The Hardest Part of Being a Librarian

As the spring semester heads to a close, the amount of traffic at the library reference desk is picking up significantly. Students are needing last-minute help with papers and projects, trying to remember what their professors expect, and figuring out how they are going to complete everything by the due dates. Usually, students are lovely people to work with. Usually I really enjoy helping them, and usually I think they find my assistance very valuable.

Occasionally, though, I am reminded what the hardest part of being a librarian is for me. It’s not working with technology, it’s not having to constantly think on my feet, and it’s not the myriad other job duties: it’s working with difficult patrons. By “difficult,” I mean people who come to the library with chips on their shoulders, who are stressed because they are failing a class or have not gotten enough sleep, or who simply enjoy being in a power position and abusing whoever is sitting at the service desk. It is easy to blame superficial reasons for why people behave this way –- it’s the Millennials, the google mentality, etc. etc. — but I am sure there are studies linking stress and aggression and rudeness. The trick for the librarian is not to take it personally and not to redirect it at others.

I would not have become a librarian if I did not enjoy public services, but it is easy to forget how challenging it can be on the front lines every day. Librarians tend to be an introspective bunch, and the ability to remain calm and patient in every single situation is HARD, particularly if someone is deliberately trying to offend or antagonize you.

My point in writing this is not to complain about patrons but to give myself and all of us out there staffing service desks a little pep talk as the spring deluge hits the library. These are things I find helpful to remember:

1) No matter how rude or disrespectful a patron gets, there are always alternatives to losing your cool. If you feel yourself getting angry, take a step back, take a deep breath, and disengage yourself from the situation. Then figure out how to respond professionally.

2) Diffuse. Assist. Try and ignore tone. Focus on the problem that relates to the library, and do not feel responsible for the patron’s other problems. Be sympathetic, but do not join the student in badmouthing an assignment or instructor. Lead them in the direction of taking responsibility for themselves.

3) Go for a walk whenever you get a break. Listen to the birds. Listen to some music. Stare at something pretty. Whatever works.

4) If all else fails, call security. The presence of security personnel usually sobers people up. More importantly, keep in mind that you are not just one individual in a given situation — there are other people to back you up and support you.

Good luck, everybody!

5 Things I Didn’t Realize I’d Be Working on…

… When I Decided to Become a Librarian
(The alternate title for this was: Thank Goodness I Went to Syracuse’s iSchool)

For some time now there has been talk of how the roles of librarians are changing, and recently I find myself working on a variety of projects that I imagine are a bit removed from what librarians of yore might have been up to. Perhaps the fact that I find these projects 100 percent relevant to the academic library where I work, and am happy to take them on in my capacity as a reference and instruction librarian, further reflects the changes in the profession. So I thought I’d share some of those projects and see if anybody’s with me:

1. Authentication
Students log into programs (i.e. for course management, registration, email, etc.) run by their school, and then they need a separate authentication to access library resources? This actively discourages them from using the library. A single login is a usability priority. Once users are authenticated as enrolled, active students, they should be able to access all of the services the college provides to them — including all of the library resources and services.

2. Mobile Platforms
A few weeks ago I had my first patron complain about how she couldn’t connect to library databases with her Blackberry. (Our authentication system doesn’t allow it. See #1.) So now I am learning about mobile platforms. Luckily there are lots of librarians already working on this.

3. Course Management Systems
Online students may never come to the physical library building, but they can still benefit from the library’s array of online resources. Putting these online resources seamlessly into their classrooms is the next step. Students no longer have to go to the library for the materials needed for their classes — the library can come to them. We can put reserve materials, information literacy activities, catalog and database search boxes, etc. DIRECTLY into their class spaces. This is why instructional design is so important to me right now.

4. Unofficial Student Technical Support
Daily, I find myself solving common technical problems of students that are not just limited to printing and word processing. Even if I am not officially tech support, I am an adult sitting at a desk in a public space surrounded by computers, so guess what? I am going to answer a variety of computer questions. I know some librarians resent this, and I am never happy when a technical problem interrupts a research question, but most technical problems are things I have encountered myself and can solve quickly, or are ultimately relevant to my own computer use.

5. Making and Editing Videos
If we do not get to work with our students in person, we need to provide online help. And ultimately how would be best to do this? With fun and exciting video tutorials, naturally! Maybe I should have gone to film school after all. There is a lot of relatively inexpensive software available now to make and edit your own videos for the purpose of training. It is true that these can take a lot of time and thought, but when done well they can be extremely effective, provide help 24/7, and replace the need for repeated explanations of simple instructions from librarians.

I am sure there are plenty of other examples, but these are what I have for now. Please feel free to chime in!

Adventures in Wonderland

Here’s an interesting blog post that was recently brought to my attention.  Olivia (my fellow first-year-blogger) and I were going to both make comments, because there’s lots of great stuff here that is useful both for long-time librarians and newbies like us.  Unfortunately Olivia had to bow out of this joint project, though she did provide many of the links. (Thanks, Olivia!!) And she’s promised another great post soon, so I’m looking forward to that as well.

So let’s head down the rabbit hole…

First off, here’s John Dupuis’s post at Confessions of a Science Librarian.

So he’s got 29 reports listed in the link above.  And to make it easy here are all the links to posts by our own bloggers about the same reports

1. The question they forgot to ask
2. Sudden thoughts
3. Is this new OCLC report worth it?
4. Takes more than blogs
4. Some thoughts on privacy
6. Renting keys to walled gardens
16. Real faculty in our minds alone
20. Digital scholarship reconsidered
22. Three new things
22. The more we know
22. Learning from the work
23. Waste of time
26. Digital scholarship beyond the sciences
28. Transformational times
29. Academic research a painful process

 It’s amazing to me the wealth of information available about the future of our profession.  For example: I was considering starting a library blog.  It wouldn’t be anything fancy, just a way to let students know what’s new and interesting, and maybe provide a review or two.  But in November I read the post StephenB made about the report Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World. (#4, above)  It made me rethink *why* I wanted to start a library blog, and *what* I thought it would do. 

