Book Review Contributing Editor

Book Review: Academic Libraries for Commuter Students: Research-based Strategies

Grace Haynes, a LibParlor Contributing Editor, reviews Academic Libraries for Commuter Students.

Did you know that almost 87% of college students in the US are commuters? While I was a commuter student for all four years of my graduate studies, I had no idea the number of commuters was quite this high.

Editors Mariana Regalado and Maura A. Smale and the many authors of Academic Libraries for Commuter Students bring together a wide variety of perspectives and experiences found at the intersection of commuter students and libraries. This book is a short read at only 163 pages. Throughout the nine chapters, we read unique reports of research on serving the commuter student populations at several different institutions from across the US. The authors report on the research methods used, their findings, and what changes and new initiatives came following their discoveries.

Regalado and Smale frame the premise of this volume in the first chapter, “Situating Commuter Undergraduates,” as they explicitly state that “understanding the practices of commuter students in college and university libraries is critical to planning and deploying resources and services to meet their needs” (p.8). The previous research on commuter students and academic libraries has focused on library as place, library instruction, and technology use.

Chapter two (“Commuter Campus in Transition: Meeting the Changing Needs of Students through Mixed-Methods Assessment” by M. Sara Lowe, Willie Miller, and Paul Moffett) examines the findings of two different studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). A Mapping Study was part of the large, multi-site “A Day in the Life” project, which was simultaneously conducted at eight universities. The study combined data from student responses to text message surveys and qualitative interviews. The second study was a space study conducted through observation of specific areas of the library. As the findings from these studies demonstrated “both the use and expressed value of the quiet floor, librarians were able to redirect the impulse to create new collaborative study space into improving noise quality and creating better study spaces for individuals and pairs” (p.28). The authors conclude the chapter by explaining how their research impacted the choices and the future direction of library assessment for student needs.

In chapter three, “Making Space in the Library for Student-Parents,” Donna M. Lanclos and Rachael Winterling discuss how the library at University of North Carolina Charlotte supports student-parents through a dedicated Family Friendly Library Room (FFLR). UNC Charlotte’s Office of Adult Students and Evening Services (OASES) 2016 report documented the needs of adult students at the UNC Charlotte Atkins Library. OASES and the library partnered to create an inviting space for student-parents that included soft seating, an entertainment center, computer, and writeable walls. To assess the use of the room, the researchers used the statistics that capture time and frequency of its bookings, as well as student interviews. Research results indicated that several student desires and needs for the FFLR included a comfortable and quiet environment, activities for children to remain occupied, comfortable furniture for children, and a separation from the general library space. The qualitative data from the interviews showed the significance of how the FFLR “demonstrated that the university ‘sees’ students who are also parents: ‘It’s small, but it’s a shout-out to ‘we see you on campus’” (p.44). Lanclos and Winterling state that “Engaging in holistic approaches to students’ study practices and needs, such as we have done here, de-centers the library and allows us to imagine contexts that meet students where they are, where they have to be because of the complicated circumstances of their lives” (p.47). The chapter is immediately followed by an index detailing the research methods for the chapter, including recruitment, interview questions, and recruiting script.

Juliann Couture authors chapter 4, “Beyond the Bubble: Undergraduates, Commuting, and the Academic Library at a Flagship Public University.” The experiences of commuter students in the setting of large public universities, “where it is often assumed that students’ lives are centered on or adjacent to campus, are largely unexamined” (p.53). In the institutional context description, Couture states that only 26% of undergraduates live in campus housing, and approximately 4,000 students live outside Boulder zip codes. For students living off-campus within the city of Boulder, they face a pricey rental market with an average rent of $1,418. In order to research the commuter student experiences at CU, Couture also participated in the “A Day in the Life” project, which was previously mentioned in Chapter 2. Students participated in text message surveys and interviews. Students with needs for charging multiple devices indicated electrical outlet access as a priority. Others also noted a reliance on library computers, especially when their own may be older and too heavy to carry. Students also remarked on how they had noticed that the library had been moving to fewer computer terminals, which also increased lines for those waiting to use them. One of the most interesting findings Couture presented showed that students do not resonate with the term “course reserves.” This is a service that students can often find very beneficial, and Communications staff are now strategizing how to market this service to students. Another key initiative is the implementation of new signage to indicate varying noise levels in library spaces.

