throughout Wells Library. Moreover, the Area Studies department head had the same qualms about library student usage as other library organizations and departments. The Area Studies Department, therefore requested that the Library Administration plan for the creation of a public space, which would include selected Area Studies collections, an exhibit area, and comfortable seating. This space would entice all students, especially undergraduates, to utilize the library but would specifically cater to the needs of Areas Studies and world languages students, encouraging them to take advantage of a cross section of Area Studies materials and facilitating encounters with Area Studies librarians.

To ascertain the necessity for such a space, the Dean of University Libraries suggested a pilot where members of the Area Studies Department would provide reference service hours at the Government Information, Maps and Microform Services’ (GIMMS) Reference Desk. Starting in the fall semester, five librarians from the Area Studies Department did weekly two hour shifts at the shared GIMMS Reference Desk, with the understanding that the Area Studies Librarians were to focus on covering area studies reference questions, whereas GIMMS personnel would continue to assist patrons with their government information and microform needs.

The appropriate departmental liaisons notified faculty in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. Reference desk hours were publicized on both the library’s and Area Studies department’s website. Department staff strategically posted flyers about the reference service within the library and during relevant occasions, such as pop-up library events at HLS and the Graduate Students Reception held in the Scholars’ Commons of Herman B. Wells Library.

The entire undertaking was scheduled to last the fall semester, but because of unforeseeable circumstances that interrupted the process (an inoperable escalator that decreased foot traffic to the second floor of the library and the late delivery of a larger, more visible GIMMS reference desk) the pilot project was extended through the remainder of the academic year, terminating at the end of May 2018.


While assessment is an increasingly important part of the library profession, library projects and initiatives can be difficult to evaluate. In many instances, library outreach and engagement activities lack a formal assessment mechanism to determine effectiveness. For this reason, the Area Studies department discussed at several departmental meetings, how to evaluate the Area & International Studies Reference Hours Pilot. They decided that the best assessment strategy would include quantitative and qualitative elements. As a result, librarians tracked the number of area studies reference questions at the GIMMS Reference Desk and interviewed seven delegates (faculty from each Area Studies Librarian liaison assignment) from HLS or related Colleges/Schools to receive feedback on the pilot and ideas about the proposed Area Studies public space.

With student feedback about library spaces already available from the Board of Aeons Report, librarians focused on faculty observations. Each librarian identified one faculty member from their academic department portfolio who historically had significant amounts of interaction with their liaison or a high level of interest in the library. The International Studies Librarian was tasked with soliciting information from these stakeholders. After introductions were made (see Appendix A: E-mail), one hour conversations were scheduled to talk with the professors about the pilot and area studies public space. The department liaison librarians had the choice to attend these exchanges, but their presence was not required.

The interview questions were first designed to address the public service space. However, as the pilot progressed, it became clear that the department needed to consider whether the space would or would not need a service point. These experiences caused us, to revise the initial interview question-to effectively discover how faculty would make use of the public service space and engage with Areas Studies resources; this ultimately uncovered their feelings and thoughts on library marketing, outreach, and instruction. In all there were a series of fifteen question: four garnered biographical information, four concerned the pilot, and seven concentrated on the area studies public space (see Appendix B: Questions).


The librarians in the Area Studies department identified ten faculty members that would be plausible candidates to dialog with the International Studies Librarian to receive comments on the Area & International Studies Reference Hours Pilot and suggestions about the area studies public space. Six agreed to be interviewed. The regional specializations of the six were broadly: International, Africa, Asia, and European Studies. There were four male faculty and two female faculty, with the most recent arriving in 2016 and the longest-serving faculty member starting his/her career with IU in 1991. Many of the interviewees had both administrative and teaching experience, with four either currently or previously serving as a department chair, research center director, or program director in their academic unit. Additionally, five of the six held joint appointments, with History and International Studies being the most common departments. All the faculty were tenured except for the most recent hires and four of them were Associate Professors, with one Full Professor and one Assistant Professor. Two of the Associate Professors did indicate they were in the decision making/planning stages to enter the process of promotion to Full Professor.

