Fetch my Personal Librarian!


Every time I go to a library conference and someone from Yale is presenting, I learn some really cool stuff. I don’t know how they do it at their libraries, but they seem to have the magic touch. At the New England Library Association Conference, a gentleman spoke about stack maintenance, quality control in shelving and inventory– and it was interesting! This time around, we got to hear about the Personal Librarian program at Yale.

On their website, it explains the program:

The Personal Librarian (PL) Program is designed to introduce students entering Yale College to the collections and services of the Yale University Library.  As a Yale freshman you will be matched with a Librarian when you matriculate, a relationship that will continue through your freshman and sophomore years, or until you declare a major, whichever comes first.  At that point, your PL will introduce you to your subject specialist, a librarian with an advanced degree in your discipline, who will help you with the research you do for your major.

This is an idea first undertaken in 1996 at the Yale Medical School, which has a much smaller student body (1,320), and it was met with great success.  Librarians were concerned with their loss of face time with students, and students’ attitudes toward libraries and librarians.  Similarly, the undergraduate libraries at Yale have seen an amazing decline in use of the reference desk.  Previously, the reference desk was staffed by two librarians and a paraprofessional and there were always lines.  Now the reference desk is staffed by one paraprofessional who refers the more difficult questions to subject specialists.

So as we librarians often do, Yale adapted.

The undergraduate student body of 5,247 students is already sorted into 12 smaller colleges when they are admitted.  These colleges determine where students live and make me think of Harry Potter.  The idea of the personal librarian program was floated to all staff, and those who chose to participate also got to choose how many students to take on in the first year.

They sent out an email to their students explaining what the program is, and how to reach them (along with some disclaimers about how emails sent at 10pm on Friday will not be answered until Monday).  The personal librarian then fields questions, and sends a monthly email keeping students informed of new developments in the library, and lets students know about workshops and tours.  This also helps Yale keep in contact with students studying abroad.

At the end of this first “test” year, students were asked to complete a survey about the successes and failures of the program, and they overwhelmingly said that having a personal librarian was a great idea and that it made them feel more connected to the library.

The biggest concern on the part of the librarians was the time commitment.  Interestingly, when librarians were surveyed at the end of the year, the average librarian spent 3.86 hours answering questions.  Even Emily Horning, who implemented and oversaw the program, and had over 300 students in the first year, did not see a huge increase in her workload.

  • The librarians answered 376 reference questions or 11.75 per librarian.
  • They spent 126.3 hours total answering questions and sending out emails.
  • 242 students took library tours.

The student assessment, which was administered during reading week found:

  • 72.9% of student respondants could name their personal librarian
  • 90.3% said the amount of communication between them and their PL (the monthly emails) was “just right.”
  • 46.7% wanted help with a paper topic

What I love best about this, is that it sounds like the impossible dream.  I’m willing to bet 95% of librarians would love to have a system like this but think it’s too much work to implement, or too time-consuming overall.  We now have proof that it’s really neither of those things, and a model we can crib from.

If anyone has further questions about this program, Emily Horning was gracious enough to get me her email to pass along to all of you: emily.horning@yale.edu

5 Responses to “Fetch my Personal Librarian!”

  1. 1 Erica

    Fabulous post and a fascinating idea, thanks!

  2. 2 Andy

    Great. Now I get to spend the rest of this day trying to imagine how this could be used in the public library setting. There goes my afternoon while I devise ways to steal the underlying concepts. =P

    Excellent post, by the by. And thanks.

    (Got this post via Twitter.)

  3. Now there’s a concept that would help a lot of students through their academic careers. Wish we could do something like this out on the public side. We’d just need a lot more librarians, or some way of being able to shunt questions to their proper specialists when someone calls or comes in.

  4. 4 Okezie Amalaha

    This is another wonderful way of introducing the library to new students. The Archives and Museums are suitable places for such practice as well. It is possible that something like this has been happening in some of the Archives and Museums. In my neck of the wood, we have been doing such without a name for it. Mostly, introducing new researchers to our collections, also connecting their research projects to the resources in our collections and staying with them until they’re done with their project.

  1. 1 Personal Librarians « Words For Nerds


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