Libraries at the juncture

Last week I taught a session as part of our library staff development programme. Teaching colleagues is always a little strange but this session with Customer Services opened my eyes to the divergent cultures that exist within academic libraries.

We have a One Library Service ethos and culture. At least that’s emblazoned over everything. Yet our approaches are fundamentally different and, on most occasions, need to be. We could get into the whole I’m-not-a-customer-I’m-a-student debate but at my institution the folk who run the Enquiry Desk are called Customer Services. Indeed, our Library Service is very proud of (rightly so) of our Customer Service Excellence award. Our students and researchers deserve responsive, inclusive, quality services.

But I’d forgotten how different customer service ethos is to teaching and how the two don’t sit well together. The session I taught was about literature searching, the aim being that Enquiry Desk staff would feel more comfortable helping out with basic literature searching enquiries rather than referring them on to my small and overworked team. My aim with literature searching is to always emphasise that I don’t magical powers. My ability to find papers on weird and wonderful topics is not voodoo. It also isn’t because I’m vastly more qualified or knowledgeable. Most of our Enquiry Desk team have a degree in a subject other than Library Science. So do I.

So it’s important from the off for me, to establish that this a case of having a go and seeing what you find. If that doesn’t work, try something else. Try another database or try a different search term. That’s the way I approach it. What struck me about the Customer Services team was how unwilling they were to just give something a go, to just try. They have the same resources as me and the same knowledge. They expressed their fear of not knowing the right answer. Of not being able to pluck a crop of papers out of thin air.

And that got me thinking: no one is expecting you to. No one thinks you are a compendium of everything ever published on any given topic. This isn’t some kind of pub quiz where you get points for instantly bringing forth obscure facts. This is simply trying to help the student find what they are looking for. And what occurs to me, is that it is far more helpful to the student is if you don’t know the answer.

If you don’t instantly know, then the student doesn’t feel emotionally wracked for not knowing. If you explain this is an iterative process, full of trial and error, the student won’t beat themselves up so much for not coming up with the perfect search strategy first time round. If you pull up a chair alongside you, invite the student to join you and then model what to do when everything doesn’t go exactly to plan, the student will learn far more about what to do next time. The student stops being dependent on you to think for them and starts actively understanding the process for themselves. This is teaching. Teaching should be empowering. Teaching should foster students who can think for themselves.

I don’t walk into a classroom and give the answers all away. I don’t rock up with a cache of journal articles on their research topic and send them on their way. I carefully build searches with them so they can see how I’m developing my strategy. I show them what happens when I get it wrong so they can see. I allow them to misdirect me sometimes to uncover incorrect assumptions. I don’t always have neat examples that never fail to work. I invite them to use their own research examples and sometimes we find nothing initially. We work, together, to find a solution, to solve the problem in a collaborative way with the rest of the class. Education and academia is messy, students needs to accept that and learn how to make sense of the messiness. Sometimes the answer is “I don’t know” and that’s okay.

But customer service culture doesn’t work that way. Retailers and the service industry don’t want to empower folk, they don’t want to make them independent or less dependent on their services. Dependence on a particular brand or product or experience is what retail depends on. In most part, people want something handed to them in exchange for their cash. Education doesn’t work like that, it is not transactional in that sense. It is transformational.

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