In Brief: This article investigates the idea of library student advisory boards as mechanisms for building more student-centered libraries at colleges and universities. Benefits of these types of organizations, measures of success, and the importance of acting on evidence-based user feedback are discussed.
A Google search for “library student advisory board” returns hundreds of results from different schools, leading us to documents that describe organizational structures, missions, and goals. It is clear that many academic and public libraries have bought into the idea of soliciting feedback directly from their users. However, while some of the literature has focused on the need for these bodies to exist, it is more difficult to find explorations of how libraries are translating feedback from their advisory boards into relevant change, how they are measuring their advisory boards’ success, and how much status or authority they are imparting to the board.
This article, which focuses on academic libraries, explores the idea of students as stakeholders by examining the framework and uses of library student advisory boards. When possible, we favor evidence provided by our users over our own assumptions.
According to Lee Teitel, in an ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education report, an advisory committee is “a group of volunteers that meets regularly on a long-term basis to provide advice and/or support to an institution or one of its subunits” (1). Many academic libraries have developed such a group in order to provide more direct lines of communication between the library and the student body. Some library student advisory boards are volunteer-based, some are elected through student governance bodies, some are official clubs, and some are ad-hoc—it all depends on local institutional factors. Teitel states:
“Advisory committees can provide mechanisms at all levels of higher education to help improve communication and interaction with the outside world. They can provide fresh insights, powerful connections, access to valuable resources, and excellent public relations. In conjunction with a strategic plan or total quality management, they can be key elements in renewing and revitalizing an institution” (2).
For a practical guide on starting a library student advisory board, check out the book The Library Student Advisory Board: Why Your Academic Library Needs It And How To Make It Work by Amy L. Deuink and Marianne Seiler (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009). The book covers topics not included in this article, such as how to recruit members, examples of club activities, advisor duties, fundraising and relationship building.
What Students Have To Offer
In 2011, Zahra et al. completed a study of over 30 academic advisory boards that supported entrepreneurship centers. These boards consisted of community leaders and businesspeople convened to provide guidance on outreach, service, teaching, and fund-raising.
Defining an advisory board as a group of individuals brought together to help an institution better achieve its mission and goals, the study found that advisory board members provided the following resources to their organizations:
- market intelligence
- access to data
- industry reach
These resources form a basis for comparing how student library advisory boards may contribute within the context of higher education.
Students are the primary clientele of most academic libraries. By giving them an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, libraries can ensure that the collections, services, and programming they offer are truly student-centered. When communicating the importance of the library, one strategy would be to point to student-initiated decisions that demonstrate the value the library is providing to its community.
While students pay tuition and fees to the institution that funds the operation of the library, many of the resources they bring to an advisory board are intangible in nature. These resources include many of the factors discussed below, including market intelligence, access to data, expertise, and industry reach.
With a fresh group of students arriving every year, working with a student board offers a way to gather information about changing needs and desires. Students are immersed in current trends and can share information about the different technologies and behaviors that shape their information-seeking and usage. What form of social media is popular? Are students using torrent sites to download textbooks? What type of program would be interesting enough to get people out of the dorms? Libraries may be able to forecast or observe some of these factors, but working directly with users ensures that we are providing relevant services rather projecting what we think students want. Much of this market intelligence will be specific to your institutional culture, strengthening the library’s hold on niche services and collections that provide local value.
Access To Data
Coming from varied backgrounds, students have a diversity of experience that libraries can only glimpse from the outside. This is particularly true if board membership is solicited from underrepresented segments of the university community. While we are deeply entrenched in the profession of librarianship, students are engaged in the pursuit of higher education. Librarians might all remember being students, but with technological and pedagogical change taking place all around us, we need to go directly to the source. Students on an advisory board have a different kind of access to their peers because they see them regularly in classes and live with them in the dorms. They can keep their ears open for complaints and engage in discussions about how the library is being used (or ignored) by their friends. Students are also an excellent source for into research and study habits (sharing their personal calendars, for example).
One of the most valuable resources that could be made available by student advisory boards is related to marketing: students know what will get the attention of other students. No one can use a service, collection, or attend an event if they don’t know about it. Some students may also be experts in using library systems—experiencing them holistically from an outside perspective. Much of our work as librarians is siloed, with cataloguers working on records, systems librarians building interfaces, developers building websites, subject librarians providing research help, and administrators creating policies. A student’s eyes may see gaps between these different segments and perhaps even affordances that we didn’t realize were there.
The strongest industry power students have is as peer influencers. An informed and engaged board member can become a library advocate on campus, and champion the resources and services that are available. Additionally, many students are more comfortable approaching their peers than a librarian, so if board members are identifiable they can provide a more comfortable line of communication. This can be facilitated by soliciting known “influencers” on campus to serve on the advisory board, such as students who are deeply involved in campus media outlets, student government, or other activities that put them in contact with a variety of their peers.
