Top 5: What I learned about being a librarian from working in a bookstore

I worked at the wonderful Boulder Book Store for five years. I tried out pretty much every position I could: bookseller, special orders department, author event host, floor staff coordinator, and sidelines buyer (I still miss the yummy chocolate samples!). While my LIS classes in ethics, database searching, and digitization provided wonderful training, I’ve come to see that there was a lot of value in what I learned as a bookseller: how to transform patrons into library evangelists. I think these simple strategies go a long way towards easing library anxiety for students at my community college and encouraging regular use of our services.

  • #1 treat your customers/patrons/students as if your survival depends on them. Because it does. Bookstores realize that customers can easily go to or Barnes & Noble for books. Independent bookstore prices aren’t usually better than the competition, though we tried to complement our new books with nice used copies and remainder books. We knew that customer service and the store’s community atmosphere were our only advantages over big box stores and online retailers. What customers are looking for in a physical bookstore is that interaction with people who also love to read and a lovely environment. In academic libraries, our competition comes in the forms of Google, Google books, or Yahoo answers, among others. When students contact us, they are looking for that human connection and advice, as well as a pleasant place to study. These are both huge opportunities to create positive experiences.
  • #2 be happy to see them. Look up, smile, and greet everyone who walks in the library doors. Sounds simple, but makes a huge difference, especially for people (like me) who would rather try to find it themselves. Creating that small positive interaction lets students know that they can come back and ask a question if they have trouble and they can count on a friendly reception. When you walk around and see someone with a confused look, ask, “What can I help you with?” This leaves the question open-ended and is more likely to generate a real response. Asking “Are you finding everything?” or “Do you need help?” is more likely to generate a quick ‘no,’ regardless of the true answer.
  • #3 know what people want. Reader’s advisory is part of daily life. Rather than having reader’s advisory specialists, every person working in the bookstore was empowered to have a conversation with a customer about their reading interests, habits, and how to find their next favorite book. This is an extremely personalized service model. To be successful, staff must keep minimally up to date with popular books and series so that you recognize when people are asking for, “that red book about the dog?” they likely mean The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Public libraries probably do this innately, but it’s sometimes more of a stretch at academic libraries. I found in the past year that I am definitely guilty of not knowing about popular books in certain genres–mysteries, especially!
  • #4 be a real human. Try starting reference conversations (rather than transactions/interviews!) by asking what the patron’s name is (and telling them yours!), what class the information is for, etc. Students feel more comfortable when they feel like there is give and take. This communicates that you are approachable and makes them feel more comfortable asking for help. They may also share important information that might not have come out if they had tried asking a specific question. For instance, “How do I look up a book?” becomes, “I really need help finding information on ADHD and education for my 8 page paper, due today.” Having a friendly conversation with patrons is different from recommendations that librarians be as neutral and removed as possible. Maybe that’s okay. Especially when we’re trying to make sure that students have a positive experience with the library and become “repeat users.”
  • #5 treat referrals like gold. Conversations are how students and faculty let others know about great service via word of mouth. They’ll say, “Go see so-and-so at the library. They were super helpful in my last assignment and they’ll take care of you.” When another student, faculty member, or service on campus recommends your library, treat that referral like gold. This is how good vibes spread, especially if your library has struggled to be visible on campus or show value in the past! The inverse is true–avoiding impersonal hand-offs to other departments or staff is important. We regularly walk lost students to other offices on campus, just to build a positive impression for the future. We think that actions like this contribute to student retention at our school and a reputation as a very hospitable campus.

A caveat. I’ll admit, there is a dichotomy between providing great service for a customer and teaching students to do things themselves. My first priority is teaching and empowering students to find and create themselves. But I also try to make sure that every student who leaves the library is interested in returning. Even after a (perhaps) difficult conversation about (perhaps) very large fines…

Carebrarians: Librarians and Mental Health Training


A co-worker of mine and I just participated in a Mental Health First Responder course, offered through Mental Health First Aid Colorado network, part of the larger national Mental Health First Aid group. The groups’ aims are to have many more people complete Mental Health First Aid Responder training, similar to CPR and other first aid trainings. The training covered signs and symptoms for common mental health issues: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, psychotic disorders, and substance abuse issues. The course emphasizes that mental health first aid is first and foremost a bridge to professional mental health resources. Yet the course gave practical, down to earth recommendations for compassionately talking with friends, family, (or patrons!) dealing with these issues.

I thought it was particularly helpful that our instructor discussed mental health in terms of a spectrum–that many mental health disorders are manageable with treatment–and gave clear definitions of when a mental health issue needs to be addressed with professional help, usually when the symptoms starts to interfere with work, home, relationships, or a person’s normal activities.

