New to UML Herself, Yolanda Hood Wants to Demystify the Campus Library

A woman with short hair and glasses holds up a piece of a paper while a woman looks on Image by Ed Brennen
Yolanda Hood, left, the UML Library's new first-year experience and instruction coordinator, leads River Hawk Scholars Academy students through an escape room event at O'Leary Library last semester.

By Ed Brennen

As the UMass Lowell Library’s first-year experience and instruction coordinator, Yolanda Hood helps new students on campus learn about available services and resources, from required course materials to databases for research papers.
“I want to be that face for students so that, if they are intimidated by the library, they can say, ‘There’s that weird woman that I can ask a question,’” says a smiling Hood, who joined UML last fall from Dartmouth College, where she was a teaching and engagement librarian.
Hood’s two-decade university library career has taken her all over North America, from Florida, Georgia and Iowa to Wyoming, New Hampshire and Prince Edward Island, Canada — a place she had always wanted to live.
“I loved L.M. Montgomery and the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ series,” says Hood, a North Carolina native who told herself if she ever got the chance to move to Prince Edward Island, where the classic children’s novel is set, she would. She got her chance in 2016 when she was hired as meta-literacy and student engagement librarian at the University of Prince Edward Island. 
Two young women blow bubbles through a colorful hoop that another woman is holding Image by Ed Brennen
River Hawk Scholars Academy students take part in a physical challenge during an escape room event at O'Leary Library.
Hood was drawn to UML by the opportunity to work directly with students in the university’s 80-plus writing sections — contributing to the learning environment that has made UML the top-ranked public university in Massachusetts, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“This felt like a perfect fit,” says Hood, who holds a bachelor’s degree in English education from Elon University, a master’s in English from North Carolina Central University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
“The students and faculty are wonderful here, and I’ve always liked Lowell,” says Hood, who had lived in the city during a summer internship at the New England Quilt Museum more than 20 years ago.
One of Hood’s first initiatives as first-year experience and instruction coordinator was to host an “escape room” event at O’Leary Library last semester for students in the River Hawk Scholars Academy, a nationally recognized program that serves first-generation college students.
A woman with short dark hair and glasses poses for a photo in a library Image by Ed Brennen
Yolanda Hood's two-decade university library career has taken her all over North America - and landed her at UMass Lowell.
Working in teams, students had to complete puzzles and physical challenges to solve a fictitious case of who was responsible for poisoning 12,000 pounds of apples that had been released in the city (spoiler alert: it was “Jolly Jane” Toppan, a real-life serial killer who moved to Lowell in the 1860s).
Hood sat down recently to discuss her goals for first-year students, the “pedagogy of play” and what the rise of artificial intelligence means for college writing.
Q. Why is it important for the library to have someone work specifically with first-year students?
A. Depending on what high school they come from, first-year students may not be used to having as many resources available to them at the library. When they’re doing research for a writing class, I tell students there's nothing wrong with Google; it has a specific purpose. But the library has more than 200 databases that your tuition is paying for that also have a specific purpose, and you should be using them. I want to make sure that not only first-year students, but also our transfer and first-gen students, are comfortable coming in and asking for help. 
Q. What was the idea behind the escape room event last semester?
A. I believe in the pedagogy of play. I try to think of ways to make students comfortable in a space where they need to learn. And when you bring in play, it changes what's going on in the brain. They're more open to thinking critically about what's happening, or they’re more willing to try something that they're afraid to fail at, because it's a game and it's OK to fail. 
A person works on a combination lock that is attached to a metal box Image by Ed Brennen
A student works on a combination lock during the escape room event.
I've been creating escape rooms and role-playing games for 16 years for students to learn how and why to do research. Instead of me just talking to them, it gives them the chance to actually try something. They get to see how it works and what they would do differently to make it work, which is how research happens. It’s not a magic button; you don't just find the answer and then write your paper. You have to do some searching, because that answer might lead to something else that changes your whole thesis.
Q. Do you have other events like that in mind for this semester?  
A. Our team (including Assoc. Director of Research and Learning Amanda Rust and Online Services and Reference Coordinator Russell Perry) is working on a game-based “pre-assignment” for Writing II classes this semester, which students will do before we meet with them for their face-to-face instruction session. I don’t want to give it away, but it involves the space-time continuum.
Q. Part of your job is helping students with their writing. Are you concerned about them using artificial intelligence platforms like ChatGPT to write a paper?
A. I’m not worried about that. At this moment, I feel like the voice of AI and the voice of a student are somewhat different. A lot of students are told AI is a bad thing and to leave it alone. But it's a tool to be used, and it's an opportunity to show students how to use it when they're writing. They could use it to help create an outline for their paper, for instance. Of course, there are a lot of privacy and legal issues to be wary of, as well. One of the things that our research and learning team is working on right now is ways that we can help faculty and students better understand how, why and when to use it.
Q. How have college libraries changed over the course of your career, particularly since the pandemic? And what do you see for their future?
A. The library is the same — it’s like a safe space for students. It was pre-COVID, and I’m finding that now post-COVID. Students are coming back to the library, and it’s a space where they like to study, socialize and sleep. So that has not changed. I do find that, post-COVID, there’s more fear of engaging. When everybody went online, students thought, ‘Oh, I have to do everything myself.’ And it's almost like students are afraid to ask for help and ask questions now. So that’s a barrier that we have to break through. But libraries, books and librarians will never go away, because, you know, on all those apocalyptic TV shows and movies, there's always a librarian, and there's always a library.