Library Issues
Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Larry Hardesty, Austin College; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University
Vol. 24, No. 5 May 2004

The Reform Movement for the First Year Experience:
What is the Role of Librarians?

by John N. Gardner and Larry Hardesty

There is a greater need in higher education for academic librarians—and the library—to play a more central role in the first year of college and to be a part of the conversation about learning outcomes associated with the first year. There is an important relationship between the cause of librarians (information literacy—or information “fluency”) and the cause of “the first-year experience” (the improvement of the learning, success, retention and ultimate graduation rates of first year college students).

Students of so many diverse and varied backgrounds are entering our campuses wanting a piece of the American dream, which now means working in an information based economy and world. Who better to assist and support them and teach them the new skills of information literacy during “the first-year experience” than academic librarians? Unfortunately, librarians have been dramatically underrepresented in the national movement, now over 20 years old, to redesign, change, and improve what has become known as “the first-year experience.”

The First-Year Experience: Background

In 1974, the President of the University of South Carolina (USC) appointed John Gardner as the first faculty director of the first-year seminar course, University 101. USC started this course in 1972 in the aftermath of a major student riot with the goal of teaching entering students to love and appreciate their university so as to prevent future riots. From this beginning, this course has become the most widely replicated and emulated course of its genre in the United States.

After studying the outcomes of this course, USC discovered that first-year students who took this course had a higher retention rate than students who did not. USC also found many other differences, such as these same students were more likely to be more knowledgeable of student resources and services, and better still, to use them. They were more likely to get involved, join organizations, engage in assistance seeking behavior, see professors outside of class, and several other desirable behaviors.

Involving the Library In the First-Year Experience at USC

As the course matured, the University learned more and more about how it could intentionally introduce students to a modern university and to teach them the skills we wanted them to learn. We raised the question: why not introduce them to the library? The newly-appointed library director at USC wanted the University 101 seminar to become the principal vehicle for introducing new students to the integration of both library and technology skills in the research university context. Therefore, he empowered his public service university librarian team to develop what they came to call “the classroom of the future,” a teaching facility fully dedicated each fall to the more than 120 sections of the University 101 seminar. Thus, the program entered a new era with the library embracing, professionally speaking, first-year students.

At the same time the University integrated into its faculty development training for instructors of the course a model for teaching information literacy skills. Very simply, the rationale for the strategy argued: we must produce self-reliant information seeking hunters and gatherers and to do so students had to do three things: 1) learn where information resides, where to find it, where and how to retrieve it; 2) then learn how to evaluate it, particularly important in this age of schlock on the Internet: does this information meet my original need? Is it credible? Can I authenticate it? And 3) then I must do something with it: create something, solve a problem with the information, inform/entertain/empower/inspire others with it; but the doing something needed to involve some kind of activity and caloric expenditure that some of us might recognize as active learning. Charles Curran, now Distinguished Professor Emeritus, developed this basic philosophy, and it is still practiced in the first-year seminar at the University of South Carolina.

In doing so, the University ended that intellectually bankrupt pedagogy of waiting to teach first-year students “bibliographic instruction” late in the second term of college when they did their time immemorial English 102 term paper. Under this new program, first-year students learned very early in the first term of college that becoming a new student in the research university environment required acclimation to the library and its enormous variety of information sources. For student success in most college courses, even in the first term, students must have basic information literacy skills immediately. To put off the initial development of these skills until the second term is indefensible.

Information Literacy: Background

Information literacy is the latest in a long line of terms used to describe librarian’s educational activities relating to student information needs. Earlier efforts concentrated on the physical location of library materials and services or on how to use particular library resources. Increasingly, in today’s information-rich environment of resources of wide-ranging quality, librarians and others are recognizing the need to emphasize the evaluation of information resources. Information literacy, as defined by the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, incorporates a wide variety of sophisticated skills including: 1) determination of an information need; 2) accession of needed information; 3) evaluation of information and its sources; 4) use of information for specific purpose; and 5) comprehension of the many economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use
of information.

The central message here is that librarians, more than ever, need to forge new and strategic partnerships on campus. As the use of electronic and web-based resources increases and the pattern of library use around the country at many institutions decreases—in terms of study space as well as a place to retrieve scholarly information—libraries face a significant challenge in trying to maintain the academic and social vitality they once enjoyed. Many students think the library of today is outmoded and irrelevant, and they instead rely on other sources of information, particularly electronic sources, for their education. A resulting problem is that students, particularly first-year students, have a hard time discerning between what is valid information on the Internet and what is not, what qualifies as appropriate data and information for their research papers and what does not.