The course also addressed the very real mental health stigmas in our culture. I thought it was particularly interesting to hear that on average, it takes someone suffering from a mental health issue eight or more years of struggling on their own before they seek treatment (Wang, Berglund, Olfson, Pincus, Wells, & Kessler, 2005). And that when people do seek treatment, they are much more likely to focus on describing any physical symptoms rather than emotional ones. Some of the other statistics presented painted a very different picture of mental illness compared with what we see on tv and other media. The training handbook cites Kessler, Berglund, Demler, Jin, and Walters (2005), saying that more than half of American adults will experience some type of mental health issue at some point.

The program teaches an acronym for mental health first aid steps that is similar to CPR’s ABC. The ALGEE acronym stands for Assess for risk of suicide, Listen non-judgmentally, Give reassurance, Encourage appropriate professional help, and Encourage self-help and other support strategies (Mental Health Association of Maryland, Missouri Department of Mental Health, and National Council for Behavioral Health, 2013).

My cohort was primarily other librarians from public, academic, and specialized libraries. It was really interesting to me that the public librarians had no qualms about whether conversations with patrons on mental health issues were part of their jobs. A colleague mentioned that Denver Public Library is hiring a social worker and quite a few other public libraries have done or plan to do so soon. Yet among the academic and special library folks, I think many of us experienced a hesitancy– that mental health first aid was maybe “none of our business,” outside of our boundaries as professionals, or that our ethics of impartiality protect/prevent us from having these conversations.

I was glad that our instructor underlined the importance of boundaries and your own comfort level when attempting to offer help to others; yet she made it very clear that caring for our neighbors, our patrons, and those in our community is something every person can, and probably should do. Also that checking in with someone or having a conversation about what they need to feel better is a very human thing to do. These conversations needn’t be stressful or scary when prepared with the courses’ techniques. I would highly recommend this course to anyone–and I think it would be particularly valuable for librarians and educators.

And so the past few weeks I’ve been intentionally asking a few more open-ended questions when patrons disclose a mental health issue they are struggling with instead of shying away. I’ve offered additional resources to a couple of folks. And I am much more aware of my own reactions to patrons’ behavior and what messages I might be unconsciously sending. I hope I’m on my way to becoming a Carebrarian 😉


Kessler, R.C., Berglund, P.A., Demler, O., Jin, R., and Walters, E.E. (2005). Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry. 62, 593-602.

Mental Health Association of Maryland, Missouri Department of Mental Health, and National Council for Behavioral Health. (2013). Mental Health First Aid USA, Revised First Edition. Lutherville, MD: Mental Health Association of Maryland.

Wang, P.S., Berglund, P. Olfson, M., Pincus, H.A., Wells, K.B., and Kessler, R.C. (2005). Failure and delay in initial treatment contact after first onset of mental disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry. 62, 629-640.

LOEX 2015 Takeaways (Or, why is this the first LOEX I’ve been to?!)

A month later, my brain is still processing sessions from LOEX 2015. My first time at LOEX was eye-opening. How wonderful to be surrounded by academic librarians struggling with the same questions. “How do we use the new ACRL Framework? How do we teach one-shots effectively when information literacy skills could easily fill a 3-credit class? How do we integrate active learning into our sessions? How best to work with faculty?” And so on.

Here are some of my faves:

