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PHILADELPHIA -- Many of the sessions here at the annual gathering of the Association of College and Research Libraries have focused on how technology is transforming the library profession and higher education in general. But at one notably under-attended gathering, two librarians from Northeastern Illinois State University spoke about another potential game-changer, one that they argued will have just as significant an impact on how libraries work in the near future: demographics. Specifically, the growth of Latino enrollments.

One in four children under 18 in the United States identifies as Hispanic, according to last year’s Census data, said Mary Thill, a humanities librarian at Northeastern Illinois. In 1995, there were 135 “Hispanic-serving institutions,” colleges whose Hispanic populations make up at least a quarter of the student body, she said. In 2007, there were 265. Today, there are currently 176 colleges with Hispanic populations totaling 15 to 20 percent, Thill said. “Many of you might not know that yours is actually an emerging HSI,” she said.

The cost of ignorance could be high. Some have noted that President Obama’s goal of having the highest degree attainment rate in the world by 2020 will depend on how successfully colleges can graduate their Hispanic students. Currently, six-year graduation rates for Hispanics have lagged behind the national average by eight percentage points.

But for Thill and her colleague David Green, an associate university librarian at Northeastern Illinois, the task of examining the role of libraries in boosting the success of Hispanic students goes well beyond Census and Education Department data. Thill and Green are members of the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries project (ERIAL), a two-year anthropological inquiry into how today's students do research. And they were there to say that large data sets speak to the needs of Hispanic students just about as well as they speak to the “Hispanic population”: in too broad a way to serve as a basis for policy.

“My Hispanic students and your Hispanic students might be different in many ways,” said Green.

At Northeastern Illinois, Green and Thill have found that Hispanic students are more likely than others to be working full-time jobs and supporting families. Becoming familiar with the constraints of that recurring narrative can enable librarians to serve them with a more sensitive ear to context -- perhaps helping them formulate a different research agenda than they might prescribe to a student who has hours to spare in the stacks.

Green and Thill made clear that they were here at the conference to prescribe not solutions but rather a method of inquiry: ethnographic research. Quantitative data have a role to play, they said, but interviews and observations should set the agenda for figuring out how to best serve different types of patrons.

The goal of such an approach is priming librarians to “see the library through the eyes of others,” Green said. In other words, librarians who serve large Hispanic populations need to learn how to empathize with first-generation college students who might never have used a library before and whose relationship with academic research is less intuitive than many librarians are used to. In this regard, ethnographic inquiry gave the library staff at Northeastern Illinois intelligence that neither the Census nor their own institutional research office could supply, said Green.

“I came to understand that over time that if we are less judgmental about our students’ [lack of] desire to dig into their research the way we think they should, and understand what it is they’re coping with, we can be much more effective service providers,” Green quoted one of his ERIAL colleagues as saying. (Green has kept records of librarians’ experiences, to go with the students’.)

Librarians might also work to develop an ear for unasked questions. Green and Thill highlighted several revealing exchanges in which students admitted to the ERIAL ethnographers that they needed help and did not ask for it. One student said he was “not big on asking for help” because his mother had only a sixth-grade education and he had grown accustomed from an early age to tackling academic work alone.

And trusting a librarian is not automatic for some students. “If I was a librarian myself,” said another interviewee, “the number-one thing I would do is to bring trust to the student.... If I was a shy student I wouldn’t want to work with a librarian I didn’t trust.”

Not every college has the resources to undertake an ethnographic study, the Northeastern Illinois librarians said. But teaming up with other institutions in the region can help, they said -- as can collaborating with academic researchers on campus who may have an interest in collecting the same data, which Northeastern Illinois has managed to do with its social work faculty.

“I knew, on an intellectual level, what students were going through,” said Thill of her own experience of the project. “But what ethnography can give you is specific stories. It gives you faces to put with those statistics you might get through those quantitative methods. So you begin to absorb it in a completely different way.”

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