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Getting personal on the research front

Thousands of first-year U of T students are paired with personal librarians

First-year student Chen Zhang found what she needed with the help of a personal librarian. Heather Buchansky (rear) oversees the program (photo by Johnny Guatto)

When Chen Zhang had an assignment due on the food commodity chain and how the Atlantic salmon finds its way to grocery stores, she didn’t know where to begin.

So the first-year computer science student contacted someone whose emails had been popping up in her inbox: her very own personal librarian.

“I had no idea what a personal librarian was,” says Zhang, 19, who is an international student from China. “I went to the supermarket to find out if I could get information there, but that didn’t work.

“I reached out to her. I spent two to three hours in her office. She showed me how to use the database and find peer-reviewed articles and academic reports on the library’s websites.”

There are 45 librarians who serve as personal librarians for U of T’s first-year Arts & Science students on the St. George campus. The program, the largest known of its kind, was piloted four years ago and has been growing ever since. 

Last year all incoming first-year Arts & Science students were paired with a librarian. This year, the program reached out to almost 6,000 incoming St. George campus students in both the Faculty of Arts & Science and Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. 

“The personal librarian program offers a new way for students to make the best use of the wealth of library resources available to them,” says U of T Libraries chief librarian Larry Alford.

“All of our librarians are dedicated to working closely with our students to support their research and learning, while also learning from them how the libraries can best meet their needs.”  

At the beginning of the school year, the librarians send out a welcome email, inviting students to reach out. Five further emails follow through the course of the year, informing students of workshops and events that could help with their research and reminding them they have a personal librarian at their fingertips. Each librarian is responsible for anywhere from 100 to 200 students in a given year.

Because U of T is a research-intensive university, getting students on the right track and helping them develop solid research skills is important, says Heather Buchansky, the student engagement librarian who heads the personal librarian program.

“This is a scalable way to do library outreach for first-year students,” Buchansky says. “It is an opportunity to let them know about the resources and services available to them. We’re not able to get into every class but we can at least let first-year students know how to make their research more effective.” 

Of course, not every student responds. Those who do have seen the benefit.

“After that first assignment, [my librarian] was willing to give me more information about things I was interested in,” Zhang said. “The end of the assignment was not the end of her help. She kept checking in with me.” 

For Revital Ganel, a biology assignment on the origins of a rare specimen’s traits soon had her realizing that there was barely any literature to be found on the organism. Luckily, she remembered that a librarian had been offering help. 

The librarian was familiar with the course and the assignment, which requires students to work on rare specimens about which few articles have been published. The librarian suggested consulting the references in the few articles she had, walking Ganel through the process, both online and on the bookshelf.   

“Sometimes in first year you feel lost,” Ganel said. “It was good to know that I could go to someone and ask these specific questions.” 

A similar program exists for first-year undergraduate engineering students. Incoming graduate students at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and the Faculty of Information are also assigned a personal librarian.

For more information on the program, please visit: https://personal.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/content/about.