Dangers of being too helpful

I’d like to think that, if we worked hard at it, us reference and instruction librarians could almost work ourselves out of a job.  We’d teach students to be so good at not only finding information for themselves and evaluating it, but also learning new systems and new tools for themselves, so that they didn’t need us to explain every new feature and trick in the latest databases, search engines, etc.

Yeah, right. Like that’s going to happen.  At the very least, there’s a new crop of students each year we’d have to get up to speed.

But that’s not the point of my post. The point of this post is to talk about what happens when we’re a little bit too helpful, and that helpfulness isn’t counter-balanced by enough of a “teach them to fish” approach.

Last summer, I staffed a table at the student services fair at summer orientation.  I chatted with students and their parents, talking a little bit about the library and our services and giving them some handouts, including a business card with our IM buddy name on it.  I really emphasized this piece with the students, and encouraged them to use it over the summer if they had any questions.  And, because I’m totally gung-ho about the IM reference thing and wanted to get them comfortable using the service, I told them,

Seriously, we love helping students with questions! Any questions, even if they have nothing to do with the library! I’ve answered questions like “what time does the dining hall close tonight?” So ask us anything!

Well, you can probably imagine where this led.  One student, bless her heart, IMed me shortly after an orientation session with a question about the beds in the residence halls: were they standard twin size, or the extra-long twin size?  A reasonable question for someone who needs to go out and buy bed linens.  So, I called up Residence Life and asked, and reported the information back to her.  Then, in the course of the same IM chat, she asked another question.  So I picked up the phone again and talked again with the same person at Res Life, and reported the answer back to her.  No big deal for me, and only a minor inconvenience for the poor staff person at Res Life, who was probably fielding bunches more phone calls like this from students and parents.

Then a few days later, the student IMed me again, with another question about the dorms.  I think this time it might have been something about the storage capacity of the dressers.

Then a few days after that, she was back, this time asking about the number of windows in the room she’d been assigned.  (No, I’m not kidding: I think she was planning to buy or make curtains.)

Then a few days after that, another question.  Each time, it had nothing to do with the library, and the only way to answer it was to call up Res Life and ask, though I did try a few alternate sources, like student library workers, so as not to pester the poor person in Res Life who answered the phone.  All in all, I probably had five or six IM chats with this student and answered eight or ten questions from her, all concerning domestic arrangements in the dorms.

What I should have done, after probably the second IM chat, was to say, “hey, you know what? The Residence Life office is really the place to ask these questions.  Here’s their phone number, and I’m sure they’ll be glad to answer whatever questions you have.  I’m just calling them up and asking them, so it’s not like I’m adding any value to the answer you’re getting.”  But I hate referring students if I don’t have to; it feels very “that isn’t my job” to me and that’s an attitude that I just can’t stand.  And I had no way of knowing if the cost of the long-distance phone call(s) would have been a hardship for her.  So I didn’t, for way too long, and wound up getting walked on like a bit of a doormat.  Maybe next time I’ll learn.

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  1. […] to other offices on campus when appropriate, or we call up other offices to find out, for example, whether the dorm beds are regular-twin-sized or XL-twin-sized. But how often do we call someone up or stick our head into someone’s office and say, […]