In chapter 5, “A Decade of Research at Urban Commuter Colleges,” Jean Amaral, Mariana Regalado, and Maura A. Smale share how they have engaged in qualitative studies to “explore how, where, when, and with what tools our undergraduates do their academic work” (p.69) across the CUNY campus system since 2009. These studies have included Undergraduate Scholarly Habits Study, The Future Library, A Day in the Life, and others. The results of this research has yielded over 340 in-person meetings with CUNY students, including hundreds of hours of interviews and 2300 questionnaire responses. Their findings have identified two key themes: “students’ information needs and the importance of time” (p.75). As the authors describe the impacts and outcomes of their research, the need for quiet study space (also mentioned in the previous chapter) is stressed yet again. Students also appreciated the privacy of carrel desks and the conveniences of available technology services such as working printers and scanners. The authors found that the experiences of conducting these studies changed them as well, especially in their own perception of CUNY students. “Rather than seeing them as only students, our research has helped us more fully embrace the reality that being students is only one part of their experience, only one of their multiple life roles” (p.82).

Chapters 6, 7, and 8 present studies of commuter students through the lens of community college settings. In chapter 6, “I Study in My Car: Exploring the Study Habits of Community College Commuter Students,” Brian Greene and Elizabeth Horan discuss the study habits of students at Modesto Junior College and Coastline Community College. While Modesto provides more “traditional” library services in staffing and physical space, Coastline has “no physical library and serves predominately distance-learning students” (p.87). In order to assess the study habits of these students, Greene and Horan used a survey instrument with nineteen questions across four themes: school, life, study habits, and research tools and technology. The data showed similar study habits for the student populations at both institutions. The open-ended responses demonstrated a wide variety of study habits, as students described additional life commitments and responsibilities such as parenting and working. In response to “What is your favorite place to study and why?,” the students provided many different responses, ranging from the library or cafe to their own vehicle. In discussion and lessons learned, the authors envisioned a potential library space with three distinct areas, including a quiet zone, a calm study space, and a noisier space.

In chapter 7, “Making the Library Work for Community College Commuters,” Tanner Wray and Nancy Fried Foster state that “providing the most effective libraries to..students requires a new understanding of who they are and how they conduct their academic work” (p.103). At Montgomery College, an ethnographic project was launched in order to learn how the libraries were used and what changes could help students in their academic work. The research methods to gather this information included participatory design activities, ethnographic studies, and design work. It is especially interesting to read the descriptions of the ethnographic studies and design work, as these studies were done by anthropology and architecture students. In describing the project outcomes, the authors share changes made, including extended open hours, technology upgrades, more electrical outlets, easier access to e-resources, more spaces for quiet and group work, and several others. The libraries also have several plans for the future, including adding group study rooms and diversifying the types of workspaces, among other ideas.

Ted Chodock writes chapter 8, “Library Instruction and Academic Success: The Impact of Student Engagement at a Community College.” At the College of Southern Nevada (CSN), Chodock submitted a proposal for the 2017 ACRL Assessment in Action (AIA) program to “ascertain whether the different types of instruction that we provided have an impact on student success outcomes” (p.117). Following their participation in the AIA program, CSN worked towards changes in its instruction program, including requiring that instruction be course-related with student learning outcomes.

One of the strengths of this book was its use of institutional context descriptions in each chapter. Chapter authors provided readers detailed descriptions of the library environments and student demographics of each institution to frame their research, the university setting, and its student populations. This was especially helpful in a volume with such varied institutional settings, from large research universities to community colleges. This book has laid the foundation for where libraries can go next with this research and leaves me asking what kind of institutions could also benefit from similar research studies. As a music librarian, I wonder what this type of ethnographic study would look like with student musicians, especially in another unique setting such as a music conservatory.

“As the authors stated several times, it is critical to understand that the role of student is only one piece of a student’s identity…Academic librarians must remember that students are navigating complex lives, with complicated personal, family, and work responsibilities.”

This volume is an important read for academic librarians to better understand the experiences of their students. As the authors stated several times, it is critical to understand that the role of student is only one piece of a student’s identity. Regalado and Smale urge readers to “consider the place of the library and college in the lives of commuter students, to understand how being students intertwines with the larger complexities of their lives” (p.143). Academic librarians must remember that students are navigating complex lives, with complicated personal, family, and work responsibilities.


Regalado,  M.,  &  Smale,  M.  A.  (Eds.).  (2018). Academic  libraries  for  commuter  students: Research-based  strategies.  Chicago: ALA  Editions.

Featured image by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of the writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

0 comments on “Book Review: Academic Libraries for Commuter Students: Research-based Strategies

Leave a Reply