A Seat at the Table

The student basic needs movement is growing, writes Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, and librarians should be included in it.

January 7, 2022
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Higher education institutions are increasingly paying attention to the basic needs of their students. Not a week goes by in which I don’t hear about new initiatives to address food and nutrition insecurity, connect students with stable housing, and innovate around new services for particular populations like student parents. Federal and state legislatures are also fostering this work through increased investment in, for example, creating hunger-free campuses and considering expanded campus transit infrastructure. The higher education basic needs movement has real momentum behind it.

Those efforts are occurring for good reason. My organization, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, has worked hard to bring such issues to the fore, in part by documenting the magnitude of unmet student need. Over the years, we have consistently found that a majority of college students across the country—roughly three in five—experience food insecurity, housing insecurity or homelessness. We have used those data to further examine and address shortcomings in the higher education system, in partnership with policy makers, community organizations and hundreds of colleges and universities.

The higher education basic needs movement is not only growing but becoming more sophisticated. Currently, many students—about half, according to our research—do not know how or where to receive support to deal with their basic needs insecurity. That said, however, it is unreasonable to believe that one person or office alone can sufficiently address the gaps in service provision and information dissemination. A systems-level approach, one that brings together a variety of campus communities to provide support and share information, is essential for the formation and long-term success of what we refer to at the Hope Center as a basic needs ecosystem.

And yet I’ve noticed that one group is often missing from such campuswide initiatives: library workers.

To be clear, librarians and library staff are doing impressive, impactful work within their own divisions, ranging from building family-friendly study spaces to enhancing textbook affordability to providing students with healthy food. But when I speak with library workers, they often say they feel like an afterthought when it comes to broader, campuswide initiatives. I see that reflected in the composition of current cross-institutional basic needs task forces: most tend to include some mix of student affairs staff, teaching faculty and students, but a library worker rarely has a seat at the table.

You might be thinking, “Library workers? Basic needs? I don’t see the connection.” But the continued omission of such groups is a detriment to the creation of an optimal basic needs ecosystem. The active involvement of library workers in the coordination and planning of these efforts is urgently needed for three key reasons.

Librarians can help uncover unmet student needs. Many library workers engage with students on a daily basis. They receive all kinds of questions, especially while working on the reference, circulation or information desks—or virtual equivalents—that span both curricular and noncurricular student needs. They witness the variety of ways that students use library space when their needs are not met elsewhere. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to find students seeking a quiet space when grappling with complex home lives or even a place to sleep when dealing with homelessness.

While surveys have proved to be necessary tools for unpacking the extent and distribution of unmet need, lived experiences and observations from staff members like librarians can add to the tool kit of what institutions know about their students. The combination of both the data and those distinct perspectives enables institutions to tailor their support services to most effectively meet their students’ needs.

Library offerings are vast. Library work spans a variety of services, spaces and collections, offering tremendous opportunities to incorporate such initiatives into broader campus efforts and vice versa. Libraries provide many points of connection between students and staff—from information literacy sessions to reference consultations to special campus events—which make librarians valuable not only for understanding student needs but also disseminating information to meet those needs. Just imagine how students might benefit from library workers receiving formal training on student support services, and how student affairs staff might benefit from the inverse.

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Librarians are information professionals. Librarians have expertise in evaluating information and making referrals. Institutional basic needs ecosystems can benefit tremendously from the application of those skills—which typically have been used to support research, teaching and learning—to new contexts. Again, a single office or department cannot possibly service all student needs directly. Having librarians lending their subject matter expertise as information on student support services is organized, structured and disseminated could bring substantial improvements to a holistic set of student success outcomes.

Students and staff alike would reap the benefits of librarian involvement in the growing basic needs movement. An expanded and better organized system of supports would allow students to develop a stronger sense of belonging and help them overcome the challenges they often face inside and outside the classroom. In addition, staff members may experience higher levels of work engagement due to a greater understanding of institutional services and structures, as long as there is sufficient bandwidth for these new responsibilities. In the end, institutions benefit from both those outcomes.

Basic needs work is complex, challenging and deeply relational. Higher education institutions should review the people who are participating in their basic needs initiatives and consider how to invest in the strengths of those who may not currently be included but could contribute significantly to such efforts. Now is the time to be building structures that can sustain the momentum of this basic needs movement in the years to come. And that requires giving library workers key seats at the table.

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Christine Wolff-Eisenberg is a senior learning specialist at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, an action research center at Temple University.

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