Category Archives: Public Services

Research Librarianship in Crisis: Mediate When, Where, and How?

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Bohyun Kim, Digital Access Librarian, Florida International University Medical Library. She blogs at Library Hat.

The talk about the crisis of librarianship is nothing new. Most recently, back in May, Seth Godin, a marketing guru, has written on his blog a post about the future of libraries. Many librarians criticized that Godin failed to fully understand the value of librarians and libraries.  But his point that libraries and librarians may no longer be needed was not entirely without merit (See my post “Beyond the Middlemen and the Warehouse Business”). Whether we librarians like it or not, more and more library users are obtaining information without our help.

One may think academic research libraries are an exception from this. Unfortunately, the same trend prevails even at research libraries. In his guest editorial for the Journal of Academic Librarianship, “The Crisis in Research Librarianship (pre-print version)”, Rick Anderson makes the case that patrons are finding information effectively without librarians’ help, citing the drastic decline of reference transactions in Association of Research Libraries (ARL).  According the ARL statistics, the number of reference transactions went down by more than 50-60 % since 1995.

This is particularly worrisome considering that at research libraries, we tend to place reference and instruction services at the center of the library operation and services. These services delivered by physical or online contact are still deemed to be one of the most prominent and important parts of the academic library operation. But the actual user behavior shows that they can and do get their research done without much help from librarians.  To make matters worse, existing library functions and structures that we consider to be central appear to play only a marginal role in the real lives of academic library users.  Anderson states: “Virtually none of them begins a research project at the library’s website; the average student at a major research university has fewer than four interactions with a reference librarian in a year (and even fewer of those are substantive reference interviews); printed books circulate at lower and lower rates every year.”

We have heard this before. So why are we still going in the same direction as we were a decade ago? Could this be perhaps because we haven’t figured out yet what other than reference and instruction to place in the heart of the library services?

For almost three years, my library has been offering workshops for library users. Workshops are a precious opportunity for academic librarians to engage in instruction, the most highly regarded activity at an academic library. But our workshop attendance has been constantly low. Interestingly, however, those who attended always rated the workshops highly. So the low attendance wasn’t the result of the workshops being bad or not useful. Library users simply preferred to spend their time and attention on something other than library workshops.  I remember two things that brought out palpable appreciation from users during those workshops: how to get the full-text of an article immediately and how to use the library’s LibX toolbar to make that process even faster and shorter.

What users seemed to want to know most was how to get the tasks for their research done fast, and they preferred to do so by themselves. They appreciated any tools that help them to achieve this if the tools were easy to use.  But they were not interested in being mediated by a librarian.

What does this mean?  It means that those library services and programs that aim at increasing contact between librarians and patrons are likely to fail and to be received poorly by users. Not necessarily because those offerings are bad but because users prefer not to be mediated by librarians in locating and using information and resources.

This is a serious dilemma. Librarians exist to serve as a mediator between users and resources. We try to guide them to the best resources and help them to make the best use of those resources.  But the users consider our mediation as a speed bump rather than as value-added service. So where do research libraries and librarians go from here?

I think that librarians will still be needed for research in the digital era. However, the point at which librarians’ mediation is sought for and appreciated may vastly differ from that in the past when information was scarce and hard to obtain.  Users will no longer need nor desire human mediation in basic and simple tasks such as locating and accessing information. Most of them already have no patience to sit through a bibliographic instruction class and/or to read through a subject guide.

But users may appreciate and even seek for mediation in more complicated tasks such as creating a relevant and manageable data set for their research.  Users may welcome any tool that libraries offer that makes the process of research from the beginning to the final product easier and faster. They will want better user interfaces for library systems. They will appreciate better bridges that will connect them with non-library systems to make library resources more easily discoverable and retrievable.  They will want libraries to be an invisible interface that removes any barrier between them and information.  This type of mediation is new to librarians and libraries.  Is it possible that in the future the libraries and librarians’ work is deemed successful exactly in inverse proportion to how visible and noticeable their mediation is?

In his guest editorial, Anderson presents several scenarios of research libraries “going out of business.” Libraries being absorbed into an IT group; Libraries losing computer labs, thereby losing a source of transaction with users as laptops and handheld devices become widely adopted; Libraries budget taken away for better investments; Libraries’ roles and functions being eroded slowly by other units; Information resources that libraries provide being purchased directly by users.

So if a library comes to lose its facilities such as a computer lab, a reading room, carrels, and group study rooms, would there still remain the need for librarians? If a library ends up removing its reference desk, workshops, and other instruction classes, what would librarians be left to do?  If we consider the library space that can be offered and managed by any other unit on campus as the essential part of library services and operation, the answer to these questions would be negative.  As long as we consider reference and instruction – the direct contact with users to mediate between them and resources – as the primary purpose of a library, the answer to these questions would be negative.

Libraries may never lose their facilities, and the need for users to have a direct contact with librarians may never completely go away. But these questions are still worth for us to ponder if we do not want to build a library’s main mission upon something on which the library’s patrons do not place much value. The prospect for the future libraries and librarians may not necessarily be dreary. But we need to rethink where the heart of research librarianship should lie.

