Bridging the Relationship Gap: Using Social Network Theories to Inform Library Services for Graduate Students

In Brief

Graduate school is a transformative time for many students. For some students, this is an exciting adventure that allows them to explore new ideas and more fully express themselves. However, many graduate students experience feelings of anxiety, frustration, and exclusion because they don’t feel like they belong to this academic community. Socially-based struggles frequently lead to reduced levels of retention among graduate students. Because librarians typically work outside departmental or graduate school hierarchies, we often strive to act as information brokers for graduate students as they navigate their learning communities. In this paper, we critically reflect on two theories—Social Capital and Information Poverty—to provide a lens for examining graduate students’ existing social networks. We use a graduate student persona to illustrate what it might look like to apply these theories to our practice. Because of the different experiences of historically marginalized and underserved students, we also explore how the social capital model might impact them in unique ways. Finally, we provide practical relationship-driven options for increasing librarians’ engagement with graduate students.

By Hannah Gascho Rempel and Mary J. Markland


Because of the time-intensive and individualistic nature of graduate school, graduate students frequently experience a relationship gap: between themselves and their advisors, their families and friends, and the university services available to them. The graduate school experience often highlights and rewards individual work. As a result, graduate students’ approach to the individualistic tasks of research and studying can be in conflict with their ability to seek out supports via social networks. At the same time, graduate student advisors often assume that because graduate students have previous experience navigating the academic environment, they are equipped to independently figure out how to be successful in graduate school. As a result, fewer supports are typically offered to graduate students as compared to undergraduate students.

Tensions and problems arise as a result. For example, when students are faced with heavy reading and writing loads or an unfamiliar research task, they may feel like they need to solve those problems on their own. If graduate students are trying to appear competent in all of their educational pursuits, they may be less likely to admit when they don’t understand how to do something or to ask for help. In this paper we will examine two theories related to information seeking and social network development, Information Poverty and Social Capital, as a means to better understand the intersection of social pressures on graduate students’ information seeking behaviors.

Methods for establishing and maintaining library services are highly context-dependent. Each librarian understands the intersection of services for graduate students and librarianship differently depending on their personal backgrounds and local institutional practices. Using theories as a basis for discussion provides a way to have a shared conversation while allowing us to critically examine our own contexts and to apply relevant ideas from these theories to local needs. Another way to develop a shared basis for reflection and conversation is through the use of personas, or hypothetical user archetypes (Head, 2003). In this paper, we will also walk through a brief case study using a persona in combination with the social network theories to illustrate how looking at individuals as part of a larger social structure can inform the work we do with graduate students. The purpose of this article is to elicit ideas for providing library services for graduate students that recognize the difficulties graduate students face in building up a social network within an academic hierarchy, as well as to encourage librarians to use their strengths as information relationship builders.

Assumptions about our services for graduate students

As librarians, we each work at different institutions with different graduate student populations. As a result, the options we have for working and creating relationships with graduate students varies based on these cultural factors. Also, our different personal histories and job responsibilities influence how we do outreach, how we connect with graduate students, and how we visualize their needs. To illustrate some of these differences, we describe our own backgrounds to explain the context in which we approach issues related to graduate students and library services.

Oregon State University Main Campus

Hannah works at Oregon State University (OSU), which had an enrollment of 30,000 students in 2018 (Oregon State University, 2018); of that total enrollment 4,300 were graduate students and 600 were professional students. More than a quarter of the graduate students at OSU are in the College of Engineering; the College of Science and the College of Agricultural Sciences enroll the second and third highest amounts of graduate students at OSU, respectively. Hannah works in the main library on the main OSU campus. As a result, she experiences the benefits of being where most of the campus services are located. She is geographically close to librarian colleagues and other campus collaborators. She is also physically closer to many graduate students. Before receiving her MLIS, Hannah graduated with a master’s degree in horticulture. Consequently, her personal perceptions of research tend to center on workflows and processes involving laboratory or field work. While intellectually she understands that research can take many different forms, including textual research or observational research with humans, her direct experiences as a graduate student are rooted in field and lab-based research.

Oregon State University Hatfield Marine Science Center (Branch Campus)

Mary works at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC), a branch campus of OSU located about one hour’s drive from the main campus. The distance to campus creates more of a barrier than one might think. A mountainous road and bad winter weather mean that everyone avoids the drive as much as possible. This leads to a sense of isolation and an us vs. them atmosphere at times. The branch library is staffed by a librarian, two library technicians and a student employee. Our connections to the main campus are primarily via virtual meetings. Typically, there are 15-20 graduate students at HMSC. A majority of the graduate students at HMSC are affiliated with the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife or the Department of Integrative Biology. Some graduate students work with OSU faculty; some work with state or federal agency scientists. Some of the graduate students are there full-time; others commute back and forth to the main campus. There are no university services like health care, administrative offices, or recreational facilities at the branch campus. Mary has an undergraduate degree in biology, a lifelong interest in marine biology, an MLS, and 30 years of experience as a science librarian. But up until the past few years, most of that career was spent in medical libraries.

As a result of our personal histories and work contexts, we all approach our work with a certain set of assumptions. The context for this article is how we work with graduate students as academic librarians. Brookfield (2011) asserts that to think critically about a question or a problem, you must hunt assumptions, check those assumptions, practice seeing issues from a different viewpoint, and then take informed action based on the new information you now have. We use Brookfield’s conceptualization of assumptions—that assumptions are neither right nor wrong—they are contextually appropriate and informed by past experiences, including lived experiences and accumulated expertise. Here is an inventory of some of the assumptions we, the authors, recognize that we bring to this work. These assumptions are a consequence of our personal experiences and our research on graduate student behaviors.

