Sunday, July 1, 2007

inpirational librarianship?

I imagine someone, somewhere, and soon, is going to write about how library services could be pushed to the iPhone crowd. After all, it didn't take long for UIUC to respond to Brian Mathew's call for a Facebook Library Search feature (and then in the subsequent weeks, UM added one as well). It took a little longer, but there are some really awesome Firefox plug-ins for library work -- my favorite being LibX.

But, as always, will people use these tools? These tools still require users to have some sort of knowledge of what information is in a library, what a library is for, and what librarians do. Consider this: does the typical college freshman actually know what a librarian does? Does a typical college senior? Or are our range of skills, in their minds, limited to shelving and meticulously organizing books?

We can make tools that exploit the resources of libraries and we can put ourselves out where users are, but unless they know what we do and why they should need to consult libraries in the first place, is anyone, besides us librarians, going to get truly excited about these new tools we make?

EDIT: Innovation in using new technology and new communication methods is awesome. Many (maybe most) students know how to use these tools already: IM, social networking sites, cell phone messaging... what I'm trying to ask here really is this -- do students know why to use these services, or when? If they get crappy results searching Google and Wikipedia for information, do they think "I'll go ask a librarian"? If they don't do that, I'm not sure they'll think "I'll go ask a librarian on Facebook", or "I'll text my librarian." When they see signs or flyers for our IM service and we say, "You can add us as a buddy", to me, it's not a question if they can or not -- it's if they understand what good can come of doing that.

Face to face, earnest interaction is one way of communicating our purpose -- I'm sure there are ways to do it through technology as well, but how? Maybe the answer is as simple as a flyer that shouts, "THIS IS WHAT A LIBRARIAN CAN DO FOR YOU" -- online, does this take the form of a Facebook advertisement flyer?

I don't question the effectiveness of digital reference and the new tools' usability. I question the ways (or ways we don't) communicate the purpose of our tools and of ourselves. I'm not challenging any current efforts at all -- I want these new tools to be used, and this post is more about finding ways to motivate a library-student connection.

Hmm. So, I'm still sold that this kind of outreach effort is best done face-to-face. It's gotten me thinking about the ways we try to do this now: we take part in student orientations, we do bibliographic instruction sessions, we post fliers around the library and around campus advertising reference services. But what do we actually do when we get a chance to communicate with our students in this way?

I think the answer that would best serve our users is a simple one that many of us may not think about: be sincere. I think back to may days teaching high school sophomores labeled "at-risk". I had a lot of success working with these kids. I never had the same behavior problems these students' other teachers had with them. I don't think it was because I had excellent classroom management skills... I didn't. I was new, and played it by ear, mostly.

I think it was that I was sincere. And I made this 100% clear to students on day 1 of my classes. Instead of laying out classroom rules or coving the scope of what I was going to teach them, I spent the first minutes of my class trying to convey my sincerity to the students:

"I am here to help you learn. It's my firm belief that you can succeed -- I'm not here to give you grades, tell you that you're stupid -- I'm here to figure out where you're at right now, and take you to a new place. I am trying my hardest, and I expect the same from you. I don't want you to give up. I want you to tell me when your brain gets tired, and I want you to tell me when I'm not making any sense. If you're not learning, I am not teaching you well enough. If you're not getting it, stop me, and tell me I'm not teaching it right. Every single one of you can learn -- everyone can learn -- even the hardest stuff. It's my responsibility to teach you well, and I want to know when I'm not doing that."

I did take a risk with these kids. I made myself vulnerable, letting them know that if they weren't getting it, and they were trying, then there's something wrong with the way I'm teaching it, not with they way their brain learned.

During my time with these students, they did tell me when they weren't getting it. They did tell me I wasn't teaching them right, and I did change teaching strategies, I did find other ways to teach certain topics when they gave me that feedback. And I did find a way to teach them, and they did learn.

How can we do the same kind of thing in librarianship? When we have a captive audience in a course-integrated instruction session, or when we have a group of freshman at an orientation session, how will we spend our time communicating our sincerity? How do we communicate what we do, and our genuine offer to help throughout their academic careers?

I don't think it's hard. It has a lot to do with having a public service mentality and a sincere desire to help. I don't think you can fake it. Luz Mangurian, at ACRL a few months ago, talked about the neurobiology behind a smile: you use a different part of your brain to genuinely smile than you do to fake smile (e.g. for a picture, or for your boss, ha!). The causes you to use different muscles to smile, and people can tell when you're not smiling genuinely.

I don't think you can fake sincerity either, unless you're a trained actor. You won't be able to communicate a librarian's purpose if you don't buy into it yourself.

