To prospective undergraduate representatives
To the committee members of CLS
It has been a great privilege to work with all of you. You have always treated my voice as an equal, which I took one year to get used to! The MIT Libraries has defined for me what a collaborative, supportive and inclusive workplace could look like. I will remember this community fondly and treasure our relationships even after I graduate. The most uniquely useful parting gift I can offer may be my reflections on MIT, and what I have learned about students and the libraries so far.
It's a shame that I have to leave MIT after accumulating two years of perspective on the Libraries, and four years of perspective on my fellow students--that I must leave when I am the best positioned to give back. Since Fall 2016 I've made it my job to understand the relationship between students and libraries, and what it could be. It was clear from day one how much students could gain from your expertise and resources, yet how little they knew of it. The other direction seemed trickier. I've pondered for a year and a half these questions:
- What can the Libraries learn from students?
- How can we increase student awareness and engagement with library resources?
One tentative answer to the first question emerged while I prepared the "Hidden Libraries of MIT" tours of student club libraries. The Libraries might be inspired by how students build communities around collections. Each student library is not simply a collection; a community of students, alumni and sometimes even the broader Boston community have organically formed around it. For instance, the MIT Lecture Series Committee has held public movie screenings since 1950. The collection and community have enriched and sustained each other through an expanding web of activities and social interaction, often with a long history. From this foundation emerged a sense of identity. Don't take my word for it, ask anyone who toured those student libraries! MIT's respect for student autonomy has allowed these communities, cultures and traditions to flourish in living groups and clubs. At a time when the Libraries are reconsidering how their collections are best preserved and used, might student communities offer any insight? If you entered these spaces as an equal to students, you might glean a few clues.
Here's one answer to the second question: if the Libraries helps students satisfy their deepest needs, then students will surely take notice. But what are their needs? Here are some word clouds are derived from students brainstorming about how to improve the MIT first-year experience in the Designing the First Year course. Two major themes that have arisen from interviewing students are major exploration and advising.
"Advising" is a multifaceted need, but one relevant component is the need for authentic and meaningful interactions with faculty or staff. Deeper than that, I think MIT students need to feel that there are adults who care about them, who listen and empathize. Unfortunately, they do not necessarily get this from academic advisors. However, I realized from working with library staff that if only students could get to know you as people, they would feel your warmth, empathy, welcoming nature and unfaltering care for students. They would be inspired by your dedication and teamwork, just as I have been. How could the Libraries help students get to know its staff as people, and not just as service providers? The Hidden Libraries tours were my attempt to bring library staff into student communities to facilitate such interactions.
I guess I don't really have solutions; all I can suggest are "kernels," or starting points. Actual solutions are far beyond my expertise and stay at MIT. But from what I've seen, if any department of MIT were able to understand and collaborate meaningfully with students, it would be the MIT Libraries. I find consolation from my trust that the Libraries will continue to listen to students and do the best it can for them. I wish you all the best!