  • Services are available on campus for graduate students but are unequally distributed and accessed. This is especially the case for students who are not on the main campus (Rempel, Hussong-Christian, & Mellinger, 2011).
  • Graduate students’ experiences are shaped more by their departments than by their experience of the larger university as a whole (White & Nonnamaker, 2008).
  • Libraries can be useful as a space, but graduate students prefer departmental offices if they are well equipped and quiet (Rempel et al., 2011).
  • Libraries (and librarians) view themselves as safe spaces (or allies) for students to bring their concerns (Saunders, 2015).
  • In comparison to their other research tasks (e.g., defining a research question, identifying subjects or field sites, analyzing the data, etc.), exploring the literature is not graduate students’ highest research concern.
  • Graduate students prefer to learn non-course content from their peers (Anderson & Swazey, 1998; George et al., 2006).
  • Graduate students are pragmatic learners due to the many competing demands on their time (Macauley & Green, 2009).
  • Graduate students are not necessarily the primary focus of faculty and sometimes feel ignored (Austin, 2002).

This list of assumptions isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but rather to reveal the basis for how we conceptualize our interactions with graduate students, what gaps we surfaced in how graduate services are currently discussed in the literature, and how we are planning to move forward in our roles as librarians who serve graduate students.

Background Literature

Relationship gaps and difficulties establishing and using social networks have very real consequences for graduate students’ success in graduate school. One of the most common measures of success in graduate school is whether or not students complete their program of study, and if they do so in an appropriate time frame. Reports about graduate students’ departure from their programs vary based on the metrics used and the demographics analyzed. For example, one study examined six-year completion rates by discipline and found percent completion rates varied from 50% for agriculture and engineering students, to 37% for social science students. Thirty-seven percent of humanities doctoral students finished in eight years (Ostriker, Kuh, & Voytuk, 2011). Another study found that 56% of White STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students complete their doctoral degree in ten years, compared with 43% of Black STEM students (Sowell, Allum, & Okahana, 2015).

Common reasons for departure from graduate programs without completing the degree include personal problems, departmental issues, and because the program was not a good fit (Gardner, 2009). In a national study surveying more than 5,000 doctoral programs, fewer than 40% of graduate students who responded were satisfied with the social interaction opportunities sponsored by their program (Ostriker et al., 2011). Similarly, the Council of Graduate Schools commissioned the PhD Completion Project to learn more about the root causes of graduate students’ ability to succeed (or not) in graduate school. One of the top six recommendations from this project for improving graduate students’ experiences was for the program environment to provide “social interaction conducive to adopting a professional identity in the discipline, networking, and community building” (Sinady, Floyd, & Mulder, 2009, p. 222).

Lack of social connections and opportunities for making those connections are real issues in graduate students’ lives. What do we do with this knowledge in our varied roles as librarians? The approach we chose to start with was to examine the relationship gap as an information problem. Past studies on graduate students’ information seeking behaviors found that graduate students do not use library services due to a lack of knowledge about these services (George et al., 2006; Rempel et al., 2011), and that better promotion of these services (i.e., more information) might lead to increased use (Jankowska, Hertel, & Young, 2006; Kuruppu & Gruber, 2006). However, we wondered if simply knowing about services might not be the only issue at the root of this information problem. Based on our assumptions (grounded in our personal experiences, the expertise we have gained from working with graduate students, and the research literature) about how graduate students receive and act on information, we began to explore how social networks could impact information exchange.

Information Poverty

Our exploration of how relationship gaps might hinder graduate students’ information seeking abilities and their subsequent ability to act on the information they gathered, was initially informed by Elfreda Chatman’s work on Information Poverty. Chatman created and applied theories that describe how groups sought out and shared information (Chatman 1986; Chatman 1991; Chatman 1992; Chatman 1996; Chatman 1999). In particular, she looked at marginalized populations such as people living in poverty, single mothers, the elderly, female inmates, and janitors. The groups she worked with all lived in what she described as a world of insiders and outsiders. When operating as insiders, group members did not seek information from groups or people considered to be outside of their group. The insiders were highly concerned with conforming to group norms. As a result, they preferred to make use of information generated within the group rather than take the risk of seeking outside information. To fit into the group norms, people in the insider group often concealed their real state of need and engaged in secrecy, deception, risk avoidance, and self-protective behaviors. These actions limited their access to any knowledge outside their lived experience. Chatman described this phenomenon as living in a world of information poverty (Chatman 1996).

One example of how information poverty is enacted is illustrated by Chatman’s work with elderly women in an assisted living facility (Chatman 1992; Chatman 1996). It could be assumed that it is beneficial for elderly people to be in assisted living with other people like them so they can develop supportive relationships and share information related to the aging process. But Chatman found that being a part of that particular insider group was only beneficial to a certain point. These elderly women engaged in multiple information poverty actions including secrecy and deception. They chose to keep their actual health status hidden from other residents for fear they might be removed from their current environment and placed in more advanced care with more restrictions. Not only did residents keep their health status a secret, but they actively gave false or misleading information about their health to maintain the appearance of normalcy. The residents took these actions intending to protect themselves from perceived risks, but this had the downside of limiting how much information residents shared with each other about health services or symptoms common to the group as a whole.

Chatman (1991/1996) noted that information sharing can be dictated by situational relevance. She suggested that people in precarious situations do not see a value in the resources provided by outsiders—even if they think those resources might be useful. If an information-seeking action might trigger the risk of appearing different from the rest of the insider community, the individual will avoid seeking more information. In other words, it can feel safer to remain ignorant than to appear ignorant (or different) from peers or fellow insiders.

We suggest that the theory of information poverty describes several behaviors graduate students can exhibit. Graduate students sometimes limit themselves to only drawing on insider knowledge, e.g., not looking beyond their academic department for resources. At times, graduate students remain quiet or secretive about what they don’t know, e.g., how to conduct a literature review, how to find funding, or how to deal with a difficult advisor, in order to appear normal within their group. Of course, the extent to which individual graduate students exhibit characteristics of information poverty varies. However, using the theory of information poverty as a lens provided us with some alternative ways to consider the library’s place in relation to graduate students’ social networks. Graduate students may perceive libraries and librarians as part of the university hierarchy (an outside group), and so may not want to admit ignorance.

