April 15, 2014

Helicopter Librarian: Expect the Unexpected | Backtalk

I recently read an interesting article titled Make Room for Daddy…And Mommy: Helicopter Parents Are Here, which states, “Helicopter Parents hover over their children interceding as soon as the child faces an unpleasant situation or uncertainty. The parents are ‘over-involved’ in their child’s life.”

Although Helicopter Parents can be viewed negatively, not every characteristic is undesirable. Some Helicopter Parents return to land after they are sure their precious child is cruising at a safe and comfortable altitude. The latter, more moderate approach is ideal for Helicopter Librarians.

“Helicopter Librarians” can emulate the desirable traits of “Helicopter Parents.” Additionally, the term “Helicopter Librarian” sounds sufficiently lofty.

The main difference between great librarians and Helicopter Librarians is that the former are focused on providing excellent service whereas the Helicopter Librarians are committed to building radically great relationships that students are comfortable with, similar to their relationships with their Helicopter Parents.

There is no existing concept called “Helicopter Librarians” (trademark pending?) but the concept is a logical evolution based on the prevalence of Helicopter Parents. Current students have different expectations and are used to a greater level of support. This is an opportunity to transform the profession regardless of emerging technology trends or fiscal constraints. This Helicopter Librarians approach does not require intensive training; that is why I do not include any checklists to follow. I am not developing any metrics; and I am not advocating for data-driven anything! This is a holistic approach to a human interaction based on individuality and genuine compassion.

A study based on the 2007 National Survey of Student Engagement reports that, contrary to popular belief; children of Helicopter Parents excelled in deeper learning activities and reported higher levels of educational gains as well as greater satisfaction with their college experience. The prevailing perception of Helicopter Parents is that their over-involvement is detrimental to their child’s growth. However, such support appeared to be welcomed by most students and actually beneficial to their overall well-being. Thus the first positive attribute of Helicopter Parents is the fact that they are sincerely concerned with the success of their children. This genuine concern has to be shared by Helicopter Librarians.

So, without coddling patrons, Helicopter Librarians are can carry the first portion of the student’s load. When I introduce students to subject specialists, the students contact me with follow up questions for the specialist. This is not the shortest route, but I provide a level of comfort for students and eventually wean them off me empowered to confidently purse help alone.

I expect Helicopter Librarians to only hover until the student is prepared for take-off.

Building relationships with students is a crucial component of Helicopter Librarian instruction sessions. I make a strong first impression dressed either in a complete pirate costume or as a Wonder Woman avatar in Second Life. But even when I am not in disguise, students are extremely comfortable approaching me because they just sense that I am no ordinary librarian.

For example, I gave students that I mentored my cell phone number and told them that they can call me if need research help. They did, usually between 1 and 2 a.m. Their Helicopter Parents were either asleep or were unfamiliar with the specific research strategies they needed. Constant communication is a new change and is expected between students and their Helicopter Parents. Millennials have grown up with cell phones, and for them, this virtual umbilical cord enables their parents to hover effectively, from afar.

Helicopter Librarians who desire a more dramatic change will embrace new and unconventional methods for students to contact them. This is another reason there is no clear-cut checklist to follow. Some experiences we could not dream of as means for students to contact us. I built a relationship with students I met at the Reference Desk. They told me about favorite apps, such as Words With Friends (WWF). They eagerly signed up to play the games with me. Eventually, I left the University of Notre Dame and started working at Stanford University.

I had never used the chat feature on WWF until around 1 a.m. on a weeknight I got a notification. One former student sent me an emergency reference question via WWF chat! This was the only way to contact me because I logged off of my work email. This was an unforeseen, totally unconventional reference contact point; yet savvy information-assistance seeking on their part. This would not have been possible without an incredibly unique Helicopter Librarian relationship. They won’t teach you this in any library school! “Helicoptering Mission Accomplished!”

Helicopter Librarians can provide this type of service on a temporary basis, for limited hours, or for a select group targeted for increased library usage. Helicopter Parents perform incredible services for their children, but they do not extend themselves to everyone. This is a natural extension of Stanford University Library’s Concierge initiative, which aims to eliminate actions that result in our patrons having to run around.

