Your very own personal librarian? No way!

Personal Librarian Program librarians

What if every new NC State student had their own personal librarian on call to help them with their every scholarly need? 

“But that’s impossible,” you answer. “Between first-year students and transfers, NC State welcomes some 6,000 new students to campus each fall. Certainly each of these students couldn’t have their own, devoted librarian?”

But the Personal Librarian Program (PLP) is exactly that. Students can always walk up to the Ask Us desk to find out about the vast array of services available to them, but the Libraries wanted to be much more proactive—especially for new students.

Through the PLP, every first-year and transfer student is assigned a personal librarian. These specially trained librarians contact their students three times throughout the semester—in the beginning, during midterms, and during finals. These communications remind students about Libraries services specifically relevant to that time of the semester and offer them one-on-one video consultations with their librarian. At any time, and for any reason, students can schedule consultations and ask questions, whether it’s “How do I get a laptop?” or “Does the Libraries have any stuff on self-care or wellness?”

The program launched in the fall 2019 semester for transfer students only, but in year two, beginning in fall 2020, the PLP was expanded to include all first-years as well.

Perfect for the pandemic pivot

“For a variety of reasons, the Libraries has had difficulty connecting with transfer students in the past,” says Anne Burke, Associate Head of Learning Spaces & Services and one of the PLP librarians. “Transfer students are more likely to be commuter students and to be non-traditional students with other competing responsibilities. Compounding this is the fact that transfer students often enter the university having placed out of ENG 101, one of our key library orientation opportunities. We thought that a more personal and direct approach to transfers might be more effective.”

Once the coronavirus pandemic sent the spring 2020 semester online, almost every student became a “non-traditional” student in terms of their relationship to Libraries services. Incoming first-years in fall 2020 had a freshman experience with a remote New Student Orientation and Wolfpack Welcome Week. The PLP turned out to be a perfect plan B.

“When the pandemic hit in Spring 2020, we began to realize that typical orientation events would likely not provide the same opportunities for engaging with even traditionally matriculating students,” Burke says. “So we expanded the infrastructure and staffing for the transfer student Personal Librarian Program to encompass all incoming students.”

And students have loved it. “I love NC State and the libraries and my experience as a transfer student couldn’t be better,” one student wrote. They’re grateful for the variety of services available to them and excited that they have a specific person to reach out to instead of having to navigate some nightmarish voicemail system. The PLP is connecting students to more Libraries services earlier in their time at NC State.

Good laptops and bad breakups

For many students, the PLP was a personalized enhancement to the Ask Us services normally provided at Libraries desks and through chat. Common questions from students have included how to check out or access textbooks, how to borrow technology lending items such as laptops, and how to get help with specific research projects, as well as just getting a general overview of the Libraries’ services.

One undergraduate spring 2020 transfer student got a Hill tour before COVID hit and met with a librarian about his strong interest in Data and Visualization Services. He has used the PLP to keep apprised on upcoming Libraries workshops and to get individual help on his own visualization projects. A first-year student who started in the summer 2020 semester reached out for help verifying sources with her final paper. Another first-year arranged to have a long-term loaner laptop mailed to her but had issues getting up and running with it—she and a librarian did the troubleshooting together through a PLP consultation.

“I have worked with students on assignments from social work to international relations,” Burke says. “I have worked with students who are parents, who are military veterans, and who are more traditionally aged college students. They each have their own unique goals, situations, and perspectives.”

But for plenty of students, the “Personal” part of the PLP has been more important than the “Librarian” part.

“I’ve helped a student find cookbooks because she was preparing for a culinary institute she was attending in the summer and helped someone else through a breakup by finding them books on that topic,” says Lara Fountaine, Student Success & Engagement Librarian.

Burke also finds that students want to explore personal research interests or address other needs not traditionally associated with librarianship.

“First and foremost, I'm checking in with students to see how they are doing overall,” she says. “One big goal of the program is to help students feel connected to someone at the University. I like to learn a bit about a student, their interests and their challenges.”

Student success is about value, not just $

The PLP supports NC State’s overall emphasis on student success by extending and promoting the Libraries’ services. For some students, such as those borrowing textbooks and technology that they would otherwise have to buy, this means a savings measurable in dollars. But the program is more focused on delivering value through keeping students on their educational trajectories.

“I think the more compelling argument is that, in helping keep students on track, focused, and in touch with the resources they need when they need them, the Personal Librarian Program is a long-term money saver, rather than a short-term money saver,” Burke says.

“Students lose when they have to repeat a course or an entire semester. They lose when they become overwhelmed and step away from school for a year to recharge and refocus. If, through our efforts in the PLP, we can take what seems like an overwhelming research assignment and guide students to the resources they need, we have dialed down one stressor that may have made the difference between sticking it out and stepping away for a bit.”

Fountaine appreciates how the PLP flexes to meet student needs as those change throughout the arc of a semester. As a semester begins, she sees a lot of questions around access to technology, what Libraries spaces are open under COVID restrictions, and the simple question “How can I get books?”

Later in a semester, the questions change. “When we send out our final email for the semester, we've gotten more questions around specific research help,” she says. “Students needing help finding sources, accessing different databases, or doing research for different papers. Those have kind of gotten more and more abundant.”

Burke hears from students that the PLP over-delivers value for their tuition expense. “One thing I notice—especially with transfer students—is that they come in with an expectation of services from their previous institution. They are often blown away by what they have access to here at the Libraries.”

Written on Feb 16, 2021