By Yusur Al-Salman, Redefining Traditional Project Lead
Between the rising costs of childcare and the COVID-19 pandemic, entering parenthood as students seems more challenging than ever. And yet, there is growing effort to accommodate the practical needs of student-parents and to address them meaningfully, and one example is in making university libraries family-friendly.
Recently, the University of Toronto Libraries’ launched a pilot childminding program, Family Study Space at Robarts Library, which was the culmination of the efforts led by the library and its partners, and two forces behind are User Services Librarians Kyla Everall and Jesse Carliner. In November 2021, they published an article titled “Time of one’s own Piloting free childminding at the University of Toronto libraries”, where they detailed Robarts Library’s journey in making the family-friendly space a reality. I interviewed Kyla in December to discuss the article, and below I share some key highlights of our conversation.
Sowing the Seed of Family-friendly Space at the Library
Kyla: “This all came from a comment we received from library user survey. Every three years we do a large-scale survey of users to find out how they like our services, how we are doing. And there’s open comments where people can write anything, and someone had said they did their degree in Europe and that having space where people can bring their children to campus is really common, UofT should do this.’ I read that, and I was curious to know more because this is not something I had heard of in a North American academic library before”.
Kyla: “Thinking about their needs as student-parents or student-caregivers was outside of the wheelhouse of what we normally do. As we put a proposal for funding for the space, we knew we were not the experts, so we collaborated with FCO. There are so many people at the University, but people under 18 don’t generally come here, so it’s outside of who we’re used to serving and making spaces for.”
Designing an Accessible Family-friendly Space
Kyla: “Our goal was to build a hybrid space where parents can come and do their schoolwork and bring their kids. There are a lot of areas where people can study but not a lot of places where people would comfortable bring their kids. We thought it would be nice for the space to be in the Stacks (9th floor) where all the books are, in case they needed to use the print materials. That way it would be closer than, for instance, the 1st floor, where you would have to come all the way up to the stacks to access books. There are workstations where parents can work. There is also a collaborative table so if someone has a group project, they can bring their group and their child”.
Challenging and Successful Moments Encountered
Kyla: “One of the challenges in that the space is in 9th floor, and that part is only accessible to people who are current students, faculty or staff. One on hand that’s great for security because it means there are fewer people, but on the other hand if you want to bring someone with you to help with childminding, like with your partner (who are not university-affiliated), they would not be able to come. That’s feedback we received, and we really want to work on trying to accommodate that need.”.
Nonetheless, to be part of the team meeting an essential need for students is gratifying. Kyla elaborates: “The response [to the childminding program] was incredible, which was kind of another challenge because the response far outstripped the availability of spaces. Getting all the emails of parents wanting to participate, and hearing from all parents who wanted to have this every weekend. Once when the space first opened, I was going up to bring some supplies, and I ran into a PhD student who had a three-month-old baby; they said ‘thank you so much for making a space like this because otherwise I don’t know how I would do my studies and be a parent at the same-time’.”.
Advice for Institutions on Creating a Childminding Space
Kyla: “We’ve heard from universities across North American who are thinking of making similar spaces and one of the things I always tell them it looks like you need massive budget to make spaces like this. But making spaces family friendly does not have to be expensive. Just take a space you already have, add IKEA kids furniture, some toys and books, and communicate to the community that this space is available is all you need to get started. There are many approaches institutions can take to making family friendly-spaces and they don’t have to be expensive or resource-intensive, it can be adapted so suit local needs”.
Kyla brings the example of Ryerson Library who have a program called Busy Boxes, where they just “kits, of toys activities that a parent can check out from their library if they bring their kids to campus”. Such boxes can be taken so that “you don’t need a big space, any space can become a family-friendly space”. This initiative has been picked up by other higher education libraries, such as Brock University, as shown below in a picture of two James A. Gibson librarians packing a box together.
The Importance of Recognizing and Representing Student-Parents
Kyla: “People with kids are an invisible population on campus. it’s not a really kid-friendly place, and making spaces where students can bring their whole selves to campus is so important for them to feel supported, and to create community. Since you generally don’t see students bring their kids with them to campus, you wouldn’t know this is part of their identity, and from talking to people, I see it can be very isolating to be a student with caregiving responsibilities. So, creating this space has practical benefits but it also to says [to student parents] ‘you’re seen, you’re welcome here as you are, and there’s other people just like you who you can meet and connect with’.”
Uplifting Non-traditional Student Experiences
Visibility is the first and most essential step towards supporting the needs of student-parents. Having a space like the Robarts Family Study Space that acknowledges inequitable access to university facilities due to family responsibilities can start the conversation and effort in other institutions, leading towards the creation of low-budget but effective solutions to the various needs of students. Universities are imagined as the birthplace of ideas and consolidated efforts that tackles the needs of marginalized people. That’s why accommodation of the needs of non-traditional students in university libraries affirms universities as the place where we materialize the change we wish to see in the world.