Your Patrons Are Not You

I was recently reading a post on Letters to a Young Librarian, an awesome blog written by Jessica Olin, entitled “Ten Things I Didn’t Learn in Library School, Academic Edition.” As someone who is currently in library school, I seek out blog posts, articles, and even in-person rants about this topic because I want to know how I can both (1) take advantage of every opportunity within library school, and (2) seek out the knowledge and experience you don’t/can’t learn in school, elsewhere. While the entire post is definitely a worthwhile read, the point that seemed the most unique (from other things I’ve read) and affecting was:

Undergraduate students are not you at that age. Sometimes the differences can be chocked up to growing up in an earlier era, but not always. Think about it this way: if you’re an academic librarian (or want to be one) chances are pretty high that you liked college and were a good student, otherwise you wouldn’t be thinking about spending your life in academia. Many of the students with whom I talk every day are here either because Mommy &/or Daddy made them, or because it’s the next logical step. There will be students who want to be at college, but that’s not every student.

This is huge, at least for me, and I’ve never actually seen it articulated this well. I think this point is especially important for those of us who want to work in reference/instruction positions (but can also be helpful when thinking about marketing/outreach). To be a successful and effective librarian, you really have to put yourself in the shoes of the user. And this doesn’t mean just thinking back to what your undergraduate experience was like. As someone who graduated from my undergraduate college in 2011 and went straight to library school, it could be easy for me to assume that I am extremely in-tune with the patrons at the academic library where I work. But this is not always the case.

I need to keep in mind that many students wait until much later than I would have to start a paper. I need to be open-minded when students want me to help them access a giant pdf article on their smartphone with a screen the size of a deck of cards. I need to contain my gasp of horror when a student comes up to the reference desk and states that he needs help with “Chicago citing,” which he’s “never heard of” but has to use for a history paper.

While this doesn’t mean that we should adopt a pessimistic view of our patrons and assume they know nothing and have no drive, it does mean that we should be more sensitive to their differences (in background, experience, motivation, etc.) and that we should try to use every available teaching moment to improve their research and library experience. Great instruction does not necessarily turn someone who is “here either because Mommy &/or Daddy made them, or because it’s the next logical step” into an independent, self-motivated scholar. But it could begin to provide them with tools toward self-sufficiency and enable them with the confidence to seek out answers on their own.

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