Before starting work on a video (watch it below) starring the smart and talented Kennedy Library LibRATs, the only thing I knew about the students was based on the rat logo I’d seen in the library. Like most Cal Poly students, I had no idea that the LibRATs were in fact a revolutionary and controversial program in Library Land.
The idea for LibRATs, or Library Research Assistant Technicians, came about in 2009 when College of Liberal Arts Librarian Brett Bodemer was searching for new peer-to-peer education opportunities. He had seen some failed attempts to put librarians in residence halls at other schools, and thought that maybe if Kennedy Library sent students instead of librarians, they would be more approachable.
Students were trained in early 2010, and in spring quarter the first LibRATs were sent to the residence halls to reach out to students with research help, right where they lived. What could be more convenient?
Unfortunately, residents didn’t want to talk to student assistants any more than they wanted to talk to librarians.
“The LibRATs were armed to the teeth for reference questions, but they didn’t get any in the residence halls,” Bodemer said.
So Bodemer had to improvise. The LibRATs were pulled out of the residence halls and placed on the library’s reference help desk, as well as trained to teach lower division library reference classes.
More students reached
The change was the perfect fit for the LibRATs, as it freed up librarian time to teach upper division courses, and allowed Kennedy Library to offer twice as many lower division courses. Library intro classes jumped from around 45 classes before the LibRATs came into being, to 94 classes by the second fall quarter that they were teaching.
Now, the LibRATs answer every question from “Where’s the stapler?” to “Can you help me find plans for this air conditioning unit?” as well as offer courses for Cal Poly students working on research papers so that they can become familiar with Kennedy Library’s resources.
LibRATs scratching up controversy
But the program doesn’t make everyone happy, Bodemer told me. Some librarians think that LibRATs threaten librarian positions, performing tasks that should be reserved for professionals with degrees in library science. But the LibRATs allow librarians to reach students in more relatable ways, and studies have shown that students learn more efficiently when learning from peers, Bodemer said.
“It’s a good use of librarians’ time to train them, get them ready, and have this army ready,” Bodemer said.
In addition, the LibRATs allow librarians like Bodemer time to answer more complicated research questions, as well as teach upper division library literacy courses.
“If they’re teaching all the basic literacy sessions that means I can teach the upper division ones,” Bodemer said.
This student’s thoughts
I was able to meet these LibRATs while filming the interviews for the “Meet the LibRATs” video. I was impressed by their depth of knowledge, as well as their love for libraries. The LibRATs are a dedicated group of students who applied for the job in order to help other students and encourage research literacy. The LibRATs program has not only helped students who asked questions of the student instructors, but also helped the LibRATs further their understandings of research, and even inspired several LibRAT grads to pursue library science degrees.
And in the end, the library has gone from reaching 800 students to several thousand students every year with research courses, Bodemer said.
You can read his article, They CAN and They SHOULD: Undergraduates Providing Peer Reference and Instruction as presented at ACRL 2013 (Association of College and Research Libraries) and the full version at C&RL Journal (College and Research Libraries).
For more on the LibRATs, visit the library website.