Results: Area & International Studies Reference Hours Pilot

The most prevalent response among the faculty was they were not aware of the Area & International Studies Reference Hours Pilot. At the time, some of them were on sabbatical or more focused on administrative work, so it was natural that announcements and messages about the pilot may have been missed but even faculty who spent much of the academic year teaching still did not know about the pilot, though it was advertised within the library, during pop-up libraries at HLS, on the department and library’s websites and via e-mails liaisons sent to their respective academic constituents. When asked what the preferred communication method for being alerted to Area Studies department or library business was, they all chose e-mail with one person proposing office drop-ins and another mentioning phone calls.

Nevertheless, the respondents were pleasantly surprised and did believe the pilot was a good idea, indicating they would have encouraged their students to use reference services by informing and referring them to the GIMMS Reference Desk during the pilot hours and generating assignments that would require student to seek help at the desk. They offered recommendations for better publicizing the pilot such as displaying electronic flyers on the computer and plasma screens in the Library and Global and International Studies Building (GISB) and along those lines creating posters and handouts that could be hung in GISB, producing brochures to be handed out to students, weekly or monthly announcements via e-mail to HLS’ and different listservs, tours of the service point and educating  faculty about the pilot during their department meetings.

Interestingly, the faculty still believe in the effectiveness of conventional instruction and outreach methods such as tutorials, group classroom instruction and tours. In their opinion the pilot would have benefited both graduate and undergraduate students but particularly students in seminars, capstone courses and graduate students involved in outside special projects since they usually connect and form relationships with their subject specialist/liaison when fulfilling their normal scholarship. The faculty’s biggest root concerns about student information seeking behaviors were their lack of ability to identify advanced materials in English and/or the vernacular based on their language strengths and in some cases the over-reliance on electronic journals and aggregators versus incorporating primary and traditional sources into research. Exchanges between faculty and students have revealed that library intimidation and a misguided belief that web based sources is all that is needed to perform research have caused a divide between the library and students.

Results: Area Studies Public Space

If the faculty views on the Area & International Studies Reference Hours Pilot were favorable, then they were outright enthusiastic about the proposed public space. Besides the normal trappings, such as nice lighting, comfortable seating, and a welcoming atmosphere etc., the faculty envision a place with art, maps, posters, exhibits that draw attention to special collections and digital humanities and displays that feature faculty research and student projects. Film/documentary screenings and HLS/departmental speaker presentations are some of the events that could be held in the space. It should be able to accommodate solo and group work and instruction and tours. Since faculty are adept with navigating the library and are in possession of private materials that advance their research agendas, they would mostly use the space to meet with their students. The top desired print items that faculty want in the space are reference materials, dictionaries, popular magazines, and newspapers to support language learning, hard to find local foreign journals and cross regional materials; preferred electronic resources would be library catalog terminals and computers highlighting the most relevant subject databases on their desktops.


Librarians discovered, that compared to their peers of the past, todayʼs students are less sure how to use a library, do not understand what help is available to them, and find it more difficult to identify resources that are essential to their research. The faculty still have faith in time-honored outreach and instruction techniques and even now half of them felt actual contact with a librarian continues to be very important. The Area & International Studies Reference Hours Pilot and proposed Area Studies public space were two much appreciated endeavors that showed good will from and demonstrated the library’s concern for undergraduate education. The faculty deemed the Area & International Studies Reference Hours Pilot to be a way for the library to engage with students, assist with the growth of their research skills and prove the importance of the library to the students, faculty, and administrators of HLS and additional schools, centers and departments that focus on international subjects or have strong geographic regional specializations. At
the same time, though the Covid pandemic and administrative changes on campus have put the project on hold, the proposed Area Studies public space was viewed by faculty to have the potential to raise the library’s profile and produce a gathering site that would motivate student curiosity, expand the discipline and further the discourse and promotion of Area Studies on the Blooming campus.


