Students improving services for themselves

Student engagement at The Hive -- Europe's first integrated public and university library.

Europe’s first integrated public and university library is housed in the ultra-modern Hive building in Worcester, alongside the local archive and archaeology service and the County Council services hub. Within the copper coloured, eco-friendly building, the library’s front line team is completely integrated, with some staff being employed by the university and some by the County Council. This unique service model offers distinct challenges and opportunities, among them the chance to engage students in new ways, involving them in shaping library services of the future, according to Sarah Pittway, Team Leader Academic Services at the University of Worcester.  

No such thing as an engaged student?

Speaking at last month’s UKSG conference, Pittaway acknowledged that ‘student engagement’ is a buzz word. However, she contended provocatively, “There is no such thing as an engaged student”.  Instead, she argues that students operate along a continuum of engagement behaviours – engaged at times, and disengaged at others, depending on external factors such as personal circumstances, or the influence of an inspirational tutor. Pittaway explained that The Hive team is particularly focused on making positive changes to services by working with students as partners: “It’s engaging them in dialogue rather than as passive recipients of services. If we do it really well, it’s students improving services for other students.”

Two student engagement co-ordinators have been recruited, with the remit to try new things, and three strands of activity have been identified. Quick, informal surveys consisting of just two or three questions are taken out to wherever students congregate and in this way feedback can be rapidly sought from as many as two or three hundred students, on topics such as redeveloping student induction. Ideas for development can then be further explored in focus groups, with the most promising taken into fully fledged project development.  

Know Your Shelf

Quick wins have included students creating their own ‘Top Tips’ for using the library, which were then used on social media during the first few weeks of semester. The librarians were interested to see how these differed from the ‘official’ library tips, with students particularly recommending the importance of ‘Know your shelf’: finding out where core books for your course are kept. Students were also keen on self-guided induction tours, so staff were able to work with them to find out what they needed and wanted, rather than offering the more traditional staff-led induction.

Longer term projects include the development of Hive Student Reps, dubbed ‘The Bees’. Just as in a real beehive, these bees have their own specialisms: Subject Bees, mentored by the academic liaison librarian, offer peer-to-peer support and feed back on collections; Library Bees focus on public facing issues, and Digital Bees are next on the list.

Pittaway stresses that all this is still in its early days. Challenges include managing student expectations, and balancing widely differing needs within a complex service model. However there are significant benefits, not the least of which is changing staff culture: staff no longer make assumptions about what students want, but ask them instead. And importantly it has raised the profile of the library, “putting us at the centre of university discourse about student engagement.”