A Personal Touch

Earlier this week the Chron reported on the new Personal Librarian Program at Drexel University. Every incoming freshman student this year has been assigned an individual librarian, and students are encouraged to contact their personal librarians throughout the semester whenever they have questions about doing research or using the library. While Drexel is not the only academic library offering this service, the publicity around the Drexel program has inspired lots of conversation this week among librarians I know both in person and online via Twitter, Facebook, and blogs.

It definitely seems like there has been a rise in individual services to students at academic libraries over the past few years. Some libraries are experimenting with librarian office hours; sometimes they’re held in the library, and sometimes a subject librarian will offer consultations in an office in each discipline’s department. Many libraries promote individual consultations by appointment with reference librarians for students and faculty. We started offering this service at my library last semester and it’s working well. It’s been great to be able to offer more in-depth assistance to students without feeling the pressure of the busy reference desk.

As an instruction librarian I’m used to interacting with students in a class, but working with many students at once is very different from a one-on-one interaction with a student. Maybe it’s just in the air, but more and more often I find myself thinking about ways to work with individual students. I think these services are so attractive to me because it seems like they would encourage stronger student engagement with research and critical thinking. No matter how relevant (e.g., assignment-based), timely, interactive, or entertaining a classroom instruction session is, it can be difficult to fully engage every student in the room. But working with students one-on-one removes some of the obstacles–like fear of asking questions in front of the entire class–and lets us work at each individual student’s level of experience and need.

I have to admit that the numbers are a bit scary. The ratio of Personal Librarians to incoming freshmen at Drexel is about 1:100. How can academic libraries at colleges with a different ratio–say, 1:500 or even 1:1,000–offer these kinds of individual services? One thought is to start small, with students in a specific discipline or major, and I’m sure there are other groups of students that would work well for a personal librarian project pilot. And assessment should help us evaluate the impact of individual services as compared to group instruction, and help us decide whether to offer a personal librarian program. (Assessment is on my mind this week as I’ve been making my way through the new ACRL Value of Academic Libraries Report, but that’s a post for another day.)

If you’re experimenting with individual services in your library, what have your experiences been?

About Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian and Department Chair, Library, at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

8 thoughts on “A Personal Touch

  1. Since we’re a residential campus and our students tend to settle down to work at around 9pm – I’m not sure I have the stamina to be available when they may need me. (We have reference hours until 10 and are experimenting with a student peer tutor program from 10 to midnight … but my biological clock is way out of synch with the students.)

    I am always torn between the “personal librarian” and wanting to encourage students to think ALL of the librarians are approachable. We’ll be offering consultations but I don’t want to undermine the impulsive approach to a total stranger at the reference desk.

  2. The numbers were scary for us, too, at first (I run Yale’s PL program for undergraduates). But our colleagues at the Yale Medical Library, who’ve been doing this since 1996, assured us that having a large number of students wouldn’t be a problem. We’ve been doing this with Yale College for four years now, and Medical was right. Sure, it’s busy around the time papers and assignments are coming due, but so is/was the traditional reference desk. We have 27 librarians participating, all of whom have other “day jobs,” and most of them spend less than 10 hours a semester doing PL work. The payoff comes from the good will we get in return – the students love us, the university administration loves us, parents (and donors!) too. It’s all good.

  3. At the last place I worked, we really promoted the one-on-one consultation and it was very successful. At my current institution, we offer it as a service but it is not promoted. I tell students about it in classes, and a few have taken me up on it. Personally, I find these interactions some of the most rewarding, and the students I have worked with get a lot out of it as well. They almost always contact me for follow-up, and at the very least they say hi whenever I see them in the library. I think it is important to offer this service as an option for those individuals who may be reluctant to speak up in class or approach someone at the reference desk – just one more facet of the multitude of services we can offer to meet the needs of our diverse users.

  4. This type of personal librarianship was what prompted me to become a librarian. When I was in grad school (the first time), I met one-on-one with a number of librarians. They were so willing to help, so enthusiastic about the opportunity to help me find resources and talk about my research, that I decided doing THAT was so much more rewarding and engaging than individual research. I’m glad to see more universities trying to adopt system-wide programs such as these. I look forward to seeing the results and wish Drexel the best of luck!

  5. We’ve had issues at my library where some students become so focused on one librarian that it isn’t in their best interest–they’ll bypass the reference desk with even the most basic questions (not that they know their question is basic) and wait til a specific librarian can help them–which adds to individual work loads in our understaffed library.

    I really like the idea of this but have a hard time seeing how it scales to a campus of 20,000+ students. And maybe it just won’t.

  6. We’ve been running our Class Librarian program at the University of Chicago since 2002 (a librarian is assigned to each incoming class, and remains with that class until graduation). While most of our undergraduates continue to use the reference desk as their first point of service, many students appreciate having just one person they can go to if they have problems or questions. It has also been a nice way to market our library services to students (and alumni).

  7. I’m glad to hear that in many cases these kinds of programs haven’t resulted in an unmanageable increase in workload — that’s good food for thought. I appreciate the caveats, too. I agree that it’s important for students to feel that they can approach the reference desk and any librarian with a question. And jp’s point is well taken — even with my regular subject liaison duties I sometimes run into sticky issues. I enjoy working with students and want to be available for them, but it can be challenging if I’m trying to finish other work and a student drops in to my office.

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