Cost of living crisis: what can academic libraries do?

A photograph of Laura Woods
Laura Woods

In this blog post, Laura Woods, Deputy Chair of the CILIP Information Literacy Group, has been thinking about the current cost of living crisis and whether academic libraries can help students during these challenging times. She provides her own thoughts on this issue and encourages readers to share their own ideas.

In the UK, we have for some time been seeing dire predictions about the impact of energy price rises on the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. While the government has announced an “energy price guarantee” to cap the cost of energy bills, the cap is still extremely high and many will still enter fuel poverty as the weather turns cold. I have seen some commentary discussing how universities should support students over the coming winter months. Which got me wondering: what, if anything, could university libraries do to help?

This might at first glance seem an odd topic to consider from an information literacy blog! However I would argue that the safety and wellbeing of students is central to all education. If our students are cold, hungry, and worrying how they will pay their bills and/or support their families, this will hinder their learning.

Jim Dickinson of WonkHE has offered some advice for university leadership on addressing the cost of living crisis this winter, including this paragraph which leapt out at me: “every student officer I’ve spoken to this summer thinks campus usage will increase, not decrease. Libraries will need more security on and places to nap, rather than closure at 10pm. We’ll need more chairs. Everywhere.”

This I think is a key issue for all library workers to consider, especially those in front-line services. Are there comfortable spaces in the library for people to study while also keeping warm? Are we open for long enough over evenings and weekends? Can we relax any rules on napping in the library? Do frontline staff (and non-library staff, e.g. security) know what services they can signpost any students who appear to be struggling to?

The same author at WonkHE has also published a crowdsourced list of 101 ways to get the cost of living down for students, which includes advice like making use of OERs, ensuring students know that buying their entire reading list is “unwise and unnecessary”, and working with your librarians/copyright officers to ensure course readings are available online and/or in the library. Which leads me to the next major consideration for academic libraries: hidden course costs.

One major role of an academic library is to provide access to often very expensive information so that students are not forced to bear these costs themselves. In an era of spiralling journal costs and unethical e-book pricing, alongside tightening university budgets, this is becoming more difficult! Which makes it even more important for librarians and information professionals to call out unfair business practices and resist these wherever possible. If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to contact your Students’ Union regarding their support for the #ebookSOS campaign.

As well as the cost of buying books, are there other hidden course costs that the library is in a position to assist with? For example printing costs, late return fines, or software licences. If your students can get free Office software once enrolled, for example, are incoming students informed of this before they arrive and spend money on laptops and software? If your students may struggle with travel costs to get to campus, what distance learning support can you offer? If you provide postal loans, can anyone use these, or are there strict criteria? Can these criteria be relaxed to enable more students to benefit?

For teaching librarians, inclusive pedagogy will be more important than ever. Our students may be tired and struggle to concentrate, may be late due to unreliable public transport, and for these reasons and more may not come to an information literacy classroom ready to enthusiastically participate! When we only see students for one-off sessions, we don’t get to know them or what life pressures they may be under. It is crucial to be empathetic and not make students feel unwelcome if they are late or appear distracted.

Although I don’t think information literacy presents a solution to students living in poverty, I did like these suggestions from Jess Haigh and Michelle Bond on Twitter (also see image of the tweets below) on how we could do some consciousness-raising as part of information literacy teaching.

Screenshot of Twitter post between Jess Haigh and Michelle Bond

Ultimately, this isn’t an issue that libraries or librarians can fix. We can, however, at least review the support we offer and ensure that in the short term we aren’t adding additional financial burdens on students. And in the long term, we can and should continue to campaign for equitable access to information.

What conversations have you had in your library about the cost-of-living crisis? Please feel free to share any tips for ways to help that other libraries could adopt!

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