Using technology to create connections between students and librarians

Like many academic libraries, we’re in the process of moving to a ‘single service point’ model in most (all?) of our branches, where instead of being scheduled to work at the reference desk librarians will be scheduled to be on call, only brought in if the question is one that requires a librarian’s assistance.

One of the risks of this change is that librarians will become further isolated from students. Out of sight, out of mind. This would be a problem if the reference desk was the primary means of interacting with students. While I do believe that the reference desk is a very important contact point, these days librarians have many more opportunities to contact and engage with students in ways that are potentially more meaningful and helpful for students.

Having said that, there is still a risk that librarians will retreat to their offices and focus on maintaining subject and course guides, on carrying out project work, committee work, research, writing, and getting published. All necessary things, of course, but ones which leave them invisible to the student population.

While librarians are clear on their responsibility to support students, this understanding may not be shared by students, as indicated by this quote [source] from a 2009 study of student behavior in and perceptions of academic libraries:

“Librarians are believed to do work unrelated to helping students, or work that, while possibly related to research, does not entitle students to relationships with them.”

All of the outreach work (or liaison work, as we call it) carried out by librarians helps to address this problem. Librarians who give information sessions during orientation or to specific classes are, in addition to teaching information literacy skills, helping to establish in students a more accurate perception of what librarians do and how they can help.

As a systems librarian, I don’t do much in the way of outreach. However, my team does have a major role to play in developing tools that librarians can use to interact with students in new ways. For example:

  • Our Library Blogs platform allows librarians to share updates, resources, and information seeking tips with their subject communities on an ongoing basis. These blogs can also give students a glimpse into the work of a librarian, and can show them how librarians are there to help them.
  • McGill’s new learning management system (Desire2Learn) has the potential of providing librarians with opportunities to interact with students directly in the context of their courses. We’re in the process of determining how best to accomplish this, specifically how to make course-specific resources available to students as efficiently as possible.
  • Librarian profile pages, not yet implemented on our site, can provide a richer online presence than our current listing of subject areas. Years ago (and before my time here) there was a concerted effort to reduce/remove the presence of librarians on the web site, and while at there may have been valid reasons for this approach, it is clear to me that we need to go in a different direction. Students, all people, are seeking human connections. Students want to interact with people, not with systems. Library profile pages will not only raise the profile of librarians on our site, but will provide students will a better understanding of who they are as librarians and as people.

These initiatives are just the beginning, and while none of them are on the cutting edge of librarianship, they are important initiatives that we’ve made a priority in our development plans. Anything we can do to establish a human presence on our web site will not only improve students’ perceptions of the website and the Library, but will also drive home to them that there are people here that are ready, willing, and able to help them succeed in their academic endeavors.

What tools do you think are most effective at creating connections between students and librarians? Share your thoughts in the comments below.