Libraries Make it Personal

Some colleges look to put a face on the library by assigning undergraduates "personal librarians."
September 28, 2010

At a time when technology is said to be creating a gulf between librarians and students, a handful of libraries are trying to make their relationships with undergraduates a bit more personal.

Drexel University made headlines earlier this month with its new “personal librarian” program, which assigns each incoming undergraduate a specific member of the library staff to serve as a first point of contact.

Wesleyan University also started assigning students “personal librarians” this fall. Both institutions drew on the example of Yale University, which in 2008 began reaching out to undeclared undergraduates after providing the service to medical and law students for years. Libraries at University of Richmond and the University of Chicago started similar programs for undergrads about a decade ago.

There are small differences, but these programs share a basic template. The library contacts incoming students, usually a few weeks before orientation, with a personalized letter, along with a business card, from a specific librarian introducing them to the library. The librarians might e-mail their assigned students periodically, reminding them of what services the library offers.

The obligations are not nearly the same as those between academic advisers and advisees; in fact, students are not required to meet with their personal librarian, or even acknowledge them. The important thing for the library is that students know the library has not just books but also familiar-looking people who know their names and want to help them. The idea is that getting that name might make students more likely to schedule a sit-down meeting to learn how to use the library's various interfaces, collections, and specialists. Sit-downs, or even e-mail correspondence, are much more effective than group orientations, says Patricia Tully, the university librarian at Wesleyan.

If personal librarian programs are a trend, the trend is a recent one. Barbara Rockenbach, director of undergraduate and library research at Yale, frames the movement toward “personalization” as a foil to technological forces that have made the library seem more impersonal. With many libraries canceling subscriptions to printed journals, shuttling underused books off to remote storage, and making more of their resources available on the Web, students might increasingly view the library as a database they can use from a solitary dorm room rather than an actual place populated by helpful humans.

“We weren’t seeing students at the reference desk anymore,” Rockenbach says. “…It feels for us that technology is the driver.”

It was not, however, the driver at the University of Richmond, which was the first institution to assign personal librarians to undergraduates — at least as far as any of the recent practitioners can remember. According to Lucretia McCulley, director of outreach services at Richmond’s Boatwright Memorial Library, the motivation was simpler and had less to do with cultural tectonics.

“The bank I had at the time had personal banking,” McCulley says. “I had always really liked my personal banker, so I thought, ‘Why can't we do this for students?’ ”

The library building at Richmond still sees plenty of traffic, McCulley says. The personal librarian program was just another outreach effort. Same with Drexel and Wesleyan, officials there say. “We want to reach out to students who might feel a little intimidated — particularly students from small schools, or international students,” says Tully, of Wesleyan. Sending personalized letters with business cards to incoming students does not require a huge investment, notes Danuta Nitecki, dean of libraries at Drexel. It was not so much a question of “Why” as “Why not?”

At Chicago, where undergraduates share the library with the university’s considerable graduate population, putting a face to the building serves as a hedge against alienating the younger students, says Rebecca Starkey, a reference librarian there. Personal relationships with library staff generally are more common among graduate students, whose library use is frequent and well-defined, and undergraduate juniors and seniors, whose research interests have begun to narrow along the lines of a declared major, she says. First-year students are less likely to develop personal relationships with librarians.

“We’re a large research library — our undergraduates don’t always know who they need to talk to for the right things,” says Starkey. “This allows us to sort of cut through that.”

Still, the “personal librarian” service is curious in that it only works if it is low-impact. Depending on the university, librarians might be assigned 50 or 500 students to serve personally. In most cases, if all or even half of those students availed themselves of the service, the librarians would be swamped. Yale says only 10 percent of students actually contact their personal librarian; a higher yield, and the program would not work.

Meanwhile, the extent to which the program is actually bringing new students into the library is hard to pinpoint, since the students who take care to avail themselves of a personal librarian might have sought out the help of the library staff anyway, adoptive librarian or no.

But the general view among the librarians who have adopted the practice is that another step toward demystifying the library is a good thing, even if the effect of the personal librarian program turns out to be marginal. “There’s a lot of adjustment happening in that freshman year for students,” says Jim Rettig, the university librarian at Richmond. “And if we can make it a little easier for them, that [means] a better experience.”

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