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…

7 comments on “Reference librarians are authority figures with no jurisdiction

  1. My supervisor, a reference librarian at a university library, tells both students and parents in orientation sessions, “I represent the department that can help you get As in your classes.” I like this approach, because it informs students that the library is the place where they can get help, and hopefully in the process, get better grades.

    Another authority issue that reference and liaison librarians face is that many faculty members (professors) don’t view librarians as being authority figures, and certainly not authorities on the resources of the faculty member’s particular field. So perhaps we need to also be telling professors, “I represent the department that can help your students get As.”

  2. I try to encourage my students to enlist the aid of librarians as much as possible, but I can’t completely control what they do outside of class. Quite a few of mine tell me that they do this, but I think that maybe I’m strangely positioned to get this result because they know I have an MLS. When I tell them that the librarians at a specific specialty library can help them more than I can, they believe me.

    Having said that, it’s been my experience that a lot of new students don’t realize that they can receive help from the librarians. I’m not sure how to change this.

  3. But then there’s the extreme:

    The student who goes to the librarian [or professor] without ever trying to learn how to use library resources on his or her own.

    I think that’s where a good librarian encourages the student to engage the library system, whereas a not-as-good librarian will just do the student’s work for him or her.

    What this piece rightly points out is that so many students do not respect authority’s expertise and ability to help them achieve their goals. So many just seem reluctant to accept that we might be providing a lighthouse beacon to the shore they’re seeking.

  4. I can’t think of an academic library where “cognitive authority” isn’t the domain of faculty. Abuse of the line between service and servitude is what strips academic librarians of their authority.

    I can’t imagine a student coming to a librarian to learn what is correct, unless it involves MLA or APA citation style. There’s our authority. I’m sure someone out there is into the history of bibliography and even cites citations.

  5. “Abuse of the line between service and servitude?” That’s an odd expression.

    I don’t think students see librarians as having quite the same level of cognitive authority as their professors, but I do think they view the library as carrying the great weight of the institution’s judgments about truth, heavy stuff, and I think they see the librarians as representing the library and all that weight. I think it’s the reason for “library anxiety” (which has been studied quite a lot) and the reason for the image librarians have.

    I am just honestly trying to figure out why most students are reluctant to come to the reference desk to ask for help in academic libraries, and I think this is why. I think they’d much sooner come to the desk if it were staffed by people who don’t have a claim to professional knowledge.

  6. The problem of student’s reluctance to use the reference librarian as a resource may also be a result of pride. A couple of weeks ago I was doing a session of virtual reference chat and had a student from a university contact me—a librarian not affiliated with her university’s library—to ask for help writing her paper. She went on to explain to me that she had already spent two hours trying to find information and was unsuccessful.

    It turns out that she was using this chat service from her university library. I tried to persuade her to visit the reference librarian at her library because what I could provide her was limited; but, she seemed unwilling to go that far. Of course, in my view, this is odd behavior, because when I was in college I had no issue with asking a librarian for help.

    But, apparently, there are a lot of students who do have a problem with this. It’s at least conceivable that this person was embarrassed enough not to ask for help and felt more comfortable using an anonymous conduit instead.

  7. Yeah, I think that’s right, Ray. But doesn’t it seem likely that her pride would be less of an obstacle for her if the librarian were somebody who she didn’t think would know more than her. If she’s afraid that the librarian will expect her to know more than she does, yeah, it’s her pride but it’s also the fact that she rightly assumes that the librarian knows something she doesn’t.

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