I need help with research help

Let me tell you a story about a group of third-year marketing students who came in a few weeks ago, looking for help finding consumer attitudes and market information pertaining to smart phones and wireless chargers (yes, wireless chargers, specifically this one). I was able to help the students find some pretty great resources, created and sent an e-mail with a few links, and sent them happily down the path of successful research.

However shortly after they left my office, I stumbled on some Internet-based gems that I thought might further help their research. I got an e-mail back with a huge thank you and a smilie. And then, just last week I was scouring the Ipsos website and saw that Ipsos had done a big study about how much people want to be able to charge their handhelds without the nusance of cords. I zipped that link off to the students, and once again got back a big thank you and the line, “Thank you so much for your great work! I can’t even explain how much we appreciate it.”

Of course I am not sharing this story on the Internet because I want to show off my lie-berry skillz (*ahem* but did you read the part where the student could not even EXPLAIN their gratitude? It’s just in the previous paragraph, in case you missed it). What this delightful, ego-boosting exchange makes me think about is the average academic librarians ability to manage students’ research needs comprehensively, and throughout their time at school. This was an example of where I did good… there are several more exchanges where I probably just really sucked at being a librarian, and basically screwed the student over in the process. How can I ensure that every exchange is like the one above? Is there a process by which we can continue to work with students even after they’ve left the reference desk?

I’ve toyed with the idea of having something simple and old school like a reference interview form, or simply with some sort of comprehensive documentation of students’ research needs in case I need to follow up with them post-reference session. Of course, where I might find the time to review the library’s 10,000 journals, newspapers, government news releases, industry reports, etc. is another question.

But what about something more comprehensive than just me, in my office, with some reference best-practices rattling around in my head? A hip trend going on in library land is the concept of a “Personal Librarian,” first implemented at Yale University. Here’s how it is described to students:

Your PL serves as a single point of contact for the Library – a resource person for all of your research needs. He or she will contact you occasionally throughout the year to let you know about new databases and tools, upcoming tours of collections, or research methods strategies. You are also encouraged to contact your PL with any questions you have about your research or the Library. How often you choose to avail yourself of your PL is entirely up to you.

It sounds like a great initiative, and one which will more closely align the library with the needs of undergraduate students (something I think is sometimes a hard sell; I mean, for faculty and grad students, I get it — I see how we’re of value to them. But undergrads are such a wily, other-worldly group of users, and it is hard to hold their attention for more than a nano-second). This type of outreach might allow librarians to forge long-term relationships with students so that they become better attune to the students research needs over time. It also focuses the role of the library for undergraduate students, right from the get-go, and gets at what I think is the best marketing tool for libraries ever: personal relationships. And it would cure my fear of crappy reference services, since I could get in touch with the student afterwards with any follow-up! There by patching up my shoddy on-the-spot performance. PHEW.

Of course, there are also some sound arguments to be made about the fact that:

a) We are not special librarians and therefore should not be doing the research for our students;

b) We should instead be focusing on teaching them the skillz to become their own researchers, so that they can monitor resources and utilize the library’s collection as much or as little as they see fit;

c) Of course — haha! — we’re talking about Yale here. Most universities do not have that number of librarians, or perhaps the time and resources to take on such an ambitious project. I had a line-up out my door for the better part of last week because of our “highly successful outreach” with the first-year management students. I am drowning in our success. Please, no more success…

I’m sure reference service delivery has been beater to death within the lie-berry literature, but I can see why — it’s such a huge part of our jobs, and so important to student success, but still so far from being reviewed and improved in a comprehensive, holistic way.

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6 responses to “I need help with research help

  1. Twice last week I chased after a student who left the reference desk when I realized I had an “even better!” resource for them to turn to, so I feel your pain.

    I’ve thought about informally surveying students after a meeting at the RefDesk about how well my help may have been. I’ve never gone far with it though. I find that most people who come for help walk away more pleased than they were at the start, even if I couldn’t help them much, because they were able to speak to a real person about their problem. i.e., my survey woulnd’t be helpful because everyone appreciates the time one person gives to them.

    What I have done, though, has been to keep my business cards at hand and to give them out freely at the desk. Sure, I can send people to a libguide that shows my contact info, but the business card is so much better. It’s a physical object they can hold on to. It becomes money in their pocket. I tell them to follow up with me with how well my advice has been after they’ve put it into action. If they come back happy, then I’m happy. If they are still struggling, then I’ll send them on to a subject specialist.

    This is my own form of relationship-building with the students. They begin to recognize me in the building, and they are learning what they can ask me for help on and what I can do and not do for them. Am I personal librarian to them? Maybe not in Yale’s sense of the term. But I am becoming an identifiable resource for some students, and the contact is helping me help them better, and more often.

    • It’s so very true… the business card is a great thing (and yes, much better than anything digital we can point them too… even Millenials need that tactile object). I think you’re a step ahead of me since you’re at least cognizant of the need for some assessment. Even something as simple as “Hey, send me an e-mail and let me know if this stuff we found ended up being useful for your work” can be a tremendous source of feedback for reference librarians.
      I’m going to try to remember this for the January rush… And thanks, as always, for the comment! 🙂

  2. Angela Hamilton

    I have been struggling with untangling the concept of personal librarian from that of liaison librarian. Perhaps it is my approach to being a liaison coupled with the nature of the students I am working with (nursing students really like the personal touch) but I strive to have that personal librarian relationship with students in my liaison areas. Of course out of the thousands of nursing and biology students I have probably successfully formed ongoing relationships with maybe a dozen of them. Anyway, I have been trying to figure out what the different between liaison and personal librarian is besides being tied to a subject area or a marketing tactic.

    • I think it’s okay if you’ve developed a personal relationship “with maybe a dozen of them”. We can’t possibly make lasting relationships with every student that hurries their way through a library or through a meeting. And we know that teaching faculty don’t become life-long friends with every one of their students, either.

      I feel that if I can help a couple students out in the course of the day, and if one or two of those students remember who I am, then I’ll have done well enough. When I hit the ball out of the park and affect scads of them for the better all at once, then I’ll definitely ask for my trophy, but on a daily basis I try to measure my success by the little victories. 🙂

  3. Leigh Cunningham

    I can relate to the “too successful” fear. What if each of those students does email me? I’d be in trouble. We run into some dependence issues where students want help from specific reference staff, even if it’s not a specialized question. While I am a liaison librarian, I don’t want to be helping every nursing student with every question.

    I do want to be recognized as an ‘expert’ and as a helpful resource, but I’d be afraid of the personal librarian becoming too much of a personal assistant.

  4. Yes, too much of a good thing is a bad thing… This applies to coffee, gummy bears, and research help requests. The point about us being liaison librarians is a good one… where does liaison end and personal librarian/assistant phenomenon begin? It’s like our job descriptions are telling us one thing, but our obvious time constraints are telling us something altogether different (Reference, of course being different from the collections/committees/professional development/meetings we are also supposed to be taking on).
    One thing is for sure… I am never taking on the nursing subject area. There are now two cases pointing to their unbelievable neediness. Sorry, nurses!