Librarians come out from behind the desk

by Diane Harvey

Stereotypes of librarians are so prevalent that American Libraries, the professional journal of the American Library Association, collects them in a monthly column called “How the World Sees Us.” The column is a reminder of the enduring influence characters like Marian the Librarian in The Music Man and Katharine Hepburn’s Bunny Watson in Desk Set have had on the popular perception of librarians.

A librarian sitting at a reference desk is, after all, one of the most widely-shared images of the library. And for good reason. The reference desk still occupies a prominent spot in most libraries, including Duke’s Perkins Library, where librarians are on duty more than ninety hours each week. During the 2008-2009 academic year, they answered more than 21,332 questions at this desk, which is just inside the main entrance to Perkins. However, students, faculty and researchers are increasingly expecting libraries to deliver resources and services to them. In response, Duke’s librarians are not waiting for people to find them at the reference desk, but instead are leaving the library to meet information seekers on their own ground.

On a weekday afternoon, librarian Catherine Shreve is ready: “All’s quiet…questions, Pub Pol-sters?” Soon she’s working on an in-depth question that will challenge her expertise as the subject librarian for public policy and political science. There are two things to note here: Catherine is posting her query on Facebook, and she’s working from a desk at the Sanford School of Public Policy. For the past four years, Catherine has been holding office hours in the resource room at Sanford’s Rubenstein Hall, where she answers reference questions and advises on research.

Catherine is one of ten librarians who spend part of each week in academic departments and institutes. Erik Zitser, librarian for Slavic and East European studies, says that one professor expressed skepticism initially about his spending time in the department, primarily because he didn’t think that many students would come during Erik’s office hours. Erik says, “Three weeks into my trial, he came in and said that it didn’t matter whether students came in or not because it’s good to have someone there who could help the faculty themselves. Most of the students that have come to me during office hours have been referred directly by faculty members from the department.”

The willingness of Duke librarians to go where their users are has resulted in innovative services that students, faculty, and staff value. Anne Langley is a vital presence in the Department of Chemistry where she not only holds office hours, but also serves as an adjunct faculty member and delivers instruction in library research to five hundred students through a video tutorial shown in every section of General Chemistry.

Students see Anne’s photo in the tutorial, recognize her in the hallway, and feel comfortable asking her for help. Faculty and researchers, who appreciate her accessibility, also seek out her expertise. Anne understands the opportunities that proximity brings. “Chemistry is an intensively information-driven field, so it is invaluable to be in the chemistry building. Because I am such a part of the workings of the department it is that much easier to collaborate with faculty who are designing curriculum-based information assignments, to be available to students while they are working in the lab, and to immediately respond to graduate students when they need information.”

Anne and the other librarians who work in locations around campus are known as embedded librarians. A recent report by the Special Libraries Association found that “embedded library services are widespread and effective. Successful embedded librarians are excellent relationship-builders, with strong knowledge of their customers’ work, and they deliver highly sophisticated, value-added services.”

All ten embedded Duke librarians use the knowledge they gain about current departmental projects and faculty and graduate student research to build library collections and services tailored to user needs. At the same time, the librarians are able to provide on-the-spot reference and research services, saving faculty and student time and effort.

Rob Sikorski, executive director of the Duke Center for International Studies, is conducting a study of soldiers who experienced shell shock in early twentieth-century wars. His informal encounters each week at the Franklin Humanities Institute with librarian Sara Seten Berghausen have enabled him “to immediately engage a librarian with my ideas/questions about resources. We can experiment together with avenues for sources.” Interaction with Sara at the Institute gives Rob “a greater sense of collaboration when she’s here versus when there is an information desk or some such between us.”

The presence of Sara and Anne and other librarians in academic departments reflects the reality that planning services and building collections must be based on knowledge about current and future needs of library users. Acquiring this knowledge is one of the priorities set out in the Libraries’ recently completed strategic plan, Sharpening Our Vision. Lynne O’Brien, director of academic technology and instructional services and chair of the planning group, notes that in gathering data for the strategic plan she and the group discovered “how rapidly patterns of teaching, learning and research are changing. To understand those changes and the potential impact on the library, we need to spend time with our users, in all the different places where they work.”

