Selling the Library – in

Thanks to Dan D’Agostino at the University of Toronto Libraries who brought this fantastic article to my attention:

Selling the Library: Thinking about the Limits of Customer Service
by Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN Feb 10, 2011

The article begins with a description of a discussion among library directors surrounding the need for librarians to get out of the library. There’s a school of thought out there that believes that librarians mustn’t stay in the library to wait for people to come to us — instead, we must leave the library to work with students and faculty more directly — we must go to them.

In the Age of Google, students and faculty often misunderstand why we’re so useful. Fister describes the scenario we all know well:

…librarians know from the most recent Ithaka faculty survey that the library is seen increasingly not as an important cultural institution, but rather as the place with the people who hold open the gates that stand between research material and scholars; we’re the people who negotiate licenses and pay the bills without making a fuss. If you were to take a census of who is actually in the library, it’s likely to be students, but even they are puzzled about our purpose. According to Project Information Literacy’s landmark study, Truth Be Told: How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital Age, most students use library resources, particularly to find articles in licensed databases, but few turn to librarians for help as they do their research. They come for the stuff; who needs a librarian?

I agree with the idea of getting out of the library; but, in a large university like the University of Toronto, putting it into practice can be difficult. We manage to successfully liaise with 20% of our customers (faculty and students) but it’s really a challenge to connect with every single person in a meaningful way. Fister continues:

Would getting out of the library change this impression? Anecdotally, simply relocating passive library service points to other locations has not met with universal success. Students who are not inclined to ask a librarian for help in the library are not much more likely to approach them in the campus cafeteria, other than to satisfy their curiosity. (“Man, what happened? Layoffs at the library?”) A busy professor may wonder why a librarian is reading email on a laptop while seated in the humanities building common area, but may not want to intrude.

The answer, of course, is to engage.

It’s about having confidence that what we do is really useful, even vital to our communities, and in the case of academic libraries, to the educational mission of our institutions. It’s believing that libraries are for more than providing stuff to complete assignments and pad CVs. And, it’s about telling our stories.

In the Age of Google, librarians are in danger of reducing our role to merely zookeepers of the collection of eResources our customers demand. Indeed, I spend a good deal of my time teaching academic researchers tips and tricks of finding the right article quickly and with minimal frustration. But I’d like to think that there’s more I can do beyond information literacy and document delivery; what I’m really interested in sharing is my knowledge of open scholarship, the evolution of copyright, freedom of information and how technology is changing the way we consume information.

… this is a matter of defining our professional identity—not our brand, but our actual selves—and establishing the understanding that libraries are not just another kind of shopping mall but an essential common ground for our institutions and the world of learning they represent. We need people to know that librarians have their backs when it comes to the rights we consider essential for the furtherance of knowledge and the freedom to inquire. We need to make it clear that we are committed to helping our students learn how to become contributing members of the ongoing conversations that create knowledge.

Instead of spending more time delivering services, I want to think bigger. I want to teach researchers how to use eResources effectively so we can get past the basics, and talk about really interesting issues.

This article really made me think; to read it in its entirety, visit