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Johns Hopkins Libraries Explore Impact of Collections on Students’ Mental Wellness

Can library spaces and collections—both physical and digital—foster a sense of well-being and engagement with the community?

Like many college students in the United States, students at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) struggle with maintaining mental health and wellness. JHU’s president has identified the mental wellness of students as one of the university’s top priorities. The provost appointed a task force that conducted a university-wide survey and issued a report. The university is implementing the task force’s recommendations.

Following on the task force report, the JHU Libraries are examining the holistic sense of connection that students feel to physical collections while also gathering comprehensive data about digital features in libraries that benefit student well-being. One strand of this work analyzes the impact of a program that lends physical, archival materials to students as a possible method for cultivating a greater sense of engagement with both collections and institutions. The other strand of this work explores the potential for digital games to mitigate stress, anxiety, and isolation, as well as the potential for digital displays to lead students to the university’s wellness resources.

Early imprints for archival lending program (left). Launch event for digital wellness space in library (right).

As part of an archival lending program—modeled after the Cultural Heritage Experiment at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago—the JHU Libraries are loaning archival objects to students and surveying the students to collect wellness data throughout the 2020 spring semester. The archival objects include Victorian copper plates, manuscript leaves, historic pamphlets, and photographs. The libraries are working with the Student Wellness and Counseling Center to develop the survey questions and impact metrics. One example of a potential question is, “Has the library wellness resource contributed to greater use of Silvercloud?” (Silvercloud is a cognitive-behavioral therapy app that the university recently purchased for all full-time students.)

For the digital-resources dimension of this work, the JHU Libraries are identifying games with previous research demonstrating positive effects on mental well-being. The libraries are also identifying other games that might have positive effects and they plan to collect data on these additional games for further analysis. The libraries will populate a large-scale display in a learning commons with these games, where students will be able to play the games and access wellness resources directly or scan QR codes to access the resources later, privately. Additionally, the libraries are collaborating with the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Wellness and with the Counseling Center to organize these games according to criteria and categories that connect the games to relevant university resources.

With this work, the JHU Libraries hope to better understand how they can improve student well-being through physical and digital collections. They also hope to influence renovation planning efforts within JHU and throughout the broader library community, which shares similar concerns and questions.