An Overview of Social Capital

Chatman was an information sciences researcher, but her ideas and research on information poverty have many connections to a long-standing body of work in sociology and philosophy on social capital. Pierre Bourdieu (1986/2008), a French sociologist and philosopher, described social capital as the benefit of membership in a particular group. Sometimes group memberships are formally recognized, and sometimes these memberships are less formal, but the benefits gained from being part of this group can give group members credit, or capital, to leverage both in their groups and beyond. A key feature of social capital is that it has both an individual and a collective aspect. Putnam (2000), an American political scientist who studies individual and group behaviors, notes that individuals form connections that benefit their own interests. But those interests can also combine to positively affect a larger group.

Three main components contribute to the theory of social capital (Putnam, 2000). The first component is the social networks or groups of people with whom an individual interacts. The second component is the shared norms and values of each group. And the third component is the degree to which trust or reciprocal sharing takes place in those relationships (see Figure 1).

Three bubbles showing components with arrows leading to a large bubble labeled 'Social Capital', which then has an arrow leading to a cloud labeled 'Common Goal'. The three small bubble components are labeled 'Social Networks', 'Shared Norms and Values', and 'Trust and Reciprocity'.
Figure 1. Social Capital Model (adapted from Putnam, 2000).

Typically, people have multiple social capital networks in their lives. Networks may be based on school, work, family, hobbies, or other extracurricular activities. However, not all social networks operate in the same way. Sometimes the connections in those social capital networks are stronger and sometimes they are weaker. Interestingly though, especially in terms of thinking about information sharing, some scholars (Levin & Cross, 2004) have suggested that weak ties provide access to non-redundant information. In other words, social connections with people outside of a particular insider group help provide exposure to new ideas. Theorists have named two different connection types (Temple, 2009). Bonding relationships are connections made with similar people (insider connections). Bridging relationships are connections made among diverse groups (outsider connections). A concern is that social capital may be most readily developed when people are similar to each other or where connections are easy, and as a result only bonding relationships are developed. A danger of only developing bonding relationships is that opportunities for exploring new sources of information may be lost (Temple, 2009).

Before moving forward with how the social capital framework was helpful for guiding our thinking as librarians, we want to pause and note some issues that the theory of social capital highlights. One issue is that the construction of social networks and the power that can go along with the structures created by those networks has long favored dominant groups. Within the United States’ higher education system, this has been particularly true for dominant groups in the categories of race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability (to name a few) (Bancroft, 2013). We hope that by becoming more aware, as well as more critically reflective, of the social structures that are in place, we can imagine and create new and different structures that are more inclusive, while not forgetting the history and privileges afforded by many existing social structures. Another issue is that other, similar and yet in many ways radically different, models have been in place in indigenous communities for a long time. Loyer (2018), a Cree-Métis librarian in Canada, describes the nêhiyaw and Michif concept of wâhkôhtowin, “a model for building kinship, which provides a structure for reciprocal accountability through relationship” (p. 151). This system of kinship relies on developing social networks that are the basis for shared cultural work and responsibilities – a framework that can sound very similar to social capital. However, Loyer describes the desired outcome of this kinship building as an ethic of care. An approach based on kinship rather than capital is an important shift. The literature we reference primarily draws on the Euro-centric concepts of social capital, and more work needs to be done to learn how the ideas of kinship can integrate with or substitute for the social capital model as a framework for understanding relationship-centered practice.

Social Capital, Information Poverty, and Librarians

Social capital can describe many types of social structures and behaviors, but how could the theory of social capital inform our work as librarians? We were drawn to the theory of social capital initially because of the way it confirmed ideas from Information Poverty theory about sharing information, especially the barriers to sharing information. But what researchers within higher education suggest is that social capital can also facilitate information flow (Temple, 2009). Information flow can include not only person-to-person information exchange, but also more structured information exchange activities like workshops or classroom-based learning. What researchers have found is that when there are existing networks of trust based on shared norms and values, learning can happen more readily with less resistance.

This finding begs the question of whether or not the opposite premise is true: is information flow weakened when social capital ties are weak? In many cases, a librarian’s ties to graduate students might be described as weak. For example, in many of Hannah’s interactions with graduate students, often her primary points of connection are stand-alone, non-recurring reference consultations or workshops in which few shared norms and values can be established, only a minimal level of trust is developed, and weak social network ties are created. However, graduate student relationships with librarians vary greatly based on the institutional context. For example, Mary works at a smaller branch campus, which houses a much smaller graduate student population, and frequently sees the same graduate students several times a week, thereby building stronger connections within this social network. The narrower scope of her branch campus leads to more opportunities for creating shared norms and values, and trust begins to develop based on repeated demonstrations of reliability. Situating our relationships as librarians serving graduate students within these social network theories gave us ways to more clearly surface context-based differences in our graduate student service patterns. It also provided a way to think about how library services might be perceived differently based on students’ social networks.

Social Network Theories in Action

Theories often feel overly abstract, and finding ways to incorporate principles from those theories into our practice as librarians can feel elusive. Using personas is a way to create a shared point of reference from which to have a conversation about these abstract ideas. Personas are developed by crafting a realistic composite of a person in order to generate ideas for serving a particular user community. Personas are commonly used in web design, but have also been used in library research to inform how services are provided to a range of user groups, e.g., undergraduate students (Colon-Aguirre & Fleming, 2012; Denison & Montgomery 2012).

