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Unsung hero: Library's liaisons are knowledgeable, patient

June 17, 2008

“I’m the straw that stirs the drink.”
– Reggie Jackson, former New York Yankees superstar, 1977

It may be a stretch to compare a million-dollar, high-profile slugger like Reggie Jackson with a bespectacled, nose-in-the-books library liaison like Dennis Isbell. Then again, maybe not.

Jackson, an Arizona State University alum drafted in the first round of Major League Baseball’s 1966 draft by the old Kansas City Athletics, carried his teammates to four World Series championships with his towering homers, his flair for the dramatic, and his braggadocio. Isbell, a Phoenix Maryvale High graduate who earned his bachelor’s and master’s in English from NAU and a master’s in library science from the University of Arizona, has quietly helped ASU students and faculty reach for the stars with his expert research assistance, his crisp knowledge of literature, and his ability to deliver specialized help.

He is one of 10 librarians with liaison responsibilities at Fletcher Library on ASU’s growing West campus. According to library director Marilyn Myers, every faculty member has a liaison librarian he or she can turn to for help. Isbell, who began his work at Fletcher Library in 1991 – just four years after its dedication – is a liaison librarian specializing in the humanities and fine arts.

“After a faculty member assigns a research paper, I can tell you that a whole new level of instruction starts, and the librarian must often start at a basic level – helping the student define and focus a topic,” says Isbell, who chairs a cross-university team of librarians that is working on a standard approach and curriculum for library instruction to first-year students on all four ASU campuses – West, Tempe, Polytechnic and Downtown. “I think many faculty members would be surprised to learn how much instruction we deliver to students one-on-one at the library reference desk, and that it is often more than how to use library resources or track down items in the library.”

Just as Jackson could hit the fastball, the “crooked pitch,” and even the occasional change-up, Isbell hits it out of the park for students by sticking with four liaison strategies he outlined recently in an article published in College Teaching, a noted cross-disciplinary journal focusing on how teachers can improve student learning. Included on the list: assist the student to define his or her assignment; assess the student’s knowledge of the topic and summarize for the student the stage of research at which he or she is; conduct a database search and collaboratively examine and discuss search results, looking for a possible focus; and question the topic with the student to assist in focusing it.

“A great provider of research, and Dennis is a great example, is a person who knows the literature of his or her assigned field and keeps up on what’s new,” says Myers, who has been with Fletcher Library since its inception. “The liaison librarian is a great teacher and mentor who can put a frustrated student or faculty member at ease, is a great listener and never preaches, and exercises great patience. This person crafts effective teaching tools and practices the principles of good pedagogy.”

Students seek out Isbell or his peers in other specialized subjects because they are new to the particular discipline they are studying and may be inexperienced in doing the research. The liaison librarian can help a student formulate a viable, researchable question; understand how the literature of a particular discipline is structured; identify the key tools; learn how to search those tools; and, finally, how to evaluate the information they find.

“Dennis and his colleagues provide students with the skills to be successful in completing research assignments and successful in completing a course of study and graduating,” says Myers.

On the faculty side, professors and their research assistants may need help because new information sources are constantly emerging, or they are researching a new or interdisciplinary problem. Instructors may need help identifying and acquiring specialized material. The assistance provided is a critical component in the completion of research work and the publishing of scholarly articles and books, which, in turn, contributes to national recognition and the research missions of their academic departments.

“There is a lot of variety in my research assistance with faculty,” says Isbell. “This year, two notable areas I have assisted faculty with include researching Irish literary figures and identifying resources for the ethics of biotechnology. A lot of the research assistance I do with faculty members is often assisting them in tracking down difficult to identify or track down items.”

While busy assisting students and faculty in research areas, Isbell and the rest of the Fletcher Library liaisons – like Jackson before them – are keeping their eye on the ball.

“Changes in technology have dominated the field of librarianship, and we are stilly trying to figure out the implications and what the field will look like in the future,” Isbell notes. “The library as a place is changing, since so many of our collections are online, making a visit to the library no longer as necessary. We are considering the best ways to reach students who may not ever visit the library and inform them of our collections and their value, and how to tailor our services to the new online environment.

“Librarians are also very interested in how the online environment itself is changing how students find, interact with, and use information. Online research requires a whole ne way of thinking about information and research.”