by Michael Bartolomeo, DLIS & Public History Student
This Spring I had the great opportunity to intern at Stony Brook University, a SUNY University Center home to some 27,000 students, faculty, and staff. As the Research and User Engagement Intern for the University Libraries, I was assigned a number of responsibilities ranging from reference and undergraduate instruction, to library outreach, LibGuide building, and the freedom to conduct my own independent research. Now, with the semester coming to a close, I am able to take some time to reflect upon and record a few of my experiences working at an academic library.
Reference. For a research institution, students sure do ask a lot of non-research questions! If I had a nickel for every non-reference question (what the university calls “directional” questions) I answered while on the reference desk, I would probably be able to afford a roundtrip ticket to the Bahamas. The most common question I was asked were probably, “How do I use the printers?” or “Where can I find a stapler or a pair of scissors?” That’s not to say there weren’t a great deal of reference questions asked—for indeed there were. I had the opportunity to answer a plethora of research questions from students and faculty alike. Most were in some way related to locating articles for a paper, oftentimes in subjects outside of my undergraduate concentration. These questions were the most challenging, but also the most rewarding. I can recall one interview in particular during which a patron was looking for a few peer-reviewed articles on the subject of how variant temperature affects photosynthesis and electron transport in algae. Now, I will admit, as a History major this question was way outside my area of expertise. I hadn’t studied anything having to do with photosynthesis since high school biology; but, thanks to the intuitive subject LibGuides and skills acquired from LIS 205, I was able to find nearly 20 perfectly relevant articles for the paper while also increasing my own pool of knowledge. Talk about a win-win.
Research Instruction. Ah, freshmen undergraduates… If I hadn’t taught third graders in the past I would have said that freshmen have the shortest attention spans of any age group. Perhaps that’s a bit unfair of me to say—I was in their position once and likely had a similar attention span, but just wasn’t paying attention enough to notice. That being said, once you broke through their disinterest it was clear that they were picking up the basics of conducting library research. In assisting faculty librarians with these instruction classes, I was able to work one-on-one with many students who had never used a database or library catalog before. By developing a personal working relationship with them I was able to really understand their essay topics and help them locate books and articles to use despite not conducting formal reference interviews.
Library Outreach. It was with library outreach that I really experienced something special. There probably comes a moment in every librarian’s career – or any career – when you realize that you know you’re in the right profession. For me that moment was conducting library outreach. Beyond completing my own outreach project, the Student Staff Spotlight which highlighted the contributions of student staff working in the library, I was able to partake in and assist with a deal of other programs and events, such as the library’s table at Earthstock. The event that will really stick with me though is a Zen Garden event we held in the main atrium of the library. Using upside-down library Frisbees we allowed students to create miniature Zen gardens with sand and a table of shells, feathers, and driftwood collected from the North Shore. The event was so popular that we ended up running out of sand thirty minutes before we were supposed to wrap it up. What really made this event special though is the amount of positive feedback we received from staff and students. It really is something special when you receive a heartfelt and sincere thank you from patrons—not a forced or courtesy thank you—but a truly sincere expression of gratitude and hearing someone say how much something you did help them. It’s a really good feeling.
Independent Research. From what I have witnessed, independent research seems to be either loved or loathed by academic librarians. Having been given to opportunity to do a bit of independent research of my own, I can say I fall into the “love it” camp. What started out as an exploratory search eventually turned into a research project about an independent library on campus run by the Sci-Fi Forum. This library of over 20,000 books, including first edition Isaac Asimov’s and an original script from The Shining, with handwritten notes by Stanley Kubrick, is losing its club space while the building undergoes renovations. Now, faced with limited funding and an even smaller club space, the Forum is looking for ways to keep and maintain their extensive library while preserving the condition of its holdings. My research has been exploring the club as a case study for private, independent libraries without extensive funding or donors, and I look to continue it this Summer at Stony Brook.
Altogether, my time interning in an academic library has been immensely rewarding. I feel like I have acquired an extensive set of skills while gaining valuable experience which will help in my library career moving forward. Of all the things I learned, perhaps the most important lesson I have taken from this experience has been that the library truly goes beyond being a research and book repository. Outreach, library instruction, and even a reference encounter can really improve a person’s day, and can even improve a person’s life.