Thursday, August 5, 2010

Technical Services Librarians and the theoretical user

I just finished reading Rick Anderson's op ed from September 2005 about the Patron-Centered Technical Services Librarian.

Even though it's nearly five years old, I highlighted most of it and kept shouting 'yes! That!' in my head to nearly everything he wrote.

Anderson's premise is that the ultimate goal of libraries should be "to get the best possible information to our patrons as quickly and effectively as possible, and to do in a way that works best and makes most sense for our particular patrons."

He goes on to say that because of the day-to-day tasks that Technical Services staffs perform, it is easy to think that the ultimate goal of librarianship is a well-managed collection.

I suspect that most front-line staff would say something to the effect of 'well...duh' to Anderson's assertion about the ultimate goal of librarianship. I also think that one point that Anderson doesn't make is that Technical Services Librarians often lose sight of this 'ultimate goal' because they rarely see a library user. Being at least one step removed from end users has the potential to cause the kind of myopia that Anderson discusses.

When you work in Technical Services and don't have day-to-day (or even more intermittent) contact with end users, they start to become theoretical. I know that I have the tendency to start guessing what's best for users when I don't spend time with them. And since I'm a librarian and have librarian-strength searching skills, I probably shouldn't being going all Lorax on our users.

Let me tell you a story...
For the past two semesters, I've worked as one of the class librarian for my University's Freshman Composition program. I am one of about 25 librarians from across our library who volunteers to do this. There are subject librarians, paraprofessional staff who are in library school, and Technical Services librarians who offer a few hours of their time over the course of a semester.

Serving as a class librarian is a low intensity way for me to spend a little time with library users. It's not explicitly listed as one of my job duties, but it's some of the most rewarding work I do.

I teach Freshmen how to search for articles and books on their paper topics; they teach me how the user's mind works. It's awesome.

This past Spring, both of the instructors I worked with asked me to have one-on-one sessions with their students. Over the course of two weeks, I spent 30 minutes with each student.

Boy howdy did I learn something about library users!

That face-time with end users was invaluable to me. I learned how they think, how they search, and what they value. They were no longer theoretical but were, instead, real people with real problems.

My point is that Anderson is right about it being easy to lose sight of the fact that our goal should be to get good information to our users in the way that makes the most sense to them.

The good news is that there are concrete ways to stop yourself from falling into that trap:

Offer to work a shift at your library's reference desk, sit in on a colleague's library instruction session, offer to teach an introductory library instruction session yourself.

Be visible. Be proactive. Be awesome.

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