Libraries, Learning Commons and Pastoral Care

Learning Commons, Libraries & Pastoral Care I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading about pastoral care lately. Pastoral care to students is written in to most employees’ job descriptions at the polytechnic where I work. It is a particular responsibility of teaching staff, but it is also the responsibility of employees in the Learning Support team, which includes The Learning Commons and its staff, which I manage.

In the past, as a library professional in a more traditional library team, any notions of pastoral care were hardly on my radar, although I realise now that library service does involve providing pastoral care. Now, as part of an integrated library and learning support service, it is very much on my mind.

There is a huge need for pastoral care in our institution. On a daily basis we see or hear from students who are living in extreme poverty and or facing any number of different challenges such as homelessness, depression, family violence, bullying, drug addiction etc. These students need our help before they can even think about learning.

But what exactly is pastoral care, and how (or even if) should we be providing it? There is no one clear definition anywhere in any of our institution’s policies or documents. It is rather a nebulous term that can be interpreted in so many ways. That ambiguity is possibly a good thing, but it lends itself to rather personal interpretations of the level and extent of care that each staff member provides to students.

Wider reading about pastoral care in education is more helpful, and has helped me see that the provision of pastoral care can be seen in terms of a continuum. At one end is simply listening, clarifying a need, and then referring on to another person or agency if unable to meet the need then and there. I think that the traditional library reference interview could be seen as an example of this. At the other end of the continuum is counselling. We provide a free professional counselling service to students, which is great.

What I think we need to be more clear about is the area in between these two ends of this continuum. Some of my team’s job descriptions have a greater emphasis on pastoral care than others – these are the employees who administer our hardship grants from within the learning commons. We have a few employees who students are drawn to, people with whom the students are more comfortable sharing their problems with. The pastoral care that these staff provides sometimes moves into that ‘in between’ space. These wonderful employees make a concrete, very visible difference to whether students complete their course of study. Without being given a referral to the foodbank or a $20 bus voucher we would lose them for sure.

What has become very clear to me, as a learning commons manager with pastoral care responsibilities is that it is vital to put the appropriate professional support, structures and boundaries in place to support employees providing pastoral care, in order to keep them and the students they help safe. Regular mentoring or professional supervision may be required.

What is also important is a collaborative approach where support staff, teaching staff and health professionals work together in a cohesive way, whilst being mindful of confidentiality and professional ethics.

As library roles become more hybrid, these are areas we need to consider carefully. It maybe that in your team, you decide to keep the level of pastoral care at the beginning of the continuum. If you venture further along the continuum, then this requires a much stronger framework of support and a proper process. So some interesting questions for library professionals here.

What is the relationship between pastoral care and library service? What frameworks for support exist in your institution?

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