Personal librarians help new students sort out resources

Illustration by Jimmy TierneyMost students enter college knowing they’ll spend many hours in the library. Whether they will use all the library’s resources effectively and take advantage of everything it has to offer is a different matter. The librarians at Barnard want to increase the odds that more students will do that. Borrowing an idea from Yale University, they rolled out a new program this past fall: the personal librarian. “We want to make the library a welcoming place,” says research librarian Jenna Freedman. Each incoming student is now assigned a personal librarian, loosely based on the department affiliation of the student’s adviser. For many years, each librarian has been assigned to several departments. The library staff expects students will switch their personal librarians when they declare a major to align their academic interest.

The personal librarian is the one that students can call upon whenever they’re stumped about how to find sources. By developing a rapport with a librarian in the early days of college, the hope is that students will become proficient library users throughout their academic careers. “There are all kinds of sources in our library that students often don’t know about,” says Lisa Norberg, dean of Barnard Library & Academic Information Services. “It can be quite daunting for an undergraduate.”

In addition, each faculty member is now assigned a personal librarian, an expansion of the Yale concept. The librarians are getting the word out about the initiative to students through the faculty by making presentations in various classes. “Every time I’ve gone to a faculty meeting, it’s doubled the amount of use from that department,” Freedman says. The library hasn’t yet collected any statistics about how usage has changed since the program began, but the librarians say they are busier than ever fielding research assistance queries from students. Freedman even receives instant messages from students in the wee hours of the night. “If I’m awake and my IM is on, I’m fair game,” she says. “I’ll help.”

Norberg has heard from faculty members that the quality of sources cited is markedly improved since the program began. “A lot of students rely on Google or other online searches,” says Norberg, “but at the library we can guide them to a lot more sources that are relevant to their research.”

Barnard’s library is deceptively small. In addition to the materials housed in its building, students also have access to the libraries at Columbia University, through the Columbia Library Information Online (CLIO) system. It’s easy for students to feel overwhelmed. A reference librarian can help put order to sheer amount of possible resources.

Students are still figuring out how they’ll use the new program. Many like the idea, even if they have not yet taken full advantage of it. “I haven’t kept in touch with my personal librarian much,” admits first-year Katheryn Thayer, who plans to declare an urban studies major. “But it’s another reason why I’m so glad that I’m at Barnard, with personalized small-school resources.”

Elianna Mintz ’14, who is studying English and Middle Eastern history, made a point of stopping by the library to introduce herself to her personal librarian, Lois Coleman. “I thought it was cool that I get my own librarian,” she says. Mintz has largely relied on her professors for assistance in finding source material, but she knows she can stop by the library when she works more independently. By the time students reach their senior year, they will be using the library extensively to write their theses. If the personal librarians have their way, they’ll already know where to find every source they need.

- Ilana Polyak