Have you ever noticed that some of the most prominent commentators telling us what libraries are like these days don’t actually work in libraries?
Okay, that’s my Andy Rooney moment for the day. Time to move on to the topic.
A recent trend in academic libraries is the “personal librarian.” Drexel University made national headlines recently by assigning each of their incoming students a “personal librarian.” It looks like Barnard is jumping on the bandwagon, too.
Reading the article about it in the Columbia newspaper provides us an interesting contrast between hope and reality. The librarians are obviously enthusiastic about this, or at least pretend to be. Take a look at some of the quotes, though.
The idea of a personal librarian appeals to Barnard first-year students, but few have utilized the program so far. Each of the seven personal librarians heard from only two or three of their assigned students.
The students are saying, “Oh, that’s nice,” but few are using the service. Is that good or bad? I guess it’s good, because the librarians get good publicity without having to do much extra work. Some students did contact their “personal librarian.”
The first-years who contacted their personal librarians said they were grateful to have someone to help them during the first few weeks of class but do not expect to reach out to them again anytime soon.
Again, good publicity without much work, which is a good thing. But it doesn’t bode well that even the students who used the service don’t expect to come back soon. Much of the article promotes the library while undercutting it at the same time.
[The library dean] said she plans on expanding the program by also assigning personal librarians to upperclassmen. But older students are overall not aware of the program and do not say they see a need for such assistance.
Again, the contrast. Expand the service to a group that apparently doesn’t need or want it. Is there a point at which free good publicity turns into the notoriety of desperation? When “build it and they will come” fails?
[The library dean] said that the success of the program ultimately depends in large part on the commitment of the students to the process, but that the librarians are prepared to work with them.
Appropriate words from the head of the library, but given the response from all the students, it makes one wonder how successful this program will be. Is the program especially successful anywhere? What little contact I have with college students makes me think befriending their “personal librarian” is highly unlikely.
I’m actually curious about this one. Not because I want my library to start up such a program. I think pestering people too much about the library is likely to backfire. If I’m wrong, I’d like at least some anecdotal evidence that these programs do anything more than advertising the library, and perhaps how desperate it is.
Advertising the library is good, but academic libraries have sort of a captive audience and a defined niche. If students don’t need them, they don’t need them, but there’s only so much useful outreach librarians can do.
That’s because student demand for library help tends to be inelastic (to borrow and slightly adapt a term from economics). Librarians can supply all they want, and make the opportunity costs for seeking help as low as possible, but the demand has nothing to do with the supply. It will remain constant, and if not is primarily related to assignments and classes, not librarians.
If students aren’t doing the sort of research that requires libraries, or are doing okay in their classes without librarian’s helping them, then everything is fine.
But I’d be interested to know if there are “personal librarian” programs that generate more than a tepid response from the students. My speculation is that academic librarians can personalize and promote all they want with no effect on the students.
However, I could be wrong. It happened once before. Maybe out there is a library that really has changed the dynamic by “personalizing” their services.