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Becoming a Librarian for Languages

When I first started this job, I knew there was a lot I didn’t know about the unique needs of the different departments I’d be serving. I knew that typical research needs varied by discipline, and that I’d be serving three broad disciplines: languages, literature, and music. But I’d never done research in language or music courses, so I didn’t know what that kind of research looked like, or what it would need from me. So I made a plan. (I’m a planner, what can I say.) My first year, I’d just keep my head above water. I’d learn to teach, learn to work at a reference desk that actually got real reference questions (not the case at the two placed I’d worked during library school), and concentrate on not making a fool of myself. The next year, I’d figure out what it means to serve language departments. And the next year I’d figure out what it means to serve the Music department.

Needless to say, my plan didn’t go quite that tidily. But in general, I did concentrate on peering under the hood of a different discipline each year. I’ve already written about some of the things I’ve learned about being a Music librarian, so I thought I’d share a bit about what I’ve learned so far about serving language departments.

Time is of the essence:

I spent at least a year being frustrated when professors of languages would ask me to please come teach everything there is to know about the library, and please keep it to 15 minutes. At first, I thought I needed to practice those skills you learn about in library school and at ACRL’s Immersion program and say, “That won’t be possible. If you give me 45 minutes here’s what I can cover.” It turns out, though, that in this particular instance that is not always the best strategy. Sometimes, sure, if the project facing students is a major research paper, or if the class is not (as they often are) focused on language and simply using a research paper as another way to gain facility with that language. But if the course’s primary goal is to move students toward language fluency, then the teachers are under a massive time crunch. They know that they’re racing the clock to expose their students to the number of hours of instruction it takes to achieve fluency in a language. And yes, it’s measured in hours.

Here is the chart that a group of language faculty presented this fall as part of their ongoing discussions about curriculum review. Notice that for the Category I languages (like French) it takes 575-600 class hours to achieve basic fluency. For the Category III languages (like Cantonese) it takes 2200 class hours to achieve fluency. (Source, the National Virtual Translation Center which takes some information from the Foreign Service Institute.)

With time to fluency ticking away, an hour of library instruction (delivered in English) is just too costly. So the faculty and I have started coming up with solutions that don’t involve me jeopardizing their instructional goals. I sometimes come and give a 15 minute overview and a handout that prompts students to ask me questions. Then they come to visit me in my office, singly or in groups.

Sometimes that option would eat up all of my time, so I ask for two or three 15-minute chunks of time with the class spread out over several class periods. The end result is that I’ve taken more of their precious class minutes, but this way students don’t go for an entire session without hearing their foreign language of choice so it doesn’t seem to derail instruction as much. It’s always a balancing act: the relative worth of my time balanced against precious classroom minutes.

What Language Students Need from Me:

Depending on the assignment, this changes, but language students need a couple of tips that no other students need. For example, when searching in a given database, should you search in English or in the foreign language? If searching in the foreign language, does it matter if you use accent marks or other non-standard-for-American-writing characters, or will the system understand that e may mean é? Since search is basically character matching, these questions can make the difference between relevant results and no results at all, so I’ve started including them in the research guides I build for those students (example).

At a library the size of Carleton’s (good sized, but not like a large research university’s library), language students also need to know how to interlibrary loan materials. I always tell them that in these classes, they MUST search and order ILL items early. Once that’s done, then they can procrastinate as much as they like. Every term a few students don’t realize how very serious I am about this point and end up having no good sources to work with.

So that’s the big stuff

Other than that, I’ve learned from working with my language students how to give up the mouse and keyboard while doing searches. There’s nothing like trying to scan through a result list in German, or brainstorming for Chinese search terms to encourage me to say, “Here, you take over and tell me what you see. … Now, do you see anything on the page that looks like….”

I used to be completely intimidated when contemplating my work with language classes. I felt uncomfortable standing in front of a class and knowing full well I couldn’t speak the language or even pronounce the example search terms we were using. But after a couple of years, I think these experiences have taught me to be more comfortable with the idea that I can contribute to student learning without any grounding in the subjects their studying.

Published inLibraries and Librarians


  1. Ellen Ellen

    Thanks for writing this. I’m also a new librarian, assigned to the dept. of modern foreign languages and am also learning the ropes. I’ve found that our library hasn’t historically done a lot of instruction for the MFL classes, so I’ve been trying to do some outreach in that area. (For example, I learned recently that the students in our one MFL master’s program (Spanish) had no idea that I even existed to serve them.) I’ve found that book selection has been my frustrating area – though I’m completely fascinated by the process.

  2. Iris Iris

    Ah, see… there’s where I’m lucky. I don’t have to select books for the general collection. Just the reference collection. I don’t know *what* I’d do if faced with that particular challenge!

    Good luck with your outreach. That’s always tough for me. Let me know how it goes and what works for you.

  3. […] reasons I’ve described before, this mini-class idea was especially important to the language departments, but it wasn’t […]

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