From Gatekeeper to Guide
The staff of the Wyndham Robertson Library is deftly managing the challenges faced by students and faculty in the digital age by embracing customer service with a 21st-century sensibility.
By Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11
Three years ago, researchers from the University of Southern California determined that the average person receives five times more information than he or she did in 1986—every single day.
As this barrage of data from the Internet, smartphones, and other technological advances continues unabated, Wyndham Robertson Library is purposefully seizing upon the worldwide digital revolution as a 21st-century rallying call, shifting its focus as an academic library from gatekeeper to guide.
“Whether they are going on to grad school or a career,” says University Librarian Luke Vilelle, “it is absolutely critical that we prepare our students to interpret, analyze, synthesize, and understand what information means for them.”
While Vilelle and his staff are committed to maintaining and growing the library’s 240,000-volume print collection (“The print book is still a very valued piece in the Hollins community”), information literacy is now a priority for them. “So much of what we do is teach, and we’re a key part of our students’ education. If you were at Hollins 15, 20 years ago, you probably would have had a much different experience in the library than students do now. Even going back 10 years, we were doing 25, maybe 30 instruction sessions each year where we’d go into a class and talk for the period about the library resources available. Now we do about a hundred a year. We talk much more now about not just finding resources but also evaluating them: Is this something that will work for you? Is it authoritative? Is it relevant? We get beyond, ‘Okay, I found this article, now how can I use it effectively?’”
For faculty members such as Professor of Classical Studies Christina Salowey and Associate Professor of Communication Studies Jill Weber, the library’s transition from collection centered to student centered is a godsend.
“There is a continuum from the classroom to the library. You feel like the librarians are in the classroom with you and your class is in the library,” Salowey explains. “With the rise of the digital age, students tend to think that they can get everything on their computer. I take my students over to the library because I want them to understand the digital experience is not the same as the library, yet they must work together. You can’t have one without the other. Students need to have that modeled for them.”
Salowey believes the key to students understanding how the library and the digital universe complement one another lies in the former’s devotion to personal interaction. “That human connection, which has always been one of Hollins’ hallmarks, is so important. There’s nothing better than going over to a librarian and sitting down next to them and asking, ‘Can you help me with this research?’ We believe very much in being physically together in the same space as human beings. It’s very funny at a university to have your own sort of personal librarian, but our students over time develop real relationships with the library staff. It goes beyond what they have with professors in some ways, which is good.”
Weber agrees with Salowey that “students come in with the mindset of, ‘I can get it all online. Why do I need to go to the library?’ I don’t think students really understand the value of the library until they get here and have to write a paper.”
She notes that many students experience a sort of academic culture shock when they go to college and realize they haven’t learned how to perform effective scholarly writing and research. “They suddenly have all this information available to them and they don’t know how to sort it, use it, or process it. It’s intimidating and causes a lot of panic. Our librarians are doing a great job of responding to that need, equipping students with the skills to feel competent in handling this information. Helping people manage all that data is what’s needed from libraries in the 21st century.”
Weber says the library has helped foster some remarkable student transformations. “I had a student this semester who was an A student at a community college but was barely earning Cs here. This semester she had to do a literature review in my class and two others, and she said, ‘Professor Weber, I’ve never had to do this.’ She got a lot of help from the library, and when I read her literature review for my class, I followed all the sources to make sure she didn’t plagiarize anything. It was that good. She had her sources accurately cited and she paraphrased them properly, and the product she produced was amazing. If you look at the change in her ability to communicate as a scholar, it’s tremendous. She couldn’t have done that on her own.”
Every academic department at Hollins has a designated liaison librarian who works personally with faculty and students to support their classes and research. Along with his duties as university librarian, Vilelle is the library’s liaison to the communication studies department and is actively involved in working with Weber’s classes throughout each semester. “Luke knows what all my classes are doing and creates online library guides that are tailored to each,” she explains. “The guide has articles, how to access them, tips and tricks, and available research databases. It really is a one-stop shop.”
Weber’s students then go to the library to meet the staff serving as contacts for her classes. “Students can make specific, one-on-one appointments with them. They like having that contact person they can trust. The librarians have expanded beyond the realm of, ‘Let me get you your material and manage it,’ to ‘Here’s how you cite it, how you use it, how you paraphrase it.’ We have to break a lot of the habits students have developed from the digital age, and the library is doing a good job of responding to that and helping faculty members deal with it as well.”
