Over the last ten to twenty years, academic libraries have experimented with different reference services models (tiered service model, roving reference, etc.) and desk configurations (unified service point, separate desks, no desk at all). The goal has been to improve user experience while also using the librarian’s time more efficiently. But even when new ideas for services or physical spaces are implemented, some libraries still refer to these services and desks by an old name: “reference.”
We often talk about student-centered learning in our instruction, and we aim to design user-centered physical and virtual spaces. Which leads me to a key question: Is calling the reference service point a “reference desk” taking a user-centered approach? We have long been reminded that we should avoid using jargon when communicating with patrons, including on signage. I would argue that the term “reference” slips into jargon territory.
But what other word or phrase best communicates what we offer? Reference work has changed over the years, and we’re now spending very little time on basic questions and more time on helping users grapple with big ideas and concepts related to finding, using, and creating information. However, some users may not know that we can help them navigate the more complex stuff. The term “reference” doesn’t seem to communicate it very well, either.
Earlier this fall in Sports Illustrated, L. Jon Wertheim penned a brief profile on Serena Williams, who while in the midst of pursuing a Grand Slam still found time to consort with favorite son of this blog, Drake . Serena provides some unvarnished honesty in the profile. When asked if she feels indestructible when taking the court, Serena replied:
No, I don’t. You would be surprised by how I feel. I feel vulnerable every time I step out there. Every single time. It’s just a matter of overcoming those feelings and being the best I can be on that day.
This, to say the least, surprised me. In the ruthlessly competitive ecosystem of athletics, vulnerability isn’t a common thing to acknowledge or self-disclose. Typically, professional athletes are portrayed as reaching the zenith of their fields through unfailing confidence in their abilities. Michael Jordan didn’t win an NCAA championship at UNC or six NBA titles with the Bulls because he thought he might miss the game winning jumper, but rather because he knew he wouldn’t. But perhaps Serena has learned something during her staggeringly long run as a dominant player: in a sport as solitary as tennis, the only way to overcome insecurities is to face and embrace them. So in that vein, here’s an admission: while I like nothing more than helping students learn how to find, evaluate, and use evidence to support their personal and professional pursuits, teaching this process in a student-centered manner scares me.
There’s nothing scary to me about demonstrating how a piece of technology works, or lecturing on why peer-reviewed articles are what students should read and cite. In that style of teaching, my authority and control over the classroom remains more or less total, and throughout the process I get to present myself to my students as the “super confident, competent database searcher.” But, at my core, I’m an evidence-based practitioner, and the evidence suggested that student-centered teaching leads to improved student learning. Being an authoritarian lecturer at the front of the room may help with classroom management, but it doesn’t help students actually learn.
Finishing library school in 15 months and transitioning into a professional job two years after the 2008 collapse wasn’t easy. It took me nine months from graduating library school to starting my first job as a web services librarian at a small college in the South. It took me five months from starting my first job in the South, to leaving it for a vendor in New York. I left my job for the same reasons many people leave their job: Being closer to my family, and higher pay. Yet, part of me felt guilty.
I mean, I’m a librarian. I’m supposed to be an honorable public servant, someone who cringes at the very thought of working for a profitable, capitalist entity, right? At least, that’s the vibe I picked up from mutterings of jaded colleagues. Librarians embody freedom of information, for all… how could I go and work for (and condone) The Man—and the greed for power and money that comes along with it?
I’m quite pleased that my article on “Authenticity and Learning: Implications for Reference Librarianship and Information Literacy Instruction” was published today in College & Research Libraries.
Here’s the abstract:
This article articulates and defends a student-centered approach to reference and instructional librarianship defined by authentic engagement with students’ interests. A review of the history of the construct of authenticity in philosophy, humanistic and existential psychology, and contemporary educational psychology is traced. Connections are drawn between the philosophy of authentic engagement and the tradition in librarianship of “Counselor Librarianship.” Recommendations for applications to the library context are then outlined.
And a bit of the conclusion:
Understanding a client’s inner world to facilitate the patient’s autonomy and authentic mode of life defines the task of the humanistic and existential psychotherapist
. Similarly, for student-centered academic librarians, facilitating significant learning through authentic engagement with students will be central to reference and instruction. The counselor librarian aims to authentically engage with one’s students, in the sense that an ideal informational transaction will be one in which the librarian and student meet as human beings. This requires the librarian to not only have knowledge of educational resources but to be a certain type of person, one who has a genuine desire to understand the inner world of another person. In doing so, the librarian assists students in the process of developing research questions that matter to them, using their informational skills to help students find information they care about. Thus, while the counselor librarian is fundamentally an information professional, he or she is also, in a very real sense, an existential counselor as well.
Full text PDF available here
Dani and Kevin have both written posts regarding their first years in the profession that could have been cribbed from notes from my first year, had I the gumption and wherewithal to start a fantastic and thought-provoking blog. But I didn’t so here you have my reflections on Year Two, hijacking space on a blog created by two librarians I admire who did!
On (Keeping) My First Real Librarian Job
Now that I’m two years in, I am thinking more seriously about my upcoming third year review. Thankfully I was given a lot of good mentoring in graduate school, and good guidance in my job, so I’ve been building a body of scholarly and professional activities that will speak to my engagement as a librarian. However. The anxiety creeps in: I went to a national conference, but didn’t present. I presented at a local conference after my first year…but not in my second. Did I do enough my second year? And to all that noise I need to just say SHHHH. The only librarian shushing I condone.
One of the major benefits of completing your LIS degree offline and on campus is that it embeds you into a network of colleagues that you can compare notes with about the library game. When I’ve spoken with my classmates from UNC, organizational fit has been by far the most interesting thing to discuss. And yet, I never see it listed amongst the common advice for library students, and it was one of the things I considered least during the job search. When I went on campus for interviews, I was so anxious to demonstrate my worth that I never stopped to cast a critical eye back across the table and ask: is this the right institution for me? I ended up at an organization that was right for me, but this was due more to luck than as a result of any discernment on my part during my job search.
I think this is a sign of a larger problem – the dehumanizing nature of the academic job search is causing entry-level librarians to doubt their worth and jump at the first opportunity that avails itself. In this post, you’ll find my reflections after year one of librarianship on how you can make an educated decision on which job to take, and whether an organization will be a good fit for you.
Any librarian I know will offer the same advice to LIS students: “Get experience!” It’s pretty much our mantra. It’s also what advanced LIS students will tell their newer grad school peers as they learn from working in libraries and see how these experiences complement and sometimes also contrast with or even supplant what they’re learning in coursework. As someone who’s been a member of various job search committees, I’ve read hundreds and hundreds (maybe even over a thousand?) resumes and cover letters, many of which were from applicants starting out in academic libraries. I’ve worked with LIS students routinely as a manager, as a field experience advisor, and as a coach. I’ve also been fortunate to supervise a number of entry-level and early career librarians. So it’s from this background that I tell LIS students that their work experiences in libraries matter more than coursework, not equal to it. Furthermore, it’s essential for these students to think critically about what they’re learning, and really reflect on their experiences. Work opportunities in libraries will help you get a job; being a “reflective practitioner” will make you awesome. So below I share some perspectives on why experience as a grad student is important. It’s some specific advice I often give to individual grad students, and hopefully it will be helpful to a broader audience.