A Need to Come Together

From Gardner’s vantage point, as an educator who has been orchestrating since 1982 an international movement to improve the first year of college, academic librarians have not been involved in the mainstream, the leadership, or even minor supportive cast roles on most campuses in efforts to change the first year of college. From hundreds of campus visits he has made since 1977 to talk about the first-year experience, he has observed that almost never is the institution’s head librarian or even any of her or his subordinates represented in these conversations. Librarians rarely attend First-Year Experience Conferences. In addition, in the conference sessions that range over an enormous variety of strategies to improve the first year, libraries and the issue of information retrieval and literacy skills are cited very infrequently. Librarians apparently have been largely left totally out of the loop of the initial introduction of students to what many institutions believe really matters in college.

This conclusion is also supported from the librarian’s perspective. Colleen Boff and Kristin Johnson, Librarians at Bowling Green State University and California State University, Chico, respectively, have conducted a nationwide survey to determine the extent to which the library is involved in the first-year seminar. Out of 386 respondents, 315 schools had a library component, whether optional or required, as part of the First-Year Experience curricula. Of those 315 institutions that have a library component, 67 percent required the library component, and 33 percent did not. Only 13 percent indicated they devoted 11 percent or more of the first-year curriculum to the library component. When asked as to the in-class time devoted to the library component, almost half of the responding institutions reported no more than one hour.

The authors of this study also found the content of the library component varied considerably. At best, the component instructed students to conduct an in-depth research project that required them to physically use the library as a resource, to consult with library staff, and to retrieve information from multiple library resources. In short, students are fully intellectually engaged with information resources. At worst, students merely engaged in a “scavenger hunt”-type activity where a stopover at the library to obtain a signature indicating they have located a particular item but often with little idea of how to evaluate and use the information resources.

The Policy Center on the First Year of College: Research Results

What does the work of Gardner’s Policy Center on the First Year of College tell us about the role of libraries in the first year of college? First of all, the Center recently completed a three-year partnership with UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. HERI has used its Freshman Survey (also known CIRP—“Cooperative Institutional Research Program”) to develop the largest database of American college student characteristics at the time of entry and at matriculation—without the benefit of whatever impact the undergraduate experience might have been on them.

The Policy Center decided that higher education needed a post-test to the Freshman Survey that would tell us how students changed in the first college year. Therefore, the Center funded a three-year pilot study known as “Your First College Year” (YFCY) and the results are in annual reports by this same name. This study has yielded data on first-year student use of, and satisfaction, with the library during the first year. The good news is that students report high levels of satisfaction with the library function. Of the 23,889 respondents from the 2002 YFCY administration, 81 percent reported they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with library facilities and services.

Nevertheless, there is reason for concern. When asked to report on their self-perceived changes during the first year in terms of their “library research skills,” a troubling 50 percent indicated “no change.” No change might be acceptable if one is performing at an optimal level, but if a student entered college with poor research skills and did not change during the first year, there is a problem.

Another new tool for assessment that the Policy Center has been the
co-developers of, with a company called Educational Benchmarking, Incorporated, is FYI, or First Year Initiative, which measures the impact of the first-year seminar course on various student outcomes. The results, published in a series of articles on the First-Year Initiative instrument written by Policy Center researcher and survey co-designer, Randy L. Swing, from tens of thousands of responses tell us that first-year seminars help students better understand what resources are available to them but are not as effective in improving their ability to find what they need through the library. These studies suggest that we have much to accomplish in the successful integration of “information literacy” into the “first-year experience.”

How to Involve Librarians

One source for finding activities on your campus in which librarians could be embedded is the ACRL’s Guidelines for Instruction Programs in Academic Libraries. Under “Program Structures” are listed various elements of the curriculum in which the library can be involved, including first-year seminars, general education core requirements, learning communities, undergraduate research experiences, and experiential learning/service learning courses.

To this list we add the following other types of major first-year reform initiatives in which librarians could and should be involved:

First Year Programs/Centers

Academic support/academic assistance, learning support centers

Developmental education

Academic advising centers

Orientation programs (run usually by student affairs and usually with no reference or inclusion to the library)

The Federal TRIO programs and similar ones at the state level, e.g. ACT 101 in Pennsylvania, HEOP in NY, and EOP in California.

School-College Collaboration initiatives

Residence hall initiatives, especially “living/learning”

Athletic academic support

Supplemental Instruction

Sarah Pedersen’s, recently published monograph, Learning Communities and the Academic Library, is a significant addition to the national literature on the role of libraries in learning communities. She calls for librarians to re-imagine their role and become more involved in the national conversation on the first-year experience. Pedersen not only examines the possibilities of what learning communities can do on campus, but she suggests many of the ways in which the library can be involved, including literacy across the curriculum, residential learning communities, and librarians as support team members on such things are research projects integrated within the first-year experience.

