Letting Alumni Know About The Academic Library

One thing most of our academic institutions have in common is the familiar alumni magazine. At smaller institutions it might just be a quarterly newsletter. Alumni communications are a primary vehicle colleges and university use to stay connected to their graduates. It’s perceived as an effective way to keep alumni aware of campus events and, of course, to lay the groundwork for donations. And as alumni we all receive them. I even get monthly alumni messages delivered to my e-mail inbox. One thing I can say as the recipient of three alumni magazines that come directly to me, and two others from the universities from which my sons graduated, is that the content of these publications is incredibly varied. Sometimes you run across an article that really captures your attention.

But even I was surprised to learn that the most recent issue of Duke Magazine, the alumni publication of Duke University, has a high profile article on reference librarianship. I can’t help wondering how many alumni are going to actually read it. But it’s a great article with lots of quotes and input from the academic librarians at Duke’s Perkins Library. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the piece begins with a mention of the 2006 Columbia University Library Reference Symposium on the future of the reference desk in which I debated Sarah Watstein of UCLA. The author, Jacob Dagger, also quotes liberally from my 2007 “Pencils Never Crash” column [in The Reference Librarian] on this same subject that I titled “Technology Killed the Reference Desk Librarian“.

Dagger’s article, “Brave New World“, subtitled “Reference Librarians in the Age of Google”, gives those unfamiliar with the current library landscape a highly readable and provocative overview of the challenges academic librarians face when so much electronic information is readily available. He writes:

That the world of library reference is quickly morphing has long been clear. And the debate about librarians’ role is one that resonates among the field’s practitioners every day. It is discussed at conferences, written about in library journals, and batted about by an active community of bloggers. The uncertainty about the future may be unsettling to some, but the potential for technology to change the library world is also clearly invigorating to most in the field. “Any librarian who was afraid of technological change would have left the profession twenty years ago,” says Phoebe Acheson, until recently a senior library assistant on the Perkins Library’s reference staff. “It’s not an age or generational thing. It’s a mindset.” The mission of reference librarians is simple to state, complex to fulfill: Keep the library’s reference materials well-stocked and organized, and help patrons navigate those resources.

We are constantly hearing that as a profession we need to do more to change the stereotype of academic librarians from one of anachronistic old fogies who sit behind desks reading books all day, out-of-touch people shushers or due date book stampers to an image that truly reflects our work, our highly-developed technology and humanistic skill sets and how we make a difference in the lives of our students and faculty. Dagger’s article is a step in that direction. I would urge our ACRL leaders to encourage other college and university magazines to take a closer look and consider reprinting it or developing similar articles for their own institutions. We all know that when many alumni need research assistance they turn to their friendly, old academic library. We need to inform many more alumni that they are a vital part of our user community and that the Internet hasn’t made us obsolete. We are here to help them.

Many thanks to Judith Seiss, of One-Person Librarianship fame, for bringing Dagger’s article to my attention.