The Ghosts of Students Past

by Alyssa Mandel on October 19, 2014

So here’s a thing that has happened on several occasions over the last few months: alumni, now enrolled in college, getting in touch to ask for library services from me.

I’m of two minds on this, and I think you’ll all see where I’m going here . . . one part of me is worried that I didn’t do my job well enough: they should be skilled enough to navigate their current university libraries themselves, or at least know enough to introduce themselves to their librarians and beg for their help, not mine. The other part of me is secretly (OK, not secretly!) pleased that I provided such reliable friendly help that I’m the one to whom they turn in their hour of need.

A favorite student of mine whom I see at least once a year is writing his senior thesis on a rather narrow subject. He did actually do the right thing: he visited his college library and consulted with the librarians there. Favorite Student needs articles from some unusual journals to which the college does not subscribe, and the librarians said they would try to get them via interlibrary loan but made no promises about if, when, how long. I take a certain perverse pleasure in trying to solve the unsolvable, so with the theme song to Mission: Impossible playing in my head, I cracked my knuckles and got to Googling.

His college doesn’t subscribe to those journals, but a major state university nearby does and because it’s a public institution, they allow access to any in-person user visiting the campus. I advised him of this, told him to pack a lunch and pocket change for the photocopier, and off he went to fulfill his destiny.

A former advisee sent a desperate email, on a Friday night no less, begging for help with an art history paper on which her grade depends. Full disclosure: I taught college art history courses before changing careers, so I am especially intrigued by her request. I visited her college’s library website and pointed out that they subscribe to several excellent art research databases, offer appointments with subject specialists, and the painting she is studying is owned by the nearby museum which also has a library. She’ll be fine; she just needed direction and reassurance.

I’m trying to strike the right balance between swooping in to save the day and guiding these young people towards self-sufficiency. “Home,” I suppose, is always a comfort: I am firmly into middle age and make my own chicken soup very well, but when I have a cold it’s to my mother I turn for hers. Without treading on Jack Canfield’s turf, if a familiar librarian can provide chicken soup for a researcher’s soul, I’ll take that as an epitaph.

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