 

Last semester, our first semester in operation at this branch campus, I taught a lot of “intro to the library” drop-in sessions.  This semester I’m doing other things, most notably with the English and History classes, about library research.  And I proceeded to promptly hit the wall called IAKT (“I Already Know This”).  Since then I’ve read the 2008 ECAR Study, another offering by StevenB, (#23, above) and know I’m not alone!  Now I’m working on a plan to get the faculty more involved, and researching best teaching practices on the ILI-L listserv.  I might have just kept doing the “same-old, same-old” and not making any headway at all had I not seen this post and the link to this study.

So I’ve bookmarked John Dupuis’s blog post, and I plan to slowly but surely read my way through these reports and follow all the interesting rabbit trails.  Which only goes to confirm my nerdiness because I am definitely looking forward to it!

The Book of Dead Philosophers

I will continue with my silly-yet-very-librarianish method of naming my posts after books, just because I can.  Since my husband (a philosophy professor) enticed me with this book title the other day, it seemed very appropriate to use it for the post I was planning to write.  So, I ask, are books dead?  That seems to be a big question here on our campuses lately.  We’re under a huge budget proration right now, and of course the library got hit very hard (I can’t order pencils, much less books, these days!)  Somehow the administration doesn’t quite recognize [understand? acknowledge?] that libraries are not static collections.  We need to continually add books to our collection which will support our programs, as well as weed those titles that may be significantly out of date.  (Yes, this library has only been open since last August, but the bulk of my monograph collection came from another branch and contains many old, dusty, nearly useless books.)  So I desperately need to order new nursing titles, recent books on history and literature, and some fun-interesting-useful books for general consumption.  Alas, that may not happen this year, nor next year if the budget doomsayers prove correct.

 

I’m not completely without resources, though.  I have some generous donors who have given several boxes of general fiction, which I accepted happily and joyfully.  Even though Dean Koontz and Nora Roberts may not fit our academic programs, they play an important role here.  So many of our students need remedial work in reading and composition, and what better way to help them than by providing fun books to read and enjoy?  I find that students new to the library look surprised when they see Douglas Sparks, Tolkien, and Robin Cook face out on a display table, right next to resume and interview guides.  I’ve even had one or two ask, “Wow – do people still read?”  I encourage all my students to try a book or two.  Some take me up on it, and some don’t.  But those that do often come back for more, and that is a highlight of my day.

 

So I ask again… are books dead?   And if not, how can we get more books into the hands of folks who need to read?  And an even better question, how do we get the word out to the college administration and corporate bean-counters that library budgets actually do serve a purpose?

Life with Technology

Whether we enjoy it or not, all of us academic librarians work with technology every day — assisting patrons, providing new services, and completing the myriad tech chores that are part of working in libraryland. I’ve starting noticing some technology patterns at my workplace and have summarized them below. Please share other insights and examples.

#1 Technology functions best when it doesn’t feel like a lumbering intermediary between you and a task to be accomplished. Technology is the means of doing something, not the ends. Often when technology really works, it is due to the design. You can have the smartest underlying program in the world and it won’t matter if the user interface is terrible.

Twitter, the Flip camcorder, and google search are examples of technologies that are so intuitively easy to use that you barely feel their presence. For some people it’s a Blackberry, kindle, or ipod. A certain operating system comes to mind when I try and think of examples of technologies that seem to interfere rather than assist, but I won’t name names.

#2 There is a sweet spot of technology-related frustration people will endure before they give up. If a technology seems complicated, if it doesn’t work, fails too often, creates messes etc., people won’t believe in it, and so they won’t buy into it or start depending on it in their everyday lives.

Accessing the library online for course readings can be a real headache, for example, which is why I’m so intent on putting the library in the online classroom more seamlessly, and why I’m taking a class on instructional design right now. As I take this class, I’m noticing that if I can get away with not doing a reading because it involves an aggravating process of tracking down the full text, my impulse is to abandon it rather than raise my blood pressure.

Of course, the amount of frustration a person is willing to endure depends on the individual. There are some people who will stick with a technology just because they’re in love with a gadget or want to look cool. And then there are people who will give up with the slightest provocation, claiming they’re too old, don’t have time, are not good with computers, etc.

The other day I helped a student who was trying to print a document due for a class. It turned out that the network cable was broken on the machine she was using. She did not have a way to save the document. The first floppy disk we tried failed, at which point she stormed out of the library. I tried to catch her when the second floppy worked, but she was gone.

#3 People will persist with a technology even when it’s not working if forced, or if the fact that it’s superior is considered common knowledge. They will also persist if the technology allows them to accomplish the task faster: Speed trumps everything.

I’ve also helped students who have been wrangling with their online course management system for hours. Heck, typing a paper on a computer, printing it, and turning it in is an ordeal for many of the students I see, but they persist because they are required to for their classes.

Another example of this is cell phones: for all their patchy service & fees, nothing beats the convenience of having a phone (and that’s a low-end application of a cell phone) on you at all times.

#4 If you’ve wondered whether there’s a technology out there like the one you’re imagining, there probably is.

If I can think of an application I want, google is often two steps ahead of me. This is both comforting and a little scary. If not google, some smart tech-savvy person generally knows of a solution. At least, I never feel I am alone in my wrangling with technology — Thank goodness for online communities.

This is just a basic round-up of my thinking. Further thoughts are very welcome!