In her In the Library with the Lead Pipe post on the subject, Emily Ford makes the series of points that library outreach is really about marketing, that the product we’re selling is service, and that all of this hinges on connecting with one’s user community in a personal sense. Marketing is about making a smart, culturally strategic pitch to whatever audience you are targeting, meaning that what we are often really doing is selling our librarian-as-service selves in different ways to each new audience. This occurs to varying degrees in every interaction we have, be it teaching, reference, or anything else, and I find that it is usually a drawn-out process that evolves with the exchange.
It’s been about four months since I became selector/library liaison for the UCB School of Information, and being a librarian to the most tech-focused and interdisciplinary group of students and faculty I have ever met is like an extremely entertaining obstacle course. The reception I have received thus far has blown me away, and has very much felt like becoming integrated into a community. Furthermore, it has totally challenged the ways I go about explaining myself in the outreach sense, and my experience there is helping me work through many ideas about what is often described as the evolving role of the library liaison, or, somewhat less formally, how we get in where we fit in among the changing communities we represent.
Part of the vexation of being a “library liaison” (or bibliographer or selector or whatever) in complicated current times, no matter the subject area, is that to most people all of the words we use to describe ourselves have the vestigial ring of the coccyx. Oh, you’re the library… what is it again? Some months ago I speculated on the challenges I might face in my outreach to the I School, and much of the difficulty comes in explaining myself to this community in a way that makes productive and practical sense based on the incredibly broad range of tech and theoretical ground they already have down pat. I have discovered that the pitching process can become rather diverting in this kind of minefield, because it has required me to blow many of my old hooks (so to speak) out of the water. It also reinforces the fact that much of the process of building productive relationships on any level comes down to effective interpersonal communication, no matter the medium. If you can parley well enough in the moment to a) suss someone out while b) coming off as an interested/ing human being, outreach just got a whole lot easier.
Librarians: Pro Bono Nerds on Retainer
The role of the subject librarian is to be like an intellectual swiss army knife – information tools for different trades, all of which take some deft wielding. At a recent reception that the I School Dean graciously organized for visiting scholars and yours truly, I was given the opportunity to pitch myself over and over again to a series of total or semi- strangers in my new community that I may or may not be able to help out in the library/research/information sense. To make it interesting instead of redundant, my self-challenge for the afternoon was this: never pitch the same way twice, but also push that goal to the back of my mind while actually getting to know individuals and their interests at a deeper level than as though they were library targets. Over the course of two hours, a few strange but useful characterizations came out of my mouth; I dimly recall saying something along the lines of “think of me as a pro-bono nerd on retainer,” which is exactly what I’m aiming for – a gratis, skilled, earnest collaborator and consultant who will give any information or research topic due diligence. This seems to have had good effect thus far – I’m already working with faculty/students/staff in a variety of ways, which at least means that I’m explaining myself in a way that seems somewhat pertinent.
I had two conversations yesterday that further illustrate how differently the pitch process can play out, one within and one outside of my liaison area. Each interaction was frankly awesome, outlined the shortcomings and positives of the library/information/disciplinary landscape (however postapocalyptic), and unfolded based on the specific perspective that I was able to glean from the students I was communicating with.
“When I started researching Wikipedia and where university students turn to find information, I found out that librarians are a really underutilized resource.”
That gem of a direct quote came from a relatively surreal consultation I had late in the afternoon, which began with an undergrad research project into librarian/faculty misconceptions about how students use Wikipedia and evolved into an extremely enlightening exchange that ended with me basically pleading with a student to consider becoming a technology blogger, or something of the sort. The conversation itself was one part serendipitous field research into contemporary librarianship and one part contemporary librarian getting an unexpected meta-schooling on all of my (read: our) glaring shortcomings and potential areas for improvement through the eyes of one preternaturally insightful (yet decidedly non-poindextery) undergraduate. The surreal part began in earnest when he started asking questions like, “so, do librarians ever get together at meetings or anything and talk about any of these issues?” (enter me comparing ALA and code4lib) and “are you worried about your job security in, like, twenty years?” (enter me talking about maybe I would be if I was a microfilm expert, but personally not so much). Needless to say I felt an insane drive to try to recruit him.
