Know Their Name

I know that I am not a disservice to my school, but I can’t help but wonder how I can do more, do better, and fulfill my mission more completely.

Like many of you, I’m sure, I often question whether I am doing a good enough job. In many ways – and for many of the same reasons as you – I am quite sure I’m not! I don’t have enough staff. I don’t have enough hours in the day. Many of my colleagues don’t fully appreciate the resources we offer. Students are more interested in their smartphones than books.The list goes on. I ask myself if I am under serving my school community. I wonder if I’m a fraud. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t lie awake in bed at night stressing about if all of our students truly understand the importance of proper citation (because I know they don’t). Part of the awesomeness of being a member of AISL is being exposed to the exceptional work that my librarian colleagues across the country are doing. I am in awe of your energy, enthusiasm, professionalism, and dedication to our mutual passion. The downside of being aware of the your wondrous deeds is being painfully sensitive of exactly how I am falling short. I know that I am not a disservice to my school, but I can’t help but wonder how I can do more, do better, and fulfill my mission more completely.

It was with this feeling that my lone colleague and I traveled last spring to a small but highly selective liberal arts college last spring to spend some time in exactly the kind of college library into which many of our students will transition after they graduate. We went to see if we were adequately preparing our students for the college library experience. In addition to touring the library, we were also lucky to be able to spend an hour with the Director of Research Support and Instruction. Finally, we met in the student center with three students there who were graduates of our school: a freshman, a sophomore and a senior. If we were to boil our visit’s mission to an essential question it was: are we, as a library, aligning our efforts and environment to sufficiently prepare students for college?

Visiting with former students who are now in college to see if we set them up for success

I’ll spare you the dramatic build up. The answer is: yes! But how is that possible? We don’t have nearly the utilization of our databases that we ought to. We don’t have nearly the number of strategic partnerships with classroom teachers that we ought to. There’s too many students who still can’t find a book without our help. We have a collection that desperately needs more weeding. I haven’t done inventory in two years (at least)! So with all our admitted failings, the sorts of things that would cause a less tired person to lay awake in bed at night, how are we meeting the mission? Like a lot of beautiful solutions, the answer is quite simple. The relationship you have with your students is the most important part of your job, the library, and its mission.

Our school is a four year boarding school with about 350 students. The library staff is me and my colleague (who is part time). That’s it. Together we hold every title a library can manufacture. We are the directors, catalogers, liaisons to humanities, technical services, circulation managers and whatever other titles you might conceive – we are librarians. (And at our boarding school, we are also advisors, coaches, and dorm parents.) There’s no realistic way we can do each of these things exceptionally well. We just have to do them well enough. What’s more important is that we have a relationship with all our students. We know their names – each and every student, where they went on spring break, what their favorite sport is; we talk to them about food, pop culture, fashion, and music. In school meetings, when I have an announcement, I make it funny. I walk up the aisles, and project to the back of the room (a background in acting helps!) When they walk through on their way in or out, I say hello and engage them, directly. You’d be hard pressed to walk by me without at least a brief conversation. What’s the result of this engagement, this effort we put into making connections with students, investing in the relationship? Students feel comfortable in the library and comfortable with the librarian. They are less self-conscious about asking for help, admitting they actually don’t know how to use a database or find a resource. They are less bashful about asking for a book they might have interest in. You get to know the student, their interests, their tastes. I can tailor purchases of books to them because I know them.

When we toured the college library, we saw that, though the scale was different, we had nearly all the same elements as they did. We had quiet areas, active areas, books, technical resources, databases, magazines, staff at the ready. The librarians were knowledgeable and dedicated. The librarian told us that they didn’t expect students to arrive as junior MLS candidates. They expected them to arrive as college freshmen who still had much to learn. They expected them to be able to know what a library was and what the librarian might do for them, but not to be expert researchers. Sure, there will always be a few students who are proficient in their library skills, but more important is that they feel comfortable going to the librarian and asking for help.

When a senior graduates from our school they have to get a paper signed by various departments making sure that they are in good standing (athletics, business office, etc.). One of their stops is the library. I’m grateful that we get to see each student before they depart. Without fail, some senior will say, I’m not sure if I even ever checked out a book from the library. I tell them, always in good humor, that that’s nothing to brag about, and we have a laugh. Then I tell them to make sure they make friends with a college librarian. I tell them that they don’t have to go to parties with them, but that they should get to know a librarian by name because when you form a personal relationship with that person, you will be well disposed to get the information, get the best that library and librarian has to offer, and the benefits will be mutual.

I know that there’s much more I can do as a librarian. I won’t likely ever stop feeling that I am falling short in many ways. What I also know is that so long as I never stop making the effort to know each student, to greet them warmly – not just in the library – but wherever I encounter students, that I am the best librarian they’ve ever had!

5 thoughts on “Know Their Name

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. I too, feel eternally frustrated by never feeling like I can do it all. It’s reassuring to read your conclusion – that fostering a welcoming, caring atmosphere where students want to be is a priority and you are accomplishing just that.

    It’s true- so much of our jobs require behind-the-scenes effort that many colleagues just don’t understand. It’s such a giving job! It can feel draining at times but I still feel so fortunate to have found a profession I feel so passionate and proud to be a part of.

  2. David — Thanks so much for sharing your experience, which certainly resonates with me. We try to the best of our abilities to provide the library service we believe our students deserve, sometimes against considerable odds. I agree that the relationships are key, and also that we have to continue to advocate for the skills and services students need — the fun is in the challenge!

  3. Thank you for sharing this experience. It resonates with me, and I always spend time at AISL events finding other librarians who are “wearing all the hats.” I also ask the alums who come back to visit—a biased sample size for sure—what they are asked to research and what their college library experience has been. I think that students greatly benefit from being comfortable enough to ask questions of the experts. If they happen to have picked up some of the right library vocabulary along the way so much the better!

  4. I appreciate this post so much, David! It’s research paper season here and as I look over bibliographies it’s easy to wonder, did they even listen?! But you’re right…our students are more prepared than we think they are. All those terrible bibliographies, they existed at the end of papers! They each had a book! They were in Chicago style! I appreciate the perspective, and I will accept the “win” for a job well done and I hope others will too!

  5. This resonated deeply with me. Thank you. “Relationship building” is never on my (ever-growing) to-do list, but it really is at the core of almost everything I do–and makes so much of my other work possible.

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