Librarians Need to Stop Going to Library Conferences

Now that I have got your attention with a title that I borrowed from a post on the Undergraduate Science Librarian, “Why academic librarians need to stop going to library conferences,” I guess I should rephrase my statement to: Librarians Need to Attend Their User’s Conferences. (A more accurate but less snappy title.)

The Undergraduate Science Librarian’s post hit home with me a little bit.  She describes a general disconnect between the library world and the research world, which she witnessed at the ScienceOnline2010 conference.  At that conference two librarians held a session for scientists and researchers about available library tools.  From that session, Bonnie Swoger (the author of the blog post) noticed that “scientists and scholars aren’t aware of what librarians do, beyond the whole ‘buying books’ thing.”  Bonnie also believes that librarians aren’t spending enough time listening to scientists and scholars to figure out what they really need and want. 

Bonnie links to a post from Martin Fenner, “Scientists and librarians: friend or foe?”  which addresses Dorothea Salo’s (one of the librarians at the ScienceOnline session) dismay over the disconnect between librarians and scientists.  Fenner lists several ways librarians can be more relevant and helpful to scientists.  Most of the things he lists are services, such as provide and support an online reference manager, online user training and support, microblogging for quick help support, institutional bibliographies, institutional repositories, help with article submissions, and help with Web 2.0 tools. 

I know many of you in library land are saying, “But we do many of those things he wants, why is there still a disconnect? Do they think the online tutorials grow on trees?”  My guess is that there is a general disconnect between what librarians do and all of their users.  Whether it is scientists, researchers, doctors, nurses, students, etc. many still think we are book buyers.

I have two examples of how I felt the disconnect.

Incident 1:
A few years ago my husband and I were invited to a large get together with many couples.  While at dinner one of the women (who I had just met) asked me what I did.  I told her I was a medical librarian.  (She was a physical therapist.)  She got that glazed look in her eye and asked me “Really? So what do you do, make copies and shelve books?”  As offensive as that statement was to me, she didn’t mean it that way, she was entirely clueless as to what a medical librarian did. 

Incident 2:
My husband and I met some friends at a local bar before a baseball game.  The boyfriend (I had met once or twice before) of a friend asked me, “So why are you interested in a career in which you will be replaced by Google in a decade.”  He had too much to drink to be polite.

So how can we begin to deal with this disconnect?  Well, I like what Bonnie suggested.  “We need to start attending the same conferences as the scholars we serve.”  Bonnie is putting her money where her mouth (keyboard?) is, on her post she states, “I will not be attending the ALA annual conference this summer. Hopefully, I will head to Denver for the Geological Society of America national meeting in October. And perhaps the year after that I will make it to the American Chemical Society conference.”

I think MLA and librarian conferences are important, it helps us to connect and learn off of each other, but I think Bonnie’s idea of getting out there and attending our CUSTOMER’S conferences might be helpful.  We need to start thinking a little more like business and start marketing to our customers. For many of us, it may not be practical to go to the national conferences of our customers.  How about local conferences and meetings? How about city groups, institutional groups or meetings?  Heck try and get in on the Monday meeting at your institution.

Get out from the library and tell your customers what you have and how you can serve them.  But also listen to their needs.

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