My first few years as an undergraduate were marked by an uneasy relationship with the school’s campus library. Every semester, as research papers and assignments rolled around, I dreaded the point when I would have to sit down and use our library’s website to start looking for sources on whatever topic I’d chosen. Outside of our book catalog and OneSearch article database, with which I was generally familiar, I was overwhelmed by the extensive lists of databases, digital collections, and journal titles all over our website. I never knew where to start, or how exactly they differed from one another, and usually decided for sanity’s sake to stick with the catalog and OneSearch for my research, ignoring the rest. While I could usually find enough sources to meet the basic assignment requirements with these two, my searches always felt painstakingly long and difficult. I knew there were a lot of potentially great sources I was missing out on, but I simply had no idea how to get that information.
Despite my persistent frustration with our library, I never bothered to ask anyone for help. I knew we had a Reference Desk at our library, but I always assumed that was where people went to get directional assistance, or if they couldn’t find a particular book they wanted, and that wasn’t exactly the problem I was facing. I didn’t want someone to simply find sources for me; I wanted someone to show me how to use our website more effectively and how to find relevant sources without spending ages combing through catalog result lists that mostly included completely irrelevant sources. I definitely didn’t think the Reference Desk could help me with that.
It wasn’t until I actually landed a job working at our Reference Desk that I realized how completely wrong I’d been about library reference services. Not only could the Reference librarians show me how to use our catalog, databases, and online collections more effectively, they were by far the best people I could turn to for help. I learned so much from simply talking to the different reference librarians I worked alongside and getting their feedback on how to do research in our library, but what struck me the most was how happy they were to share their knowledge, both with me and with anyone who came up to the desk. The librarians I worked with all understood trying to navigate through all of our resources and actually use the library to do research could sometimes be really frustrating, especially for anyone new to the library. They consistently went out of their way to work with students to figure out what problems they were having, and ultimately what tools and skills would best meet their needs and allow them to use the library’s resources effectively on their own.
The two years I spent working at the Reference Desk were what led me to enter the field of librarianship. I had learned so much about all our library had to offer, and I wanted to be able to share that with other students who might be struggling with using the library the same way I had. But I was also motivated to enter librarianship because I only learned about what the Reference Department did and the services it offered once I actually started working there. I knew from talking with other students and peers that many of them were just as unclear about what the Reference department was as I had been, and this made me question whether a deeper disconnect existed between the services our libraries have to offer and what students think their libraries have to offer. And that disconnect is surely affecting the impact we have – after all, how could anyone expect students to use the library, or even simply ask librarians for help, if they don’t really understand who we are, what we do, and what we have to offer?
While I’ve only just started working towards a career in librarianship, I hope to become a part of the conversation on how librarians can break down some of those barriers – and perhaps in doing so, I can help turn a few more wary students into empowered library patrons and advocates.