Librarian as Translator

It’s one month(ish) in to my new position as an adjunct reference librarian at St. Louis Community College’s Forest Park campus, and right now my entire world seems focused on connecting our patrons to the library. Are they IN the library? Yes, and we’re happy to have them! But I definitely feel a sense of disconnect between what they need and want and what we’re longing to give them.

My amazing library director has some ambitious projects planned for the school year, which my other half-time colleague and I are concentrating on moving forward. As a busy urban commuter campus with a tight budget, we’re trying to work some miracles with the resources we have in order to turn our space into something the students will not only use, but love.

At the same time, I’m familiarizing myself with the resources we have to offer and the strengths of both our collection and the college’s curricula. Every reference interview is a chance not only to do what I’m trained to do, but to get a better sense of the average patron of our library. Our web site is clean and friendly, and serves as a gateway to our holdings, but couches that welcome in language that’s beyond many of our students.

The common thread in both of these is the challenge of how to translate what we have into something both we and the patrons can use. We are down to only one group room; would some students love us to convert the entire lower level into private group rooms? You bet! But we have to be cognizant that needs change, sometimes hour-to-hour, and committing our resources means we have to do what’s best for the greatest percentage of users. We need to mitigate noise pollution in our 1960s brick-and-concrete building, keep our facilities clean and welcoming, and stretch librarian availability as far as possible. We also need to make the library inviting, ensure access to the most useful resources, and keep the educational aims of the college foremost in our minds.

It’s easy as professionals to forget our own biases and training when talking to laypeople; I suspect this is as common for lawyers, doctors, and accountants as it is librarians. When designing space, programs, or resources, it’s too easy to forget that how we think of the library isn’t how our average patron thinks of the library. Is our list of journal holdings valuable? Of course! Does it need to be on the front page, where students can confuse it with article databases? Maybe not.

Every step of every project a library undertakes should be taken with the actual users of your library in mind – not the ideal user, or the intended, but the actual user, and the ways in which she uses what you have. Translate the language of your library into the vernacular of its users.


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