Early in my career I was my library’s liaison to the Graduate College of Social Work. The commonly held sentiment among my colleagues was that I would have no trouble encouraging social work students to meet with me or ask for help outside of class. In fact, the trouble I might have would be in finding the time to meet with all them individually. There was an unspoken judgement that, I’ll admit ashamedly, I initially bought into. It was that these students, who were primarily women, were needy. They needed a lot of “hand-holding” and “reassurance” and I would have to “set appropriate boundaries,” to do my work well.
The more I worked with and got to know these students, the less inclined I was to buy into this characterization of them as somehow deficient, less-than, or needy. They were intelligent, motivated, and eager to do good work. Meeting with them was easily the best part of my day. I remember eventually discussing my feelings towards these wonderful students with a colleague who shared a great bit of insight: Maybe they, as individuals entering a helping profession, were more comfortable with help-seeking and more confident that the people who say they are there to help you are actually, well, happy to help you. It was the best explanation I could muster for these students’ behavior, and their openness and acceptance at the time. I was a 26-year-old new librarian. Many of these students were returning to graduate school to bolster or change careers. They trusted me when I said I was there to help them and I was so thankful that they did.
The Courage of Asking for Help
It’s a decade later and I’ve never been able to shake the early connection I felt to students in that program and social workers in general. I’ve recently joined a Relational-Cultural Theory reading group, inspired to focus on this branch of scholarship by conversations I had a few years ago with a social worker friend of mine. In our reading group (shoutouts to Alana Kumbier, Anastasia Chiu, Lalitha Nataraj, and Jo Gadsby), we’ve been focusing on The Complexity of Connection, which are a series of writings from the Stone Center’s Jean Baker Miller Training Institute that explore the concept of connection and relational activity as central to human growth and empowerment. In a chapter on Relational Resilience, which is not the kind of resilience that’s proven so problematic in libraries in recent years, Judith V. Jordan writes:
Asking for support directly…is…putting the person doing the asking most at risk–we feel most vulnerable when we let people directly know about our need.
…we live in a cultural milieu that does not respect help-seeking and that tends to scorn the vulnerability implicit in our inevitable need for support (p. 33-34).
Reading these lines was mind-blowing. It completely reframed the way I remembered those social work students operating in an academic setting and has made me rethink the ways in which I conceptualize help-seeking in students now. Those social work students, who had no qualms about sharing their research ideas, talking through their searching dilemmas, and asking for feedback on their understanding of an issue, were brave. They were making themselves vulnerable to judgement, but were willing to take that risk in an effort to forge a connection with me, and seek empowerment for themselves as students, scholars, and clinicians. They couldn’t have known that I would be supportive or that I wouldn’t judge them in silence (or in conversation). But they took that risk, and that took so much courage.
Those students were practicing what Jordan refers to as “mutual empathy,” the willingness to be open to growth through connection. Our meetings always started off with what I initially thought of as “just a talk.” They always, without fail, wanted to learn about me–my background, my day, my semester, my work–and it in turn really made me interested in them as people and students. I never realized how rare that was. To me, it was just a part of library-work, but really, I was learning from those social work students how to engage in mutual empathy and understanding. They were modelling a method of fostering connection and affirmation, and it’s a practice I continue to engage in to this day.
The Judgement in Our Questioning
We are the profession of “Ask Us,” and “Get Help Here.” We lament that reference statistics keep dropping and encourage/cajole/beg our students to come to us for help. We are anxious about library anxiety and work to actively create positive interactions with students/patrons who come to us. What I think we don’t do enough of is considering the courage and vulnerability it takes for students to come to us for help. The onus is on them to seek us out and to admit what they may see as their own shortcomings. And how do we respond? We do the reference interview, which is built on the assumption that people don’t completely understand their own (information)needs. We ask questions that seem to be value-neutral:
- when is this assignment due?
- when did you start?
- what have you done?
- where have you looked?
- what do you need?
- is that really what you need?
Yet I have seen far more students than not who, in the face of these questions, look guilty and ashamed. I’ve had students apologize in response to these questions. I’ve seen their bodies hunch over and their eyes look away. I’ve heard their voices get smaller or louder and defensive. I’ve listened to stories that explain their answers to these questions that broke my heart. I’ve had to actively work to combat the judgement inherent in those seemingly innocent questions. I’ve explicitly said, “there is no judgement in this space between us right now.” How can I, who am sitting on a pile of email that I’m too afraid to respond to, in good conscience be frustrated at any student who has decided to start researching at a time that is close to the project due date?
Jordan advocates for a model of connection that encourages “supported vulnerability.” We all need help and support to grow and be our best selves. As librarians, I think we need to stop advocating for two very different ideals that are in direct conflict with one another: the notion of the independent, information literate researcher/student and the researcher/student who feels supported in the vulnerability necessary to seek help. By holding up the independent individual as our ideal we are implicitly saying that the help-seeker is dependent, weaker, and not quite fully developed. There is no way to full-development in this model unless what you want is a researcher who is so afraid of appearing wrong or vulnerable that they just persist in their ignorance without bothering to learn from the people around them.
So what does that mean for our reference practice? One of my reading group buddies talked about a time when they had a 30 minute conversation with a student about their research. There was no “help” involved, no bestowing of knowledge from librarian to student, but it wasn’t really about that. It was about fostering a connection. Now the librarian knows what the student is working on and feels invested in them as a person and interested in their research. It’s the beginning of a foundation on which to build a relationship.
I don’t just want students to come to me when they have a problem or need help. I don’t want them to feel like they have to put themselves out there without me having to do the same. I want to get to know them as people and foster a connection that will help both of us grow and learn. I’ve seen students eager for even the slightest kernel of connection and relatability during a one-on-one. It’s both heartening to know they want this and depressing to think it’s so rare.
I don’t think this focus on connection and mutuality is a part of the model of research support and reference we currently adhere to collectively, as a profession, but I do think it’s one that we could easily shift towards. I know that I am writing about vulnerability from a position of privilege. I am tenured. I read as white to others (despite my best efforts to the contrary). I am a femme ciswoman. But I do think that there is a place for this kind of supported vulnerability in our profession if those of us with privilege could be courageous enough to support the vulnerability of our peers and characterize it as an asset and a strength, not a liability.