Dr. Dallas Long on Library & Student Affairs Collaboration (Part II)

In this installment of College Fluency Conversations, we speak to Dr. Dallas Long, Dean of Milner Library at Illinois State University (ISU), a position he has held since 2020. Dallas Long is the author of the book Collaborations for Student Success: How Librarians and Student Affairs Professionals Work Together to Enrich Learning (2019). In a previous post for the blog, we discussed Long’s 2016 dissertation on the interactions between librarians and student affairs professionals, especially as it relates to student success. Here, we are delighted to present Part II of our conversation with Long. (Part I can be found here.)

Craig Nielsen: Drawing from your experience and also your scholarship, how can librarians actively contribute to building college fluency among students? Can you highlight any specific strategies that libraries could implement, or have possibly successfully implemented, to assist students in navigating the complexities of higher education?

Dallas Long: I think what I would say will have to be general, because I’m really convinced that it depends on the local institutional context. What are the demographics of your students? What are their unique structural and psychosocial barriers that are preventing them from having a successful experience navigating the campus or performing well academically? I think the solutions look different depending on that campus environment. Here at my university, we’re a semi-rural residential campus of primarily traditional age students and we are getting much larger numbers of first generation students, both from rural areas of the state and from minoritized populations in the Chicago area. And I would say, financial aspects are the predominant concern. Often, they don’t know where to get their textbooks. They don’t know if they need to get textbooks. Our classes started last week, and we had a student crying about the cost of her textbooks and she was very frustrated about where to even go. I think many libraries are moving to open educational resources (OER), promoting textbook affordability, and changing policies. We did not used to collect textbooks, and we did not lend textbooks to other institutions through interlibrary loan, and now we are needing to re-examine some of those long-held practices and policies to make them more student-friendly. Because being able to provide free textbooks or alternative lower-cost textbooks is a really easy way that librarians can contribute to college fluency, by removing or reducing that barrier for students. 

I also think it is important for librarians to understand the financial aid experience of our students. You know, how many of our students are receiving Pell grants? Is there a food pantry located near campus? If so, are they able to share information about how many student-aged people are making use of the food pantries? And being able to have a better sense of the socioeconomic situation of our students. What is their technology fluency? That is a big gap that we have on our campus. We expect students to have certain skills in Adobe Creative Suite. The faculty are moving to what we call flipped classroom models, but they expect the students to have learned a lot of this stuff on their own outside of class, and there really isn’t any place for the students to go to master these skills. They get pushed to LinkedIn Learning or to YouTube videos, but we get a lot of students who are like, “I don’t get it. I need a hands-on tutorial for this.” So, I think ways that librarians can rise to that challenge is either having a designated person on their staff who is trained in the common technologies or software products that students are asked to master, and be able to provide both one-on-one instruction sessions or workshops for students, but also being able to partner with the technology units on campus, so that there can be more joint programming and better help desk coverage. That’s one area that we’re working on currently with student affairs IT, who manages the campus help desk. They don’t have staff after 10pm, and a lot of the calls get shifted over to the library, which is open till 1am. 

So, being able to share data saying, “Here’s the kinds of things that we’re being asked. Can we either get better training so that we can provide better support, or can you shift your staffing model so you have greater expertise?” I also think financial aid counseling is becoming more imperative. We need to have an understanding of what financial aid packages are available and what scholarships are available. What I hear from University Advancement, which is neither academic nor student affairs on our campus, is how many scholarships that are available to our students that go unapplied for. And I’m like, I had no idea. You know, there are certain scholarships that only certain majors are able to apply for. That’s something my subject librarians who work with those academic departments should know about, so we can have a better understanding of how to refer students to resources that might help them in lowering their instructional costs. Those are just a few ideas.

CN: You foregrounded college fluency as a kind of information literacy issue, and I do think that’s where librarians are well-positioned and well-trained in order to address some of these issues. Currently, there’s a lot of academic writing in the information sciences literature about how student success librarians are becoming a popular position that academic libraries are hiring for. And even within the kind of responsibilities that make up those positions, the expectations are constantly changing. Do you have any thoughts on the changing nature of student success librarianship, or even the concept of student success itself?

DL: Yeah, I think the definition of student success is rapidly evolving. Just a few years ago, I heard colleagues mostly talking about it as “a student persisted to graduation within four or six years.” And now, I think there is a much more holistic understanding of what student success is. Are they entering the careers that they wanted? Are they prepared for those careers? They didn’t just earn the degree, but do they understand? If they’re a business major, for instance, do they know how to conduct an appropriate interview for landing the job? Do they know how to do research on the companies that they are applying for? Do they have the presentation skills, the numerical skills? There’s a whole suite of skill sets that I think weren’t really part of the discussion previously. How satisfied were they with their experience? How is student success connected to civic engagement, and the concept of being a good citizen? So, I think it’s evolving very rapidly. I would say, here in the library world, student success is moving from one person who is the resource for this, to being an expectation of most public-facing positions and libraries. You need to know, what are the barriers? How does it integrate with information literacy and other forms of teaching? How is it informing the way we interact with students, whether at the reference desk or reference consultations?