Becoming attuned to how faculty, staff, and students are doing research and creating scholarship requires observation, data collection, and information gathering. The need for these activities is being discussed widely among academic librarians. One study that has created a lot of buzz is Studying Students by anthropologist Nancy Fried Foster. Foster joined the staff of the University of Rochester libraries to investigate how undergraduate students actually do research for a term paper or presentation. In a 2007 interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Foster observed, “If you have been making a bunch of assumptions based on out-of-date information maybe it’s time to ask some people some questions.”

Knowing what questions to ask and how to ask them is difficult for librarians who lack the investigative skills required to do user studies. The Duke Libraries are addressing this deficiency with a year-long program, the Duke Libraries User Studies Initiative, to train staff to do interviews, prepare and administer surveys, and conduct ethnographic research. Recently, anthropologist Marcia Rego, on the faculty of Duke’s Thompson Writing Program, facilitated a workshop on observational and ethnographic techniques like those used in the Rochester study. She advised librarians “to listen and remain open to what the ‘natives’ are telling them, to resist easy conclusions, and to be aware of their own cultural and professional assumptions.”

Several librarians have taken up the challenge of designing user studies as part of the User Studies Initiative. Emily Daly, coordinator of upper level library instruction, is conducting a series of interviews with students as they do research and write honors theses to qualify for graduation with distinction. Emily has discovered that there are “differences between librarians’ and faculty’s perceptions of what honors students need and what students actually say they need.” Acting on what Emily has learned from this study, the Libraries have created new services and designated a group study room and six study carrels for the exclusive use of students conducting honors research.

Knowledge about how 21st-century students are working and learning has also led librarians to employ new technologies to deliver services across campus and around the world to students as well as other researchers. In 2008-2009, Duke reference librarians responded to 7081 questions via instant messaging and engaged in 6000 online virtual reference (VR) chats. Instant messaging and virtual reference challenge librarians to interact with users in an environment where speed is prized and communication skills are tested. Librarian Michael Peper oversees VR, and although he acknowledges that working with users without the usual visual or verbal clues can cause misunderstanding, in the end, he says, “It’s still all about quality service.” As the Libraries continue to develop mobile interfaces, Michael sees texting, or SMS, as “the next big thing,” an increasingly valuable service that will give library users answers when and where they need them.

Making the best use of new technologies improves access to library services and resources, but the personal touch is still an important part of what Duke librarians offer. At the Sanford School, resource room manager Anne Fletcher was an early advocate for Catherine Shreve’s weekly on-site reference hours. Four years later, Anne is even more enthusiastic about the value of Catherine’s presence to Sanford students and faculty. Sanford’s international students, many of whom are unfamiliar with some of the databases and software applications available through the Duke Libraries are particularly appreciative of Catherine’s consultations. Creating a new way for students to “work directly one-on-one [with a librarian] has been an extraordinarily successful experiment.” Many students profit from intense instruction, and “Catherine brings a different level of expertise to this room on a weekly basis.”

From Catherine’s perspective, spending time each week at Sanford has increased her understanding of the working styles of Duke students and researchers. This knowledge enables her to make better informed purchases for the collections and provide a level of service that is more proactive than sitting at the Perkins reference desk, waiting for questions to come to her. “The serendipitous meetings in the hallways and resource room—when a student or professor sees me and remembers that they have a question, request, or bit of news—have been invaluable in informing my work. They round out the relationships formed during research consultations and library instruction in a way that would not be possible if I were not there in the heart of the School.”

Diane Harvey is Head of Instruction and Outreach at the Duke University Libraries.

Read more about the 21st-Century Librarian

The Embedded Ten

Teddy Gray

Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology departments

Anne Langley

Department of Chemistry

Sara Seten Berghausen

English Department and Franklin Humanities Institute

Margaret Brill

Department of History

Carson Holloway

Department of History

Kelley Lawton

Department of History

Michael Peper

Math and Physics departments

Linda Martinez

Pratt School of Engineering and the Department of Computer Science

Erik Zitser

Department of Slavic & Eurasian Studies

Catherine Shreve

Sanford School of Public Policy

One thought on “Librarians come out from behind the desk”

  1. You folks are brave and wonderful. As a high school history teacher who has worked in libraries in the past I love the idea. Since I am looking to upgrade my skills could some of you please pass along what new skills that a person such as myself could do to re-train for something like this? I have a MLS in Reference Resources plus a subject Master’s degree inUS History. Take your time. The weather is so nice I am sure that many of you are already outside enjoying yourself! Thanks. LJS

Comments are closed.