Community College Reference Librarians Support the Whole Student

Working with a wider range of students than their counterparts at four-year institutions, community college reference librarians face varied challenges and informational needs.

Reference librarians at community colleges usually assist a far more varied group of students than their counterparts at four-year institutions. Some come straight from high school; others haven’t been in an academic institution in years, including those returning to education after incarceration. Many are anxious about entering an academic environment; international students and those facing language and cultural barriers are especially afraid of inadvertently plagiarizing.

Consequently, these librarians face varied challenges and informational needs. When Emma Antobam-ntekudzi, reference and instruction librarian at Bronx Community College (BCC), City University of New York, is approached with a question unrelated to the library, her first impulse is to say yes. She knows she can send a student who asks her to proofread a paper to the writing center, but if she has the time, she’ll help them. “Our jobs tend to sometimes move out of the realm of what we’re trained to do,” she says.

“I’ve called financial aid, I’ve called the bursar to get information for a student, I’ve called IT, and all that I’ve done at the reference desk,” she says.



Antobam-ntekudzi, who came to BCC after years in a four-year institution, says that community college students are more likely to open up about their lives than those at four-year colleges. “They will tell you, ‘I have 20 minutes for this session, I’ve got to be at work,’ or ‘I just came from work, I have not slept, I have my kid with me.’” Another student who reached out for research help mentioned that he was experiencing homelessness.

The pressures that students confront at home seep into their academic life; accordingly, Antobam-ntekudzi is flexible and supportive. Many students bring their children to the library when they need to study. Rather than asking them to leave, Antobam-ntekudzi lets them use a separate room. “You want to avoid complaints, but you want to also accommodate the student, who has just as much right to be there as anyone else.” Some libraries have dedicated family study rooms for this purpose, such as Portland Community College Library, OR. Rooms are available on a first come, first serve basis; also available are family room kits, each of which includes a toy, a bag with puzzle pieces, a whiteboard laptop, and other materials to keep children occupied.

Kim Tipton, reference librarian at McHenry County College, Crystal Lake, IL, finds that the students she works with have similar concerns. When she walks first-year experience students through a mock assignment with 25 predefined topics, they overwhelmingly choose “stress.” She adds, “We also ask for a real-life example of when they might use information literacy, and they often describe situations at their jobs or something going on in their lives.”

Many librarians seek to support students outside of the library. “Part of being in a community college is: You are a member of that community,” says Christina Bell, a librarian at Glendale Community College, AZ, says. Some of her students deal with food insecurity, and she and several colleagues volunteer with a local food bank that distributes on campus several times a month.

HUB OF THE SCHOOL Ozarks Technical Community College’s Hamra Library buzzes with activity. Student Victoria Dill (top) works on a 3D design project; two students (bottom) take part in a study session. Photos by Kristina Bridges-Templeton


A community college librarian’s job is providing not just research instruction but also encouragement. Tipton says, “I’ve worked with some students who get frustrated right from the get-go if they can’t think of the right words to plug into the database.” When she teaches information literacy classes, she stresses that “research is messy” and that “you often have to go back and repeat the steps a few times, and that’s OK.” She adds, “Sometimes students feel like a failure if they don’t find what they want on the first pass.”

When students are having trouble finding a research subject, Tipton steers them to Credo Reference, which features “mind maps” of broad ideas connected to smaller subtopics. “That could be a way to refine or focus their topic a little bit more in ways that maybe they hadn’t thought of,” she says. “We always tell them to jot down keywords and make notes.” Then she helps them use those keywords to search Academic Search Complete for more scholarly, peer-reviewed articles.

And when helping students assigned to write argumentative essays, she recommends Gale in Context: Opposing Viewpoints, which offers pro and con articles on hundreds of topics. Huyen Maluck, a librarian at Midlands Technical College, Columbia, SC, also recommends it. “It’s easier for students to use. They don’t have to limit the results as much,” she says, as the information is already categorized by source type.

Though knowledge of Boolean searches and subject limiters makes database searches efficient, that information can be overwhelming to novice researchers. Sarah Fancher, director of the Hamra Library at Ozarks Technical Community College, Springfield, MO, believes that those skills aren’t nearly as important as thinking critically about content and synthesizing sources. Conducting a database search isn’t what they’re in school to learn, she says, “yet it’s so unfamiliar to students that it’s a real stumbling block for many of them.”

To surmount that hurdle, her library offers a service called Concierge, where students fill out a Google Form indicating their class, their research topic, how many sources they need, and what kind. “We’re trying to help them spread that cognitive load,” she says.

Librarians need to be flexible in terms of how they present information, says Maluck. When she instructs them on database use, she notes that some students benefit more from a handout with written instructions and screenshots while others might require a one-on-one session, so she tailors her approach accordingly. And right before finals, her library makes open Zoom rooms available so that students can drop in as needed.

“If a student comes to the desk and asks a reference question about the assignment, I will literally turn my screen toward the student so they can see what I’m doing to access the information,” she says. Sometimes she’ll walk a student over to the computer lab and go over the database with them. When helping students via chat reference, Maluck sends a Zoom link so that she can share her screen. For those with the desk space and budget, a dual screen setup can enable students to watch in real time from the other side of a desk.



Many community college libraries look beyond their own collections to provide students with the resources they need. Ozarks Technical Community College belongs to a consortium called MOBIUS, which is made up of more than 75 academic (both two- and four-year public and private institutions) and public libraries in Missouri and across the Midwest and Plains. Says Fancher, “My institution is actually a net lender to the consortium, but I know our students and faculty appreciate the opportunity to borrow physical materials that are outside the scope of our collection.” Through MOBIUS, the college has access to ArticleReach, which allows articles to be emailed to students at no cost, usually within two days.

Midlands Technical College belongs to a statewide consortium, Partnership Among South Carolina Academic Libraries (PASCAL),
consisting of about 55 colleges and universities. PASCAL’s reciprocal lending agreement allows Midlands Technical College students to check out materials from the University of South
Carolina–Columbia library in person.

Many community colleges rely on open-access textbooks, too. Tipton helps students access free textbooks online, usually through Midlands Technical College also encourages faculty to use open educational resources and created a LibGuide for instructors, which features a form that lets them reach out to the library for help finding books to adopt.



Librarians emphasize that student need is what drives the community college library. Many students in Fancher’s area don’t have devices or reliable internet access, so last year, her library applied for and won an IMLS grant that gave them the funding to check out laptops, iPads, and wireless hotspots. “The second that one gets returned, it’s checked out again,” she says.

The McHenry County College Library recently launched a book club where attendees talk about their favorite titles or genres; students have been coming in asking about the next session. While the activity isn’t directly related to reference work, it’s making students more aware of the library—and, Tipton believes, more likely to turn to librarians for help with assignments. “It’s another way to reach the students,” she says. “That’s our main focus, meeting them where they are and finding out what they’re interested in.”

That emphasis is what makes the job so rewarding. “We exist first and foremost to help our students succeed. We are there as a teaching institution,” says Bell. “Yes, we are professionals, and yes, we conduct our own research as part of our work, but very often we’re doing that alongside and with our students because working with them and uplifting them in their educational experience is what we’re there to do first.” n

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Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar ( is an Associate Editor for Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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