Friday, November 18, 2005

The librarian as a confessor: some musings

I went to a Catholic high school run by Benedictine monks. One of the monks, Brother Tarcisio, had the great gift of being able to relate to the students. He was not a teacher. In fact, as I recall, he mostly did work on the grounds and other tasks. However, he always was the one that students could go to if they had any problems or just needed someone to talk to. The priests would often say that the students would go see Brother Tarcisio for confession and that Brother Tarcisio would simply send them back to the priest to get actual absolution after the confession. For those of you who are not Catholic or just not familiar with the traditions, in the Catholic Church, only a priest can administer absolution for your sins after your confession. A monk, who is a minor cleric, does not have that power to administer the sacrament of penance, as confession is officially known. We all knew that students bared their souls to Brother Tarcisio, so the scheme of him sending them on to the priests actually made sense, even though the priests likely meant it in a lighthearted way.

Years later, I became a teacher, and now I am librarian. I don't have that monk's gift, and it definitely was a gift. What I do have now and then is the ability to listen to my students. Back in September, I wrote a note on article about dramaturgy and librarianship. In that piece, I briefly speculated that librarians are at times confessors, and I said that someday I would write more about this topic. Well, it seems that the day came a bit sooner. A student that came to see me last Friday afternoon has prompted me to think about this a little more.

So, there I was. It was Friday afternoon, and it was an hour before closing time. It was definitely a time that I was not expecting any students coming for a consultation. She came in with a hopeful smile, the smile a student gives you when they are happy to see you, but more importantly, when they are hoping you will be able to help them out. I was at my desk, and the librarian on duty at the reference desk just led her in. I get this once in a while. They come to the reference desk asking for "that librarian that taught my class." So, I had the young lady take a seat, and she began to tell me what she was working on and what she needed help with. She was working on a science topic, or rather the social angle of a science topic. I can't recall it now, but that does not matter as much. What matters is what ensued as we got into a conversion. I have my desk set up so I can turn my computer monitor around to allow students to view it when they sit in front of my desk. So, we took some time to look over some databases. We pulled some results, made some notes of terms she may want to try out later in searches, and we even got a couple of articles that she e-mailed to herself. While we are talking, I get to learn a little about her. She is social work major in her junior year hoping to become a social worker. We get to talking a little about what kind of work she might like to do. I mention my sister-in-law is a social worker, and then we get to talking about what work she does. My sister-in-law works for a private charity. We get to talking also about her classes, and the topic of English teachers comes up, in part because I teach for so many English classes. I get to know a lot of the English teachers. So, she wants to know my impressions. This is where a little diplomacy comes in place, since I don't believe in talking about another professional behind their back. Having said that, I can gently suggest who may be a little better in the classroom based on observation and student feedback. It is a balancing act. Next I hear about the paper she wrote for another class. Somewhere in that line of conversation it comes up that I was a composition teacher, so now she wants me to read her paper. I tell her the Writing Center would be a better place for that. I am certainly qualified, but like I gently explained, I am not the actual teacher, so what I may think will likely differ from the grader. However, it was what she said afterwards that made me think. She simply said, "oh, I trust you."

What do you say to that other than thank you. It is something very humbling. I made me realize that the small role I play with students at times is a bit more than just helping them locate an article on a database or find a good book for a topic. Sometimes they need someone on the campus they can talk to, or someone who can be another contact on campus. Actually, the notion of being a contact for students often came up interviews for instructional librarian positions. Well, for positions that were "in the trenches." I went to one or two interviews where what they really wanted was a project manager, which would have no actual or minimal student contact. Those were clear examples of mislabeling in a job advertisement. Anyways, I will admit that after I left the high school classroom for higher education that I thought this role would wind down. It does not, and I don't mind. But I realize as I think about it that is not for everyone. Not all librarians have the comfort level I have with students. Sometimes I get a little too much information, but not to worry, the information is not going anywhere else. We had a long talk about many things last Friday. As librarians share the reference office, one of my colleagues was at her desk nearby, and once my student left, I said half joking, "Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen." (This means in English: I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.). I will say that at this moment in my life I am a recovering Catholic, but the fact I was raised and educated in that tradition colors much of my experience, including my education outlook since I was also educated during grades 7, 8, and 9 by the Brothers of Christian Schools (the congregation of St. Jean Baptiste De La Salle, who are pretty much the educators of the Catholic Church). I think to a large measure I became a teacher because I was inspired by the ideals of La Salle. Thus looking at experiences like this in such a way comes easy for me. I suppose for another librarian it may be seen as a therapy. But I will say it is closer to confession.

The student comes in looking for something, and they often come in feeling they have fallen short. How often have some of us had students come to the reference desk asking for help saying that they tried such and such a method with no result? Or they mention, "I tried, but I just could not get anything. I think I did something wrong"? I think for an instruction librarian these multiply when you do individual consultations. It's not easy coming to see a teacher for help. The library science literature has various articles on how students can be anxious about the library. So, my work becomes one not only of helping them out, but also it is the work of comforting them, of alleviating fears, of just listening, and offering some encouragement if such is needed. I have never had a student say something like "forgive me for not knowing how to do this," but in their eyes I see very often that they struggled. And I try my absolute best to reassure them. "Yes, it's ok to come see me. Yes, that is why I mentioned it during class. Your professor sent you? No problem. You are going to be ok." I say such phrases and a few more, but they are also conveyed in actions. This is a part of my work that I both enjoy and find challenging. And as I write this, I have to wonder how that monk back in high school did it. He always had a smile on his face. He shook your hand and was always interested in what you did and how were things. He would give you a hug if you needed one (this was before the litigious society we have today. I would not have dreamed of doing that with a high school student in my time as a public school teacher). Now, multiply this by about 300 students or so, and I have a little more admiration for him and those like him that students everywhere can turn to when they need someone they can trust. I can only aspire to be such a one. In the meantime, when they come, I will keep teaching a little and absolving a little.

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