Instant Ideas and Collaboration

Feature #13a: How far does a librarian stretch? Supporting students and their wellbeing

Please welcome Helen Murphy (@lemurph), Assistant Librarian at the English Faculty Library, University of Cambridge. In the run up to our upcoming #uklibchat on Classifying the librarian on Tuesday 6 May. We asked her to talk about her experiences in her role that perhaps stretch the normal role of a librarian and the limits of how we interact with our customers in a professional manner.

If you want to catch up with more of Helen’s writing, she has a blog called Library Wanderer

Ask a hundred librarians to write a list of ‘librarian rites of passage’ and I bet you a quid at least half would include that conversation. You know the one. Someone finds out what you do, makes a hilarious crack you’ve never ever heard before about shushing, which you dutifully reject and then, on occasion, this happens:

“So what do you actually do?”

It’s a grand question. They should ask it in interviews. It’s the sort of question that leaves me stumped. Not because I haven’t got a clue what I do (although admittedly I often don’t have a clue what I’m doing) but because, in my almost-six-years in academic libraries at the University of Cambridge, I’ve been a teacher, a bookstamper, a shopper, a salesperson, a marketer, a photocopier operator and a mum. These are the lyrics Meredith Brooks rejected, you know. It’s the last one, a mum (or big sister, please, before I have a mid-life crisis), which will be my focus here.

I’ve been asked questions on council tax, credit card bills, and what to wear to interviews, whether I think it’s okay to go to a Beyoncé concert the day before an exam, where to get laptops fixed, bikes fixed, and how many calories there are in a doughnut. Library users have shown me revision timetables, moaned about supervisors, and on one occasion checked my opinion on their Valentine’s card. There’s nothing even remotely like this in any job description I’ve ever had. I’m aware that the relatively small, and relatively contained, potential user bases in the libraries I’ve worked in have contributed to it. But I can name three separate occasions in which a student has said “Thanks Mum” to me, resulting in his extreme mortification (it’s always ‘his’) and my resolution to spend more on moisturiser. So intentional or not (not), and like it or not (yep… ish), it’s been part of my role.

To an extent it’s an non-deliberate by-product of something done consciously and intentionally. A few months back there was a #uklibchat discussion in which that young Andy Priestner wrote about ethnography and stressed the importance of getting to know our users (see also, summary of November 2013 chat on putting the user first). At the English Faculty Library, where I’m Assistant Librarian, our principal tactic to achieve this is simple: we talk to them, in teaching sessions, focus groups, Tea@3 (more about that in a sec), and across the issue desk. But it strikes me that if we’re doing more than paying basic lip service to the idea of getting to know our users, if we have conversations with them which are meaningful and authentic, then in getting to know them they get to know us too. As they become familiar to us, so do we to them.

Partly, too, it’s the context. Earlier I mentioned Tea@3, . In a nutshell, it’s the glorious triumvirate of tea, cake and a natter (more information on Tea@3 in this blog post by Libby Tilley, Faculty Librarian at EFL). There’s regularly a box of chocs or biccies at the issue desk, free to a hungry student (not staff, obviously, because we wouldn’t ever do such a thing. Obviously.) In my previous job I’d give out biscuits and juice to revising students. It’s not that Cambridge libraries have an unspoken shared goal to fatten up the students a bit, honest, nor do we have shares in McVities, as far as I’m aware. A bit of free food, though, and a gentle suggestion of a break from work, could be classed as fairly ‘pastoral’ things to do. And what it does, in one sense, is show our library users that not only do we care very much that they’ve got the right resources and environment to achieve plenty academically, but that we give more than two hoots–at least six or seven–about their well-being too.

Is it a bad thing? Nope. The benefits of engendering great relationships with users far, far outweigh the very limited, U-rated peril of any slight blurring of roles. Frankly, my dear, I couldn’t give a Clark Gable impression if a student asks me when Mother’s Day is, or how long it’ll take to get to Stansted. If I’m trusted on stuff like resources and borrowing, then why wouldn’t they ask me about the other random bits and bobs they need to know? Fair enough, they could ask Professor Internet, but then they’re probably smart enough to be aware of that themselves. The key thing to remember is that it goes the other way too. If they remember that I could answer their question about whether Rymans sell fountain pens, they might come to me with genuine library-related queries too, and then everyone wins, right? If we’re going to start over-thinking our interactions with library users to the extent that we only answer strictly library-related questions then we might as well keep the bathwater and throw out the baby.

