Research Highlight: First-Generation Students in Academic Libraries

Students in libraryRESEARCHERS:
Kristine Nowak, M.L.I.S.
Jimena Bretón, M.L.I.S., Ph.D. (In Progress)
Renae Watson, M.A., M.S.L.S., M.Ed.

At Colorado State University, researchers are driving innovation at local and global levels in a variety of disciplines – including librarianship.

Three librarians at CSU Libraries have been investigating the experiences of first-generation students in academic libraries, in collaboration with peers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Northern Colorado. One in four CSU students identifies as a first-generation college student, and this research may contribute valuable insights to campus initiatives focused on first-generation success.

A peer-reviewed article about the research is scheduled to be published in portal: Libraries and the Academy in October 2020.

What did you learn about the experiences of first-generation students in academic libraries?

Kristine Nowak
Kristine Nowak

Kristine Nowak: A lot of trends in first-generation students’ general University experience are reiterated in their experience with academic libraries. For example, students sometimes mentioned they encountered obstacles using the library because there seemed to be hidden systems or jargon. There’s also a need for safe and supportive spaces to help them navigate the larger University, and the Libraries is and can be one of these spaces. A number of students equated an inclusive space with a productive one, meaning a space free of bias was part of their ability to get their work done.

Renae Watson: I want to add that we focused on the assets these students bring to the University, rather than information or skills they might be missing. They describe themselves as “self-motivated,” “resourceful,” and “driven,” and this reflects in their experiences with their libraries. If students are unfamiliar with academic libraries, they are resourceful in pioneering their own paths to get what they need.

What role does Morgan Library play in the academic success of first-generation students at CSU?

Nowak: I think CSU Libraries provides an essential foundation for success. Students indicated we can fill a variety of roles by continuing to provide a safe and flexible study space, free or low-cost materials, such as books or technology, research materials and support, and guidance on navigating campus as a whole.

Jimena Bretón: The Libraries can develop a creative approach to fulfilling essential roles in ways that challenge our traditional roles as librarians. Historically, when librarians think about how to open their doors to underserved students – in this case, first-generation students – libraries become better at serving all students.

What advice would you give to other librarians working with first-generation students?


Watson: As a first-generation student myself, I’d say first-generation students are a resourceful, hardworking group, and they may need a loving reminder that they don’t have to do it all on their own. Fiercely and kindly encourage students to use you as a resource, even if that means letting them know it is literally what you are paid for.

Bretón: When we serve first-generation students, we improve our understanding of librarians’ role in student academic success and student life, and we realize that we have a tremendous opportunity to make greater impacts for an often over-looked student population such as first. We’re challenged to wake up our innovative spirits, step outside of the Morgan Library’s doors, and fulfill our mission.


One in four CSU students is first generation, and CSU is committed to providing them with the support they need to succeed. Learn more about what the University is doing to provide access to excellent education to these students.