Sleepy Hollow

A push for 24/7 libraries and tech centers leaves some health professionals with wide eyes and worries.
June 15, 2006

Each new year seems to be marked by a flourish of excited press releases and announcements regarding expanded hours of operation at libraries and technology centers at colleges and universities across the nation.

While many administrators boast that such developments are part of their efforts to be responsive to student desires, many health professionals, especially those focused on sleep research, say that the extra hours may actually be harming the well-being and health of students. At a recent meeting of the American College Health Association several professionals were abuzz about sleep issues in the college-age population that they feel aren't getting enough attention, but many see the problems only growing larger. 

“We are living in a commercial world that goes 24/7,” says Michael McNeil, coordinator of the Health Empowerment Office at Temple University. “My colleagues in higher education may not like this, but we’re fostering procrastination and cramming -- time management skills should be put first.”

Alison Beaver, director of health promotion at the University of Virginia’s Elson Student Health Center, says that she wouldn’t be surprised to one day learn that the prevalence of mental health issues reported by many of today’s students are correlated with a lack of sleep. Research is currently ongoing in this area.

In years past, it wasn’t uncommon for some libraries and computing hubs to open their doors longer during midterms or final exams, but at many institutions, it’s now a yearlong phenomenon.

As a result of pressure from students at the University of New Hampshire this spring, Claudia Morner, the institution’s dean of the University Library, allowed the doors to remain open an extra two hours, until 2 a.m., on a majority of evenings. She says that she was less worried about student health issues as a result of the change, but more about finding the funding to make it happen. While not as many staff members are on duty during later hours at most libraries and computing centers, thousands of more dollars must be budgeted each year to keep the physical space open, according to Morner.

The dean notes that some universities have gone far beyond New Hampshire’s hours of operation, in some cases opening their libraries and technology centers 24 hours a day, every day, for extended periods of time. Libraries and computing centers at the University of Oregon, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Temple University have all dramatically expanded their hours in recent years.

Several members of New Hampshire's Student Senate plan on continuing work in the fall to get the main library to stay open 24 hours a day. Some student leaders have said in a series of articles in the university's student newspaper that their constituents want that kind of flexibility.

“Many administrators are focusing on how to make the student experience a better one, by focusing on their libraries, dining and exercise facilities, and dorms," says Morner. “I think every school has to think about who they’re enrolling and take these issues into consideration.”

Neil Dermody, a senior majoring in sociology at Virginia, says that many of his peers pushed for extended library and computer lab hours beyond final exam time. "Different students do feel like they do have a need to study at 3 or 4 in the morning," he says, although he doesn't usually study that late. "I think the option should be available -- students need to be responsible enough to make their own decisions."

Dermody also believes, however, that many of his peers are unaware of the dangers of not getting enough sleep. He's observed many using excessive amounts of caffeine and taking pills such as No Doze.

John Beckman, a spokesman for New York University, says that several study areas at the institution have been open 24 hours a day for at least 10 years. Hours of access to library stacks, too, have recently been increased at the request of students. Beckman says that both librarians and health officials at the university believe that if students are going to pull all-nighters, they're probably going to do them no matter what. He also says that having libraries open for study may help fewer students be disturbed by loud roommates and may make them less anxious about having a place to go to study.  

Laura Trombley, president of Pitzer College, in California, says that demand for 24-hour facilities has been on the rise at her institution, but notes that because the college's library collections are online, students often can already access information from their dorms or residences. She says that boisterous dorms are often a motivating factor for some students to seek solace at library or computing centers that are open later.  "Noise in dorms is always a problem," says Trombley. "We try to make sure that our noise policies are enforced." 

McNeil believes that too many institutions are bowing to unhealthy student demands. He says that his office has spent time looking at the sleep habits reported by freshmen and sophomore students on the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment. “Students are a little bit like 6-year-olds,” he says. “They don’t want to go to bed because they’re afraid they’re going to miss something.”

The health professional says that there is not a need for the technology center or for libraries to be open 24/7. “They need to log off and go to bed,” says McNeil. “You can log off of IM -- you don’t have to check Facebook so many times a day.”

One study has shown that students who sleep less than seven hours per night tended to answer less difficult questions on a math survey when given a choice to answer a set number of questions in a set time period. McNeil thinks the implications could be far-reaching. “Is less sleep impacting how students are pursuing their academic course of study?” he asks. “There’s a myth that you can catch up on lost sleep, but that’s not what research suggests.”

Studies also suggest that people tend to concentrate better during daylight hours, since humans are diurnal, rather than nocturnal mammals.

Beaver notes that one library at Virginia is currently open 24 hours a day on most evenings. She believes that many students may be misperceiving their sleep behaviors of friends, and thus think it’s cool to pull more all-nighters during the course of a semester.

She also points to research that indicates stress and sleep levels are interconnected, and says that all students could benefit from more information about the benefits of sleeping at least seven hours per night.

“It’s not popular to say around students, but they have expectations that they should receive services whenever they want them,” says Beaver. “Then, administrators run in to provide them what they think they want, but what may not be in their best interest.”

Morner says that such concerns, for her, bring up the old in loco parentis argument. “Are we supposed to be saying, ‘Lights out at 10?” she asks. “If students are tired, they suffer the consequences. These people are supposed to be adults.”

Morner also notes that many who attend colleges and universities are not traditional-age students anymore. Some people need expanded resource hours in order to raise a family, work, and see to other personal life issues, she says.

“Yes, from a campus-wide perspective, we have to realize that students are not homogeneous,” says McNeil. But he also remembers that as he became older as a student, sleep was far more important to him than in his early years of education.

Beaver says she doesn’t expect that libraries or technology centers that have already expanded their hours to reduce them, but she does hope to prevent more institutions from pursuing that path. “All-nighters should not be the new way of life,” says McNeil. “Seven to eight hours a night works for me. I do better research when I’m not fatigued.”

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