26 November 2014

No toddler-juggling allowed: university library access for student-parents

In early November 2014, I attempted to visit the library of a Scottish university with my 11 month old son. I was told by a security guard at the gate that due to the library’s rules on children I couldn’t access any area other than the ground floor, where there were only student access PCs and some study desks. There was no mention that during staffed hours a member of staff could retrieve materials for me to use on the ground floor (which in the process of collecting information for this extended blog post I discovered may be the case). So for starters, there was possibly an internal communications issue, but I want to put that aside for the moment and unpick the entire matter of library access for student-parents.

This issue was highlighted in the Nuffield Foundation’s research (2012) into student-parent support within in English higher education institutions which concluded:

…students with children are not getting the support they need to succeed in higher education. While student parents are a growing presence in higher education, national and university policies continue to address the needs of students as if they had no caring responsibilities.

However, there was also some variation between universities, with some offering some extensive provision for student parents and reviewing their policies on the basis of how this group would be affected.

I had previously visited this library with the same child, in the same pram, without any issue! I was put out, to say the least. I was not allowed full access to an otherwise publicly accessible building because I had my baby with me. I did some preliminary research and discovered this wasn’t the only university library with a child policy (or rather a parent-of-a-child unfriendly policy). How does a student who is a parent/guardian access physical library resources if they are only able to visit a library when accompanied by their child and perhaps outside of staffed hours? A rule that states accompanied children are not allowed in or only allowed in designated areas (perhaps at set times) prevents student-parents from accessing vital resources.

“Oh,” you say, “but I don’t want a screaming child racing up and down the aisles while I study.”

No, neither do I.

Would a student-parent sit in the silent study area, head-in-book, while their child was audibly upset? Would they leave their toddler to pull books off shelves, singing a CBeebies theme tune medley, while they looked for journals elsewhere? Would they take their offspring in if they weren’t settled/asleep or couldn’t follow the simple ‘we must be quiet’ instruction? Would they time their visit to coincide with a child’s hunger pangs or a pre-nap, overtired grumbling session?

No, they wouldn’t.

The presumption being made is simple and it is this: you have a child and you immediately lose all control of your own ability to behave in an orderly fashion within a library. You will not monitor your child appropriately or supervise their behaviour without a stern reminder to do so. You have to be reminded to keep them quiet. Indeed, a full on ban suggests that it is likely you would to choose to visit a library when your child is at their peak levels of disquiet, because you are irresponsible, inconsiderate and infuriating. You and your child are a public nuisance. And as for your pram, well, it takes up space.

Heaven forbid we responsible student-parents might infiltrate, passing other students as they take hard-earned breaks from their hours of slog to post on facebook [status update: woman with pram in library. I CANNOT WORK IN THESE CONDITIONS] or cause them to have to tweet a complaint about our inconsiderate behaviour [@unilibrary Child on the 5th floor. He’s quietly reading a book while his dad collects his reading list. Please investigate] or impel them to fill in the feedback slip for the library [Dear Library, the queue in the third floor library café was made bigger this afternoon as there was a parent and child there. This extended my latte queuing time by 30 seconds while the child chose his biscuit.]

I appreciate that as a funded doctoral student I do have to organise some childcare (although at circa £40-£45 per day, work out how many days an entire bursary stretches to if you want to have childcare and some money to live off). I attend conferences and workshops and seminars and training events, I undertake some teaching and I have a part-time academic job outside of my PhD. I have provision in place for these planned ahead, regularly scheduled commitments and for which a baby’s extended presence would be utterly disruptive (at the moment this is my husband using his flexible working hours and annual leave for this as we are still on several nursery waiting lists – no holidays or free time for us!). Student-parents should be able to access a university library on an ad-hoc basis when they need a particular resource. These buildings offer public access (if the visitor brings ID) which means a tuition fee paying student-parent could be turned away while a non-student is allowed to visit.

I am not asking for university-funded nanny services (*looks wistfully into the middle distance and imagines this for a moment and the wonderful and equal society in which this exists. Sigh.*) I simply expect to be able to access the same services at the same times as other students, to be trusted to do so in a responsible manner, and for there to be flexibility to allow for my circumstances. I don’t bring along my child every time I see my supervisor or other academics (not least because he is more fun than academic matters so we end up getting less done). I do however know that if my son is poorly or childcare isn’t possible that I can, in pressing circumstances, bring him with me.

And of note is that I have insider experience: I used to work in both a university and a college library. From my previous employment, all I can say is worse things happened in those particular learning resource centres than a well-behaved child holding her dad’s hand as they walked through to the audio visual resources section.

It is difficult to obtain information from library websites/codes of conduct on whether children are or aren’t allowed to accompany a parent’s visit. This lack of information led me to wonder if all university libraries adopt this same approach and whether it is a formal or unwritten rule. I wanted to know where my son and I would be welcome. I emailed the main campus library of fourteen of Scotland’s universities as follows:

Subject: Library Access

Dear XX Library,

I’m a PhD student at another institution (Heriot-Watt) and I would like to visit the library at XX.

I will have my young son with me in his pram – can you let me know where I will be able to access in the building / if there are any areas I won’t be able to access?

