Field Trip! An academic librarian walks off some unconscious assumptions

A couple of years ago, SFU Library underwent a Liaison Librarian Redesign which involved reshuffled subject portfolios and, like many fellow librarians, I suddenly found myself with a new subject portfolio. It was a wrench to no longer be the Publishing Librarian after twenty years, and I was feeling uncertain about my new subjects. One of the new subjects was Urban Studies, an interdisciplinary, professional program preparing students for careers in local government and the public and private sector.

The SFU librarians with recent Urban Studies experience were very helpful giving me background information, but they soon went on well-deserved leaves. I was feeling quite alone and uncertain about how to help the Urbsters, as they call themselves. In typical academic librarian fashion, I started off by working through the Urban Studies pages I’d inherited, doing my best to obtain assignment details from instructors, going to Urban Studies events, familiarizing myself with specific research areas of interest, and talking to students and researchers. Gradually, though, I realized that I was being held back by a subconscious assumption:


Academic Libraries Should Have Everything Their Students Need

I’d spent my entire career as an academic librarian with the belief that our students should be using our libraries, as they were created with their research needs in mind. It was as if students turning up at the public library was some sort of failure on our part as academic librarians, that we hadn’t done our job of teaching students research skills, and that either we weren’t welcoming or that students were too habit-bound.

With Urban Studies, though, if a student wanted to find books about a certain municipality, the simple fact of it was that the public library would often be the best place to go. Burnaby Public Library, for instance, has ten times the number of books on the history of Burnaby compared to SFU. With that in mind, I started off by updating the subject pages for Urban Studies to highlight public libraries and archives for local history research, mentioning One Card and other public library services.

Urbsters also do local history or other historical research, which requires primary resources. I had a very useful telephone conversation with Kira Baker at the Vancouver Archives to ensure that SFU students would be prepared for a visit to the archives. 

Finally, I started thinking about what sort of research support they’d have after graduation. Many of the students were already working for a local municipality and were often already familiar with current planning and other municipal documents.  I had a very useful telephone conversation with Suzanne McBeath of MetroVancouver’s Harry Lash Library, who brought up the point of how great it would be to have better communication between different kinds of libraries.

The phone conversations were useful, but I decided to go see the other institutions for myself.


Field Trip 1: Harry Lash Library, MetroVancouver 

The first field trip was to the Harry Lash Library, which I had previously only known about because SLAIS classmates had worked there. As the Urban Studies program emphasizes professional development, I wanted to see what research report support students and alumni could expect to get, especially if they were working for one of the municipalities of the Lower Mainland. Suzanne was at first surprised at the thought of Urbsters coming by, since the library is almost exclusively used by MetroVancouver staff, but she was very welcoming of students, municipal employees or the general public coming in to do research. 

The tour gave me a vastly improved understanding of how cities come into existence and develop. Suzanne’s orientation in particular helped me better understand the priorities of cities and their growth. Here’s a bold statement to sum it up: No Sewers, No City. Suzanne reverently showed me Rawn Report, the fundamental planning document for the lower Mainland. When I got back to SFU, not only did I link the online version of it to an Urban Studies page, but I had the original copy taken out of SFU storage out of sheer respect.

The trip out to the Harry Lash Library field trip ended up being both educational and fun. This included some Library Gossip, as I like to call it: for one, the Parks Department is notorious for not dating their pamphlets, so Harry Lash staff try to pencil in dates for Parks items in their vertical files. Another is that the view from the library is so panoramic that the Air Quality people visit the library with binoculars to do visual checks. Fun fact: this amazing view can be enjoyed by anyone at the little coffee shop adjacent to the library.


Field Trip 2: Burnaby Public Library 

Buoyed up by how educational and fun the first field trip was, I next went to Burnaby Public Library’s Metrotown branch. I went to the second floor reference desk one weekend, unannounced, just as a student might. Any residual worry was erased by the warm welcome by Mariah, the on-duty librarian, and we had a friendly and useful chat about how students might use BPL’s local history resources. Mariah did mention that students would probably want to come during the week when the really knowledgeable librarians were there. Fun fact: I had no idea they have Burnaby secondary school yearbooks!


Field Trip 3: Vancouver Archives

This was yet another useful trip, if somewhat humbling one, as it had been a very long time since I had taken an archives course. Chak Yung kindly gave me an Archives 101 refresher and showed me search tips for the archives catalogue, which I had either completely forgotten or never knew in the first place.

Immediately before my trip to the Archives, I found out that a class of Urbsters had been taken on their own trip to the Vancouver Archives a couple of weeks before, and so I unearthed yet another assumption, rather an embarrassing one:


Librarians tell students about research depositories, not instructors!

The main takeaway of the visit was that it was okay to not know everything about archives: Chak said it took him three years at Vancouver Archives to familiarize himself with the collections. It was a reminder that primary documents are very different from monographs and journals and that, as Chak said, research takes time.

Fun fact: even Vancouver Archives staff will get the classic “My paper’s due tomorrow!” from students who quickly find out that they are in quite the wrong place for a quick shot of information.  


What did I learn? 

After the three field trips I felt much more confident about referring researchers to other institutions, having a greater understanding of their collections–including overlaps such as older planning documents. I also realized that is anything but a failure on my part to indicate the richness of resources elsewhere available.

This is not the end of my field trips: I will probably go out to UBC to check out resources for Community & Regional Planning, despite SFU Urban Studies’ vehemence that they are not a planning program. With luck, it will also banish any lingering intermural rivalry.

Finally, I feel more connected with my fellow information specialists, and it makes me feel more at ease about asking questions in the future. Too often co-operation among institutions can be rather formal, and being at a branch library I have sometimes felt separated even from my colleagues at the other campuses. It was great to be reminded that librarians and archivists are nifty and helpful folks. 

Nina Smart is the Subject Librarian for Gerontology, Public Policy and Urban Studies at Belzberg Library, SFU Vancouver.