New grant-funded project will bolster humanities research skills for first-gen, transfer and students of color

February 17, 2022
Illustration of people wearing masks and looking to the left

The American Library Association (ALA), the nation’s leading organization of public, academic and special libraries, has awarded VCU Libraries a $10,000 grant to create a fellowship program for VCU undergraduates interested in careers in libraries and archives and to teach new workshops focused on humanities research in 2022. VCU Libraries is one of 200 libraries nationwide to receive these grants. 

Humanities Research Librarian John Glover will lead the project in close collaboration with Rocío Gomez, Ph.D., of VCU's Department of History.

The humanities have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, according to Glover. Print collections, a core resource for the humanities, were for a time difficult to access. While services and access have been restored, gate counts at Cabell Library have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and many students and faculty visit campus far less frequently than in the past. While VCU Libraries pivoted swiftly and developed a robust slate of virtual offerings, both attendees and the number of instruction, outreach, and other events shrank by over 50 percent in FY21

In addition, more often than ever before Glover says he encounters humanities students who lack basic library skills. He sees this in exchanges with students in their reference questions, consultations as well as in library instruction classes. “While this lack could arise from many sources, I think it is in part because students were frequently separated from campus, challenged along with the rest of the world to persist in spite of pandemic stresses. They were understandably focused on completing essential tasks at an acceptable level. In the face of the obligations facing students who are first generation, transfer, or students of color, such as heavy work schedules and extensive family obligations, gaining library skills was often a low priority.”

“This transdisciplinary grant of collaboration between library and history faculty is in alignment of library and university diversity-equity-and-inclusion initiatives and is a welcome addition to our work supporting student success,” said Irene Herold, Ph.D., dean of the libraries and university librarian. “Receiving this grant is an acknowledgment of VCU Libraries contribution to national engagement in helping our students see themselves represented by their peers but also developing the pipeline of diversity within the library profession.”

The project will also attempt to address cultural dynamics that create barriers within the VCU library community. “We have encountered a challenging trend among students of color—the uneasiness in spaces of higher education. Many students confess to not understanding how the library works or what its resources are,” Glover says. “Some students of color view the library as an inherently white, classist, and elitist space, a common problem across university campuses nationwide and within the profession itself. Consequently, some students of color have a difficult time accessing materials necessary to write research papers for humanities courses. Adding to the challenge, the low numbers of Black librarians in university libraries contributes to this unsettling feeling. Despite efforts, the space is seen as a place of study, not of active engagement with resources and librarians, particularly by some BIPOC students, as reflected in interpersonal interactions and repeated personal experiences.”

The intention of the project is to reach students underrepresented in librarianship, and to open doors and minds to research practices and opportunities for careers in libraries and archives. 

“We want to demonstrate that the humanities are alive and active not only in our students, but also in institutions such as VCU Libraries,” said Rocío Gomez, Ph.D., of VCU's Department of History. “In creating these internship opportunities, we also create a welcoming space for students to engage with the humanities while also using the library to study. This grant is a great first step on that path.” Key elements of the project are:

  • To help work toward improving the number of librarians of under-represented groups in the field, three paid internships will be created aimed at students of color, first-generation students, and/or transfer students. These Humanities Accelerated Library Fellows will have the opportunity to engage with up to three areas they are most interested in on a rotating basis, such as special collections and archives, outreach and instruction, or communications and social media. Interns would have the opportunity to meet library workers at all levels and attend meetings in order to understand library operations while also bringing the student perspective. In addition, they will be asked to present library resources to humanities student researchers in a workshop.  
  • To make the library a more welcoming and inclusive space for all students, staff, and faculty,  a series of workshops Opening the Library: Humanities Accelerated will focus on library research skills. To be held in August, 2022, these workshops will be interactive sessions that center on students enrolled in humanities research seminars for fall 2022.  

According to the ALA: “American libraries are incubators for the humanities. Every day, libraries engage people in reading and discussing literature; host authors and speakers; lead important, and often challenging, conversations that stretch their patrons’ understanding of the world around them; and record and archive their communities’ stories through oral history collections and digitization projects.”

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Funds for the project are from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, and are intended to help anchor libraries as strong humanities institutions as they emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. Libraries were selected for funding through a competitive, peer-reviewed application process. 

ALA news release



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