In conclusion, Helicopter Librarians enjoy helping patrons navigate what they perceive to be a scary, overwhelming, or confusing maze of resources. Helicopter Librarians nurture the patron until they are comfortable continuing their research on their own. Helicopter Librarians create a genuine relationship similar to the one shared with their Helicopter Parents. Helicopter Librarians create an environment that reassures the patron that we care about their research success and information literacy ascension.

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Felicia A. Smith is an Information and Instructional Services Librarian at Stanford University.

 

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Comments

  1. Joseph Wilk says:

    While I believe cross-platform accessibility and building meaningful relationships with library users is important, I can’t imagine giving a library patron my personal cell number and/or answering reference questions at 1:00 AM. “Helicopter librarianship” seems like a way to skew the work/life balance into a very unhealthy direction.

  2. What Joseph said. I’ll be damned if I give a patron my phone number and they call me at 1 am. I have two children and my husband and I both work full time. If I’m going to do anything at that hour, it is taking care of my own family (but hopefully sleeping). Is this really where we want to go with students? Encouraging them to be disrespectful of others’ time to the point where they feel entitled to call a librarian in the middle of the night for homework help? And what does this say about the librarian who allows it?

  3. Uh, no. We are valuable professionals that do not need to mother patrons to be indispensable. I am all for excellent services and building relationships with our patrons, but we should be fostering independence of skills not dependence on a particular staff member. What happens when that staff member moves on?

    • As long as that departed staff member answers reference questions over Words With Friends at 2:00 in the morning, why would the students care if they left?

  4. I’m no helicopter, I’m not hovering nearby in case your search goes bad. I’m standing at the top of the hill having pushed you off and waiting to see it you ride the hill (of information) on your own 2 wheels or, if you come off and skin your knee. If you fall off, I’ll pick you up, patch you up, look you in the eyes and push you off again. Oh, and I’m not going to teach you to ride a bike every weekend. Once you learn I expect you to ride it yourself. You can then drop in from time to time for me to show you how to patch a tube, change a brake cable or replace a chain. I’ll show you how the first time, watch you do it the second and roll my eyes and sigh if you come back again for the same problem without having had a damned good try yourself first.

    I’m not sure what a ‘radically great relationship’ is but I suspect if you can have one with each and every one of your clients, your library is underutilised. While if you only have one with select clients your service is unbalanced and not equitable.

    • Service in the library is never balanced and equitable, at least if we are defining these along how much time a librarian spends with each patron. Most patrons do not spend much if any time with the librarians, and often by choice. Then there are those who seek out the librarians, and of course we spend more time on them. Is that not equitable? Not if you define “equitable” as availability to all patrons in accordance with their needs and desires. I would argue cultivating personal and long-standing relationships with certain patrons who desire those relationships is in no way not equitable, so long as we are not doing so at the expense of other patrons. That said, I think the “Helicopter Librarian” described in this article is taking a good impulse to an unhealthy extreme.

    • I guess I was thinking equitable in terms of having the same access to service. Not all students use the library and of those who do, not all ask for help (although I like to think I have an eye for a ‘lost’ patron wandering the stacks). However, all students should have an equitable level of access, so if a small number of students have access to an extra service (1am online reference help and, oh, have my personal mobile number) then I would have to ask, by what system are they selected? The library service is equitable in that it offers the same level of service to all (not that it provides the same service).
      So, when I was working for a college library where a large number of our students were studying remotely, we had to show (as part of our audit process) that those students had an equity of service as it related to their study. So, we were able to provide them with a level of service comparable (but in a different way) to the on-campus students. Now, I guess that didn’t mean they HAD to access those services (we were not audited on whether they took advantage of the services we made available for distance students, just on the availability).

