What does it mean to be a librarian in the 21st century? Instead of a brick and mortar warehouse of giant books, the library is a virtual as well as a physical learning space. Students are not just consumers of knowledge, but creators. According to a Pew Internet and American Life study, “More than one-half of all teens have created media content, and roughly one-third of teens who use the Internet have shared content they produced.” Librarians must guide students toward critical thinking, research skills, and information literacy while navigating budget cuts and a rapidly changing academic landscape. It’s a tricky business.
Enter Hannah Rempel, graduate student services coordinator and biosciences librarian at Oregon State University. She has a reputation among students as being an amazing resource who can clarify the foggiest of ideas and make students laugh. She can be seen bopping around campus on her bike with a milk crate on the back pulling a small trailer. She is sunny and happy and slightly sarcastic. In short, perfectly suited for her job.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Rempel moved to Oregon with a B.S. in biology and was working toward an M.S. in horticulture. She was doing fieldwork for the USDA when she asked herself, “How can I work for 30 years and not be a bent-over old lady?”
She liked exploring, looking for ideas, and being in the library. When thinking about continuing her studies, she realized that it wasn’t one idea that made her excited—it was being curious about many things and pursuing research in many different fields.
She enjoyed being in the library, so she entered the University of Washington and received her master’s in library science. But, “You’re not supposed to say you like books in an interview to be a librarian.” Nor should you say, “I plan to be reading lots on the job!” Rempel joked.
However, she’s not just sitting in the stacks paging through novels. According to her co-worker Laurie Bridges, “Hannah is that person that everyone wants to work with. Part of our jobs includes research and writing because we are tenure-track librarians. Everyone wants to write and research with Hannah. She’s funny, flexible, and produces top-notch articles.”
Rempel’s science background informs her research process but she thinks broadly about topics. “The more I learn about history or social science, I realize, ‘Oh! They actually do it really differently!’” She is quick to add with a laugh, “And it’s not wrong.”
Rempel loves her job and has a positive attitude about helping students. “I had a high school teacher that was like, ‘Kids these days…,’ and I vowed to not be that person,” she said.
Rempel’s typical day is focused on teaching in addition to one-on-one consultations. The classroom is a dynamic space with so much potential, both for frustration and for learning. Her job is to walk into another professor’s classroom and direct the students to a meaningful project. She guest teaches in writing, nutrition, food science, and exercise science classes. She presents workshops on note-taking and Zotero, a research tool. She teaches first-year students from all over the world. She talks to them about the research process, how to use tools, and how to formulate questions. It can be a little hectic.
“You don’t get to build a long-term relationship so you have to get what you get for that 50 minutes,” said Rempel.
She, like other librarians, has to adapt to a class full of strangers, quickly read their abilities, and help them navigate the complexities of the research process. Librarians are the ultimate utility players.
Bridges said, “Librarians’ jobs are changing and evolving with technology, so the position is difficult to define because it can encapsulate so many different duties, simply because there are many kinds of librarians.”
Rempel has seen a change in how people receive information. Most students come from a system with no school librarian, so she can’t assume a certain level of knowledge. Even more problematic is that most students have not been trained or encouraged to explore a topic. They struggle to ask broader questions that lead to knowledge and generate ideas.
This is the 2 a.m. meltdown most students know too well. They are staring at an assignment they have not fully thought about and they have a deadline. So they turn to Google expecting help.
But as Ellen Seiter, author of The Internet Playground, notes, “The Internet is more like a mall than a library; it resembles a gigantic public relations collection more than it does an archive of scholars.”
It is not just undergraduates who need this expertise. Graduate students also struggle to articulate their research and understand how to advocate for themselves. They may not know how to move beyond a topic and ask generative questions. She said that graduate students often despair when they can’t find literature on their chosen project.
Rempel responds, “Well, yay, there’s no literature on it!”
She helps them see the opportunity to work around the topic and explore new ideas.
As a faculty member, she researches graduate students’ learning styles, how they approach the research process, and research tools. She wants to help them ask better questions and not expect to have information handed to them.
How students are trained to search for meaning impacts the entire community. The best problem solvers and creative thinkers come out of the classrooms that people like Hannah lead.
Rempel said, “I want to be the best service provider to meet the needs students actually have.”
Libraries are repositories of books no more! They are spaces of learning where faculty like Hannah can make a lasting impact.
by Bridget Egan