Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Library Day in the Life: Round 6, Day 2...

[The sixth round of Library Day in the Life is running from Monday 24 to Friday 28 January. You can find the other participants, and sign up yourself, on the project wiki, and watch the #libday6 hashtag on Twitter. This is the second time I've taken part. You can find my Round 5 posts tagged with libday5, including my introduction to what I do for a living.]

No blow-by-blow rundown of the day's activities today (mainly cataloguing). Instead, some very brief thoughts on staffing a reading room.

...or, The clueless reader: what should we do?

I work in a rare books reading room.  Standard reader interaction goes something along the lines of 'Can I see MS K.31, please?' 'Yes, certainly, fill in this form, take a seat, and I'll fetch it for you'.  Or perhaps, 'Can you tell me where Glover's papers are catalogued?' 'Yes, they're available on Janus'.  Every now and again someone comes in and asks broad, open ended questions like 'Can I see what you have about slavery', or 'Can I see some medieval manuscripts', which we, frankly, find difficult to answer.

The difficulty arises not because the questions aren't 'valid': it's certainly reasonable to want to look for material on slavery in our library because we hold papers connected with the abolitionists Wilberforce and Clarkson, and we have 300+ medieval manuscripts, so that's also something you can easily find here.  The difficult in these reader interactions arises because we're used to our readers having done plenty of research in advance of their visit.  Being a special collections reader is quite a specialised business--in terms of handling material, reading room etiquette and 'resource discovery'--and most of our readers are already fairly well 'trained'.  Indeed, most readers are so 'good' that we, as library staff, are quite out of practice at helping the ones that aren't.

There's sometimes the feeling that it's 'not our job' to teach new/inexperienced/clueless readers how to read up on the topic first, research their particular interest, and search catalogues and listings for relevant items.  We might feel that this is the job of their supervisor or course tutor, and that our role is just to produce the material once they know more-or-less exactly what it is they want to see.  When readers come to us very early in their research, it's easy to feel like they're looking for us to do their research for them.

I don't generally find it very easy to turn these interactions round from something slightly antangonistic ('what are they doing here when they don't know what they're doing?') to something positive ('here's an opportunity to show somebody what we do and what we can offer them').  Partly this is because it's hard to tell someone that actually they need to put in more time and effort to what they're doing, and partly it's because this sort of work isn't really accounted for explicitly in procedures and policies.  Although we have information online about the special collections and the reading room, none of it is written from the 'new to special collections?' perspective.  We have no 'script' for how to induct the new reader.

The obvious answer to all this is that we, as specialist librarians, need to recognise, value and assert our expertise: instead of grudgingly acquiescing to the poorly-thought-out research requests of the new reader, we should step in and educate them.  And to do this well, we'll need to develop planned ways of doing this, rather than relying on adhoc introductions, the quality of which will vary tremendously from day to day.


Post a Comment