Libraries are here to help people. We help the public, we help university students, we help soldiers, we help lawyers, we help MPs, and we help people from diverse organisations. We provide a support service giving information and access to information. And so our raison d’être – our professional identity – somewhat depends on the definition of the term ‘help’.
Since I started my first full-time job in an academic library, I’ve been thinking about how much help we provide to the students. In the Army College library, it seemed expected for the library staff to provide a high level of direct help to the Junior Soldiers: the soldiers were in a job rather than in full-time education. University librarians expect something different from their users: students and researchers are in full-time education and should have (or should be developing) independent research skills. The university librarian therefore has more of a background support role. I, for example, work in a back office most of the time ensuring that day-to-day access to electronic resources is maintained: when I work on the enquiry desk, I’m usually pointing students towards resources or helping them use the library’s equipment. Generally our level of ‘help’ extends to providing the resources for the students to discover and use themselves which is a lower level of ‘help’ than was provided to the soldiers.
The question comes down to: how do libraries best help people? Is it by addressing their short-term need for information or is it by addressing their long-term need for information literacy? And who gets to make this decision: the librarians; the students; the university management? And since ‘helping’ is part of a library’s raison d’être, the question of what level of help to provide leads to the question of what a library’s purpose is. Bob Usherwood wrote a great post for Voices for the Library about the purpose of public libraries and their corresponding level of help. Do we need to ask the same existential questions for academic libraries?