Personas can be constructed in a variety of ways, including through research on a targeted population and through sustained personal expertise with a particular user group. In this case, our personas were constructed through our own accumulated expertise working with and researching graduate students in a variety of settings for many years. We developed four graduate student personas representing a range of disciplinary backgrounds, different experiences with their graduate student cohorts, a variety of prior educational and library research experiences, and several hurdles they faced in their graduate school journey. We drew on Information Poverty theory to help shape the description of the socially-based struggles the personas faced. For our primary discussion, we chose to feature a persona who is completing her Education degree online because Education master’s degree students make up the second highest number of master’s degree students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016), and because distance graduate education programs are increasing at our own institution.

Next, we used the three elements of Social Capital Theory—social networks, shared norms and values, and trust and reciprocity—to determine how that model can guide our work as academic librarians with an individual persona. The work we do as librarians is sometimes directly with students, but often our work happens behind the scenes and involves setting up structures to help create better systems or interfaces for students. As a result, we walk through one persona and the ways that we as librarians could use the social capital framework to both directly and indirectly address some of the issues she faces. The remainder of the personas can be found in the Appendix. We invite readers to explore these additional personas and think about how the combination of the social capital framework and their own library and university context might generate new ways of providing supports for graduate students.

Ellen – 2nd Year Masters of Education Student

Educational Background: Ellen is 45 years old. She has worked as a high school science teacher covering a variety of science courses. She is working on her M.Ed. so she can move into an administrative role. She has enrolled in an online program offered by a university in a nearby state. There is a cohort model for her program so she has some continuity with her online classmates. Many of the faculty members are also located at a distance from the main campus. Ellen did some library research when she got her education degree 20 years ago. She used the online catalog system and an online tool to find journal articles. She is unfamiliar with bibliographic management tools. Her online program has an orientation course for all new students that introduces them to research methods. This course includes one session with the librarian who is assigned to handle outreach to all the distance-education students. The librarian offers office hours via Skype or WebEx.

Struggles: Ellen wants to complete this degree as fast as possible due to the expense and her family’s needs. She does most of her schoolwork at night to minimize the impact of her educational pursuits on her children. However, this approach has resulted in decreased opportunities for her to get together with friends who have previously acted as a sounding board for other frustrations and worries. Ellen’s schedule is very tightly coordinated, and she is frustrated that research for her papers and upcoming thesis takes so long. She has tried using the local community college library, but their collection doesn’t always have what she needs. Ellen is concerned about her upcoming thesis project and how she will keep it organized. Ellen struggles at times with her advisor and other professors. She is limited to Skype meetings, and they can be difficult to schedule. In addition, she doesn’t feel her advisor values her real world experiences and practical viewpoint. Ellen is also frustrated with the frequent group projects that are assigned. Most of the students in the program also work full-time. They are spread over different time zones and most of their contact is through the learning management system (LMS) discussion boards, making it difficult to generate coherent discussions. Ellen has been able to make some connections with a few of her fellow graduate students, but their conversations have mostly centered on complaints about their advisors. She has not shared her struggles with finding information for her research project or narrowing her focus.

Application of the Social Capital Model

Direct Approaches:

Ellen (like many distance education students) feels disconnected from her student peers, instructors, and campus support services. Based on the application of the social capital framework, our practical suggestions focus on providing more proactive and accessible communication methods; actively sharing messages about resources for her scholarly community via a variety of outlets; and emphasizing a culture of service that demonstrates the library’s responsiveness and willingness to adapt to her learning context. Below is a list of some concrete ways academic librarians could act on the three components of social capital in Ellen’s situation.

    Creating social networks:

    1. Use mail merge to send a personalized email at the beginning of each term to all students in the online education program letting them know a librarian is available to work with them. In this email include asynchronous options like email for contacting the librarian, as well as synchronous options such as phone, Skype, or Google Hangouts.
    2. Hold office hours one or two nights a week, via Skype or Google Hangouts.
    3. Offer training on online group productivity tools (e.g., Zotero, Google Drive, or Box) for program cohorts. Offer the trainings synchronously (if desired and possible) for each cohort, leaving time for discussion and application and practice of what they’ve learned, but also record the training for those who were not able to attend.

    Creating shared norms and values:

    1. Develop an online student-focused website or LibGuide and feature not only tools and services, but successes of past online students, e.g., award winners, or completed theses or projects.
    2. Place bookmarks in all outgoing books sent to online students promoting research tools and services targeted to the student’s field, e.g., APA citation help, Education databases, or archived online workshops for graduate students.
    3. Publicize awards opportunities, e.g., library research awards recognizing excellent research projects, to the online campus community.

    Creating trust and reciprocity:

    1. Pay for shipping costs (both ways) for books online students use via interlibrary loan.
    2. Respond quickly to online students’ requests, and if they want to interact synchronously, ask them for their preferred availability.
    3. Ask departmental faculty for a list of students who are working on research intensive projects, e.g., that require an IRB or that use educational datasets, and then proactively reach out to those students and suggest specific search tools, organizational strategies, or assistance with making their final product openly discoverable.

Indirect Approaches:

Improving Ellen’s individual experience is very important. But understanding the larger educational community she operates in and creating connections to that community is also important for creating longer term supports for Education graduate students in this distance program. Again, we used the three components of the social capital framework to generate ideas for building relationships that may only indirectly benefit Ellen, but which could have longer term impacts on the broader graduate student community. These practical ideas focus on developing relationships with faculty and (if feasible) with a broader network of libraries, including public libraries. The power balance between librarians and instruction faculty and librarians at other institutions is different than the relationship between librarians and graduate students. As a result, this list of actions focuses on learning about classroom context and tools, educating instruction faculty about library options and concerns, and advocacy for library values.

    Creating social networks:

    1. Meet with departmental faculty either in person or online to understand the required projects and class expectations.
    2. Provide adjunct faculty with information on library resources and possible limitations or differences compared to their primary campuses or previous experiences.
    3. Reach out through email to the local public libraries in communities that have a lot of distance students and share and solicit ideas for serving these students.