Thanks and kind regards,
Emma Bolger

Yes, I skirted round the issue a bit. While it was the pram not the son that was the focus, they come clearly as two-part unit. I also emailed my own institution. Most of the libraries responded quickly and I will explore the responses shortly. First of all, I want to contextualise why limited or refused library access matters:

The wider picture:

Universities focus on supporting non-traditional students. Primarily, this issue relates to the aims stated in strategic plans and in some cases therefore, internal policy contradicts overall strategy.

·         Many student-parents study part-time, often from home around their children. I also work for the Open University and our students come from a diverse pool, the majority of them in employment, perhaps with caring commitments. They are, like other university students, allowed access to local ‘bricks and mortar’ university libraries via the SCONUL scheme. If a parent can’t afford to pay someone or use goodwill carers to look after their child – say, in the evenings, on an ad-hoc basis, outside of core childcare hours, on top of paying for childcare during their working hours, then do the child-unfriendly institutions offer a crèche on site or untaxed bursary payment towards childcare while the student-parents visits the library? No, they don't. Universities with restricted library access expect a parent to cover an expense that non-parent-students do not have.

·         In the majority of cases, the primary carer of a young child is still a woman. Gender inequality exists. There is occupational segregation. Women face structural barriers. Women leave the workforce after having a child and often cease to progress professionally after having children. A route to professional progress is retraining or job-related study. Flexible study during maternity leave or while a child is young enables a woman to maintain contact with the world of work and continue her professional development. Women can do more than one thing at a time (crazy stuff, eh?); they can look after children and study. However, yet another hoop to jump though, another rule to work around, just keeps the incline steady on the uphill struggle.

·         Higher education institutions are criticised for the smaller number of female academics, moreso at professorial level. This is not going to change unless a woman (such as the author of this blog) is fully able to access the same resources as a childless male student when they undertake doctoral study.

·         And the relevance of this to my PhD: apprentices study towards qualifications alongside work. What are the rules on child access to the libraries within the HEIs and colleges that are supporting delivery of apprenticeship-linked qualifications? Well, we will see: I plan to research this more formally as I undertake data collection for my PhD.

I didn’t declare that I might publish the responses I got from the institutions therefore I will not name any of them, other than to state that they are in Scotland and (using an interpretivist research approach) I suggest that institutions with similar policies may exist in the rest of the UK.

Out of the 14 universities contacted:

Number of Universities
No children under 16 in the building
Limited access if you visit with children*
Full access
Would not disclose without further information

*both of these institutions said a library staff member would retrieve materials or “help” me but only during staffed hours. So that’s a no, outside of core staffing hours.

Child Policies
Number of Universities
Referenced a child policy
Referenced a child policy in draft form
No reference made to a child policy

So there it is: if you are a student-parent attending a university library in Scotland and they say no to you visiting with your child or that you can only access part of the building, then they are, without doubt, in the minority.

However, of the 12 who stated they do allow full or limited access, I want to break down their replies a little further.

Email Phrasing
Number of Universities
Yes, with a welcoming and understanding comment
Yes, without a comment regarding conduct
Yes, with a comment regarding conduct

There is an issue was with the language used. From some institutions there is a lack of polite exchange forthcoming and the presumption conveyed, as stated earlier, is that student-parents aren’t able to independently, or without reminder, show initiative and remove a potentially disruptive child from a library space. I don’t need reminding that I should remove my noisy child from a quiet space. I don’t need to be told of the CONSEQUENCES if my child makes a noise.

It is a story of mainly positives: one university gave a perfect response. Not only could I visit, but if my little boy decided he didn’t want to cooperate with my intention to use the library as a polite and aware student, they’d retrieve my materials for me so I could work in the non-silent study area. i.e. We were welcome in the whole building and should I need help they would be available. No, “and if he makes a noise we’d expect you to leave” comment because they know there is no need to make it. I am, until proven otherwise, a sensible library user.

As for ‘child policies,’ I would argue there is no need for them, if libraries have any trust in their student-parents. Also worth considering, is how busy are the specially designated areas where children are allowed? Busy, I’d bet, given they are predominantly on the floor next to the entrance and service desks. Minimal likelihood you’d get a space during staffed hours, even to make a few notes from a journal. One library replied to say that we’d be confined to a certain floor because of space limitations and what they phrased as “resource”, whatever that means.

And the one institution that said a flat no: I could come to visit on my own with my SCONUL card but as no under 16s are allowed in… I wonder how, if my home university also had the same no under 16s policy, I would get the SCONUL card in the first place?

So, after exploring this (not something I thought I'd have to do, but as my research has the potential to take me across Scotland and as my home institution isn't the closest to my home) I hope this post encourages other student-parents in Scotland to check with university libraries what their policy is before turning up, as I did, only to be turned away.  Here are my personal conclusions:

·         Restricted access, for any user, to any university resource, is a barrier and causes inequality.
·         Restricted access discriminates again student-parents who cannot visit a university resource without their child.
·         ‘Polite’ courtesy reminders issued in person and in library policies can be patronising.

My plea to university libraries: please bear in mind that the parent who has brought their child to the library hasn’t done so for entertainment (we have Bounce and Rhyme for that) and would much rather be able to spend an hour, unencumbered, studying alone while our child is safely looked after, having fun elsewhere. We aren’t all potential library louts. We’re just juggling study, work and children as best we can. Not juggling our children literally though – and certainly not in a university library – because we’d expect to be thrown out for doing that (and would hope the same rules to apply to anyone performing loud circus tricks within the quiet study space).

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