By Courtney McAllister
For many college students in the U.S., final exams are in full swing. Winter break is a tantalizing mirage, hovering on the other side of a comprehensive exam or massive research paper. At my library, finals are an especially anxious time for librarians and students. The reading room is eerily quiet, and the law students’ intense concentration is almost palpable. To try and mitigate the stress, my library is open later, makes a conscious effort to keep staff noise to a minimum (woe betide you if you cough or sneeze at a service desk!), and hosts study snack breaks to help keep the students full and motivated. Earlier this week, I spent an evening baking muffins to contribute to one of the snack breaks. We had a great turn-out, and the students seemed to appreciate having a few moments to get some coffee, have a bite, and think about something other than the next big hurdle.
I think these kinds of events and stress-relief programs have become very common in academic libraries. At the library I worked at previously, we had “doggy day” every semester, so students could take a break from exams and enjoy the company of some therapy dogs while indulging in coffee and donuts. I’ve also read about or seen academic libraries reaching out to stressed students with:
- Extended operating hours. Some are open 24 hours to give students access to work space and library resources for as long as they need them.
- Chair massages.
- Yoga or meditation programming.
- Crafts like origami, coloring, and button making.
- Last minute help with research or citation questions.
- Food and coffee!!!
While I think it’s great that libraries are stepping up to help students survive exams, I wonder what we can do to support more long-term success and stress-reduction. In general, academia can be a very pressurized environment. Exams have an iconic association with all-nighters and intense fatigue, but burnout can happen at any time of the year. I think the trend of exam-centric programming illustrates an underlying need that doesn’t necessarily begin and end with final exams.
When I was an undergrad, I would have been a frequent visitor to the “Cry Closet” like the one the University of Utah recently installed. But, looking back, I wish I had started figuring out how to prevent that despair in the first place, instead of vacillating between extremes. Eventually, I learned to start assignments earlier, consult a librarian when gathering my research materials, and take long walks or music breaks when I started to feel flustered. These are behaviors I’ve adapted to my post-student life, as well. But learning to handle difficult or demanding work, while periodically re-fueling one’s physical and internal reserves, takes a lot of time and practice. The sooner you start to chip away at the problem, the faster you can refine your repertoire of stress-avoidance tactics.
I especially like UNC’s approach to the Week of Balance There’s a wide range of programs and services geared towards students getting through exam stress, but the structure of the week, and the language being employed (i.e. balance) might gesture towards something more sustainable than a few cups of free coffee at the eleventh hour. Academic life doesn’t need to revolve around extremes like intense stress and then brief exposure to concentrated fun or relief. Rather, these programs and activities can help students practice strategies that will serve them well in all avenues of their lives. The short-term wins like improved student retention and graduation rates are great, but the long-term benefits are substantial, as well, as students get more out of their academic experiences, learn to appreciate the importance of planning or time management, and discover new ways to balance and prioritize competing demands.
- What stress-relief programs have you seen or participated in?
- What role do you think libraries should play in helping students avoid or reduce stress?
- How could we apply these strategies within our workplaces? Student stress might get a lot of well-deserved attention, but staff and faculty are not immune!
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Courtney McAllister is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Yale University’s Lillian Goldman Law Library in New Haven, Connecticut. Her scholarship focuses on organizational cultures, scholarly communication, assessment, and emerging technologies. Her MLIS is from the University of South Carolina: Columbia. She holds an MA in International Performance Research from the University of Warwick and a BA in English from the University of Mary Washington. She has contributed chapters to Technical Services: Adapting to a Changing Environment (Purdue UP) and Creativity for Library Career Advancement: Perspectives, Techniques and Eureka Moments (with Christine Elliott, McFarland). She is the author of an upcoming LITA Guide on applying change management practices to library systems and technologies. Courtney is Associate Editor of The Serials Librarian (Taylor & Francis).