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Weekend Reading: Placing the student experience at the heart of the university library

  • 9 September 2023
  • By Melissa Bowden

As university libraries prepare for an influx of new students, we spoke to Benjamin Veasey, University Librarian, and Adam Robinson, Content Manager, about the innovative schemes implemented by the University of Derby to ensure a truly excellent experience for the new starters.

What are the challenges that first-year undergraduates face when making the transition to university study?

BV: We recognise that starting university can be both exciting and daunting in equal measure.

Some students will be moving away from home – perhaps to a new city, or even a new country. They need to settle in and make friends, as well as commencing study at a higher academic level.

It can be nerve-wracking, so we’re focused on providing all students – whatever their background – with a supportive and inclusive environment where they can fulfil their potential. We celebrate and champion diversity, and encourage everyone to be their authentic self so that they can thrive.

To this end, we offer a range of support, services and resources at the University of Derby to help students through all aspects of that transition to higher education.

Our welcome registration and induction helps new students acclimatise to university and their course of study. We have a great Union of Students offering lots of activities to help them settle in. On the academic side, each student has a personal tutor who meets with them regularly, ensuring they’re on track to achieve their goals.

These are some of the ingredients that we think ensure an effective transition to university. Indeed, Derby has been ranked in the top 20 for overall student satisfaction in the Complete University Guide 2024, plus 96% of our UK graduates either go on to employment or full-time study following their time with us.

Can you tell me about the library support mechanisms in place at Derby to ease that transition?

AR: The library is really proud of our Develop@Derby initiative. It provides students with support and guidance on developing transferable skills (such as critical thinking, academic writing and researching) that help them succeed, both at university and beyond.

In library-focused training, we make students aware of how to use the library, what resources are available, and how to engage with those resources. In Digital Discovery events, we invite suppliers to come in and speak to users, teaching them how to get the best out of the various platforms.

Moving on to resource provision, one of our major initiatives is to provide all first-year students with two essential eTextbooks for each of their modules, free of charge, accessed via the Kortext Arcturus platform, more on that below.

Further, our patron-driven scheme, Books for You, enables students to suggest titles for the library to buy. If a student wants access to a particular book, but we don’t have it in stock, they can request a copy. We’ll purchase it in their desired format, whether print or digital.

We’re proud of how our Scan and Deliver scheme, which was created in response to the pandemic, has developed. Where a title is available only in print, we can scan selected content and send it directly to a user. We have a huge range of digital scans in the library now, so we’ve got a back catalogue that’s been automated. In many cases, a student will request an item and they get instantaneous access.

Also, we offer demand-driven acquisition. This is a seamless service that students probably don’t realise is operating behind the scenes. When they’re looking at content on a supplier’s platform, if they click on a title the library doesn’t own, it will trigger an automatic purchase. From the student’s perspective, they’re able to access a book at the moment they need it.  

The library works closely with academic staff on reading lists. We ask academic staff to add the key learning resources for their students to an online reading list. We review these lists and ensure the library has enough content in the appropriate formats for each student on the module.

Finally, we proactively monitor reservations on items – where we see high demand, we’ll check current stock levels and then purchase extra copies, if needed, to make sure no one is disappointed. 

At the heart of everything we do, we want to make sure the user is having the best possible experience.

What impact has the eTextbook programme for first-year undergraduates had on the student experience?

AR: Overall, it has been very, very positive.

Our agreement with Kortext is that academic staff are able to nominate two titles per module for all of our first-year undergraduate students. So, a student will have access to multiple eTextbooks across their designated modules. Also, they can access eTextbooks on other modules, if they wish.

The main reason we launched this scheme was to help students with the cost of living. eTextbooks are key course reading that students go back to again and again throughout the year. In many cases, students would have to purchase the texts themselves. We wanted to eliminate that, as books can be very expensive – students shouldn’t have to buy materials to support their learning.

Through the eTextbook scheme, we’re able to provide one-to-one content. Each first-year student has access to a personal digital copy of a key text at no extra cost to them, which is fundamental. The student has ownership of that text for the year – they can use it when and how they want, with no limitations.

We wanted to ensure that every student has the same experience, regardless of their background or their needs. In this respect, the accessibility tools in Kortext’s eTextbooks are very important. We’ve had positive feedback from students how about how helpful those features have been.