    Creating shared norms and values:

    1. Meet with faculty to learn about typical areas of student weaknesses. Based on this information include targeted help via LibGuides or recorded webinars.
    2. Advocate with faculty for scaffolded instruction (via webinars or tutorials) beyond introductory library resources or research topics.
    3. Become aware of, and as much as possible an expert in, campus resources that are relevant for distance graduate students, for example LMS (learning management system) training, resources for video conferencing, online outreach services from the Graduate School, and writing center services for off-campus students so that conversations with graduate students are based on a shared understanding of these services.

    Creating trust and reciprocity:

    1. Become familiar with what types of resources might be available in the students’ local libraries and give them some tips for accessing non-academic libraries.
    2. Sign up for student listservs or get embedded in the class LMS. Mostly pay attention to the tenor of the conversations, and judiciously find information to share.
    3. Prioritize listening over talking.

Barriers and Opportunities Revealed by Social Network Theories


In considering how the two social network theories we explored might influence librarians’ work with graduate students, it is important to recognize that the social network theories illustrate many barriers graduate students can face in their educational process. For example, factors from the students’ local environment, unrelated to their topics of study, can have an outsized impact on the development of social capital. Many students are studying far away from their families, and so a family-based social structure (which may have previously been very important) cannot be as readily relied on in day-to-day interactions. In addition, a major factor shaping graduate students’ social interactions is the student’s department or discipline (Austin, 2002; White & Nonnamaker, 2008). Different disciplinary areas have implicit and explicit cultural expectations of their students: that students will work independently, that they will work long hours in the lab, or that they will follow formulaic guidelines for their thesis. Local culture can also present barriers for graduate students’ ability to develop social structures outside of school. For example, small college towns can be places in which to develop friendships outside of school. Language can also be a barrier, particularly for students who are non-native English speakers studying in the United States. As librarians and other university administrators in positions of structural power become more aware of the impact of these barriers, they can make decisions that work to reduce these barriers.

A common barrier in the graduate education experience we want to emphasize is that the work is often intended to be self-directed and individualistic (Dyckman, 2005; Gardner, 2008). There is certainly disciplinary variation, but ultimately graduate students must submit their own thesis, dissertation, or portfolio at the end of their graduate school tenure. The result of the individualistic nature of this work can be the emergence of self-protective behaviors as described by Chatman’s Information Poverty theory and illustrated by the residents in the senior living facility. Graduate students’ approaches to these individualistic tasks can be in conflict with their ability to seek out supports via their social networks. Tensions and problems arise as a result. The more support a department can provide to help navigate both explicit and implicit expectations, the higher likelihood of a successful degree completion (Gardner, 2010).

While social or relationship concerns impact all graduate students, historically marginalized groups deal with the additional disparities created by institutionalized racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. The social capital framework recognizes that people have multiple networks and that these networks combine to influence relationships across networks. However, the dominant culture of graduate school has often encouraged students to believe the academic context is the only set of norms, values, and relationships that matters—or even exists—in graduate students’ lives. This approach is in stark contrast to how members of many historically marginalized communities think of their relationships (Bancroft, 2013). As a result, dissonance can develop between the norms of the academic department and students’ social identities. Education researchers have explored how much of their identities or communities that historically marginalized graduate students leave behind when they enter graduate school (Levin, Jaeger, & Haley, 2013; Winkle-Wagner & McCoy, 2016). The level of dissonance for students from these groups can be even greater than those from historically dominant groups (Goodarzi, 2018). They might be the first in their family to attend graduate school and as a result can lack knowledge or full support for their academic pursuits from their families. Insider vocabulary may be used that makes them feel like outsiders. They may experience additional financial strains because of the long-term financial advantages denied to their communities. Plus, the new academic community might not be welcoming to perceived outsiders.

Opportunities for Developing Services

These two social network theories also raise many questions about the purpose of graduate studies, how learning is conducted in these relationships, and how information may be shared with and among graduate students. The lens of social capital introduces a new way to examine service provision and communication issues, and can help librarians re-conceptualize services for graduate students to account for some of the frustrations and barriers in their relationship ecosystem. Researchers have found that certain service designs encourage the social interactions, participation, and sense of belonging that lie at the heart of the social capital framework (Temple, 2009). This finding suggests that improvements in social capital aren’t permanently fixed, but instead can be constructed and changed.

When we reviewed the literature on graduate students, and particularly graduate students from historically marginalized communities, with the social capital framework in mind, we encountered several examples of services that could either be developed in the library, or (depending on the institutional context) that librarians could work on in partnership with other campus groups to affect change. The first suggestion comes from Elfreda Chatman (1987). Based on her work she notes the importance of collecting practical books that are relevant sources of information based on the community’s actual needs. The communities she worked with primarily used resources via their public library. However, in addition to collecting information sources important to their disciplinary work, academic libraries can also make an effort to collect information resources related to graduate students’ practical needs of financing their education and finding jobs after they graduate.

Another suggestion is based on Winkle-Wagner and McCoy’s (2016) recognition of the importance of summer institutes (especially for historically marginalized minorities) to give students an extra boost before the beginning of the school year. Inviting (and potentially financing) graduate students to attend a hands-on institute on library research practices prior to the start of the school year could establish a foundation of shared norms for doing research as well as a social connection with librarians that could be a basis for the rest of their education. Several libraries already participate in McNair post baccalaureate programs as one way to address this issue (Palumbo, 2018).

