To Library, or Not to Library
Community colleges are growing by leaps and bounds these days. And much of that growth has been in branch or satellite campuses.
This kind of expansion, however, has created a vexing question: When is the right time to add a library? Accreditors require community colleges to provide library services to all of their students, no matter their location. Still, there is some leeway as to whether a physical space is needed on all branch campuses. Given this gray area, some community college officials wonder when simply providing library services to branch campus students is insufficient and a physical library is necessary.
Mt. Hood Community College, in Oregon, reached just such a tipping point at its Maywood Park Campus last fall, when it was decided that existing virtual resources were not enough and the 10-year old branch finally needed a physical library of its own.
“The main reason why we decided to put a library here is that we’ve grown quite a bit in student demand [for courses], physical space on the premises and classes offered,” said Sergio Lopez, branch coordinator of the new library, which opened last September. “We have 10 classes going on at any particular point in time now. But mainly, given the distance of this branch from our main campus, there’s just been a need for people to access information to support their coursework.”
A couple of credit courses are taught at the branch, but mostly it houses the college’s adult basic education program, whose offerings include GED, ESL and Head Start courses. Initially, the branch had a small bookstore, which Lopez said met most students’ needs.
With enrollment and program growth at the branch, Lopez said the college recognized that even so-called nontraditional students, typically adults with jobs and families, wanted the research materials and technology offered by a library. He added that not only did they want to check out reference books and laptops for academic use, but also they wanted to have a quiet place to study, something that might not be an obvious demand for on-the-go working adults with families and other obligations.
“When you’re talking about people taking GED and ESL classes, even though they’re nontraditional students, we assume that a lot of these students are going to continue to go into college for an associate degree, a certificate or to learn some sort of trade skill,” Lopez said. “So again, even though they’re nontraditional students, we want to give them a feeling of what a traditional college experience feels like. 'This is what college looks like. You’ll be expected to do work outside of class.'”
For a campus that serves about 5,500 students, the new library is small. Located in an old classroom, it is 500 square feet and has four tables, about 400 books and 20 laptops to check out. It has significant ties to the college's main library; students can access digital offerings online and books via a sharing program.
To purchase all the materials and hire a full-time reference librarian for the Maywood Park location, Lopez said, the college spent about $100,000.
“When a community college contemplates opening a library on a branch campus, you have to consider the size of that branch’s student body, the variety of courses offered there and [the college library’s] collection development policies,” said Lopez, in advice to others considering such a move.
Librarians elsewhere in the country concur with Lopez that there is no “magic number” of students at which a physical library becomes is an absolute necessity. Rather, they say that administrators should listen to students and instructors to gauge their need for these services and whether virtual resources are enough to meet those needs.
Marian Jackson, member-at-large of the Texas Council of Academic Librarians and director of library services at Tyler Junior College, said that her institution has decided not to put libraries in its three branch locations.
“Our accreditor [the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools], tells us that if you have a branch campus that you must offer equivalent services to its students,” Jackson said. “They really don’t say that if you have 500 students at this one center then you need to have a [physical] library. I wish they’d be that specific!… With all of that said, it’s hard to know when you should open a [physical] library at one of these locations."
To meet the demand for providing library services in the absence of a physical space, the branch locations offer the library’s online resources via their computer labs, Jackson said. Finances, she said, have proven a hindrance to expansion.
“Libraries have always done more with less,” Jackson said. “We’ve always collaborated in some form or fashion to get the best value out there to our students. With the financial climate here in the state, the finances indicate we won’t be putting in any new libraries anytime soon. Still, just because we can’t go in with a physical location on our branch campuses doesn’t mean we can’t provide them with those services we provide in our main library.”
Jackson explained that students and faculty at these branch locations have access to an instant messenger service that connects them to a reference librarian to assist them with using online resources. In the event that a book or other hard-copy resource is needed on a campus, it is simply delivered in person. Jackson said she believes these services are sufficient to meet the accreditor's demand.
Assuming there are no particular financial restraints, Jackson does have a rule of thumb for other librarians considering branch physical expansion.
“If you have a branch with classes where you teach core curriculum classes like English and math, then you’re going to need a [physical] library,” Jackson said. “It just may not be as comprehensive as it is at the main campus.”
Jennifer Noga, chair of the North Carolina Library Association’s Community & Junior College Libraries Section and director of library services at Guilford Technical College, said her institution has taken just such an approach. Three of Guilford’s four branch campuses have a library space. The only one that does not is its aviation campus, located at a nearby airport for certain aviation technology courses.
“I think our administration has interpreted the accrediting body’s standards as being, if we’re going to have an official branch campus, then we’ll need to have a library space there,” Noga said. “We’ve always had libraries at our branch campuses.… I would argue that they need to be on all campuses, but that may not always be feasible.”