Each spring, the library celebrates exceptional student research projects completed in Hollins courses by presenting the Wyndham Robertson Library Undergraduate Research Awards. According to the awards’ Web page, “These research projects showcase extensive and creative usage of the library’s resources; the ability to synthesize those resources in completing the project; and growth in the student’s research skills.” This year’s winner was Catherine Hensly ’14 for her paper, “Higher Education, Higher Costs: An Income-Contingent Approach” (see photo).
“We wanted to identify and recognize examples of the great student work being done here, things that other people would be interested in seeing,” says Vilelle. “It’s amazing to look at the quality of the research our undergrads do here. We’ve gotten submissions over the years from every division on campus and we’ve had winners from a variety of different departments.”
While remaining cognizant of the pitfalls of the digital age, Vilelle says the library is constantly exploring ways in which it can maximize some of the advantages of new technology. “The library website is never going to be Google, but we’re trying to create as many easy ‘ins’ to our content as possible. We recently did a redesign of our homepage. We used to just have a catalog search. Now we’ve got tabs at the top where you can not only do that but also search all the roughly 30 EBSCO online research databases we provide and all our JSTOR content [a digital library of academic books, journals, and primary sources]. We’ve also had a chat box on our homepage for a number of years where students can talk with us and ask us questions.” A text messaging service and an app that will allow people to access the library and even perform in-depth research from their mobile devices are forthcoming.
Catherine Hensly ’14, a double major in economics and business, won the library’s top Undergraduate Research Award this year. “Higher Education, Higher Cost: An Income-Contingent Approach” also won the Virginia Social Science Association’s Best 2014 Undergraduate Paper Award.
The library is also focused on the development of a digital commons, which is intended to provide greater entrée into the scholarly work done by both students and faculty. “The library is initiating discussions on campus about the value of making materials available to the scholarly world as a whole instead of saying, ‘No, only people on this campus can view it,’ or ‘You must pay x dollars to read this article or get this journal.’ Open access democratizes knowledge; that’s the idea behind this.”
Vilelle emphasizes that such an initiative must be approached carefully, keeping in mind copyright issues, privacy, format obsolescence, or other potential concerns involved in making materials available digitally. But he believes there is significant benefit to getting faculty and students alike “thinking about what the scholarly conversation of tomorrow looks like, and where it takes place. Those are questions we hope our community can really start sinking their teeth into, along with what can we share as far as the work both faculty and students are doing that shows a good example of what’s happening here, what’s possible if you come to Hollins.”
Weber recently interviewed 90 faculty, administrators, and staff on behalf of the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs about how Hollins is defining student academic success: What is the university doing well in that regard, and where is there room for improvement? She says faculty members identified intellectual curiosity as a key aspect of student success, and they insisted, “We cannot encourage and cultivate intellectual curiosity without an active physical library.” After completing the interviews, Weber found that “across the board, one of the things that came up most frequently about what we are doing well is the library.”
To Salowey, the library “feels like the beating heart of the campus. I’m positive we have the best librarians in the country. They help me in almost every aspect of my job here at Hollins. They’re great people and they’re irreplaceable.”
Jeff Hodges is director of public relations.
Your Source for Lifelong Learning
You may have graduated from Hollins, but you’re still welcome to use many of the library’s services as outlined below.
Alumnae/i now have access to JSTOR and Project MUSE, two of the library’s largest online collections of journals. To use these databases, you must have a user ID and password. Contact the alumnae office (firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-TINKER1) to get your log-in information.
All alumnae/i are welcome to search the online catalog for books and films, and to use the periodicals and government documents within the library. A library card (free to alumnae/i) is required to check out materials for use outside the building. Register for your card at the library’s first-floor circulation desk.
Get Help With Using the Library
Our reference staff members are ready to help you with quick questions or more extensive research consultations.
- Call (540) 362-7465.
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Alumnae/i Materials in the Library
- Faculty and alumnae/i publications are located in the Hollins Room, third floor.
- Our manuscript collections include literary and personal papers of faculty, alumnae/i, and other individuals.
Visit the library’s page for alumnae/i.