To help graduate students see themselves as connected to the work of a common goal, either on a disciplinary or institutional basis, librarians leading workshops, orientation sessions, or other instructional sessions for graduate students could make explicit connections between the published literature and the people conducting that literature. Winkle-Wagner and McCoy (2016) note that cultural capital can be gained by learning about authors and the language of a discipline, while social capital can be gained by developing networks of scholars. When illustrating concepts like citation networks, librarians could use information from authors’ websites to show the human scale of research and how authors can be connected by education, mentorship, or interest. In instruction sessions, librarians could also showcase examples from their own institutions—purposefully highlighting research from other departments—to help graduate students better visualize the work currently in process on their campus. Students could brainstorm potential cross-disciplinary projects and practice their searching and finding skills by looking for examples or options available on their campus.

Developing a sense of belonging is a key component of creating social networks based on trust. Wynn (2017) suggests that one way to create a shift away from long-standing notions of belonging that only included students from the dominant culture is to explicitly, and repeatedly, broadcast a message of belonging. Libraries can create their own “you belong” messaging through posters, banners, or other signage that signals to all students that they are welcome to study, research, and collaborate in library spaces (and hopefully elsewhere on campus). Partnering with other campus entities could broaden this message of belonging.

A solution that would reach beyond the library is the recognition of the importance of family for many students, particularly those from historically marginalized groups (Levin et al., 2013). Some libraries, like our own (http://familyresources.oregonstate.edu/olv-library), host daycare facilities in their library to give students childcare support while they are studying. While not all libraries may be able to provide childcare, libraries could be part of a larger shift to a more family-friendly culture, where it is considered acceptable to bring children or parents into the library when attending instructional sessions or conducting research. Librarians could also consider starting conversations on their campus about what a family-friendly culture might look like in their context.

One aspect of librarianship that the theory of social capital surfaces is that librarians are part of the institutional establishment. While librarians frequently prefer to downplay our role as part of the institutional hierarchy and instead focus on our characteristics as neutral and safe people to bring concerns to, recognizing the inherent power differential that comes with being part of that establishment can encourage us to more realistically approach our relationships with graduate students. The onus is on us to look for ways to reach out to graduate students, rather than expecting them to come to us. Reaching out to graduate students is one way to increase a sense of belonging and to begin to develop shared networks in which to share information. Wall, McNie, and Garfin (2017) note that “creating social capital usually requires the use of ‘soft skills,’ such as listening, communicating, mediating, negotiating, and sharing” (p. 556). The development of soft skills creates services at a personal relationship level. As illustrated in our application of the social capital model to the problems Ellen’s persona faced, a service improvement we are suggesting is to recognize the value of the individual relationship.

As seasoned librarians, we are familiar with the need to create sustainable programs to provide access to information and services to the large numbers of students on our campuses. We discussed some options for creating sustained structural supports in the indirect applications of the social network framework to the issues raised by Ellen’s persona. However, we also believe that small, high-touch relationship building actions should be encouraged and valued in our structures. Since creating the personas and using the two social network theories to guide our reflective practice, we have seen this in our attempts to build relationships in our local contexts. Here are some recent examples of ways that we have attempted to build relationships in our local contexts. During Graduate Student Appreciation Week, Mary brought donuts to her library for the graduate students. This small gesture was much appreciated and has made other faculty and staff at her campus think about what they could do to appreciate graduate students. Hannah has hosted office hours in the Graduate Student Success Center (which is not located in the library), as a way of going to a space where graduate students may feel more comfortable, rather than always expecting graduate students to come to her. Creating time and space in our schedules to recognize graduate students’ needs may not always feel like a big innovation at a programmatic level. It may also feel like an additional burden to some librarians depending on their background and assumptions about the purpose and nature of the work they do. But in our context, we are finding that thoughtfully taking time for librarians to develop social capital with students can have impacts that reach students who need support the most.


Exploring the services that libraries provide for graduate students through the lens of social capital and information poverty reveals several new approaches and emphasizes some well-established values of librarianship. A key implication in connecting the work on information poverty to graduate students’ experiences is that graduate students’ social capital networks can impact their willingness to make use of library and university services. Sometimes graduate students don’t use these services because they don’t know about them. But often, that is not the only reason for lack of use. As new members of an academic community, graduate students may feel the need to hide their lack of knowledge from their immediate peers.

Librarians’ response to these expressions of information poverty can include work on a personal level. This work can include taking the time to see things on a small scale and recognizing that developing individual relationships is worthwhile, perhaps especially with graduate students from historically marginalized groups, as a way to rebalance longstanding power and trust dynamics in academia. While librarians may not be able to serve all graduate students in this relational way, selecting targeted ways to connect with graduate students should be valued. Making a graduate student feel like a worthwhile individual instead of just a number in a class can be very powerful. We may not always be able to quantify how much a small act such as running interference on an interlibrary loan request, returning an email quickly, or making a requested book purchase, matters to them, but that interaction may have made their life easier, and can contribute to their overall sense of belonging.

Librarians can also design efforts on a larger scale to create a better balance of social capital. Through concerted efforts to increase equitable access to opportunities for incoming graduate students, emphasis on the human scale of research in our instruction, and the creation of family-oriented study options, we can demonstrate that we value including graduate students in our campus social networks.


The authors would like to thank Jennifer Sharkey (external peer reviewer) and Bethany Messersmith (internal peer reviewer) for reviewing drafts of this article. We recognize that reviewing takes a lot of time, and we are thankful for their feedback. The authors would also like to thank our Publishing Editor, Ian Beilin. We are thankful for our fellow librarian colleagues who serve graduate students. Your conversational input has been invaluable. Finally, we are thankful for the graduate students with whom we get to interact with every day. We learn so much from you.


Anderson, M. S., & Swazey, J. P. (1998). Reflections on the graduate student experience: An overview. New Directions for Higher Education, 1998(101), 3–13.

Austin, A. E. (2002). Preparing the next generation of faculty: Graduate school as socialization to the academic career. The Journal of Higher Education, 73(1), 94–122.

