Gaining The Trust Of Students

Some recent indicators suggest that academic librarians need to work at gaining the trust of college students. First, the OCLC College Students’ Perception of Libraries and Information Resources has two charts (see pages 3-10 and 3-11) that indicate that academic librarians are trusted, but not nearly as much as friends or faculty. Then I recently read that the Edleman Trust Barometer reveals that:

“A person like me” is more trusted than doctors, academics and other such experts. In the U.S., trust in “a person like me “has shown a dramatic increase from just 20 percent in 2003 to 68 percent today.

So academic librarians have lots of company in being authority figures that are less trusted than a friend or perhaps even a stranger who “is like me.” I would interpret that to mean that a student would be more likely to take research advice from a college-age stranger he or she encounters in a social network site before a librarian because of the “like me” factor.

It’s not that we’re like major corporations, where the public doesn’t actually trust us much because of past actions (e.g., accounting fraud, environmental disasters, corporate greed, etc.) that corrode the national trust. In fact, I think students always trust the information and advice they get from academic librarians – when an interaction actually takes place. The real challenge is creating situations where students can get to know us, and feel comfortable seeking us out for assistance. We’re at least as trustworthy as faculty, but we’re at a disadvantage because the students get to know their instructors from routine contact while we remain largely isolated and unapproachable.

The good news is that academic librarians have or can create opportunities to build trust – or at least familiarity. Some of the orientation activities that Brian Mathews has been reporting in his blog may be helpful because they allow the students to know us better, and it humanizes their perception of us. Getting out to classes for instruction activity is another good way to put a human face on the library, and let students know that were there to help. Connecting with students at campus events, in the dining facilities, athletic centers, and other venues all contribute to creating connections with students. Another path to having students see us as regular folk is to increase the campus buzz about the library and librarians as a good place to hang out and be seen. That’s where encouraging student stories can help.

In reaction to the Edleman report Gerry McGovern pointed out that in the Web culture:

The Web gives customers the power to talk back and be heard by other customers like them. The Web strips away authority from the establishment. In fact, the Web is leading a backlash against traditional authority figures.

So we should no longer assume that because we’re librarians anyone trusts us or the advice or information we give. Trust is something we will need to build.

2 thoughts on “Gaining The Trust Of Students

  1. I think part of this comes down to whether or not we have sufficient customer service skills in the academic setting. People are paying for their academic library services but, are they receiving the best service that they can? I remember one academic librarian from a college in the midwest that cheerfully claimed that it wasn’t her job to answer questions from students and that her college library took great pride in making the students do their own research.

    While I think there is something to be said about teaching people to fish rather than simply giving them fish, I think it’s also important to carefully consider if our reference methods are meeting student needs. Are we providing adequate citations or are we providing too much citation. There are limits to what a library patron actually desires in the means of information. Too much information can be as bad or worse as too little.

    Also, we need to ask if students are finding 1) enough opportunities to approach librarians in a library setting and 2) if the librarians appear approachable enough for a customer transaction to take place. To take advantage of these opportunities there needs to be 1) a sufficient number of staff present such that students don’t need to search entire floors to find a librarian and 2) that the librarians appear semi-idle. I say semi-idle because most people dislike interrupting people who appear busy but, at the same time management does not want idle workers and the workers themselves do not want boring jobs.

    The long and short of it is. If the goal is to build trust then, it is necessary to provide the opportunities in which that trust can be built.

  2. I think part of the issue is students in college may not understand exactly what a librarian can help them with or they may feel they are bothering the librarian by asking for help. Also students research may not always take them to the library, classes will always take them to the classroom.

    It is important for librarians to visit different classes to let them know about the library. Although I remember these visits from when I was in college. It was a chance to work on homework, go online or skip class all together. Many students felt it was a waste of time to learn how to check out a book. Tailoring these visits will make them more beneficial to students.

    Some problems may be solved by the librarian walking up to students and offering assistance. If a student is wandering around looking for a book, a friendly face and an offer of help may be exactly what they need. This simple gesture can go a long way. The student will hopefully feel more secure approaching this person in the future.

    Creating a more inviting atmosphere will also help. I think there is still a stereotype on libraries as being very institutional, quite and conservative. Creating an atmosphere that encourages relaxing and studying will hopefully encourage students to spend more time in the library. Offering programs such as poetry readings, book discussions and open mic night will change the atmosphere; change how students perceive the library and hopefully bond students and librarians.

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