March 27, 2017

Authentic Librarianship and the Question of Service | Peer to Peer Review

As librarians, what should our service posture be?

I think there are two questions here, one shallow and one deep. The shallow one is: What kind of service can we offer? What levels and models of service are both helpful at the individual level and scalable to the populations we’re charged with serving? This question is urgently important and (for me, anyway) also kind of boring. It’s largely a systems-and-logistics question, one that is susceptible to logic and quantification, and it’s ultimately answered in terms of money: We solve it to the degree that we figure out what works, and then figure out how to increase the leverage of our limited resources to do as much of it as we can. And we know for certain that we’ll never solve it completely.

Here’s the deeper, less tractable, and (for me, anyway) much more interesting question: How should we think about patron service? If resources weren’t an issue and we were free to do whatever is right in whatever amounts we wished, how would we figure out what’s right?

If we really get down to first principles, then it quickly becomes clear that we librarians are trying to do much more than just connect people with the information products they want. Depending on the mission of the institution we work for, our ultimate goals may include some or all of the following:

  • To prepare people for lives of professional scholarship
  • To increase participation in a democratic society
  • To support research into solutions to social and scientific problems
  • To support the development of innovative products and life-saving treatments
  • To encourage and promote critical thinking
  • To increase awareness of and tolerance for difference and diversity
  • To broaden minds and enrich lives
  • To improve character and ennoble the “whole person”

Do goals like these make you a little bit goosebumpy? I hope so—they certainly do for me. The possibility of making a contribution along these lines is a big part of what makes showing up for work every day a joy for me.

But here’s what I think is really interesting: two people can completely agree on these ultimate goals, and yet bitterly disagree about what approach to patron service will best serve them.

Take the promotion of critical thinking, for example. One librarian will say “An indispensable part of learning critical thinking is the experience of wrestling with the tools of research. You can’t master a discipline without mastering its tools, and that means learning how to do hard research with tools that aren’t always easy to use.” A librarian who thinks this way might endorse a more minimalist approach to service: point the patron in the right direction, explain which research tools are the most effective ones, provide introductory training, and leave him alone to have at it. Don’t spoon-feed.

Another librarian might say “If my patron has two hours available for study, I want her to spend one hour and 55 minutes of that time actually reading and thinking about relevant documents. Critical thinking grows from struggling with texts, not from struggling with unhelpful and poorly-designed interfaces.” A librarian who thinks this way is likely to embrace a more expansive view of service, trying to make it as quick and easy as possible for the patron to get to the documents, perhaps even looking them up for her, printing them on the spot, and handing them over.

Either of these positions (along with infinite variations on them) is defensible on good-faith terms. However, I’ve become convinced that there are some among us who endorse one or the other of these positions from a position of bad faith. There are those—and I have watched them in action—who seem to have become librarians because being on the librarian side of the service desk puts them in a position of authority and power, and gives them the opportunity to correct and to condescend. My experience suggests that such librarians are few, which is very good because they’re a disgrace to our profession. There are also some who want to minimize the amount of time they spend interacting with patrons—especially students—and do whatever it takes to get rid of them, including just handing over articles rather than exploring what might be deeper needs. These are no credit to our profession either.

But the fact that each of these approaches can be undertaken from a position of bad faith doesn’t mean that either approach is necessarily wrong. It means only that we—all of us—need to be careful about examining our own motivations: it matters what we do, and it also matters why we do it. Is our focus on the patron and his or her needs, or are we serving our own pride or laziness or fear of irrelevance? To what degree is our service posture authentic, by which I mean informed by the deepest goals of our libraries and their sponsoring institutions? That’s a question each of us has to answer individually and ultimately in secret, because inauthentic librarianship may, in many cases, look from the outside an awful lot like authentic librarianship.

I’ll be returning to this theme in future columns, sometimes in the context of very specific questions of policy and practice. My hope is that these thoughts will generate lots of useful and beneficial discussion.

Rick Anderson About Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson ( is Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. He serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards and is a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog. He currently serves as president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, and a collection of his essays titled Libraries, Leadership, and Scholarly Communication was published this year by ALA Editions.

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  1. Although not a direct service goal I agree with Mohamed Chatti (Toward a Personal Learning Environment Framework, 2010) “that considering the complexity and constant change of knowledge, and the increasing need to bridge the worlds of lifelong, informal, personalized, and network learning” we need to encourage new approaches to learning.