Bancroft, S. (2013). Capital, kinship, & white privilege. Social & cultural influences upon the minority doctoral experience in the sciences. Multicultural Education, 20(2), 10–17.

Bourdieu, P. (2008). The forms of capital. In Readings in Economic Sociology (pp. 280–291). Wiley-Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470755679.ch15

Brookfield, S. D. (2011). Teaching for critical thinking: Tools and techniques to help students question their assumptions. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass Publishers.

Chatman, E. A. (1986). Diffusion theory: A review and test of a conceptual model in information diffusion. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 37(6), 377–386. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1097-4571(198611)37:6%3C377::AID-ASI2%3E3.0.CO;2-C

Chatman, E. A. (1987). Opinion leadership, poverty, and information sharing. RQ, 26(3), 341–353.

Chatman, E. A. (1991). Life in a small world: Applicability of gratification theory to information-seeking behavior. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(6), 438–438. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1097-4571(199107)42:6%3C438::AID-ASI6%3E3.0.CO;2-B

Chatman, E. A. (1992). The information world of retired women. New York: Greenwood Press.

Chatman, E. A. (1996). The impoverished life-world of outsiders. Journal of the American Society for Information Science (1986-1998), 47(3), 193–206. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1097-4571(199603)47:3%3C193::AID-ASI3%3E3.0.CO;2-T

Chatman, E. A. (1999). A theory of life in the round. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(3), 207–217. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1097-4571(1999)50:3%3C207::AID-ASI3%3E3.0.CO;2-8

Colón-Aguirre, M., & Fleming-May, R. A. (2012). “You just type in what you are looking for”: Undergraduates’ use of library resources vs. Wikipedia. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 38(6), 391–399. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2012.09.013

Denison, D. R., & Montgomery, D. (2012). Annoyance or delight? College students’ perspectives on looking for information. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 38(6), 380–390. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2012.08.007

Dyckman, L. M. (2005). Fear of failure and fear of finishing: A case study on the emotional aspects of dissertation proposal research, with thoughts on library instruction and graduate student retention. In Proceedings of the Twelfth National Conference of the Association of College and Research Libraries (Vol. 12, p. 351). Minneapolis, MN.

Fleming-May, R., & Yuro, L. (2009). From student to scholar: The academic library and social sciences PhD students’ transformation. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 9(2), 199–221.

Gardner, S. K. (2008). “What’s too much and what’s too little?”: The process of becoming an independent researcher in doctoral education. The Journal of Higher Education, 79(3), 326–350.

Gardner, S. K. (2009). Student and faculty attributions of attrition in high and low-completing doctoral programs in the United States. Higher Education, 58(1), 97–112.

Gardner, S. K. (2010). Contrasting the socialization experiences of doctoral students in high- and low-completing departments: a qualitative analysis of disciplinary contexts at one institution. The Journal of Higher Education, 81(1), 61–81. https://doi.org/10.1353/jhe.0.0081

George, C., Bright, A., Hurlbert, T., Linke, E. C., Clair, G. S., & Stein, J. (2006). Scholarly use of information: Graduate students’ information seeking behavior. Information Research, 11(4). Retrieved from http://informationr.net/ir/11-4/paper272.html

Goodarzi, H. (2018, June 28). Opinion: Broken promises caused by the travel ban. The Scientist Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/opinion–broken-promises-caused-by-the-travel-ban-64392

Green, R. (2010). Information illiteracy: Examining our assumptions. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 36(4), 313–319.

Head, A. J. (2003). Personas: Setting the stage for building usable information sites. Online, 27(4), 14.

Jankowska, M. A., Hertel, K., & Young, N. J. (2006). Improving library service quality to graduate students: LibQual+ survey results in a practical setting. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 6(1), 59–76. https://doi.org/10.1353/pla.2006.0005

Kuruppu, P. U., & Gruber, A. M. (2006). Understanding the information needs of academic scholars in agricultural and biological sciences. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(6), 609–623.

Levin, D. Z., & Cross, R. (2004). The strength of weak ties you can trust: The mediating role of trust in effective knowledge transfer. Management Science, 50(11), 1477–1490.

Levin, J. S., Jaeger, A. J., & Haley, K. J. (2013). Graduate student dissonance: Graduate students of color in a US research university. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 6(4), 231.

Loyer, J. (2018). Indigenous information literacy: nêhiyaw kinship enabling self-care in research. In Karen P. Nicholson and Maura Seale, eds., The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship. Library Juice Press. Retrieved from http://mruir.mtroyal.ca/xmlui/handle/11205/361

Macauley, P., & Green, R. (2009). Can our relationships be reconceptualized? Librarians, information literacy, and doctoral learners. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 68–78.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). NCES Fast Facts Tool. Retrieved December 6, 2017, from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=37
Oregon State University. (2018). Enrollment and demographic reports. Retrieved May 9, 2018, from http://institutionalresearch.oregonstate.edu/enrollment-and-demographic-reports

Ostriker, J. P., Kuh, C. V., & Voytuk, J. A. (2011). A data-based assessment of research doctorate programs in the United States. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Palumbo, L. (2018). Instruction Is Contextual: An Examination of McNair Program Curricula for STEM Scholars and Recommendations Based on the Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education. Science & Technology Libraries, 37(2), 187–210. https://doi.org/10.1080/0194262X.2018.1456089

Rempel, H. G., Hussong-Christian, U., & Mellinger, M. (2011). Graduate student space and service needs: A recommendation for a cross-campus solution. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 37(6), 480–487. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2011.07.004

Saunders, L. (2015). Academic Libraries’ Strategic Plans: Top Trends and Under-Recognized Areas. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 41(3), 285–291. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2015.03.011

Sinady, C., Floyd, D. L., & Mulder, A. E. (2009). The AACC competencies and the PhD completion project: Practical implications. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 34(1–2), 218–226. https://doi.org/10.1080/10668920903451442

Sowell, R. S., Allum, J. R., & Okahana, H. (2015). Doctoral initiative on minority attrition and completion. Washington, D.C: Council of Graduate Schools.