  5. In my role as FYE Librarian, I have developed a process for extended Research Consultation services following Fall break and Spring break at the University of Notre Dame. This process has been very successful because at the beginning of their undergraduate experience,students are getting connected to our library system immediately. A large part of my success in this role is that I do make connections with parents and support systems of these students as a result. This experience has led to opportunities for faculty collaborations with programs and services that benefit our campus community in profound ways. Academic Libraries have a responsibility to develop innovative ways of providing services to our various patron populations in new and emerging ways. We no longer can afford to wait on our campus populations to come to us, but we have to go where they are. Thank you for your article Felicia.

  6. Amber Headlights says:

    So, you play “Helicopter Librarian” but what happens to those students after they graduate? It’s doubtful that they’ll have used the 1 am help as a learning lesson in library research. Rather, they’ll simply expect that if they have a question at 2 am that help should be immediately available. Compassion is all well and good but where is the compassion for what happens to the student after she graduates and is unable to work in her chosen profession because she never learned basic problem solving skills?

    Fostering relationships is good, but they ought not be codependent ones.

    • I will tell you what happens to them once they graduate and they get a good job in a big company, they come running to me asking for help! I am a corporate librarian and my best customers are students fresh out of school and professors now working in industry. Those that have built a relationship with a librarian in the past will continue that excitment for asking questions and finding the right answers because they are not afraid to ask the librarian for some advice. Search is not easy when you have a wealth of resources at your fingertips, so librarians help point you in the right direction. I think the librarians that don’t take on the role of a Helecopter librarian, will miss out on the oportunities that come through relationships. If you want to change the image of librarianship for the next generation, I would listen to this author. Libraries are not the same as they once were and we are only gonna keep changing as a society. If you don’t like it, retire and let someone new come help out the future students and customers of 2013!

  7. You’re jesting, right? “Jonathan Swift”-ing us? Why even ask? Of course, you are. Or you are speeding toward burnout. But no, no. Helicoptering. You’re being sarcastic. It can be difficult to convey subtlety in writing.

  8. Academic Librarian says:

    “…children of Helicopter Parents excelled in deeper learning activities and reported higher levels of educational gains as well as greater satisfaction with their college experience.”

    Well, of course they would. If I’d had every obstacle smoothed before my way at university I’d have reported the same thing.

    On the contrary – I spent my four years mildly disgruntled at all the things I had to figure out for myself. Chose my own courses according to my own interests, figured out how to register for them by reading instructions(!), bought my own books, signed up for a Library tour and research skills workshops myself, and even managed to get some plum campus jobs while I was at it. (No parents walking me into the HR department or trying to sit in on my interviews either).

    At the time I’d have rather been walked through all that by someone else – but I’m sure glad now that I didn’t. My parents had the courage to let me muddle through and solve my own problems and the institution treated its students like adults.

    Consequence? Now I can assess situations critically; figure out when I have an information gap and where to go to close that gap; and more often than not can spot the next problem on the horizon before it hits me.

    Fast forward to today: Walking back through the Learning Commons after lunch today I actually saw a girl calling her mother long distance because she couldn’t log into the CMS. Too bad there isn’t a help link on the login page or a chat reference widget or a service desk 5 feet away. Oh wait….

  9. To the Helicopter librarian and the student : grow up get a life and get on with it.

  10. Re this: “A study based on the 2007 National Survey of Student Engagement reports that, contrary to popular belief; children of Helicopter Parents excelled in deeper learning activities and reported higher levels of educational gains as well as greater satisfaction with their college experience.”

    Can you post a citation? I would be interested to see how they identified the children of helicopter parents.

  11. Jill Smith says:

    The 2007 study actually says:

    “Although students with involved parents reported higher levels of
    engagement, deep learning and greater educational gains, they had
    significantly lower grades. Perhaps the reason some parents intervened
    was to support a student who was having academic difficulties – thus
    the correlation with lower grades. Unfortunately, we cannot determine
    the extent parental interventions were related to academic or other
    matters. It may also be that support from their highly involved parents
    encourages their lower performing student to engage in educationally
    purposeful activities.”

    So these students themselves assessed their own “deep learning” and “educational gains” which were not borne out by their actual grades. Sounds like the Dunning-Kruger Effect to me.