For the last three years, Ithaka S+R has been examining how academic and student support services at community colleges are organized, funded, and staffed in order to provide insight into how these services can most effectively advance student success. Through this IMLS-funded research initiative, known as Community College Academic and Student Support Ecosystems (CCASSE), we have fielded two surveys, one of academic and student affairs leaders and one of library directors, as well as conducted interviews with individuals across the student support ecosystem to gain insight into the strategies community colleges are using to assist students.

During March and April 2022, we hosted a series of convenings with panelists representing different roles in the community colleges to focus on key themes that emerged through the CCASSE initiative:

  • Jean Amaral, Associate Professor and Open Knowledge Librarian at the Borough of Manhattan Community College
  • Tim Arnold, Director of Libraries at Jamestown Community College
  • Rosemary Costigan, Vice President of Academic Affairs at the Community College of Rhode Island
  • April Cunningham, Instruction and Information Literacy Coordinator at Palomar College
  • Katie Ghidiu, Director of Libraries at Monroe Community College
  • Oscar Lanza-Galindo, Associate Dean of the Library and Learning Commons at Bunker Hill Community College
  • Christina Lehua Hummel-Colla, student advisor to the CCASSE project at Los Angeles Community College and Winward Community College.
  • Jon Iuzzini, Director of Teaching and Learning at Achieving the Dream
  • Mark McBride, Senior Library Strategist at SUNY
  • Makala Skinner, Senior Analyst at Ithaka S+R
  • Julie Todaro, Dean of Library Services at Austin Community College

In the first convening, “Emergency and emerging technology programs at community colleges,” our panelists discussed the impact of new technology and technology lending programs and whether these initiatives can be scaled and maintained going forward. The second convening, “‘When in doubt, go to the library’: Navigating the community college ecosystem,” explored the important role that community college libraries play in helping students navigate the college ecosystem more broadly and fostering a sense of belonging for those students.  The final convening, “Assessing the evolution of the community college library mission,” brought together administrators and librarians to discuss the evolution of the community college library mission in recent years, and how that mission can most effectively be articulated.

Throughout these convenings, our fantastic group of invited speakers discussed three key takeaways:

  1. Take a holistic approach
  2. Evaluate recent adjustments
  3. Expand cross-campus collaboration

Take a holistic approach

The convenings frequently returned to the necessity of viewing students holistically to better serve their unique needs both inside and outside the classroom. Panelists discussed the importance of offering opportunities for librarians to actively listen to students about their circumstances and recognizing that students, especially students at community colleges, often have many other roles beyond that of a student.

This can necessitate actively “redefining what it is to be a student,” as Oscar Lanza-Galindo discussed during the second panel. Many students do not fall in the traditional window of 18 to 22 years old. They can include working parents, caregivers, people who are returning to college to pursue a first or second career or seeking credentials for a certificate program. As Christina Lehua Hummel-Colla affirmed, students “don’t leave [their] person-status at the door.” Recognition of that needs to be built into the program.

Lanza-Galindo emphasized the opportunity that community college libraries have “to really think about who it is that we are providing services to and what it is they are saying that they legitimately want.” This includes recognizing that there are different ways of measuring success. Jean Amaral noted that institutions often use more traditional, outcome-based definitions of student success, including persistence and graduation. However, students may define success using other metrics, including personal growth or getting through a particular class. These are metrics that libraries need to take into account in order to address students holistically.

This also emerged as a central point in the third convening, when addressing the role of libraries in offering student support. April Cunningham emphasized the value that libraries have towards student retention—students feel successful and continue their college education when they feel nurtured, engaged, connected and valued. Libraries, she noted, are an excellent place for these interactions to happen. Taking a holistic approach can give the library the opportunity to focus on connections and not just collections. As Amaral emphasized, “These are human beings in front of us, and we need to attend to these human beings.”

Evaluate recent adjustments

The convenings also emphasized the upheaval caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to take stock of work done by community college libraries. Mark McBride argued that the pandemic has afforded us the opportunity to reflect on the future of learning. “I think the real focus will be on digital learning going forward. Now more than ever libraries are partners in that digital learning space.” Recognition of the growing role of digital learning, however, also requires an awareness of the new stressors and issues that accompany them, while also not neglecting the opportunities offered by integrating and interfacing between physical and digital library spaces.

Several panelists discussed the need for adjustment in how library leadership approaches the utilization of their physical and digital spaces. Lanza-Galindo noted that the field of library science does not always embrace the digital and hybrid access that it can provide. “A lot of times we talk about what we lose in digital spaces,” Lanza-Galindo noted. “That for me becomes a very deficit based methodology.” It is valuable, he argued, to rethink and remodel our internal mapping of what it means to browse and explore in a physical space and in a digital space to uplift and value the differing benefits of each.

Speakers noted that community college libraries have experience innovating and moving quickly with limited resources, which helped them adapt to the rapid transitions early in the pandemic. Tim Arnold emphasized that one should “never miss the opportunity of a good crisis to make some changes,” and that the pandemic opened the door to take a broader view of the evolution of the library. Makala Skinner indicated that demand for streaming media was already increasing prior to the pandemic, and the crisis allowed libraries to further demonstrate the growing need need for these resources. Katie Ghidiu noted that some of the partnerships that her library entered into during the pandemic, including one with an emergency grant program in student services, led to creative collaborations that allowed them to meet student needs in tandem and ultimately to an opportunity to sustain their joint efforts.

“We are on the cusp of a paradigm shift for our libraries as they are evolving in scope,” Rosemary Costigan argued. Changes include moving towards a more integrated model of institutional collaboration, which can develop new opportunities to meet the needs of students.

Expand cross-campus collaboration

Panelists discussed ways that libraries have gradually become more integrated into the community college ecosystem through the growth of internal partnerships. These partnerships have the potential to expand the impact of services to students by raising awareness of what resources are offered. This is not, however, limited to academic concerns. Echoing the earlier emphasis on approaching students’ needs holistically, panelists also voiced the potential for libraries to become a forum for important discussions beyond the classroom .

Several panelists argued the importance of acknowledging that everyone who works within a higher education institution who supports students, including librarians, hold positions as educators. Iuzzini noted that, “We create boundaries where there don’t need to be any.” Creating hierarchies that sideline librarians and others hinders the kind of broad collaboration that would most benefit students. Julie Todaro made this explicit when she identified one of her key jobs as making sure that her librarian staff did not lose their faculty status.

The convenings frequently returned to the idea of the community college library acting as a lynchpin within the community college ecosystem. Jon Iuzzini noted that libraries can be essential in forming really meaningful and authentic collaborations between faculty and academic and student affairs professionals. This is partially possible because, as McBride argued, libraries are known as a trusted entity by both faculty, administrators, and students, which makes it possible for them to cross over boundaries within the institutional structure. Iuzzini noted that faculty think of librarians as peers, sometimes more so than administrators, which makes them ideally situated to foster cross-campus collaborations. Todaro also emphasized that libraries must be deliberate and “make it very clear what collaborations are rich in possibilities,” in order to combine success factors and most effectively serve student needs.

We would like to thank our wonderful panelists for their participation and for lending their voices to this discussion around the evolution of the community college library. We invite those of you who are interested to check out the recordings of the convenings for a more comprehensive view of these discussions: