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Are Personal Librarians a Waste of Time?

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.

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Comments

  1. Jamal says:

    no, they are not a waste of time. it is a very good idea, but the question to be asked is :
    Can the Academic libraries afford it? can the librarians find time, strength, or patience to practice this idea?

  2. Ro-Jean says:

    It has been my experience that many students are not used to using a library before coming to college. If the system fails – it fails from the students having no previous experience. Therefore, the habit of reaching out for services isn’t established or seen as necessary — until that first paper is returned, of course. Our library is extremely user-friendly. I invite our librarian to all my entry-level classes to speak to library services and to specific paper needs.

  3. Anan E. Moose says:

    Does anyone know how Drexel’s “personal librarian” program works on the staffing side, like are the “PL’s” librarians already on staff, or are they unfortunate core class students forced into this charade as a way to learn something?

  4. Raynor says:

    I would’ve found this off-putting as an undergrad. Do I have to worry about my PL’s schedule? Office hours? Can’t I, y’know, just walk into the library and ask a question?

    Do the PLs have subject expertise? And if I change majors, do I also change PLs to reflect my changed major?

    Or is this just another case of librarians defining “customer service” as “we’ll force you to like us”?

  5. Skipbear says:

    What a load of happy horse crap! Sounds really nice to takes no effort Maybe you hear from a few last-minute term paper cases. Anyone who works in college libraries can tell you that most first-year college students need a personal social worker/life coach more than a personal librarian.

  6. The_Liebrarian says:

    The only successful instance I’ve ever encountered in a form of personalizing librarians was I believe Ferris State worked with faculty and are involved directly in the course via Blackboard. Students could post questions there and e-mail the librarian etc. Last I heard it was a successful program, but I don’t know if it continued, also I don’t know if it increased those students utilization of librarians after the course was over.

  7. Our library has personal librarians. Each time we issue a new library card, a librarian is called from the information desk to greet the new borrower and tell her about all the benefits of her card, about online databases and interlibrary loan requests, email, chat, and all the wonderful services we offer. When it’s my turn, I give a brief tour of the library and point out the stains on the seats and ask the new user to pony up $5 to join the pool: is it a urine stain or blood or someone’s spilled lunch? Who knows, but it will cost her a fin to find out. And then I hand her a copy of Arguing with Idiots, wish her well and go back to the desk and kill myself.

  8. ShortRound says:

    The university I went to library school at had a similar program for students in the School of Medicine and Public Health. The health sciences library is huge, so each librarian is a “liasion” to all students in a particular course (the librarians typically have several courses assigned to them). I think it is successful, but mostly with the smaller or more specific type courses like History of Medicine. The librarians with large classes like “anatomy” did’t really see any visits from their assigned students from what I gathered.

  9. DumbDown says:

    Here’s the money quote: “[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.”

    The library was always a place where a user gets what they put into it, so to speak. It’s a nice idea, but this “personal librarians” idea makes me feel like college students are getting so lazy that the point of higher education is rapidly eroding.

  10. Jon says:

    At my small library, we have found that simply providing good customer service to the students is the most important thing. That means providing fast, pertinent and friendly research assistance — with an emphasis on “fast.” I would disagree with the idea that student demand is entirely inelastic, because their perception of how strongly they might need the librarians’ assistance is colored by more than just how difficult their assignments are. More students will visit the library if the staff provides good service — even if every class syllabus were to stay unchanged from semester to semester. Personally, I think the idea of a personal librarian is a bit too “clingy” for our students’ tastes. They want us during those relatively infrequent points in their lives when they remember that they need our help, but the lion’s share of their thoughts stay with their classmates and their instructors. We provide a service to their entire class that is akin to how Chili’s serves its customers. Just because you get it in ten or fifteen minutes doesn’t mean it’s not good — but neither does it mean you need to hire the Chili’s employees as your resident personal chefs, on call 24/7. That just seems a bit overkill.

  11. Eryn says:

    Oh librarians…. we are so predictable. Everything with which we don’t have personal experience is a waste of time, and everything in our current job description is necessary and sacred. Give something more than 5 minutes to see if it works.

  12. KidLib says:

    I think it’s one of those “meh” ideas–nothing wrong with it, nothing right with it. Maybe some college kids would feel better with someone who’s particularly there for them–a known name to go with–and others would be more comfortable in an anonymous zone of asking any reference librarian to show them things. (I’m assuming this is largely a student orientation thing, rather than an all-through-college, this is the person who goes and gets your books for you and presents them with a little mint on the pillow sort of deal.)

    Shrug. Don’t see any particular purpose to it, but hey, whatever floats their boats.

  13. Marion Librarian says:

    Depending on how many students a Personal Librarian gets… how about the Librarian contacting the student instead of the other way around. Perhaps it makes more sense to have a Librarian be a liaison to particular courses (ShortRound mentions above); then they can offer help specific to the coursework.

  14. Personal Librarians….it a great idea. I am optimistic when it comes to supporting the development of educating students to be information literate. By having this model, would issues of plagiarism and copyright infringement decrease? If students are already made to work in collaborative work assignments, what’s so bad about having a personal librarian to the mix? Personal Librarians would increase employment outlook for future MLS graduates? Several schools have also connected librarians to residence halls. During undergrad, I lived in a freshman hall and had a mentor to help me with academics and coping with the transition to college life. I would love to see some recent data from these schools that have used the librarian/residence hall setup to gauge the student retention rates.

  15. Here at Drexel we see the ‘personal librarian’ as just one piece of a broader program to orient new students to both the libraries and the research process. Many of our entering freshmen do not have experience using libraries or searching anything online beyond Google and Wikipedia. We think that having a variety of ways to reach out to students is essential – it is part of our mission. Not every student will respond to their ‘personal librarian’ and that is okay. We have other programs (such as instruction in the freshmen writing program, discipline specific instruction for freshman projects, reference service of all types, outreach to student organizations, etc.) that hopefully they will respond to. We are only seven weeks into our first run of the Personal Librarian program and the early results are good – the students that have responded to the communications from their personal librarian have been genuinely interested in the libraries and in becoming fluent in navigating collections and programs. Some have returned for assistance with specific assignments and projects. So far, so good!

  16. The Faux King of Bish says:

    @Variegated…they’re not hiring any new personnel at Drexel specifically for these posts. I think they’re “forcing” service out of the grad students down there and some of the other staffers low on the ladder.

    Care to correct me if I’m wrong, Beth?

  17. Techserving You says:

    I would also have found this off-putting as a student. I don’t think that the system fails because of students not having previous experience reaching out to librarians, as one commenter suggested. It fails because there is not a need, period. Yes, it’s great for students to get a general orientation to the library, and to know that there are reference librarians to whom they can reach out. But quite frankly the library is not that complicated once the student gets a general orientation. In fact, many libraries are now less complicated than they once were… for instance, it is much easier to figure out how to search in a database than to use paper indexes. Most students do not need an ongoing, forced connection to a librarian. There is no need for each student to be assigned a “personal librarian”. It does smack of both desperation, and underestimation of the students.

    I also don’t like the comment in the article which says that the success depends on the commitment of the students in the process… we had similar thinking in one of the libraries in which I worked, and I found it to be very backwards. Librarians come up with services for which there is no need, and then blame students for not being committed enough to the process. Then there’s a lot of hand-wringing over the state of the world today. They NEVER realize that the “lack of commitment” is an indication that their ideas are dumb and a waste of effort.

  18. Stephanie says:

    I’m guessing the existing liaisons to each subject area take that portion of new students?

  19. Stephanie says:

    At Drexel: I’m guessing the existing liaisons to each subject area take that portion of new students?

  20. John says:

    I’m a community college librarian, and I’ve encountered too many students who have little to no experience in a library. They don’t know what can be found in one or how to access its resources — or that one can ask a librarian for help. So they don’t ask and try to write a last-minute research paper with Wikipedia.

    If students have a sense that there’s someone that they can ask — someone who isn’t a complete stranger — then they’re more likely to start using the library.

  21. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    So glad we’re not doing this. I have more than enough work to do (reference desk, IL classes, committee work, writing, other duties as assigned, etc.) without having an assigned group of students.

    We are supposed to be teaching students, not hand-holding them. Their academic success should be on their shoulders alone. If they lack the guts/intelligence to ask for assistance or guidance? No one will be holding their hand throughout this life – they might as well get used to it and college is a mighty fine place to start.

  22. Philly-area librarian says:

    Despite the potential feel-good aspect (the librarian inferiority complex at work again) of the program, I sincerely doubt many of the undergraduates need the library either. Heck, I got my MLS at Drexel and managed to finish with a 4.0 without ever once needing to use the physical library.

  23. JackAttack says:

    Librarians are trained to be kind, supportive, and judgment free when it comes to our patrons. So why are we so quick to judge each other when someone tries something new? How about giving it a little more time, and not declaring it a failure when there’s less than 100% response rate? How about we use forums like these for collaboration and constructive feedback, rather than cutting each other down?

  24. Elena1980 says:

    What Jack says. Lesse how it works out, get a report then do mud-slinging or hand out the mea culpas later, kay?

  25. I Like Books says:

    I’m trying to think of which lower-division classes I’ve taken that required the library. There was that speech class, I mostly used the databases like JSTOR but I could do that on my own. Got some stuff from the public library, too. The textbook for a statistical physics class had references in the problem sets, which I went to for help with the homework, but I could do that on my own. Mostly, I think, it was pretty well covered by the assigned textbooks and classroom supplements. I’ve gotten supplementary textbooks for classes I’ve had trouble with, but I could figure out how to use the catalog.

    But when I DO go to the reference desk with a challenge that I can’t figure out for myself, I’m usually disappointed.

  26. tootall says:

    I think the concept of a personal librarian is great, and I believe Yale University had a program in place before Drexel. The problem lies in execution. How many academic librarians are actually good at marketing themselves or their services? If it’s an outreach service, the librarians are responsible for doing the legwork. It’s kind of like sitting at the reference desk and wondering why no one is coming up to ask for help. But, when you actually get up off your duff and walk around the library, lo and behold, people ask you questions. It’s called outreach, and it works if you know what you’re doing.