Libraries and service learning: a match made in heaven?

Moderator’s note:  This post was written by Anne Marie Gruber, Instruction & Liaison Librarian, University of Northern Iowa

Libraries and service learning–a match made in heaven? I think so! Especially when it comes to information literacy instruction, it makes sense for academic librarians to support service learning along with other forms of community engagement in higher education. As we work to demonstrate our value to the academy, contributing to this growing area of emphasis in higher education can make us even more connected to our institutional priorities and ensure key decision-makers understand our services.

While I’ve been an academic librarian for over 10 years, I am new to University of Northern Iowa, a mid-sized comprehensive university that happens to be my alma mater. UNI has strong connections to the community and a long history of service learning, but there has been little library involvement with service learning until now. In my short time there, I have been an ambassador of sorts, talking up the potential for library/service learning collaborations based on my past experience teaching many information literacy sessions for service learning courses. While I know I’m preaching to the choir here, I think it’s important to articulate some specific arguments for library involvement in service learning.

Let’s start with benefits to community partners, since they are sometimes forgotten in service learning conversations. One faculty member I worked with at my previous institution indicated the information literacy session librarians led “ensured students represented the institution exceptionally well to non-profit leaders in the community”. Agency representatives appreciated that our students had “done their homework” by conducting some preliminary research. Our involvement enabled students to engage with community partners at a deeper level and brainstorm creative service learning projects.

My favorite example is from a required general education seminar, a section that happened to include mostly health/wellness majors. They were partnering with a local rescue mission, and some of the students initially thought the project had no connection to their intended career fields or personal interests. But when I helped the students do some research about poverty in our local community and beyond, one found an article about mental health concerns among the homeless. This proved pivotal as the students discussed how mental and physical health are connected, and brainstormed how they might address related needs. They proposed that the rescue mission create a fitness room, and they worked tirelessly to solicit donations of gently used fitness equipment, clear out a space at the facility, set up the equipment, and show clients how to use it. Several students finalized the project during the summer without additional credit hours or compensation.

When I tell this story, many of my faculty colleagues are excited and surprised. Most faculty who use service learning as a pedagogical approach simply hadn’t considered partnering with librarians before; those who have appreciate the librarians’ support, with one characterizing information literacy sessions as providing students “a direct line of questioning that provokes deeper levels of thinking about their project”. They are glad to have support for preparing students to engage with the community in which they will work, which is often very different from their communities of origin. Sometimes the librarians’ involvement helps students come across information that changes their mindset or increases their motivation for the project. I recently asked faculty participants in a service learning institute on my campus to take part in a simulation of an information literacy session. It was really fun to ask faculty to pretend to be students, but it was even more fun (and profound) to see how they engage with information sources about community needs. One small group of faculty learned that some of our pre-conceived ideas about poverty rates in our local community simply weren’t true based on the government data I helped them explore.

For students, librarian involvement with service learning can help reduce misconceptions and prepare them to ask intelligent questions as well as making effective connections in the community. A student told me once “there aren’t homeless people here” prior to starting a local project; clearly the evidence he gathered during the information literacy session contradicted his assumption. Incidentally, that student got pretty energized about helping reduce those same misconceptions among the campus community!  As librarians empower students to explore and gather high-quality evidence, students may come to realize that research isn’t just for writing research papers; it can and should be part of everyday life and solving everyday problems. With all our society’s challenges, who better than our energetic, thoughtful, and dedicated students to be the force of change? I want them to be equipped with high-quality, credible information rather than flagrant, emotional arguments.

The potential benefits to librarians are exciting. Because we are collaborative and interdisciplinary thinkers, service learning offers a natural opportunity to become connected across campus and further demonstrate the value of our services in non-traditional ways. Maybe it means providing spaces for students and community partners to meet, or facilitating displays of student work, or incorporating service learning projects into our institutional repositories. We can also exercise our professional ethics that include social justice themes and use service learning as personal and career motivation. There have been times when I was getting close to burnout and an opportunity to support service learning gave me new energy for my teaching and a renewed commitment to the core values of librarianship.

Are there challenges for librarians? Of course, but I’m hopeful we can view them as opportunities for growth. Some librarians may need time to adjust their teaching methods to information needs related to service learning. After all, scholarly sources are sometimes less helpful than government data or non-scholarly “real-world” information. Authority is certainly constructed and contextual, and some voices are simply not represented at all unless we gather primary sources. By necessity, our teaching must change to fit the needs of the project. We need to think about teaching for intellectual curiosity and civic engagement rather than teaching to a research paper. While we may be hesitant to market another service that will take us time, what better way to instill in students the value of information literacy skills as a vital part of lifelong learning?

Now that I am in a tenure-track position, service learning is the focus of my research agenda. It connects my passion for service (a winding road that included being a reluctant participant and full-time AmeriCorps member, with many twists and turns in between) with my career path as an instruction librarian. As I’ve transitioned from practitioner to practitioner-researcher, I have learned first-hand the importance of networking and reaching out to the other librarians who are researching service learning. This blog, along with the recent book Service Learning, Information Literacy, and Libraries, helped me develop the language to better describe what I do and connect with librarians who are furthering this work.

Even more importantly, however, I have seen that I need to network beyond librarianship. Presenting at non-library conferences is a priority so I can spread the message of libraries to faculty and administrators. Some of my most important “a-ha” moments about service learning have come from interactions with non-library faculty and staff at non-library conferences. In particular, I’ve been blown away by community engagement coordinators from campuses across my state and region. They are tirelessly blazing trails, advocating for a pedagogical approach that is sometimes misunderstood. They have a lot in common with academic librarians, just as the service learning movement has much in common with information literacy.

My next steps are focused on an upcoming study I’ll be conducting to investigate faculty perceptions of information literacy skills and instruction in academic service learning projects. I also hope to use some established tools to measure the connection between information literacy sessions and student engagement with service learning projects. I find myself being asked to train-the-trainer, teaching other librarians how their role might look in the service learning context, cognizant that all our campuses are very different.
Are you already supporting service learning? Are there more possibilities to expand that role and to spread the word?  I’d love to chat with you and I am always looking for new collaborators, so don’t hesitate to contact me (

Authors acknowledgements: Special thanks go to the following colleagues and collaborators, past and present: Becky Canovan, Lindsey Ward, Julie Phillips, Julianne Gassman, Emily Shields, Jennifer Nutefall, and many others. Thank you especially to Maureen Barry for this wonderful blog and for allowing me to contribute.


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