Library Collaborations with Residence Halls

The role of the librarian is no longer just to curate material or assist with information seeking. For example, academic librarians collaborate with other campus organizations and/or academic departments to help fulfill their functions.  MU Libraries have several widely known examples.  Some of the health science librarians function as embedded librarians.  All subject specialists work closely with their assigned departments on collection development and to teach library instruction sessions.  There is also a partnership with the Writing Center to offer their services at Ellis Library.  Lesser known was Ellis Library’s collaborative efforts between the graduate reference assistants (GRAs) and two residence halls.

The collaboration began in the Fall 2009 semester at the first residence hall.  A reference outpost was set up in the common area during the evening hours and was staffed by a GRA with a laptop.  The idea was to bring reference and research assistance to the students in a more comfortable and familiar location which may encourage those who had questions but did not want to visit the library to ask.  Not many students opted to utilize the service.  In the Spring 2010 semester, a second residence hall contacted our supervisor about initiating the service at their dorm.  A one week trial was set up in this hall and more reference questions were handled in that week than a year at other.  Thus, the decision was made to move the outpost to second residence hall starting in Fall 2010, the semester I began at Ellis.

Once the reference outpost in the second hall opened, it did not fare as well as expected.  It was located just outside the computer lab in the main lobby and utilized the same set-up as before.  Despite the fact it was staffed five nights a week, only seven questions were asked the entire semester.  Personally, I staffed the outpost on Sunday nights and only was asked two directional questions.  The outpost project was cancelled after that semester.

Despite the cancellation, the second hall and Ellis Reference wanted to maintain their relationship.  The new idea was to create a personal librarianship program.  The idea of personal librarianship began with Yale’s Medical School in 1996 when they assigned each incoming student a librarian for the duration of their program.  After reviewing examples from other libraries, we crafted one suited to fit our partnership.  As the second hall housed predominately freshman, we based part of our program on the University of Iowa’s Personal Librarianship Program.  The borrowed idea was to provide assistance to freshman and sophomores until they declared a major and could utilize their subject specialist.  A second idea was to send periodic e-mails to students in our groups with helpful searching tips and information on events and new databases was borrowed from Yale’s undergraduate personal librarian program.  A third idea was partly based on Drexel’s program.  At Drexel, each librarian was assigned 100 students.  The residence hall held approximately 300, so we figured each graduate reference assistant (there were three) would have 100.  Further, since one GRA had a strong background in each of the three main categories of courses—humanities, sciences, and social sciences—those with known majors in those areas would be assigned to that GRA.  Undecided majors would have been divided amongst us.  It would then be our job to help the students with any and all research needs as requested, including providing consultations at the residence hall’s common areas.

Word Cloud of Post created via Wordle

Word Cloud of the Post; Created via Wordle

However, after planning the program and scheduling a few workshops in the spring to introduce the idea which was set to begin in Fall 2011, the residence hall backed out.  There may have been some miscommunication about what the dorm would have to do on their end.  Due to confidentiality, the hall director would have to determine who was assigned to each GRA.  The workshops for Spring 2011 were also canceled.  With this turn of events, we thought the partnership and ideas of possible campus-wide expansion had ended.

Fall 2011 brought new life to the partnership.  The residence hall contacted us mid-semester and did not want to do the personal librarian program, but asked us to return and teach informational workshops.  These workshops were planned and scheduled for late fall and early spring.  Selected topics included “Google Scholar vs. Summon”, “Locating Primary Sources”, and “Evaluating Sources with the CRAAP Test”.  Again, after planning everything, the hall backed out.  This ended all plans to extend reference services to the dorms.

Why were the graduate reference assistants picked for this role?  At the time of cancellation, all the GRAs were second year students.  First, we had been taught to understand the best ways to provide reference in the “Reference and User Services” course.  Second, each school year began with an intensive sixty-hour training program covering the reference interview, information literacy, utilizing the databases, discussion of interface and website changes, and tips for common questions and assignments.  Third, since the GRAs are students too, were more apt to understand the time crunches and frustration with assignments than professional librarians who have been out of school longer. Lastly, our desk shifts give us ample practice (18 hours a week) using resources to assist students.

While the plans for the dorm outpost fell through, the partnership has had multiple outcomes for the GRAs.  We learned how to work together to implement new ideas.  By researching and planning for the personal librarianship program and the workshops, we improved our knowledge of the field and of instructional methods.  While this may not seem measurable, we were able to successfully communicate our research and plans with our supervisor and the head of user services.  We were promoted from observing instruction to being allowed to co-teach English 1000 sessions and sessions at the International Student Workshop and I was allowed to teach two British Parliamentary Papers workshops.

And keep in mind, while my example deals with academic libraries, collaboration is not limited to just those.  Public, school, and special libraries and archives can also create partnerships with community organizations and the schools.

Do you have any questions?  Has your library tried a similar project?

Adapted from a paper written for a class about the project.


Personal Librarians,” Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University.

Living Learning Communities:  My Personal Librarian,” The University of Iowa Libraries.

Personal Librarian Program,”  Yale University Library.


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  1. Pingback: My First Full Library Conference, Part One | Amy's Scrap Bag: A Blog About Libraries, Archives, and History

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