So, when you do get that audience with students, spend some time talking about your job, what you want to do, and what students should expect from you. Be sincere. Be genuine. Be passionate to the point of tearing up. I get this way a lot, because I start to tear up when I am having a hard time saying what I want to say exactly how I want it said. I start to tear up when the words themselves can't possibly communicate the emotion behind them.

That's what happens to me in the classroom. That's what happens to be when I talk about librarianship with students.

Spend a few minutes at the beginning of a session talking about librarianship, and why you love librarianship. Be honest -- my introduction would go something like this:

"I'm Eric, your librarian. I'm here to talk about finding articles for your upcoming assignment, but I'd like to talk briefly about what I can do for you besides that. Sure, I can help you find articles -- you could probably find enough articles plugging in some keywords into Google Scholar. But the reason I became a librarian was because I wanted to help people like you do more, and just as easily. I want to help you do more than just find 6 articles -- I want to be able to help you make sense of the things you find. I want to help you deal with those times that you can't find enough, or the things you're finding aren't 'just right'. After this class, because I can't talk with each of you individually about your topics in this introductory session, I invite you to get in touch with me via e-mail, Facebook, phone, in person -- whatever -- about your topic. We can talk about your topic, take a look at what kind of articles are out there, and if we don't find the exact things you're looking for, we can talk about where to go from there. I can help you narrow or expand your topic based on what's available. I can help you find those gems that Google Scholar won't dig up -- those articles that make writing your papers much easier. I can also help you take a look at the results you get and like, and discuss with you how to piece those articles together. That's what a librarian does -- that's what I do -- and I really want your papers to rock -- if we sit down together and you leave still confused about what you're going to write and which articles you're going to use, that I haven't done my job properly. Part of this involves your brain too -- I can't tell what you're thinking and where you want to go with this paper if you don't talk with me about your ideas, your thoughts. So if we do get together -- let's work together at knocking out an awesome paper."

It takes a few minutes. You will have disinterested, disengaged students, but deep down, even those students that are just trying to get by will be intrigued at the thought of producing something they can be proud of.

Librarianship -- and any other educational position -- requires us to be a little inspirational. I'm not afraid of that. Are you?


brian said...

I get som many people that call, email, IM, or come in looking for stuff and they've "never" thought of using library databases. I think if you can spread out access in many points it's a good thing. It might not be the most efficent way or the nice model that you seem to be searching for but sure-- why not script something for the iPhone if it's a easy build.

rich said...

a few months ago i was invited by our teen librarians to come and talk with our teen advisory group. i basically gave them an idea of what i do and why i became a librarian. it felt like what you're describing...being sincere and open. i should do this before my tech classes. the problem is that the opportunities to do this kind of thing are rare. btw, did you see the hollywood librarian? what did you think?

rich said...

btw, i used this quote during my talk with the teen advisory group.

JB said...

I am unclear about two of the things that you say at the beginning of this post. First, are you saying that we should forgo the use of the tools that you mention? If so, I don’t see why. Sure, a face-to-face connection is important, but ultimately being there in person can only be done on your time. Using these tools you can demonstrate to students that you’re there even when you’re not “there.”

Second, do you really think that the use of these tools requires that students have an intimate knowledge of what goes on in a library? I don’t think so. Students can figure out Facebook without understanding what goes on in a library. Students can IM without my help. If they want to use these tools to contact a librarian for help, all they need to know is that they can use them to initiate that contact. What is the harm in that, really?

The above two points aside, the inspirational stuff is good. Students have an easier time responding to someone who wants to help them, especially if that person doesn’t also have to determine the relative worth of the work that they did--i.e., he or she isn’t responsible for grading their work. That said, I wonder how much “age” matters. You seem to be a relatively young guy. Thus, you and your students probably relate to each other easily. That may change in the future. Perhaps sincerity and a willingness to help won’t be enough later on.

Eric Frierson said...

i think readers here are right: i wasn't clear about how i think these other, virtual tools fit in with face to face. These other tools are great, for the reasons jb mentions, as well as others. Let me clarify some of the more confusing bits in my original post -- I'll do so my updating the post itself with EDIT markings. Largely, I agree with both Brian and JB -- I see now that what I wrote does make it sound I'm against innovation in technology and Internet-based services. I'm not -- not at all! I promise. :) What I really wanted to do with this post was share how I end up connecting with students I work with. I think I did that well enough, but I didn't do a very good job talking about how it fits into a fuller suite of service.

Right on. Thanks for the posts. It may become more difficult connecting with students when I get older -- but I'm sure it won't be impossible. Passion, enthusiasm, being interested in the success of students -- that will still translate -- but being incredibly useful is also important.