High Tech, High Touch

The personal touch in a digital world

September 29, 2014

Meredith Farkas

We know that many of our patrons never visit the library and are content using our digital services. Many also don’t ask librarians for help with their research or reading choices. We focus on creating a seamless user experience for our patrons, but a consequence is that the librarian frequently becomes less visible to our users.

Does this mean librarians aren’t important to most users’ library encounters? Of course not! We’re the ones making those virtual visits seamless for them. That said, I think there is great value in this high-tech world in creating high-touch services that put a human face on the library and remind patrons of the value librarians bring.

When I was a distance learning librarian at a small private university, I put effort into making personal connections with online students. I built a web page with my picture and information about me to show there was a real person devoted to supporting patrons. I also proactively emailed students in certain key classes with research tips. Never in any other position did I make such strong connections with students I supported. Knowing that I was their librarian and was there to help made a big difference for these distance learners, who were isolated from the physical library, the university, and even their classmates.

These days, many academic libraries have a personal librarian service where students—often in their first year of college—are matched with a specific librarian. In some cases, this librarian emails research tips and information about library resources and services, but in other cases, they are simply a friendly face from whom first-year students can seek help. I particularly like the personal librarian page at the University of Iowa, which makes the library more approachable by including pictures and down-to-earth profiles of the librarians.

Sometimes the most important goal of instruction and outreach is getting students comfortable with the idea of using the library. Library anxiety is a very real thing, and putting an empathetic human face on the library can go a long way toward encouraging help-seeking and library use. The beautiful thing about most of these personal librarian services is that it costs very little to offer them, so even if only a few additional students seek help from a librarian, it’s a worthwhile effort.

The personal librarian concept can be applied in all sorts of libraries. Public libraries have long offered readers’ advisory services, and many librarians are book recommendation ninjas. These days, however, people are more likely to get their book recommendations from sites like Amazon and Goodreads than from their local librarian.

In a world of faceless book recommendation algorithms, the Multnomah County (Oreg.) Library is humanizing readers’ advisory in a big way. Its new service, My Librarian, allows patrons to select a specific librarian from whom to receive advice on what to read. The front page of the online service includes eye-catching pictures and profiles of each librarian with links to book lists they recommend. Library cardholders can request a phone call, video or text chat, email exchange, or face-to-face meeting with the librarian of their choice.

The My Librarian service allows patrons to find a librarian whose reading tastes they share to act as their personal book recommendation guru. This program, funded by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, is designed not only to help patrons, but also to remind them of how librarians can enrich their lives. In this era of high-tech solutions, it’s good to remember that the high-touch ones are still of value and can be facilitated by technology.



Winning the Space Race

Expanding collections and services with shared depositories