Book Reviews

Xan Arch and Isaac Gilman. Academic Library Services for First Generation Students. New York, NY: Libraries Unlimited, 2020. 149p. Paper.

Book cover for Academic Library Services for First Generation Students

Xan Arch and Isaac Gilman create a necessary, at times difficult to discuss, piece of writing that should be used by academic libraries across the nation. Academic Library Services for First Generation Students brings forth the question of how to address best librarian practices for first-generation students. They argue that current practices cater to middle-class white students. The academic setting is shaped in such a way that first-generation students are viewed as needing “assistance” when the actual problem lies within the institution and its support systems. This book’s structure facilitates a rich understanding of the problems within these institutions while also offering concrete examples for academic libraries that want to do better. The book begins by describing the social context of first-generation students in higher education generally and then addresses academic libraries in particular. It finishes with examples of how to adapt institutions to better support these students.

The authors begin their book with the understanding that institutions are the ones that need to adapt for first-generation students and not the other way around. Rather, they want to shift from a “deficit” outlook to an “asset” outlook of these students. Arch and Gilman begin with a rich description of higher education and the reality of a “cultural mismatch.” They state that the working middle-class populace that encompasses the majority of first-generation students are challenged in four key areas: social, academic, financial, and familial. By separating these challenges into groups, the authors raise important issues within them that are then met with solutions in later chapters.

Social challenges for first-generation students begin with their hesitation or inability to speak with faculty or ask for help. Some might say this is because students are either unable or unwilling to take initiative; the authors formulate an alternative, more culturally inclusive reason. Their white counterparts bring knowledge of what kind of help is available in higher education and a sense of entitlement to those services. This kind of disparity manifests in various ways and is explained extensively throughout the first chapters of this book. First-generation students are less likely to use resources such as academic advisement and tutoring for this very reason.

Academic and financial challenges for first-generation students center on the fact that “institutions were constructed to privilege the white, middle class students who have been the primary participants in and beneficiaries of higher education.” Arch and Gilman explain that this presents a hindrance for first-generation students who often come to college from low-income families and without institutional knowledge. Even the FAFSA is tailored toward a middle class that has navigated the form for generations. First-generation students always face this as an uphill battle as the first to fill it out in their families.

Finally, familial challenges are addressed throughout the book in relation to the obstacles first-generation students face. First-generation students tend to come from familial and other nonnuclear groups that do not have the academic institutional experience to assist in navigating higher education. In addition, there are institutions that do not make accommodations for students who have children. Having a family or being a part of a traditional family comes with responsibilities that hinder social, academic, and financial progress in higher education institutions that don’t address those realities.

Apart from dismantling the current structure of higher education that caters to white middle-class students, the authors provide significant examples of how academic libraries can adapt to focus on first-generation students. Too often, interventions are framed as if “accommodations are required to help them succeed due to their deficiencies but there is no desire to disrupt the general status quo to make colleges—and libraries—more inclusive.” Hence, the authors provide counterexamples for making more inclusive academic libraries. These range from explicit signage to inclusive library instruction. All of these examples capture the true essence of this book. Academic libraries should be creating a space that is inclusive, where students feel that they would be “understood and not judged for anything they did not know as they sought help or engaged in academic pursuits.”

In conclusion, Arch and Gilman provide a necessary text that both defines what a first-generation student is while arguing for dismantling the middle-class structure that describes most academic institutions. This work is difficult to do, yet they do it with elegance and poise. This book not only deconstructs the deficit view; it also provides approaches to make institutions more inclusive for first-generation students. By focusing on academic libraries, the authors prove that this sector of academia is invaluable to college students. By adapting collection development, library instruction, and inclusive training of reference librarians, the authors describe various case study successes in enhancing inclusion for first-generation students. This book is a must-have for any academic library working with a large population of first-generation students. Creating a safe library space for these students will encourage them to succeed and remove the stigma of seeking guidance.— Jeffrey Delgado, Kingsborough Community College

Copyright Jeffrey Delgado

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