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Freshmen’s Questions About the Library

For one class that I teach with a colleague every Fall term, the professor helps prepare her freshmen for their first library experience by having them read an article by Barbara Fister* and then write down questions they have of the librarians (me and a colleague, incidentally). Usually, these questions are very topic specific (“where would I find how much money was spent training fighter pilots in WWII,” for example). But this year, they had a discussion in class about the Fister article which generated a much different set of questions, which the professor then forwarded to my colleague and me. Here are a few that were particularly compelling:

  • Aren’t students supposed to be independent? Is asking for help appropriate?
  • When does help slide into collaboration? Do you ever worry about doing a student’s work for her?
  • What is the reference desk? Where is it? Who is there? What is the etiquette for approaching it/them?
  • How does one learn to use the library with an appropriate blend of asking for help and learning to fend for oneself?

Prompted by the clear uneasiness over our roles as librarians and over the broader question of how academic support fits into the academic world, my colleague and I decided to spend some time at the beginning of our library session trying to contextualize library assistance in an academic world. And here’s what we told them:

They are right: we are not here to hand over the perfect research each student will need for each paper. We’re here to help the students learn to figure out when they need to do research and then to find, evaluate, and use the sources they need. Just like we don’t believe that they are born knowing how to write at a college level so also we don’t believe that they were born knowing how to do library research. They don’t think that handing in drafts to their writing professor is cheating, and they don’t think that office hours with their professors will result in the professor doing their work for them. Instead, drafts are commonly seen as good writing practice and a chance to get feedback; office hours can be a great time to practice thinking like a scholar and, also, to get feedback. Well, meeting with librarians works the same way. They give you practice and feedback at this complicated and largely mysterious task of doing library research.

I hope that their other questions (such as “why use the library rather than search engines?” and “how do you pick quality sources out of huge numbers of hits” and the like) were answered in the normal course of our session. But I’m glad we got the chance to directly and explicitly address these more nebulous concerns.

Fister, Barbara. “Fear of Reference.” Chronicle of Higher Education. June 14th, 2002 (Or, for those who don’t have subscriptions to the Chronicle… click here.)

Published inFirst Year Students


  1. Barbara Barbara

    Wow! That is deeply cool – thanks for the post. It’s really neat to know students are reading my article, and asking some very valuable questions.

    By the way, if anyone wants the article and doesn’t have a Chron subscription, there’s a free copy here – since columnists for the Chron retain copyright.

    Love the trading cards, btw!

  2. Iris Iris

    Thanks for the link, Barbara. I’ve added it to the main post.

    And yes, this class reads your article every Fall in the class period before the library session. What’s more, it was the professor’s idea to assign this reading!

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