My favorite part of my job is getting in front of a class of students who are probably bored and would rather be anywhere else, and somehow drawing them in, getting them awake and interested. This usually happens as soon as I walk into the room, since I don’t look like what most people think of when they think of a librarian. I am a rambling, big, burly African-American guy, covered in tattoos, and I tend to not fit the librarian cliché, though I sometimes do wear my glasses perched on my nose just so. You never know when the librarian stare needs to be implemented.
Even though I get attention with just my physical presence, I don’t stop there. I am very much a people person and like to meet the students in my classes halfway. I work primarily with majors in the School of Communication which includes journalism, film and video, and strategic communication, so the work tends to be topical. Their research usually draws upon current events and pop culture, and ties back to established communication theory and principles. This kind of thing can still be boring in the wrong hands, but I make sure it isn’t. If a student throws out, “I want to do some research on feminism”, and I say, “Let’s look at something like the impact of say…Beyoncé and feminism just as a starting point”, they tend to think that’s cool. Because Beyoncé.
I use this tactic not because I want to be seen at the “cool librarian”, but because it can remove the wall that a lot of students put up. My goal is to be accessible. My agenda is not to just stand up and lecture about library resources for a paper the students will write two months from now. I want to establish a relationship. I want them to know that I am their subject specialist, a person who once upon a time worked as a freelance writer, a filmmaker, producing music videos and commercials, and a person who loved studying classical film theory as well as documentaries. These are things in my toolkit that, as their librarian, I can bring to bear over the course of their time at my school.
Those are my intentions, and things have always gone according to script. Until recently. I had my first real panic late last semester when I was working with a new professor. Not only had I never worked with this individual, but s/he taught an introduction to media 100-level course as well as a 400-level class that deals with specific research in communication marketing. I gave myself plenty of time to learn the database the professor wanted demonstrated since I’m somewhat new myself. I was scheduled to do sessions for both classes on the same day – a day where the professor would not be present and I’d have the students, whom I’ve never met, all to myself. I tend to keep my nervousness at bay, however when I walked into the 100-level course ready to talk basic database searching, and how to find electronic copies of say Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly in our journal finder and found out rather quickly that it was the advanced research class where I would be performing a demonstration of this software I honesty wasn’t very keen on, the students noticed.
I am proud to say that it wasn’t a disaster. I took a couple deep breaths and recovered. I was able to demonstrate how to use the database to pinpoint what sports drink a video game playing male, between the ages of 18-25 who preferred Xbox over Playstation and played between the hours of midnight and 3am and used an Android phone, is most likely to purchase and why. What struck me, however, came next. Two graduating seniors lingered as the rest of their peers headed out the door after the class was over. They made a point of telling me that not only had they enjoyed my presentation and taken copious notes about the database, they also remarked how funny I was. Then they went further and asked to buy me coffee and talk shop about library school and what it was like. The catalyst for that moment was my apparent cat-like reflexes. They had seen me thinking on my feet and readjusting after realizing that I had mixed up my classes. They said that was a skill they see in lots of librarians. They said librarians, more than anything, are prepared and go above and beyond in helping people. For me, removing that wall, helped them see me as someone who isn’t just there to tell them How Things Should Be Done, but also as someone for whom knowledge can move in both directions.
Sometimes we feel the need to be super-prepared and super-professional, but it was that moment of being human and making a mistake that helped me connect with the students. I don’t recommend making mistakes like that if you can help it, but I do recommend being who you are with your patrons.
Derrick Jefferson is the Communications Librarian at American University in Washington, DC. He received his MLIS in 2012 from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA as a Project Recovery scholar based in New Orleans. He tweets about food, vinyl records, and libraries at @geekandahalf.