I’ve recently experienced another first as a librarian: writing letters of recommendation for two of the brightest students I have had the pleasure to interact with. I’m happy (but not particularly surprised) to say that the process is having a palpable this-makes-all-the-hard-work-worthwhile effect, and for two important reasons. Not only does it offer me the chance to sing the praises of the sharpest/most deserving in a way so pleasantly motivated as to feel effortless compared to less immediately validating types of output, it’s helping me consider the often untapped potential of personal advocacy in the work that librarians in higher education (or anywhere else, for that matter) engage in.
We are advocates by trade and nature: fair use, intellectual freedom, equitable access to information and public space (and, of course, no, you absolutely cannot ban that book, thank you very much) are all integral components of our professional milieu. This familiar big-A library Advocacy agenda may eclipse, but should by no means diminish, the other, small-a side of the advocacy coin. While being invested in the personal and intellectual progress of those we support is a natural orientation for many of us, our capacity to become their big-C Champions in a more formalized sense often goes under recognized. In my estimation, building ongoing, meaningful mentor relationships with students/researchers (and to design instructional, reference, and outreach programs that support this goal) is a widely nascent opportunity on both individual and organizational levels.
Public-facing librarians tend to encounter (thousands of) individuals at each extreme of the learning spectrum: those at their most clueless, and those at their most focused (often one in the same). Each extreme offers a perfect vantage point for observing and supporting individual growth. Beyond being the basis for a fabulous pedagogical and service orientation, approaching every interaction as though it had the capacity to culminate in a letter of recommendation years down the line accomplishes a number of practical tasks. So much of our consultative strength is in interpersonal guided inquiry: honing a vague research notion into a tacklable project, suggesting alternative strategies and workshopping half-based ideas while giving much-needed moxie (aka positive reinforcement) along the way. The ability we cultivate to discuss ideas outside of our immediate expertise, to understand the ever-increasing interplay between disciplines, and, perhaps most powerfully, our capacity to be genuinely interested in basically anything, have no equivalent in higher education and should be recognized as among our most tangible and transferable assets. Beyond that, the trained sensitivity of those reference-oriented among us make us naturally effective and inclined to triage and mitigate hesitation, uncertainty, apathy, and information struggle on numerous levels.
While these abilities are often demonstrated in larger learning interactions, I find that they have the most impact in one-on-one settings, which, if properly supportive, can help a student or patron become comfortable at admitting their intellectual vulnerabilities in ways that traditional learning scenarios might not allow. Classes are bursting at the seams, faculty are hard-pressed to find the time to support each student to the full extent of their research needs, and learners are often naturally reticent to divulge (albeit explore) the extent of the academic challenges they face. Formal education is a process rife with insecurities and competition for the attention of those who can advocate on one’s behalf, particularly in large-enrollment situations. Librarians are poised, as semi-neutral actors in an academic organization, to provide another line of insight and support that is functionally external to the source of the pressure – we can act as semi-detached generalist strategists, providing advice into the skill set necessary to succeed in professional and academic areas that we tend understand better than we might give ourselves credit for.
A common complaint is that our advice and lessons fall on deaf ears, but an equally common observation is that there always seems to be one student out of twenty, fifty, or a hundred who is paying full attention, whether they do so out of a low opinion of their own abilities or a clear sense of academic purpose. Another common complaint is that we are rarely able see the end results of our efforts: this type of enduring service approach provides a curative for productive detachment. It is critical for us to nurture the connections we forge with our students when they occur, and guide them towards whatever actionable ends they might facilitate. This is another powerful deliverable of the growing number of programs at Drexel University and elsewhere that seek to facilitate interpersonal relationships between students and librarians, an opportunity also afforded by teaching and liaison responsibilities – I met one of my recommendees at a Research Advisory Service appointment in my first semester here, and another in a Master’s seminar paper consultation in the I School.
Being prepared to make a recommendation, be it an application, scholarship, award, etc., requires insight and enthusiasm both for the individual in question and your own ability to advocate on their behalf. Knowing an individual well enough to champion them takes persistence – following up, requesting copies of finished papers or assignments, and most of all giving them the sense that you are invested in their progress. When I meet students with whom I develop a particularly strong connection, who are interested in throwing ideas around and finding their own path through disciplines and theories that are beginning to interest them, I do my best to encourage them to recognize the extent of their interests and abilities in order to overcome the most common hurdle I observe: the feeling that their voice is not worth contributing to the conversation (which is, ironically, often the same voice librarians need to confront). I try to offer them genuine and enthusiastic support, remembering how significant this was and still is to me in the course of my thought-engaged life. I take pains to imagine ways to suggest how they might take their efforts further than they expected of themselves, be this publishing a paper, pursuing a grant or fellowship, and so on. More than anything, I try to approach those who approach me lockstep, and, when I feel that I am truly able to make a solid and convincing case for someone, I offer myself as an advocate they can call on, if need be.
There is absolutely nothing small about the level of advocacy you are supporting. It is, in fact, the act that makes it more likely we actually will see the end results of our efforts–“our,” in this case, being what we and those we mentor produce collaboratively. Hope what you have written here inspires many others to step up to the plate to support and nurture those around us.