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.