The majority of college students are now what are considered “non-traditional,” meaning, they are over the age of 24, commute to campus, work part-time or full-time, are financially dependent, and/or have children. As a previous Ithaka S+R blog post by Jessie Brown highlights, this demographic trend necessitates policy shifts that better reflect that non-traditional students are now the “typical” students in higher education. Academic libraries are one such area of higher education where policies must shift to better accommodate non-traditional students.

The literature on the library needs of non-traditional college students focuses on the information literacy, effective outreach and other policy strategies. As Nicole Cooke discusses, “adult learners” have particular characteristics including lack of technological skills and heightened anxiety around accessing library services. Services and outreach models can also be re-framed so that non-traditional students feel like the library is also for them, whether it is by extending library orientation beyond freshmen cohorts or choosing more diverse images of students on library promotional materials. Non-traditional students also have particular work patterns and seemingly subtle policy shifts can lead to helpful accommodations, such as those explored by Canady, King and Blendinger, and Luzius and Webb, ranging from improving hours of operation to reflect when non-traditional students typically do their school work to prioritizing remote access so that students can more easily access resources and services off-campus.

Beyond offering better tailored services, does the academic library also have a role in providing spaces that are designed specifically for “non-traditional” college students’ needs? Although more commonly associated with the services public libraries offer, some academic libraries are experimenting with offering spaces for families. The libraries at Portland State UniversityPaine College and Southern Illinois University created family rooms that enable students to engage in their work in an environment that is child-friendly. These spaces offer such features as: toys, books, games, movies and educational software for children, comfortable furniture, bright, child-friendly décor and secluded space to better accommodate breastfeeding and the heightened noise and movement patterns of children, within reason.

There are distinct challenges associated with building family rooms in academic libraries. Joan Petit shares that the process for constructing a family room at Portland State University was complicated by the fact that there were few pre-existing models or accounts to help inform the design process. As a corollary to this, following construction, the library has encountered difficulties attracting users for the space likely because students don’t expect spaces like these to exist and therefore do not seek them out. As non-traditional college students are more difficult to reach out to, Petit and also highlights that it has been a challenge to promote the space to draw more students in.

The concept of the family room in academic libraries draws attention to deeper ongoing debates about the meaning, purpose and orientation of physical library spaces. Are family library rooms an opportunity for libraries to radically re-orient their core services in ways that are accessible for non-traditional students, or, are these rooms symptomatic of a need for increased access to child care and family-friendly spaces on college campuses more widely? As libraries must increasingly make difficult decisions about how their materials and services occupy physical space on campus, the concept of family rooms reflects how accommodating non-traditional college students can either be a challenge or an opportunity for libraries to remain relevant to their constituents.