The first-year experience is critical in shaping students’ attitudes toward the academic experience, in developing their study skills, and in determining their academic persistence and even their ultimate academic success. Information literacy is critical in developing lifelong learners and an educated citizenry. Involving librarians and the academic library in bringing the two together from the very beginning of students’ academic experience will enhance significantly both the overall status of the campus and the quality of student graduated. Systematic and significant involvement of librarians in the reform movement for the first-year experience is long overdue.

—John N. Gardner is Executive Director, Policy Center on the First Year of College and Senior Fellow and Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Library and Information Science, University of South Carolina and Larry Hardesty is College Librarian, Austin College, Austin Texas.

This article is adapted from a presentation given at the ACRL National Conference, April 2003, Charlotte, NC. Full text at


Association of American Colleges and Universities, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation goes to College. Washington, D.C.: Association of Colleges and Universities, 2002.

Association of College and Research Libraries, Guidelines for Instruction Programs in Academic Libraries. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2003. (

Association of College and Research Libraries, Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2000. For an abridged version developed by Moravian College see

Boff, Colleen, and Johnson, Kristen, “The Library and First-year Experience Courses: a Nationwide Study.” Reference Services Review, 30 (4): 277-287. (2002)

Educational Benchmarking, Incorporated. First-year Initiative Study. Springfield, MO.: Educational Benchmarking, Inc. 2002.

Gardner, John N., Van der Veer, G., & Associates, The Senior Year Experience: Facilitating Integration, Reflection, Closure, and Transition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.

Higher Education Research Institute, Your First College Year. University of California at Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, 2002.

Pedersen, Sarah, Learning Communities and the Academic Library. Olympia, WA; Chicago, IL; Washington, D.C.; Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education; Association of College & Research Libraries; American Association for Higher Education, 2003.

Policy Center on the First Year of College, Second National Survey of First-year Academic Practices, 2002. Brevard, NC: Policy Center on the First Year of College, 2002.

Changing the Status Quo: Possibilities for Librarian Involvement

Consider the relationship of the library to the first point of contact between new students and the campus, the enrollment management process. Librarians should be involved in the million dollar walk—the tour that the Admissions office provides for prospective students. Librarians should become active players in shaping and influencing, writing the script even, that is used by the undergraduate student tour guides as they take these potential new students through the library.

Librarians could be involved with their admissions or enrollment management colleagues to develop means to begin giving newly admitted students, after they have paid their deposits, but not yet matriculated, some connection with the library. Perhaps, to the extent possible, library privileges can be extended. An initial orientation via a virtual introductory process, if not one in person, might be offered. Every campus has some kind of orientation template, process, or program but most do not include librarians in the design or execution. It is time they are included.

Of great importance, we need to rethink the old mental paradigm of the library as a place and one that confines you to it. We must think about the skills students need to get a good job—which after all is the number one reason they are going to college. The key to that in this economy is information literacy skills. Librarians have the skills that students need to learn and use now in every area of their college lives. Working together, librarians, classroom faculty, student affairs staff, and others can more effectively and efficiently accomplish our mutual goals than each of us working separately. Remember, the old American economy used to make things—now we make information.

Currently the Policy Center has a project underway to develop what it terms, Foundations of Excellence in the First Year of CollegeTM. Each of the participating campuses has assembled a task force to grapple with the challenge to recommend revisions to the initial draft of these essential Foundations. The overall goal is to develop these Foundational DimensionsTM to represent an aspirational model for excellence and then to develop an internal audit and external validation process to determine how campuses measure up to the proposed standards. There is not yet a Foundational DimensionTM for information literacy competencies and pedagogies and the Policy Center would welcome assistance to develop one. You can review the program at: and become involved in the project on your campus.

The Policy Center has determined that 94 percent of the regionally accredited, undergraduate degree granting colleges and universities offer some kind of course known as the first-year seminar. Therefore, opportunities exist for librarians to become involved, and even offer leadership, in these courses.

Many campuses do not have a standing committee/task force to meet regularly to discuss, monitor, and advise for policy formulation, the overall status of the first-year experience. Librarians can help create such committees/taskforces and be represented on them. Institutions cannot improve the first year until they get all the players together to discuss their common interests and responsibilities for the improvement of the first year.

Regardless of what is being done at the institutional level, we recommend that each library establish a task force of librarians and fellow campus stakeholders in the first year to undertake a study on your campus of the relationship between librarians and the first-year curriculum and its students. Just how first-year student friendly is your culture? How high a priority is it for your organization to proactively identify the needs of first-year course faculty for specialized library support?



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last modified: May 2004


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