Measures of Success
While the existence of so many library student advisory boards indicates that many librarians have been persuaded that these types of groups are valuable, data on measuring their effectiveness is slim. As Teitel states, this is likely because “…not everyone agrees on the definition of effectiveness” (3). Many libraries include the existence of their student advisory board in bulletins, annual reports, and on their websites, but actual information about outcomes and accomplishments are difficult to locate. For instance, a recent search for “library student advisory board” in Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts (LISTA) returned minimal results—reviews of Deiunk and Seilers’ book and a few tangentially-related articles. For many libraries, the fact that the group exists seems to be success enough. This is particularly relevant when inviting critical users to join the advisory board. In her 2011 article about developing a faculty advisory board, Farrell states:
“This is an opportunity to turn a complainer into a champion as the board reviews services and collections and the complainer may gain a broader understanding of their complaints. If the library is failing to serve a certain segment of the faculty, then what better way to gain insights into this population than by listening to their perspectives?” (193).
The quality of feedback gleaned from student advisory boards is another potential area for assessment. This measure is subjective and may vary based on organizational culture or require the negotiation of multiple (possibly conflicting) agendas. Student rejection of an initiative that a library/librarian has invested a substantial amount of time and funding into may not be well received.
Farrell also states that “An advisory group’s success is ultimately determined by…its impact on library collections and services” (196). In their book The Library Student Advisory Board, Deuink and Seiler express the need for clear and measurable learning outcomes for all board activities. Among other activities, their organization at Penn State Schuylkill raises money to build library collections, which can then be tracked and reported for assessment purposes. This form of assessment relies on the traditional metrics of collection usage to demonstrate value and success of the advisory board. In terms of areas ripe for future study, the assessment of library student advisory boards would be a valuable research topic. The adaptation of existing studies regarding non-student library advisory boards1 would also be intriguing.
Privileging the User
While many academic libraries have student advisory boards, the techniques for measuring the success of these groups are, at best, lacking any sort of consensus. It is also unclear whether these groups have the ability to influence library decisions or if they exist solely because they sound good “on paper.”
The idea of soliciting feedback directly from users is a sensible one, but privileging that feedback and actually making changes can be much more difficult. It sounds good when we can say to administrators (or the president of student government, or even the occasional student who seems to offer nothing but complaints) that we have a mechanism for getting student input on ideas and initiatives. But are we really listening? Are we using that feedback to improve our services and systems? In their article on student advisory committees in academic libraries, Benefiel et al. question why our largest user group (students) have the least amount of input regarding library decisions and policies that impact them. This disconnect between library decision making and its primary customers reinforces the stereotype of libraries as gatekeepers, doling out services that we deem “good for” our users regardless of their desires.
It is a challenging time for all libraries, including those at academic institutions. While public libraries are familiar with responding to their communities (or board of directors), academic libraries have maintained more autonomy based on the traditional underpinnings of the library as the center for knowledge and intellectual growth within higher education. However, in an age in which accountability, responsiveness, and transparency are made priorities within higher education, the role of students as stakeholders in the direction of the library might not be far off.
Libraries need to solicit feedback directly from their users and use that information to bring about change. Not just change for its own sake, but relevant change that will keep us vital to the communities we serve. Imagine if we shifted the paradigm from “Students don’t know what they need so libraries need to educate them” to “What exactly are they asking for?” What if libraries became really good at the things our users want, even though those things might be different depending on the institution? We could increase satisfaction and use, and display some sophisticated tricks along the way, building an evidence-based, student-centered library.
If your library has a student advisory board, please talk to us in the comments section! I am eager to hear how your group measures success, and if you’ve had difficulty making use of user feedback, especially when it appears to conflict with feedback from other librarians, faculty, or administrators.
Many thanks to Amy L. Deuink, Melissa Gold, and Lead Piper Brett Bonfield for edits, comments, and thought provoking questions regarding this article.
References and Further Readings
Benefiel, Candace R., Wendi Arant, and Elaine Gass. “A New Dialogue: A Student Advisory Committee In An Academic Library.” Journal Of Academic Librarianship 25.2 (1999): 111.
Deuink, Amy, and Marianne Seiler. The Library Student Advisory Board: Why Your Academic Library Needs It and How to Make It Work. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009. Print.
Farrell, Maggie. “Developing A Faculty Advisory Group.” Journal Of Library Administration 51.2 (2011): 189-197.
Kane, Jennifer J., and Jay E. Jisha. “An Analysis Of Sport Management Clubs And Advisory Boards In Sport Management Programs Across North America.” International Sports Journal 8.1 (2004): 132-138.
Teitel, Lee, Washington, DC. ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, and Washington, DC. School of Education and Human Development. George Washington Univ. The Advisory Committee Advantage. Creating An Effective Strategy For Programmatic Improvement. ERIC Digest. n.p.: 1994.
Zahra, Shaker A., Lance R. Newey, and J. Myles Shaver. “Academic Advisory Boards’ Contributions To Education And Learning: Lessons From Entrepreneurship Centers.” Academy Of Management Learning & Education 10.1 (2011): 113-129.
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