  1. Asher, Andrew D. 2011. “Search Magic: Discovering How Undergraduates Find Information.” Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Montreal.
  2. Cui, Michael, Caitlin Van Kooten, and Laura Goins. 2011. IU Bloomington Libraries: A Report Prepared for President Michael McRobbie by the Board of Aeons. Bloomington: Indiana University.
  3. Dodge, Susan. 1991. “Poorer Preparation for College Found in 25 Year Study of Freshman.” Chronicle of Higher Education 38 (13): A38-A39.
  4. Eagan, Kevin, Ellen Bara Stolzenberg, Hilary B. Zimmerman, Melissa C. Aragon, Hannah Whang Sayson, and Cecilia Rios-Aguilar. The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2016. Los Angeles: Cooperative Institutional Research Program.
  5. Green, David. 2013 “The ERIAL Project: Findings, Ideas, and Tools to Advance Your Library.” Paper presented at the Association of College and Research Libraries National Conference, Indianapolis, April 11.
  6. Howard, Jennifer. 2010. “Overdue at the Library: Good Guides on How to Use It.” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 29.
  7. Indiana University Media Relations, 2012. “IU Trustees Approve New School of Global and International Studies.” IU News Room, August 17.
  8. Mellon, Constance A. “Library Anxiety: A Grounded Theory and Its Development.” College & Research Libraries 47 (2): 276-282. doi:10.5860/crl.76.3.276.
  9. A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet. 2002. Washington D.C.: National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
  10. Prensky, Marc. “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part I.” On the Horizon:The Strategic Planning Resource for Education Professionals 9 (5): 1, 3-6.


Appendix A: Email


Dear (Faculty Title-Last Name or First Name),

Beginning in the fall of 2017 the librarians in Herman B Wells Library’s Area Studies Department have been providing reference service at the Government Information, Maps, and Microform Department’s (GIMMS) Reference Desk from 2:00 p.m.-4:00 p.m. Monday-Friday. This is a part of a pilot project at the bequest of the Dean of the University Libraries after the Area Studies Librarians requested public space in Wells Library. The Pilot is now moving into its assessment phase. We are looking for faculty feedback on the Reference Desk Pilot and thoughts on the Area Studies Department Public Space. The Department’s (Librarian Title) is seeking faculty to interview for the assessment piece. As someone who has always shown an interest in the Library, I would like to introduce you to (Librarian Name), copied in this e-mail, in hopes that you could be one of the faculty that could be interviewed, which should take no longer than 1 hour.

Thank you for considering my request to be an interviewee and please feel free to ask any questions you may have.


Librarian Name
Librarian Title
Librarian Email
Librarian Phone Number

Appendix B: Questions

Biographical Information

  1. Name
  2. Education
  3. Department/School Assignments
  4. Number of years at Indiana University and within assigned Department

Area & International Studies Reference Hours Pilot

  1. Did you know about the Area & International Studies Reference Hours Pilot?
  2. If so, did you use this service or refer students or colleagues to this service?
  3. If you knew about the service and did not refer anyone, can you please say why?
  4. In your opinion, how do you think students can be encouraged to use this reference service?
  5. Do you feel this service is useful?
    a. If yes, who would most benefit from it?
    b. If not, what other type of services do you think would be helpful and for whom?
  6. If you did not know about the Area & International Studies Reference Hours Pilot, in the future how would you like to be informed about Area Studies Department programs?

Area Studies Public Space

  1. If the Library’s Area Studies Department can procure public space within Wells Library to promote Area Studies resources/collection and encourage collaboration within the Area Studies community at Indiana University, what could this space look like and what would it mean to you?
  2. How would you use the space and how do you see your students using the space?
  3. What type of library activities or information services do you think could take place in the space that would be most beneficial to your students?
  4. When speaking to your student, what is their major concern with finding information in the library?
  5. What do you think is the best delivery method in teaching the students information seeking skills?
  6. As a member of the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, what types of information would be helpful to the students?
  7. As a faculty member who is responsible for conducting research and teaching what types of material would you like to see in the space?



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