The Research Advisory Service, or the origin of the consultation, is a way for Cal undergrads to schedule half-hour appointments with a librarian to talk over paper topics and get insight into specific research questions. You invariably get either the totally lost – those wrangling with an unclear assignment or primary research – or self-motivated students who could win a library research prize with their eyes closed. He obviously fell into the latter category, as his read on the Wikipedia and research question was not at all tired, and he had already compiled an excellent source list – he was arguing that contrary to much of the library and education research students are actually quite cognizant of the benefits and limitations of Wikipedia, or are at least strategically aware that their instructors find it an unacceptable resource for citing in papers and the like. We eventually came to the topic of sources and awareness of alternatives to Wikipedia and Google Scholar. After explaining what academic librarians actually do and provide and launching into a truncated version of my information altruism speech (Google book ads vs. this extremely useful free appointment with an earnest nerd), I was blursed* with:
“Wow, librarians would be really popular if you were more out there.”
Right? He was like the personification of the duelling voice of frustration and enthusiasm in my head that keeps me pushing forward on so many initiatives while butting up against the endless challenge of explaining myself to potential users. He talked about the library instruction session he had recently attended and how checked out he was because it seemed redundant and overdone, and I asked him to think about why it felt that way – was it not the right time, or just overkill? Not-so-great teacher, or a murky understanding of what he was supposed to get out of the class? I asked why this one-on-one format was more useful to him (it was conversational/pointed) and how many people he knew it was an option (next to none). I eventually found myself recommending my own blog as a resource, which was mind-blowing enough to make me starkly aware of how little faith I have that the world outside my immediate professional circle would want to interact with these questions (all the while, mind you, discreetly watching him for indications that I was succumbing to the librarian TMI effect – fidgets, what’s the time, etc.).
I suppose I know this not to be true from the number of non-librarian comments I receive, but still – it was something of a wakeup call that I still hesitated to show him my own thoughts on the exact questions he was researching despite his express interest in the topic. I think that many librarians still have this fundamental problem of shrinking, de facto self-sequestration, which we are going to have to confront on an individual and collective basis post-haste if we hope to make ourselves more useful and/or visible ourselves within our communities. The recent popular M. Johnson book on librarianship (which although appreciated and excellent pr source I firmly believe a professional librarian could not have pulled off through a major publisher) is a rare example of cross-cultural pollination we should absolutely be achieving on a larger scale.
One thing we talked about was how difficult it is for beginning researchers to engage with (aka give a proverbial shit about) the resources that are so obviously built for tunnel-vision experts. Ironically, earlier in the day I had another interaction of a decidedly expert tenor – addressing interdisciplinary bibliography to a doctoral colloquium. I was invited to address the topic of compiling bibliographies in the capital B sense, as in identifying the canonical texts in a subject that are required reading for any scholar who hopes to operate in an ass-from-elbow capacity within said discipline. In fields as diverse as those represented by the I School, which can incorporate anything from behavioral economics to mobile application design to human geography, this makes the challenge of defining a research canon like something of a tightrope act. There was consensus that within the information subjects the only author “universally cited if not universally read” (another direct quote) in this area is Manuel Castells – after that, it’s subfields, arcane specialties, and minefield transdisciplines galore. In this context, capital-B-bibliography presents an interesting two- or three-pronged challenge – wild interdisciplinary in emerging technology and culture topics means a rapidly shifting landscape balanced against well-established deadwhite canons of traditional disciplines of sociology (think Durkheim and Weber) and cultural studies/critical theory (think Foucault and Lacan), with technical literature thrown in for good measure.
This exchange provided an interesting counterbalance to my earlier conversation. What the doctoral candidates were hoping for were lists of definitive works in these emerging fields, which at present seem only to exist in the syllabi and heads of those who are in the process of defining then. I basically had to tell them that, with the exception of Web of Knowledge, most research tools are simply not orchestrated to determine significance that is necessary for capital-B-bibliographies, but are instead set up to index, organize, and deliver for the construction of lower-case-b-bibliographies, as in the front-loaded list of works cited in their dissertations. The compilation of capital-B-bibliographies (once so central to librarianship) that can, for example, be consulted to effectively prepare for qualifying exams, therefore falls largely to faculty and colleague reconnaissance, syllabus trawling, and so forth. Despite the absence of Bibliographies in these areas, citation impact tools like Journal Citation Reports were largely news to them, meaning that something of strategic value came from the exchange.
So, in a nutshell:
Undergrad consultation: “This is the extent of my expertise. See how useful?”
Doctoral Colloquium: “These are the limits of my expertise. See how useful?”
Not a bad day’s work.