As an MIT undergraduate I'm fortunate enough to have served on the Committee on the Library System (CLS) from Fall 2016 to Spring 2018. It's been an incredibly empowering experience--having my voice being treated as an equal in the committee, and having my suggestions taken seriously. The faculty and staff in CLS have modeled for me how to be supportive and inclusive, and how to listen. Here is a reflection on those two years, for the committee, for future undergraduate representatives, and for myself.
CLS is an institute committee of faculty, staff and students (two undergraduates and two graduate students) meant to provide the perspectives of all of these stakeholders on certain projects and policies of the MIT Libraries. Some of the topics we've discussed include the Libraries' new mission, vision and values statement (including a statement on diversity), the renovation of Hayden Library, and implementing the recommendations from the report by the Task Force on the Future of the Libraries. The Libraries has so far asked this committee about the needs of our respective constituents (for me, the undergraduate population), how our constituents would react to decisions like the implementation of certain technologies in the Libraries, and if our unique perspective gives rise to any suggestions for the Libraries.
To prospective undergraduate representatives
CLS isn't a lot of work; the bare minimum is that you show up to the monthly meetings and read or skim the background material that is sent out before each meeting. It's pretty interesting and inspiring stuff too; you learn how the MIT Libraries probably does way more than you ever imagined (subscriptions to music streaming services, data management services, copyright law advising, ...), the nuances of making data-driven decisions to benefit library patrons while protecting their privacy, and how the Libraries is fighting against the forces of inequity in knowledge and education (e.g. through the Open Access Task Force, another institute committee I'm a part of). And you get to interact with many warm and welcoming adults who are eager to hear your opinions, such as Chris Bourg, director of the MIT Libraries; it's been a real pleasure working with her for two years in two committees. The Libraries cares incredibly about student well-being, and relentlessly reaches out to students to find out how they can help students even more. They are very hungry for student input, which is where you could come in, by giving your input, as part of CLS or otherwise, or talking to your friends about the Libraries!
To the committee members of CLS
Thank you all for believing in me at every step, so that I could begin to believe in myself. It is no exaggeration to say that because you all believe that I can change the world, I end up believing that I really can, which makes it more likely that I'll actually go out there and do it. Please continue to believe in and empower students, whose self-confidence often gets crushed by the overwhelming demands and pressures of MIT.
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:
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.
Many students find a lack of information about potential majors, and can be unsure of what they're signing up for, or feel trapped and funneled into the circle of popular majors. In my opinion, one of the greatest anxieties plaguing MIT students is around not finding one's passion or "path in life." Other students enter MIT laser-focused on one major and could benefit from more exposure. Could the Libraries help MIT students find their place in MIT, broaden their horizons, and forge their own path ahead?
"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!