We did a series of focus groups with students, primarily first and second year students, about how they mainly interact with librarians–and for us, the reference desk was not the main way. (That’s not true on every campus.) And we decided that we’re going to move away from the traditional reference desk model to a consultation model, and librarians are going to be much more proactive in working with our general education curriculum, which is where we have the most influence with our first and second year students. Our first and second year students are not in the academic majors, and our subject librarian model is more focused on the majors. So, they’re working with third and fourth year students much more closely. We’re missing that gap, so we’re kind of flipping that model. Time will tell how well it works out for us. It has not been an easy culture shift by any means. I personally see student success almost overtaking instructional services departments, and really informing the pedagogical approaches that librarians use to teach, and I see instructional services really becoming very closely intertwined with student success. I will not be surprised if the student success librarians today become the head of instruction and head of public services departments five or ten years down the road.

jean amaral: As you envision that shift, what does that look like for student success to be the primary focus instead of instruction? Because I do think we’re moving in that direction. Holistic needs, student development: not just academically or intellectually, but personal development, as well. Do you have a vision for what that looks like for libraries?

DL:  Let me say right out, I’m not an instructional expert. I came up through technical services and in cultural heritage and librarianship. But I would say that our instructional approaches are going to be much more grounded in student development theory. And I think our student success colleagues, who are the best versed in that right now, will be the ones leading those conversations towards how we change our pedagogical approaches. That’s really how I see that change occurring. I think that we’re going to be much more intentional in the way we do programming and outreach and how we integrate information literacy concepts into the programming that we do. I think student success librarians are very well positioned through the relationships they cultivate with our student services colleagues in terms of the programming that we offer and how we work with our student affairs colleagues to create intentional learning outcomes that are co-curricular. And I think the leadership that our student success librarians are going to be able to provide in how we make that cultural shift within instructional services is what’s going to bring them to the forefront.

CN: We have one more question, which relates to what you mentioned earlier about proactive librarianship. There was a quote that I pulled from your dissertation: “Librarians must leave the library and participate more fully in students’ lives. They must go where the students are.” Could you elaborate on how you envision that going forward? What does that look like, librarians leaving the library and participating more fully in students’ lives?

DL: So, there’s the vision, and then there’s the reality. I would say that in order for us to have a better understanding of the campus environment and for us to be better referral experts and to be able to connect with our students in a more personal way, we have to be holding outreach hours and doing joint programming with our student unions and our multicultural student centers. We need to be working with our TRiO programs. We need to be working with our academic advisors. We need to be less focused about what happens operationally inside the library’s walls. We need to be active participants in campus committees, particularly those that are in student services.

For instance, I have several librarians now who are on a university hearing panel that decides about students who have been dis-enrolled from the university and are appealing to be readmitted. That has been a really helpful experience for the librarians who have served on that. They’re hearing kind of extreme cases, but there are recurring themes to these extreme cases, and they are able to come back to the rest of us and say, wow, it’s confidential, and I can’t talk about the details, but some of our students are having terrible living experiences in off-campus housing. Or being a student from an underrepresented background and the terrible prejudices that they are experiencing from other members of the student community that then has an effect on their academic performance. What can we do in the library to go to where those students are feeling safe and be able to demonstrate that the library is a trusted resource for them. Sometimes that’s doing work within the library’s walls, too. Like, we’re doing special exhibits that are front and center for the students, study sessions that are marketed in a different way for underserved student groups. So, I think those are some examples.

I will say the hard reality is the chronic understaffing in libraries, as well, and that we have a hard time letting go of legacy services and operations. And so, getting out to do more outreach and more student-facing work contradicts some of the long-held values that we have about library operations, or turning over more library operations to staff who are not librarians. There’s a cultural and operational challenge that we’re going to have to be able to address in order to enact that vision. I just want to reiterate, I think we have a really crucial role to play in the co-curricular experience and being that bridge between the curriculum and the campus experience for students. We’re uniquely positioned, and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity that I hope that we’re able to rise to that occasion. And I think that our colleagues on both sides, academic and student affairs, do recognize that we have a lot of potential here to be the bridge builders. And so, I think any opportunity that we can champion ourselves in that way would be well used and benefit us all.

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