College students often crave quiet space for completing their coursework. Many have complex lives with various professional, personal, and academic demands — long commutes, multiple jobs, roommates, children, etc. The campus library is a place — and sometimes the only place — they can go for quiet, distraction-free space. It can be their respite from an otherwise noisy set of activities.

Over the weekend, conversation erupted on Twitter about policies banning college students and staff from bringing their kids to campus. Many chimed in to share their experiences — good and bad — as parents with young children while teaching or as students attending classes themselves. Some shared the ways they were able to circumvent policies or observed others appearing to use their privilege to do so.

Much of the dialogue I observed centered on the implications of these policies, practices, and exceptions inside the classroom. But what opportunities and consequences do these create for spaces elsewhere on campus beyond the classroom? How do higher education leaders provide child-friendly spaces and services to student parents without jeopardizing the quiet space that is so critical for many students completing coursework?

One response in particular that naturally caught my attention focused on what happens in academic libraries when children are permitted on campus without (and even sometimes with) supervision.

At times, library spaces can expand in scope in a really positive way to enhance student learning and success for student parents. For example, recognizing that these students need space on campus for getting work done while their children play or complete schoolwork of their own, many libraries — including Monroe Community College, Brigham Young University, Portland State University, Clatsop Community College, and others — have built out family-friendly study spaces. These rooms are often enclosed to contain noise from reaching the rest of the library and generally still require fairly active supervision of children from their parents. While these rooms aren’t a substitute for childcare itself, they at least can alleviate some of the challenges student parents face while on campus.

However, when there are substantial unmet needs on campus — for childcare, or even for other activities like dining or socializing — informal learning spaces like libraries can unintentionally become spaces that do not ultimately provide the maximum benefit for students or other campus communities. Many students have shared in our studies how they spend more time on campus — or come to campus altogether — just to study in the library. When they look to the library to provide the quiet space they so desperately need and can’t find it there, they don’t necessarily have any other options. If the student union is located in an inconvenient location on the outskirts of campus, students may flock to the library to socialize with their friends. If there are limited spaces for eating, the library may become an informal dining space. And, likewise, if children are permitted on campus but there are not sufficient facilities for them and their parents, the library may be the place that they turn to for the space they need.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that the library can’t or doesn’t serve an important role in helping students socialize and connect with one another or that it is an irresponsible use of space to offer food and drink or child-friendly study spaces in the library; for many libraries, these are important functions to serve the needs of students. However, I suspect that most would agree that libraries should not re-brand themselves as or pursue a strategy of becoming childcare centers, nor should they focus efforts on transforming entirely into student lounges or dining halls; other departments and staff on campus are better suited to provide these services. 

However, when these services are needed but not provided, as is often the case, especially with particularly resource-constrained higher education institutions, the library can become a natural place for students to consider as an alternative, potentially jeopardizing the preservation of quiet space that so many students rely on if noise is not properly contained. Higher education leaders must partner with the library as well as others that provide these large informal learning spaces on campus to anticipate these consequences and plan collaboratively for service and space provision across campus to effectively meet student needs.