Reflections on Service

By now I’m sure everyone’s seen Thomas Benton’s article in praise of academic librarians in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s getting a lot of link love in the blogosphere, and was in the top five most viewed and emailed articles on the Chron’s website early this week. I love being a librarian and reading positive things about librarianship, and I enjoyed reading Benton’s piece. The whole article’s worth a read but a few sentences near the beginning sum it up nicely:

[M]ore than any other class of professionals in higher education, librarians possess a comprehensive understanding of the scholarly ecosystem. They know what’s going on across the disciplines, among professors and administrators as well as students. No less important, they are often the most informed people when it comes to technological change–its limits as well as its advantages.

The article’s comments were mostly positive, too, but scanning through them there was one in particular that caught my eye. The commenter suggests that faculty and administrators value librarians because of the work we do for them which, in this commenter’s mind, equates librarians with “glorified research assistants.”

One of the reasons this comment struck me is that it speaks to something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Librarianship is a service-oriented profession — service to our patrons, whether faculty, students, or staff, is a core value for many academic librarians. We want faculty and students to ask us questions about library and research resources.

However, sometimes it can be a fine line to walk between facilitating access to and use of library resources, and slipping into an assistant role as mentioned by the Chron commenter. Does our goal to assist with research in our institutions ever cross the line to acting as a research assistant? What does “service” really mean in an academic library?

About Maura Smale

Coordinator of Information Literacy and Library Instruction, New York City College of Technology, City University of New York

10 thoughts on “Reflections on Service

  1. I am reminded of those Very Tough Dominican Nuns who taught me grammar, math, and how to understand that evolution and the Book of Genesis could both be equally true. Their lives were about service, but they were nobody’s servant. In fact, they were brides of Christ, which meant they were connected, big time. But then, he went around washing people’s feet just to mess with hierarchy.

    Is a lawyer who untangles contract law for a client a glorified legal assistant? Of course, we don’t bill by the hour, but I don’t see really what’s wrong with doing what we’re good at when a scholar is stumped.

    The only time I’ve run into a situation where someone crossed the line – and luckily, it’s very rare – is when a faculty member (a newbie from the Outside, someone who used to have a secretary and wasn’t accustomed to doing his own work) asked a librarian to do something he could do himself. She told him it wasn’t her job.

  2. I agree with Barbara….its the client/patron/customer, not thr profession. Does the faculty member treat you as a trusted resource or as a servant? Do they treat other helping professions with authoritarian disdain or with kindness and respect? Mechanic, housekeeper, groundskeeper, doctor, librarian…all helping professions.

  3. Yes, I’ve been lucky too and haven’t had any line crossing. Hope it’s not (almost-)beginners luck.

  4. Take heart- in my 13+ years of librarianship, I can count on one hand the number of faculty who have tried to treat me as an assistant vs. a valued expert. It’s much more likely for the students to think I’m here to do things for them.

  5. I’ve had a couple of students try to treat me as their research assistant and, frankly, to a certain extent I’ll play along.

  6. I’m with Barbara et al. I’m in this game because it’s a helping profession. Sometimes helping is teaching. Sometimes helping is doing. Marvin Scilken once said to me, “The bottom line is public service.” I have taken that to heart as part and parcel of my calling. We know when a student is leaning too hard and how to step away and let them pedal.

  7. Great post, Maura. This is something that has been on my mind for some time. I have been asked to do research for students and faculty but I’ve usually managed to wrangle out of it. Some situations, though, do call for you to do instead of teach. As K.G. said, that’s service too.

  8. I am sorry for commenting on an older post but I felt the urge to share my experience(as a student) with librarians and their service.

    As a student I always appreciated librarians and saw them as a source of knowledge. Questions about my research were always welcome and i recieved great help and guidance in my search for the right information. Unlike some of my fellow students and even teacher! Librarians were “used” to supervise students, administrate and use the copy machine. I always felt bad for them. They must have had another idea when they applied for the job.

    As you said: There is a thin line between facilitating access to and use of library resources and becoming someones assistent.

  9. One of the reasons this comment struck me is that it speaks to something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Librarianship is a service-oriented profession — service to our patrons, whether faculty, students, or staff, is a core value for many academic librarians. We want faculty and students to ask us questions about library and research resources.

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