Of course we should Be Professional in all our dealings with library users. It’s just that, in my opinion, this isn’t necessarily the same as Be Serious, and therefore doesn’t preclude conversations about Michael Fassbender. And of course we should try to keep things in the library realm, at least in theory. Remember you’re a librarian, as the Wombles almost certainly didn’t intend to sing. The truth is that the very very vast majority of interactions would never go beyond that anyway.

So I don’t think appropriateness is the issue at all. Where the real fun lies, and by ‘fun’ I mean something other than fun, it’s whether we as academic librarians have a sort of duty of care to our users that isn’t necessarily enshrined in our job descriptions. Here I mean an ethical one, predominantly, rather than a legal one.

Mental health and student life have been in the news a bit lately. The bulk of library users I’ve encountered have been Cambridge undergrads – excuse me a whole bunch of generalisations, but they’re under huge pressure, stressed, busy, time-poor, and still fairly young. Some will be thriving, some managing perfectly well, and some will not. As librarians with the privilege (and it is one) of being familiar, and seeing some students regularly, we might be in a position to be directly approached about problems, or to suspect something may be wrong. In my old job, for example, I’d notice students who seemed to be skipping meals to revise, students in tears, students visibly panicking. It didn’t happen every day, but regularly enough during the exam period. Across the university there are plenty of support services for students, whatever their situations or concerns. There are plenty of people, at least in theory, watching out for students’ well-being.

Should academic librarians be among them? Do we have a duty (again, primarily an ethical one) to be aware of these services and help students access them? Is it our duty only when we’re directly approached or when we have concerns about the well-being of certain students? If we do, is it because we’re librarians, or just because we’re human beings? How, if ever, should we intervene? And should there be a library policy about this? In schools, for example, there are safeguarding procedures which are standardised and compulsory and apply to all employees. Or, in fact, is it simply none of our business?

I’m not sure about this one. My instinct is that we should be watching out for users’ well-being, and that we ought to intervene (indirectly, and only with good reason), and that common sense is probably sufficient to guide what we do and how we act. Fingers crossed, it won’t come up too often. In any case, for now, I’ll keep answering the questions and handing out the biscuits and see what happens.

About gabyklib

Gaby has been a librarian in a public library in the UK since 2004. Her current role is covers working with all library customers through project work, reports, outreach and promotion including website maintenance and social media. Previously she was a children's librarian with particular focus on Teens.

3 comments on “Feature #13a: How far does a librarian stretch? Supporting students and their wellbeing

  1. RattusScholasticus
    April 23, 2014

    Fantastic post, and really chimes with my experience as a learning developer. I think it’s all our responsibility in a university from the cleaners to the VC to be aware of the emotive and other wellbeing aspects of study, and not to compartmentalise our students into ‘learning’ and everything else – learning is a multi-faceted experience and has an emotional and social impact as well as intellectual (and economic…), and all of those factors can in turn impact on learning. We can act as a great triage and signposting system, if we’re well plugged into the support offered by our institution and beyond. Where I am wary is the tendency of some well-meaning people to ‘hang on’ to student problems, try to solve them all themselves and assume the role of professions which are far beyond their expertise, which often results in the student not getting access to proper professional help til it’s too late. This can be either due to misguided saviour complex, or simply not being aware that there are other professionals to whom they can refer a student (or not being really aware of or respectful of what that expertise actually entails). I think it’s therefore also our responsibility to be aware of the boundaries not of our role but of our expertise, and to be aware of how to refer on. In this way, professionals like librarians are a vital part of getting the student to the help they may need. It’s often far easier and less threatening for a student to approach someone like a librarian than, for example, a mental health expert, in the first instance, and they are a really important link in the process. Keep the biscuits coming!

  2. Pingback: Ethno-thingy stuff: stories or stats? | #UKAnthroLib

  3. Rebecca
    April 29, 2014

    I’m pleased to see you mention”duty of care”. In an increasingly virtual world we are becoming the last bastion of real people with heart and concern for our students. At this time of year when exams are near we have students on the edge and interacting witha friendly face in the library is , I think an increasingly important relationship.

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This entry was posted on April 22, 2014 by in Feature and tagged , , , , , , , .


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