Ask a Librarian: That’s Me!

Image of silver skeleton keys on a key ring.

 "Key Metal Home Security Wedding Entry Door" by weinstock on Pixabay. CC0 Public Domain.

This blog post was written by Martha Stuit, a second-year graduate student in the University of Michigan School of Information.


I am passionate about helping people navigate information! So, last August, I became a User Information Services Assistant (UISA) at the University of Michigan Library. I provide one-on-one help, both in person at the Hatcher Graduate Library and the Shapiro Undergraduate Library and virtually on the Ask a Librarian instant message service.

From experiences in this position, as well as coursework and an internship, I created my preliminary philosophy on reference service. It is my take on why and how we serve as reference professionals. My “keys” to reference so far are:

  • Openness
  • Problem Solving
  • Teaching
  • Learning

Being Open to Every Question

When you ask for help, what kind of reaction do you hope to receive? Openness is my answer and outlook. You can’t know what you don’t know. Looking for information – and getting help – are the first steps toward answering your question. Last week, an undergraduate student asked me to locate materials on an environmental science concept I was pretty unfamiliar with. I talked with her to understand the topic and use my search skills to find information. It became a learning experience for both of us. She left the reference desk with a few leads on articles and several tools to continue her research. Interactions like this one make me excited to help! Being open to needs is one way reference professionals make an impact on the people who they serve.

Connecting People with What They Need

Helping people find information that enlightens their work and lives is my goal. To do so, it’s of course essential to figure out what the person’s need is and how to meet it. One way to get to the bottom of someone’s need is asking: “What would the ideal title of a scholarly article be for you?” Another way is listening to someone’s laundry list of unsuccessful attempts to get information and then searching new resources that have the information together. One more way is being enthusiastic about a person’s research topic and brainstorming ways to narrow it to a manageable scope for a project. I use a variety of strategies to solve problems, and I am always learning more.

Inspiring Excitement about Research

Since providing reference services includes the element of teaching, I balance meeting people’s needs with teaching skills that they can use in the future and transfer to other work. This collaboration reminds me of being a reporter, a previous experience from which I draw many parallels to being a librarian. When writing stories, I considered what citizens might wonder about and pursued answers to those questions. I made my coverage as complete and thorough as I could in order to be informative to the community. Similarly, I strive to be comprehensive and practical in my reference service because I usually only interact with people once, want to give them the best assistance, and am representing the library to them. In fact, a professor advised me to impart at least one skill, tip, or idea to each person when providing reference. So, I try to ensure that everyone leaves the desk or chat window with some new knowledge, whatever it may be. It hopefully empowers them in their pursuit of information.

Becoming a Better Librarian

Constantly learning is an aspect of information services that I love. On the front lines, I learn about new topics, research, and ideas while providing my search skills to find information about them. One time, someone was looking for Modernist Cuisine, and I helped him locate it. Upon going to find it, he encountered a cookbook from the 1600’s wedged between volumes. He stopped back at the desk to show it to me, and we had a fun time perusing its now-unique ingredients and measurements. It even sparked a debate about the best ways to cook eggs. Our conversation included great (some might say bad) puns! From such conversations, I gain knowledge of resources and reflect on my successes and challenges.


Though I offer this reference philosophy, I know it’s a work in progress that will evolve as I grow as a librarian. I am eager to keep flexing my reference muscles, helping people, refining my philosophy, and building skills here at the University of Michigan Library and throughout my career as a librarian.