Temple, P. (2009). Social capital and university effectiveness. In G. Tripp, M. Payne, & D. Diodorus (Eds.), Social Capital (pp. 1–17). New York, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Wall, T. U., McNie, E., & Garfin, G. M. (2017). Use-inspired science: Making science usable by and useful to decision makers. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 15(10), 551–559. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.1735

White, J., & Nonnamaker, J. (2008). Belonging and mattering: How doctoral students experience community. NASPA Journal, 45(3), 350–372.

Winkle-Wagner, R., & McCoy, D. L. (2016). Entering the (postgraduate) field: Underrepresented students’ acquisition of cultural and social capital in graduate school preparation programs. The Journal of Higher Education, 87(2), 178–205. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2016.11777399

Wynn, C. M. (2017, December 6). Odd one out: On being a graduate student of color. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/odd-one-out


Additional graduate student personas with which to explore the social capital framework.

Abby – 1st Year Masters of Public Health Student

Educational Background: Abby is 29 and works as an RN at a local hospital. She went to a community college and then transferred to her local mid-sized university to get her BSN. She is now enrolled in a new MPH program at her local university. The program combines in-person night and weekend courses along with online courses. Abby’s past research experiences were primarily focused on clinical case reports and care plans. She knows about CINAHL and PubMed but prefers Google because it is faster. Abby has identified outreach and services for LGBTQ students as her area of interest. Abby is in the first cohort of students to enter the MPH program. There are five full-time faculty including the department head. There are also many adjunct instructors who have been pulled from the local community and state medical school. The current nursing librarian has been assigned to the MPH department. The librarian is participating in the research methods course required for all first-year MPH students.

Struggles: Abby feels like her research skills are at a proficient level. However, she is frustrated that she is struggling with finding materials for her classes. Abby enjoys her advisor and feels supported despite both of their busy schedules. However, Abby has been surprised at the hoops she has to jump through with the university, their policies, and the IRB in order to do research with students. She is also frustrated that it is harder to find campus collaborators for her project than she expected. In past work relationships, she has quickly been able to figure out who to ask to facilitate the projects she wants to take on, but the academic bureaucracy at this institution is stymying her. Her cohort of students is a combination of younger students going straight to the MPH from their undergraduate degree and older students like herself. The older students cover a wide range of ages and life experiences. Her department is trying to develop a community with a variety of social events. They are having mixed success due to the variety of ages, life experiences, and work schedules of the students in the cohort.

Preeda – 2nd-Year Master’s Student in Botany

Educational Background: Preeda is 23 years old. She is an international student from Thailand. Her undergraduate degree is in genetics from one of the top science-focused universities in Thailand. She was awarded a full scholarship by the government of Thailand to attend graduate school at a major land grant institution in the United States. She has joined a lab focused on using molecular techniques to better understand diseases in rice. Preeda reads English well, but her English speaking skills still need more practice. Preeda is unfamiliar with finding literature sources on her own. As an undergraduate, relevant articles were given to her by her professors, and she used Google when she needed to find information about a molecular technique. Her advisor requires all of her new graduate students to take a research seminar class during their first semester. Preeda floundered in this class, and the instructor suggested she meet with her subject librarian. The librarian introduced Preeda to two key subject databases in her field and some techniques for searching and accessing the literature. Preeda has since had two follow-up meetings with the librarian to get clarifications on citation styles and to look for more specific research literature.

Struggles: One of the stipulations of Preeda’s scholarship is that she will work in a university back in Thailand for twice as many years as she studies in the U.S. Preeda feels a lot of pressure to do well in her program. However, because of her struggles with English, she is concerned that her Master’s program will take longer than two years. Her thesis advisor has a long history of hosting international students in her lab. However, she spends much of her time writing grants and leaves the day-to-day mentoring and running of her lab in the hands of her research technician and her two postdocs. Preeda is not comfortable sharing concerns or asking questions of her advisor and doesn’t know how to advocate for extra supports she might need. She feels pressure to work 40-50 hours a week in the lab on top of her coursework and spends many evenings and most weekends there. Other graduate students spend a similar amount of time in the lab, and while all of them feel overworked, they all assume this schedule is part of the process of becoming a researcher in their field. Preeda Skypes with her family every week. She still feels very homesick at times, but she has been making friends with other Thai students. This group provides her with options for socializing in a language she is comfortable in.

Jonah – 1st-Year PhD student in History

Educational Background: Jonah is 24 years old. His previous degrees are in computing science, history, and US History with a digital humanities focus. He recently moved across the country to work on a PhD with a world-renowned faculty member at a prestigious school. Jonah is self-taught in most of the technology tools he uses. He primarily relies on Google Books, Google Scholar, and JStor to search for secondary sources, but he is also familiar with several history databases that were introduced to him by his Master’s degree advisor. For his PhD project, he will need to use the extensive physical archival collection available at his university. He had a brief introduction to archival research by the archivist at his master’s institution but recognizes he will need more information to successfully find primary sources at his new institution.

Struggles: Jonah’s partner has not made the move across the country with him yet. This is a point of contention between them, and the effort to maintain a long-distance relationship is increasingly frustrating. Jonah is struggling to meet new people at his new university both because he isn’t completely sure about his current relationship, but also because the department he is housed in seems to have a lot of pre-established cliques. No cohesive group exists to plan events for graduate students, and the implicit expectation is that each new student will find their own way. Jonah is having difficulty connecting with his PhD advisor. While an expert in his field, Jonah’s advisor does not prioritize mentoring graduate students. He is frequently out of the office giving talks around the world. Jonah isn’t sure if he should look for another advisor, or if he will be able to figure out his project and the graduate school system on his own.