Libraries: Partners in Linking College Students and Their Communities through Service Learning

By Heiselt, April K.; Wolverton, Robert E. | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
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Libraries: Partners in Linking College Students and Their Communities through Service Learning

Heiselt, April K., Wolverton, Robert E., Reference & User Services Quarterly

With decreased funding and personnel reductions in many libraries across the United States, local librarians are searching for innovative methods to create sustainable partnerships in the community. Using Mississippi State University's Day One Leadership Community as a case study, this article illustrates how service-learning provides a dynamic connection between a public library and a local university. Establishing such a partnership proved beneficial for student learning, helpful in accomplishing projects in a local library, and through the resulting publicity provided greater interest in and access to library materials for the local community. Program components, personal experiences, and ideas for program replication are shared.


Higher education institutions are often described as ivory towers because their work is conducted away from what is happening in their local environments. Students who attend these institutions of higher learning are kept busy with academic coursework and may have neither time nor opportunity to learn about the surrounding community in which they live. This being the case, some students may graduate from college with a lack of understanding of the greater world they inhabit or even a failure to appreciate the local community.

Administrators within higher education institutions are seeking ways to link students with their local communities. Some students, including the majority of first-year students coming to campus, are more civically involved than their predecessors. The Corporation for National and Community Service found that "the number of college students volunteering grew by nearly 600,000 from 2.7 million in 2002 to 3.3 million in 2005." (1) These incoming students are more likely to continue community service activities when given opportunities to do so in their classes or via university-sponsored activities. Service-learning provides a link between community needs and academic objectives. Survey data from the Corporation for National and Community Service indicates that the creation of service-learning projects is on the rise. In fact, "at least a quarter of all higher education institutions and more than half of all community colleges have adopted service-learning programs." (2)

A number of researchers have shown that service-learning is beneficial for college students both in the short and the long term. (3) Students who participate in service-learning may reap many benefits including enhanced personal skills, increased awareness of global issues, and motivation to learn. (4) Astin, Sax, and Avalos found that these short-term effects of service became long-term effects that continue to benefit students as much as nine years after the service has been conducted. (5) Further, a study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) in 2000 confirmed these findings and added that service-learning particularly benefits students when conducted as part of an academic course that includes reflection of some type. (6) Accordingly, service-learning creates connections between the "ivory towers" of higher education and the surrounding community.

Additional research has been conducted comparing students who take service-learning courses with those who do not. (7) Armstrong compared various types of service-learning, including service-learning linked to an academic course, service-learning as part of an alternative spring break trip, cocurricular service-learning, and a control group of students who did not participate in service-learning. From the study, Armstrong determined that there were different effects on the students' psychosocial development. Of note were the students who participated in the more intensive service-learning experience of the spring break activity--they exhibited greater increases in psychosocial development as compared with the other types of service-learning experiences and the control group.

Armstrong's study in particular gave way to understanding that students who are participating in an intensive program have more intimate relationships with the community and are truly engaged in the experience.

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Libraries: Partners in Linking College Students and Their Communities through Service Learning


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