Around this time of year, a lot of academic librarians engage in various outreach activities to introduce themselves to new students. Within a week of classes starting, I met with the new philosophy majors and the new philosophy and religion grad students, plus a couple of unaffiliated groups of students and fellows who will have access to the library. The new religion majors will get to see my smiling face soon as well.
Based on past experience, I know I’ll be seeing some of these students again, many once or twice, and some large percentage never again. Reasons vary. Philosophy majors don’t do much library research. Graduate students in the humanities tend to rely on faculty or one another for guidance on sources. One study of them found that “participants do not rely heavily on librarians, although many pointed out the value of librarians and archivists in helping to locate hard-to-find materials.” And sure enough, a lot of my interactions with them involve tracking down elusive items or buying them. Religion majors often end up doing a lot of library research, so I will see a lot of them. When I start instruction for the freshman writing seminars, some percentage of those students will want an individual research consultation as well.
Driven by the demands for assessment, and presumably the need for statistics to prove our worth, there’s a tendency to link the importance and appreciation of the library to individual interactions with librarians. Students come to reference desks, chat us up, meet in our offices, each one counted, each one destined to be a tick mark on a spreadsheet somewhere proving how useful we are. That might be why librarians occasionally bemoan lower transaction statistics or the lack of students lined up at the reference desk. Fewer reference questions could mean the students need us less. For a lot of assessment, if it can’t be counted, it doesn’t count.
I disagree with that notion, though, and my disagreement is based on my personal experience with libraries while in college combined with what I now know goes on behind the scenes. I was a double major in English and philosophy, two disciplines that rely heavily on the analysis and interpretation of texts rather than deep library research. Nevertheless, I was a heavy library user. Rarely a week went by that I wasn’t scouring the stacks for more books on whatever topic captured my fancy at the moment. Sometimes I just read the books there, so I wasn’t even a circulation statistic.
If I was so heavy a library user, I probably interacted with the librarians a lot. That would be a plausible assumption, except it’s completely wrong. I went through college, earned sterling grades, learned a lot, heavily used the library, and never talked to any librarians. Based on my experience, it would seem that the librarians weren’t necessary. And yet, now, behind the scenes, I realize how much the librarians were working to make it look like I didn’t need them. I needed them even though I never thought about them, or rather, I would have needed them had they not been there already.
But they were there, all right. Somebody was buying the books and arranging them so I could find them. Possibly there were even research guides (it’s been a while). There certainly are robust ones now that make using the library without directly using the librarians even easier. Even in grad school in English, I didn’t need the librarians directly, but I did spend a lot of time with James Harner’s Literary Research Guide and Richard Altick’s The Art of Literary Research. Honestly, armed with those and the ability to search a library catalog, how much did I need to talk to the librarians? A lot of students only talk to librarians when they run into research problems, but I never ran into problems I couldn’t solve.
I fit into a not-uncommon pattern of students who want to learn and discover things by themselves, even if the discovery isn’t as efficient as it could have been. The efficiency can be important, and one of the motives I give students for listening to me is that I can help them do some easy things faster so they have more time for the harder things. Also, it could have been the case that had my university had a more developed information literacy program (or whatever it would have been called back then), I might have gained some direct benefits from librarians, but I gained numerous indirect benefits from them without even thinking about it. Not until I became a librarian myself did I realize all that the librarians were doing for me.
In the drive for assessment, we have to keep in mind all the things that can’t be quantified, because for a lot of students those unquantifiable interactions with the library might be the only ones they have and probably the most significant during the many hours they’ll spend in libraries not interacting with librarians. Maybe everything that’s counted counts, but not everything that counts can be counted.