Don’t Make It Easy For Them

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Andy Burkhardt, Emerging Technologies Librarian at Champlain College in Vermont. He also blogs at Information Tyrannosaur.

I love customer service in libraries. I love improving our systems and services so they are more user-friendly. I love helping students with their research and answering their questions. But I don’t want to make things easy for students. If I did, I wouldn’t be giving them what they want: an education.

In information literacy sessions, which of these two scenarios is easier for students: letting them sit there while you demo the catalog and a database or having them play with the search tools themselves and then explain to the rest of the class how they work? The first one is way easier. Students can sleep, text, or zone out without having to think or learn anything. The second situation is exceedingly more challenging. Students have to actually have hands on contact with the tools. They also have to learn them well enough to explain them to their classmates. They have to talk!

At the reference desk, what’s easier for a student: when a librarian searches the catalog for them and gives them a relevant book, or when the librarian asks them a bunch of questions, has them explain their topic clearly, and makes them search the catalog? Clearly the first one is nearly effortless for the student. Ask and they receive. The second one is significantly more demanding. After asking a question, the student is asked more questions back. They have to work to define and redefine their topic into something clear. And they have to try searching for a book themselves!

When an online student is looking for an article, should we just send a PDF or should we make a quick screencast about how to get to that article in our databases? Sending the PDF as an email attachment would be much easier for the student. It would also be much easier for the librarian. In fact, things that are easier for students are often easier for librarians too. It’s easy to send a PDF. It’s simple to go through the motions of demoing a database you have shown hundreds of times. It’s a cake-walk to give a student a book and send them on their way. But if we take the easy route, we’re failing them. Learning isn’t easy; it’s hard work. It can be interesting, challenging, confusing, overwhelming, engaging, scary and really fun, but not easy. It’s never easy. Part of our service to students is challenging them so they learn and grow.

I try to remember not to make it easy for students, but also not to make it easy for myself. If my job is starting to seem easy, I’m doing something wrong.

The Distributed Library: Our Two-Year Experiment

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Erin Dorney, Outreach Librarian at Millersville University, Pennsylvania. She also blogs at Library Scenester.

Last week, a small fire* forced all faculty, staff, and library users out of our nine-floor building for about an hour. As I stood the requisite 50 feet away and watched four trucks full of firefighters lug fans, ladders and various pointed objects inside, my colleague posed an interesting question:

“Wow…where are all these students going to go during the renovation?”

As I looked around us at hundreds of students standing in the lawn – laptops unplugged but open in hand, juggling cups of coffee, fingers flying over cell phones and cameras snapping shots of the flashing red lights – I shivered with excitement. It was great to see a visual reminder of who my colleagues and I work to serve: the users. Okay, maybe excitement laced with fear as well, but the good kind of fear – the stuff that drives you forward.

I am about to embark on my first journey into a daunting academic library renovation project. When I interviewed for my position as Outreach Librarian at Millersville University during the spring of 2008 (straight out of graduate school from Syracuse University), the search committee asked me how I would design a marketing campaign to provide awareness to students and faculty before and during a renovation. Little did I know that those interview scenarios were true!

I tried to catch your attention with the fire opening (no one likes the idea of books burning, right?), but if that didn’t do the trick maybe this will: During our upcoming renovation, the majority of our 350,000 physical items will be going into storage. Offsite. With no retrieval. For a period of two years.

Are you listening now?

With a building that is over 40 years old, the Millersville University Library will be gutted and completely renovated starting in the fall of 2011. Everyone currently working in the building will be relocated to other spaces on campus (and we’ll be testing out embedding librarians in different academic buildings). As the role of academic libraries has changed significantly, our facilities are in dire need of a makeover. The new building will provide students with the staples of the academic library space: natural lighting, flexible furniture, secure spaces, programming areas, exhibit space, physical accessibility, ubiquitous technology, 24-hour public areas, a café and more. Thus far, no one has complained about what the new library will look like. Instead, I spend most of my time calming fears about the transition period – the two years when our current building will be under construction, with most of the print books boxed up and out of sight.

There are so many questions, and I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t have all of the answers about how this will play out. I can assure you that we are committed to meeting the research needs of current and future Millersville students. Over the past few years we have been building our electronic book collection and focusing on article databases that will make scholarship available to students no matter where they (or we) are located. Our mutual dependencies with other libraries for things like ILL will become more important. However, the services that we currently offer will continue to be offered during the construction period.

We are also committed to being as transparent as possible about our decision making process and have been inviting student feedback through our renovation website and the creation of a library student advisory board. My goal is no surprises… or, rather, only pleasant ones.

