Assisting research v. Research Assistants

When does helping some one with their research turn into becoming a research assistant?

Sometimes the role we play at the reference desk confuses us or even the people we serve.  When the retrieval of information appears so instantaneous to people who aren’t comfortable using electronic database or government documents, the role (and maybe the value) of the reference librarian becomes muddled.  If you were to ask a sample of people what exactly reference librarians do, some answers you might hear would be that librarians:

  • teach us how to find Stuff
  • help us retrieve Stuff
  • get us Stuff

And how do reference librarians define their work at the reference desk?  I think it’s safe to say often we conflate things like teaching, information discovery, and information retrieval into a vague, large mission, which is to help people find what they’re looking for.  This isn’t a bad thing since we’re in the business of serving people by filling their information needs.

Ohio University Libraries, ready aye ready, 1971

But should a line be drawn to mark a boundary between the a librarian’s work to help a person and a librarian’s work for a person?   This sort of discussion is constant:  in academics, it ebbs and flows with the term, often coming to the fore when the reference desk is red-lining because mountains of assignments are due.  Last May, a small discussion began on research services at the reference desk and if that line exists on the ACRLog.  Most commenters agreed that faculty generally don’t abuse the research services that the library provides.  Another comment I particularly liked, however, was about the librarian’s relationship with the student.  Leo Klein admitted that he has let students treat him as a research assistant in the past, and moreover, “to a certain extent I’ll play along.”

I like Leo’s comment because it’s conditional: he will act as a research assistant at times, but only to a certain extent (his reasons for acting in this capacity when he does are valid and strong, I’m sure).  The fact that he plays along but only at certain times reminds me that a librarian’s work on the reference desk should be adjusted to meet the needs of the person in front of him or her.  The roles we play at the reference desk – teacher / librarian / impromptu research assistant – are normally a result of the relationships we build with the people in need of help: some people need more help than others, and the help we offer to one person will likely be different from the help we offer to another.  To draw a line in the sand regarding our services is foolhardy since every client who approaches us from the other side of that metaphorical line has distinct needs.

At my former place of work, we served a diverse student body, both scholarly and culturally.  The university has a strong TESL programme whose students often need extra guidance with scholarly databases since they are working in a working in a second language.  The school also has a large and successful MBA and M.Finance programme, whose students are often accustomed to working not with libraries but information centres in the workplace, and are accordingly used to receiving valid, verifiable, and ready-to-use results when they request help from their information specialists.  These examples show only two student groups within the university community and can’t speak for the information needs and customs of the school’s arts students, science students, post-graduates, as well as students who may be on academic probation.  However, they do show why we shouldn’t draw a firm line in the sand when it comes to research help at the reference desk – doing so would be a disservice to the people we serve.

Binghamton University Libraries

We need to be prepared to help individuals in a manner suitable to their own needs and customs.  That isn’t to say that librarians must drop everything whenever a student makes excessive research demands so much as it means that each reference situation is unique to itself and that reference librarians must adjust their roles accordingly.