  2. Lanie Breathwaite says:

    Librarians consistently talk about “service delivery” but I think that before ruminating on the HOW of service, librarians need to first scale the diversity mountain. What do I mean? I think that librarians, especially in academic institutions give an inordinate amount of attention to Caucasian students. The librarians are not so ‘in tune’ to providing equality of service to persons whose skin tones are deeper than beige or tan. Like Rick stated, I no longer believe that librarians are focusing on patrons and his or her needs. I’ve seen a lot of posturing and pretense among librarians who are chiefly concerned with their careers. Sadly, many of these types are women whose inroad into the academy would be blocked if it were not for academic librarianship.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      I should probably jump in here and correct something that Lanie says in this comment. Nowhere in my piece did I suggest that librarians, in general, are not focusing on patrons and their needs. I did say that I’ve seen some librarians who don’t focus enough on patrons, but I also pointed out that in my experience such librarians are an exception to the rule.

      All the librarians I know or have observed in action have extended the same level and quality of service to their patrons regardless of skin color. But I’m sure there are exceptions to that rule as well, and if Lanie’s experience has been different in her library, then there’s a serious problem there that needs to be brought to the administration’s attention.

    • I agree that Caucasian librarians have a tendancy to treat fellow Caucasians as equals and non-Caucasians as less intelligent/less worthy of attention. International students who come to a university may not have had the same library experience as those students who have come to the university locally. This is an problem in countries other than the USA. It is related to the a lack of awareness of cultural differences, but worse than that it is the inability of the librarians to see the individual and the individual’s needs, not necessarily as one-on-one but that if dealing with a group of students, each and every one will have had a slightly different library experience and ability to locate the best-fit information for their study. A mantra that I learnt late but has stood me in good stead is that “I may think that the students are all asking the same question, but for the student it is the first time they have asked it of me” Therefore it is up to me to not treat the nth identical question as being asked by an idiot, it is up to me to a) answer the question accurately and politely, and b) assess the library service to see if it is failing to provide certain information in a student friendly way.

  3. chuck hamaker says:

    Rick: Congrats on taking on this new task! “being on the librarian side of the service desk”. ? I think one on one in a private setting (the librarian’s office) may be more common. I suspect a one on one focuses the interaction in a way reacting from the other side of a service desk does not. Similarly leading a learning experience in a classroom setting is drastically different than reacting from the other side of a service desk. Both of those types of experience I suspect are becoming more the norm for outreach oriented librarians in academia and may account for more of their outreach activities, their actual contact, than service desk contacts. I believe, from my limited knowledge, different types of outreach are coming to dominate the “public service” academic librarian’s professional experience. In these experiences, the question of what service means is in the process of being re-defined by the profession. I’m calling this position “outreach” because I don’t really have a good name for what I understand of what these librarians are doing.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Thanks, Chuck!

      As for the service desk question: I think you’re absolutely correct that the experience and models of service are expanding greatly. One of the challenges we face (and I made only the briefest reference to this, and plan to follow it up in more depth later) is the problem of scalability. One-on-one in the librarian’s office is highly effective, but not scalable when you have, say, 40 librarians and 25,000 students. Classroom instruction, on the other hand, is much more scalable and can also be effective, but it’s nowhere near as effective for any individual patron as a one-on-one session. What I’m describing is a problem of resource allocation: with infinite funding, we could hire a librarian for every student. With finite (even meager, in many cases) funding, these tradeoffs become really hard. So that’s one of the things I plan to return to in future columns. Thanks for bringing up this important point.

  4. Mark Moore says:

    I was amused by the authority and power notion because the general perception of librarianship is rather limp and wimpy. On the other hand officiousness is a strategy available to most service workers.

    Correction and condescension can result from the problem Seth Godin identifies as information density. I’ve often gotten caught on the wrong side of the question of how much information the person needs. Some people want simple clarity, while others appreciate nuanced density. If I pick the inappropriate side of the equation, people can be offended.

  5. Ward Price says:

    The eight items in Rick’s list of ultimate goals sound nice, but should they be the goals of libraries? If anything, shouldn’t they be the goals of society, and all the institutions within society?

    On the other hand, those also sound like some pretty liberal goals to me. (I speak as an affirmed liberal.) I mean, “To increase awareness of and tolerance for difference and diversity,
    To broaden minds and enrich lives”, etc. Can you imagine the fun FOX News would have with that? perhaps it’s a good thing Rush doesn’t read LJ.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Well, that’s kind of why I used the phrase “ultimate goals,” and qualified the list by saying that for any individual library, our ultimate may goals “may include some or all” of them.

      That said, I’m not sure I agree that most of the goals I listed are particularly liberal. Sure, “tolerance for difference and diversity” does sound more lefty than righty, but critical thinking, ennoblement of the whole person, the pursuit of scientific and medical solutions and discoveries — these are all goals that I suspect most conservatives would approve of.