Beyond the impact on students, this renovation project has major implications for other institutions of higher education. What happens when the physical library goes away for a little while? Or, what happens when the library’s resources are distributed around the campus, or move towards electronic access more quickly than anyone anticipated? People have asked me if I’m afraid that this is the end of the academic library, wondering if we will become irrelevant during the two years we’re out of the building. My response? I guess it’s possible, but only if I sit on my hands for the next two years. Instead, I’ll be out integrating the library into campus, infiltrating academic buildings, increasing thought-provoking programming, and providing top-notch service to the campus community so that when we do come back into the new library, we bring everyone along with us. In my world, you can probably have a library without printed books. You can’t really have a library without people.

This is an opportunity for us to put libraries out there, to challenge ideas of what a library can and should be. If you are interested in learning more about the project, I invite you to visit our Renovation Website, where the most up-to-date information is posted. I welcome any comments and questions – have you dealt with a major library renovation? How is communication handled within your library? Tips or lessons learned?

* in a heating vent, no worries!

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?

Is There A “Rescue Plan” At Your Library

There are two kinds of academic librarians. The ones who immediately knew what this post is about, and those who have no clue. Until a short while ago, I’d have put myself in the latter group. That was before I attended this conference session on the topic of staff development. The speakers demonstrated a method for getting staff engaged in discussions about non-technical matters in the library – what you might call the soft skills needed to succeed with community members and colleagues while being able to skillfully defuse difficult situations.

So the conversation turned to an experience nearly everyone who has worked in public services – or at a public service desk – has had: the difficult patron [Personal Note: I’m not a big fan of the phrase “difficult patron” but that’s the terminology used by the session presenters; many of us prefer not to use it but on the other hand it offers a convenient and perhaps less derogatory way to refer to this particular individual]. It could be the person who always has a problem, the person that wants to get into an argument with you, the person who never stops talking to you and doesn’t pay attention to your need to get work done, or perhaps it’s all of the above. There are any number of strategies for dealing with these situations. But up until then I had not heard of the “Rescue Plan”.

I don’t think you’ll see the Rescue Plan mentioned much in the library literature. The goal of the Rescue Plan is to extricate yourself from a situation involving a difficult patron by pre-arranging a diversionary or escape tactic with your colleagues. It might work something like this:

The patron who just wants to talk to someone: “Say, did you happen to hear about [insert news or sports topic]. Isn’t that something else. I remember about twenty years ago…”

Librarian trapped by Difficult Patron: Sees colleague walking by and gives the secret signal for a “rescue” [eye wink, hand gesture, raises a designated book, etc.]. A variation might be having a speed dial on the phone that calls the back room.

The patron who just wants to talk to someone: “That was when the police officer asked me why I had left my house keys with Uncle Joe in the first place…”

Librarian trapped by Difficult Patron: “Oh look, my co-worker needs to talk to me” – or some variation on that where the person making the rescue comes out to the desk and says something along the lines of “The boss needs to talk to you” or “You have a student asking for you on the phone in the back room” or anything that creates an interruption that forces the difficult patron to stop their assault.

What surprised me is the number of librarians who claimed to use the Rescue Plan or a variation on it at their library. What further surprised me is how many of them thought this practice was a great idea for dealing with the difficult patron. I’ve been in these situations myself. I know it can be stressful, frustrating and difficult all at the same time. I can understand the circumstances that would motivate a library worker to want to flee the difficult patron, but as I listened I couldn’t help but feel something wrong about this disingenuous tactic. I have to believe we can deal with these situations in a more positive and productive way.

A more honest and forthright way to tackle this particular patron would be to have a designated person, perhaps the director or department head, take the patron aside for a private conversation. This presents an opportunity to calmly explain that public service workers have jobs to attend to, and even if no one is asking them for help at the moment they may have a project to work on – and that it’s inappropriate behavior to socialize with them for an extended length of time (be specific – e.g., no more than a minute or two is acceptable). Explain that others who need help may avoid the service area if they see someone else there talking to the library staff member.

You may disagree with my suggested strategy for any number of reasons, one of them being that trying to have a rational conversation with some difficult patrons just isn’t an option. No matter how patient and understanding you try to be it just fails to get them to change their behavior. That’s when more stringent measures are needed, such as referring the patron to the library user’s code of conduct and indicating that failure to comply could result in being banned from the library. Another challenge might be that the library organization lacks strong leaders who are willing to tackle these challenges in a transparent and open way, and who are content to let the Rescue Plan do their job for them. Despite some of the challenges it presents I think my approach, in the long run, is more likely to solve the problem by meeting it head on.

Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve primarily worked on the front line, and I know how challenging it can be to work with the public, especially when in difficult budget situations we may have fewer staff, more hours on the service desk and a greater amount of stress. Used sparingly, I can understand the attractiveness of the Rescue Plan. Used excessively I can see potentially troubling cascading consequences. But as I listened to the conversation about the Rescue Plan I couldn’t help but feel that deceptive measures are best avoided. They may work a few times, but will likely fail to resolve the original problem in the long run.

What do you think? Is the Rescue Plan a legitimate strategy for dealing with difficult situations, or are we better off to confront the difficult individual (or group) directly? Can you share an entirely different strategy that has worked for you and your colleagues in these situations?