Reference librarians are authority figures with no jurisdiction
We live in an era (no blame to Baby Boomers intended) when people in positions of authority are often uncomfortable being authority figures. With a keen memory of disliking authority in our youth, we are uneasy on the other side, surely the object of jokes and plots of circumvention by kids who love their youthful freedom. I am acquainted with professors who insist that they are not authority figures, and complain that students treat them like they are, instead of as the buddies they want to be. But professors have the power to pass and fail, and wield the carrot of a bachelor’s degree as a stick (often pretending not to) as they teach students to distinguish between what is correct and what is incorrect. As adults in a youth-oriented society, most of us can’t deny being in positions of authority, as uncomfortable as it makes us.
Reference librarians in university libraries, whether faculty or not, are stuck in the difficult spot of representing the institution’s role of defining the correct versus the incorrect (and are presumed to embody that knowledge in the same way that professors are, at least to an extent) without having the power to force them to listen to us or decide their institutional fates. This means that we have a stick (institutional knowledge of what is correct) that we can do nothing but try to wield as a carrot.
So it’s little wonder that most college students don’t stop at the reference desk for help. Most college students don’t come to the altar of the institution to receive “knowledge” because it feels good. (I intend “knowledge” in quotes to refer to the vast seas of disciplinary convention manifested in such things as the proper way to use uncommon words.) They come to the altar of the institution to earn a degree that confers a token of respect and is a necessity for a middle-class job. What they learn in the process they learn according to their own standards and their own motivations.
A lucky few students are disposed to take that institutional authority and make it their own, and interpret its content according to their own needs. They are good students, and they more often have a sense of how they can make use of our services at the reference desk. They learn from us, master the institution’s codes in some area and, we hope, gain some real knowledge along the way. To them, we possess useful cognitive authority. To most students, however, we represent a vague moral authority without power (kind of like the Church outside of a theocracy). So how can we blame them for not coming to us?
I think that we need to understand that this is how the deck is stacked against us when we approach marketing initiatives in academic libraries. I think that given the situation, an effective way to go is to convince them, if we can, that we can help them get better grades in their classes. To be effective at this means to be as familiar with the curricula as we can be, so that we really are helping students get better grades while we help them learn to navigate the information pathways of life.
A corollary to this is that students don’t want to hear a religious message from us. They don’t want to hear it implied at any level that learning how to use Library of Congress Subject Headings will save them from hell. We have to connect what we try to teach them to their actual real world desires. Only a few students, future librarians perhaps, will have a natural interest in the ins and outs of our rapidly changing research tools and and slowly changing conventions.
That said, it is not necessarily as simple as it seems it should be to separate what will be useful to their lives and what ultimately amounts to religious ritual in what we teach.
In another era, when stock in authority wasn’t so low, this problem wouldn’t be quite the same. What a problem is to offer cognitive authority in a time when it’s out of fashion…