How colleges use big data to get students to the library—and keep them there

As the campus library's role in the student-learning experience grows, leaders turn to data analytics to measure a library's value, Jeffrey Young writes for EdSurge.

In the campus-wide push to drive students towards degree completion, libraries are emerging as a tool to boost student success, Young adds. Many institutions are now tracking electronic library resource usage and visitor numbers to understand how libraries affect academic performance and graduation rates, he writes.

To increase the number of student visitors, Washburn University recently moved its writing lab into the library and replaced the cramped study spaces with more welcoming furniture, says Alan Bearman, the dean of university libraries.

Administrators hope that the changes will destigmatize academic assistance and encourage the university's large commuter population to spend more time in the library, he explains.

Also see: Help students take control of their college journey—with a tool that's already in their pockets

So far, Washburn's changes have seemed to pay off. The old writing lab only saw 25 students a month, whereas the lab's new library location sees up to 450 students, Young writes. And the number of library visits has more than doubled between 2008 and now, he adds.

Since Washburn began investing in library reforms, the university's retention rate has jumped by 12 percentage points, says Bearman.

Other institutions, like Mercer University, are tracking students' electronic resource usage to understand how the library affects student success, Young writes. Analyzing library usage can help administrators articulate the library's value, justify their investments, and help identify areas where they may be underserving students, says Scott Gillies, the associate dean of university library at Mercer.

To protect student privacy, Mercer's librarians only report on aggregate usage information, not individual students' search history, Gillies explains. The university doesn't care what students are looking up, only that they're looking at library resources, he adds (Young, Edsurge, 11/27).

Related: Characteristics of the 21st-century library


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