Our students have multiple routes to access eTextbooks – we make them as discoverable as possible. They can be downloaded onto the student’s personal Kortext bookshelf, plus we’ve integrated them into our reading lists and included them in our library catalogue. It’s about making it as easy and convenient for our students as possible, so they have a fantastic user experience.

Has the eTextbook programme also had successful outcomes for the library, in regard to resource allocation and staff time?

AR: It has definitely been helpful in terms of resource allocation. eTextbooks are high value content that’s integral to the student’s learning journey. That kind of content hasn’t been made readily accessible in a sustainable way for libraries traditionally. It might have been extraordinarily expensive, or bound by licence restrictions which can lead to frustration and disappointment for users.

We don’t want that frustration. We want things to be easy, smooth and straightforward. The eTextbook scheme has allowed the library to be more flexible. It’s been a real benefit for resourcing because students get access to their own content when and how it’s convenient for them.

In terms of library staff time, this scheme is something we’re happy to support because it’s so important. The time it takes to facilitate and administer is time well spent from our point of view.

Looking ahead, how will the support and resources provided by the library at Derby evolve?

BV: Libraries have shown remarkable resilience through the centuries. They’ve adapted as societies have evolved, as new technologies have developed, and as user behaviour and expectations have changed. Libraries are constantly in flux – constantly needing to adapt and evolve.

When we think about how our library at Derby is evolving, we’re focused on three core themes.

The first theme is community. It’s very important to us to foster and support communities. This is an area where the library is uniquely positioned, because it cuts across most of the key ambitions of a university: teaching and learning, research, civic engagement, student experience, accessibility and inclusivity.

A critical element of this is how we support student well-being; we work closely with our colleagues in the dedicated student well-being team to achieve this.

The second theme is confidence. We’re committed to building confidence, whether that be amongst students or staff, and we believe the library can play a valuable role.

For example, generative AI offers huge opportunities for libraries. We’re very tuned into the impact that technology has on people through our role in developing information literacy – so, how you critically evaluate and utilise information presented by an AI tool, and how that links with reliability, academic integrity and privacy.

The third theme is content. We think interactivity is going to be increasingly critical in our day-to-day lives, with content becoming less passive. We’re interested in this, particularly in relation to content provisioned through the library, and how that relates to aiding pedagogy and overall learning. We see elements of interactivity on the Kortext platform, which is really valuable.

However, underpinning all of those themes is the human. How does what we do add value to our students and to our staff? Libraries are critical infrastructures. We must ensure our support and resources are first and foremost human-centred.

To find out more about the initiatives at the University of Derby libraries, you can contact Benjamin and Adam here.

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1 comment

  1. Dear colleagues

    Just a quick response, if I may, to the effect that, while there is much here to which I warm (eg its taking seriously the relationship of the student to digital platforms and ‘information literacy’), this text could prompt a number of further questions and issues.

    There are massive changes afoot so far as academic libraries are concerned – which have yet, as it seems to me, to be adequately theorised.

    Here, for instance, it would have been good to pick up the issue of the academic library as a place. (There are other thorny issues about the library as a space in an internet age but put that aside.)

    Just how might the library be understood as a place? In some academic libraries, books are hardly to be seen, libraries having been turned into kinds of learning spaces (including for students’ collaborative project work) and, if one wants a quiet room, it has to be booked in advance. The academic library may now be not just noisy but an ‘assemblage’ of spaces, including resting places and cafés.

    What are the internal spaces of the library to be? What forms of conviviality does it afford? What student ‘homes’ does it/ might it offer? Which relationships between student and text does it open and which, perhaps inadvertently, is it closing? What exactly might be meant by criticality in relation to a digital text? (Might that include the shunning of the Chatbot?)

    (These questions focus entirely on ‘the student experience’. Questions relating to the library as a space of academic inquiry and civic outreach and as expensive real estate are quite other. More complex issues around the interweaving of the place(s) and the space(s) hover (is the library any longer mainly an epistemic site or is it a site of student ‘being’?).

    And then there are murkier issues about the academic library as a possible site in which the university might attend to its public and social role and responsibilities (ie outreach) in an era of populism.)

    Ron Barnett

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