  • Where Knowledge Meets Experience: The Library’s Role in Experiential Learning, Elizabeth Price and Becky Richardson, Murray State
    • Gave great realistic case studies of the library as 3rd-party client for class projects such as an anthropology class’s space study, or a PR class’s social media strategic plan.
    • Emphasized the importance of George Kuh’s High Impact Practices–how service learning and other hands-on experiences tie all of the loose threads of students’ academic work together.
  • Hacking the Framework: Using Science of Story to Address the Dispositions, John Watts, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Joshua Vossler, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
    • Story, Curiosity, and Reward-Based Learning – learning is motivated by curiosity. Information conveyed through stories sticks better. Stories tie in with memory through neuro-coupling, where the listeners come to feel what the storyteller is communicating.
    • To be a better storyteller: Use sensory and emotional language; Inner dialogue, ie Carrie Bradshaw, Sex and the City; Use outer dialogue, ie voices create multiple characters, (stand-up comics do this all the time); create drama through silence, pauses, exaggeration builds tension
    • What storytelling isn’t: Acting. No miming. A gesture that drives home a point is okay. You will become a window into the story. You recede and the story and language envelops the listener. You’re channeling the story.
    • A side note: I could listen to these guys talk for hours. Intelligent and hilarious. Loved the storytelling video they’d created. Definitely one of the most engaging presentations of the conference.
  • Backward Design: A Must-Have Library Instructional Design Strategy, Sarah LeMire (Texas A&M), Donna Ziegenfuss (Univ of Utah)
    • Drawing on the work of L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences (2003), advocate using alignment grids as part of course planning process. Importance of aligning session goals with overall course, program, and institutional goals. This helps show the value of library instruction sessions.
    • Fantastic handouts and course materials. Still sorting through these and the Canvas course!
  • Saturday Plenary: Groups, Games & Flipping: Remaining Purposeful amidst a Multitude of Teaching Options, Bridget Arend, University of Denver Office for Teaching and Learning
    • Importance of choosing the right educational activity for the outcome. Example of why discussions cause “crickets” among students– that teaching method is best for sharing perspectives, not for covering content.
    • Emphasis on active learning’s clear effectiveness over traditional lecture as sole instructional method. Freeman, Eddy, McDonough, Smith, Okoroafor, Jordt, and Wenderoth’s 2014 article, Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics, compared 228 studies of active learning. Found that underrepresented students and women were greatly helped by active learning activities. Wired gives a great summary of the article.
  • Lightning Talk: Inspired by Failure: Engaging Students with an Active Learning Exercise on Authority, Rebecca Hewitt (Hartwick College)
    • Loved her idea of the “Pyramid of Evidence” using post-it notes for students to discuss and visualize their conceptions of “authority” among types of sources. Tried this with a group of Astronomy students last week and we had a fantastic 1/2 hour discussion, including where “intuition” fits on the pyramid.
  • Drinking on the Job: Workplace Literacy, Alison Hicks (CU-Boulder)
    • There has long been tension between academic work and workplace literacy. Professors often don’t like to spend time on the practical skills students will need. Negative perception that it’s too “vocational.” But, workplace literacy is HUGELY important for students to be able to adapt to the social/cultural aspects of a job, be employeable after graduation, and build lifelong learning and transferable skills.
    • Information-seeking in the workplace differs from academic work in several ways: It is non-linnear, not well planned, not individual. Often there are challenges like secrecy, a lack of access to paid resources, workplaces are much more team-focused (info isn’t used in a vacuum, ie, your student paper). Workplaces often utilize peers, institutional knowledge, and other departments for information.
    • Australian Researcher Anne Marie Lloyd (2007) studied firefighters and other professions that are very info-rich. She found they were highly social: telling stories sitting around the fire station was how they learned many of their best practices and developed expertise. It was also corporeal, embodying automatic and sensory knowledge, such as being able to take off a glove and give an approximate temp of the fire and other conditions. Other types of corporeal knowledge include driving a manual car and recognizing the right time to switch gears by the sound of the engine.
    • Personal Learning Environments (PLE) can be a way of raising awareness and teaching workplace literacy. PLEs map tools, artefacts, processes and physical connections that allow learners to manage their learning (Couros, 2010; ELI, 2009; Drexler, 2007).
    • Really cool visual PLE:
    • Wish I had a bibliography for this session as my note-taking wasn’t able to keep up with all of the wonderful studies mentioned. Plan to read some of Alison’s related papers in the next few weeks.

I’ll be setting an Outlook reminder to register for next year’s conference!

Therapy Dogs bring Smiles, Stress-Relief

A 2009 study found that by gazing at their dogs pet owners can increase their oxytocin levels, thereby improving their overall mood. ACC Librarians concur! Students, faculty, and staff who attended our March 10 Therapy Dogs event left with big smiles and reduced stress. Gidget, Lambchop, Rosetta, Franz, Vitas, and Oboe are therapy dogs or guide-dogs-in-training. Their owners volunteer at Littleton Adventist Hospital or raise puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. We’re excited to have them back again during finals week!

Are LibGuides Really Helping Students?

I know many academic librarians are very attached to their LibGuides, understably so. LibGuides provide an easy-to-edit venue for academic librarians to share their subject expertise with students and other librarians. Do to their individualized nature and treatment of Guide Creators as “authors,” LibGuides are considered by some to equate published works in service to the profession. Certainly, the time it takes to create a well-designed and informative guide rivals the time it takes to craft a research article or similar scholarly project.

Yet, the question has been asked, “Are LibGuides really helping students?” Many students seem to have no idea what LibGuides are or how to find them. In fact, I had never heard of LibGuides until starting the MLIS program at DU. Now that I know about them, I frequently use them when helping students answer questions in disciplines I’m not familiar with. Yet, in spite of efforts to publicize LibGuides to faculty and students, they don’t seem to be catching on.

While the idea of sharing subject-specific resources is a great and timely one, I worry that we are too hung-up on the LibGuides platform. If we are trying to meet students at the point of need, working with instructors to embed resources in learning management systems like D2L or Blackboard seems the best way to reach busy students.

Thoughts? Suggested articles in support of LibGuides for student learning?