A Future Librarian Rediscovers His Inner Tour Guide

Image of a yellow compass painted on the floor of the Hatcher Library’s North Stacks, with arrows pointing outward to the four directions.

The North Stacks in the Hatcher Graduate Library are so confusing that a compass has been painted at the center of the floor with lines extending outward to the exits.


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

If I wasn’t so psyched to be an academic librarian I’d definitely try my hand at tour guide. I love showing friends around my favorite places or leading my family through a new city while on vacation. It combines my love for education and natural inclination towards both showmanship and gregariousness. I’ve also never been accused of being shy or soft-spoken.

That’s why I jumped at the chance to lead some of the hour-long parent tours of the Hatcher and Shapiro Libraries that are given during the summer to coincide with student orientation. Taking on the responsibility allowed me to combine my passions, and the experience has led me to rethink some of my career plans.

On starting I was excited to learn that there was no set script I needed to follow, meaning I could have the pleasure of designing my own, as well as choosing the path we’d take through the two libraries. As with travel, planning is part of the fun!

But I quickly realized that this would be tougher than I first imagined, and mainly because of the audience: the parents, relatives, and siblings of incoming undergraduates. These folks were not going to be using the services and spaces themselves, but wanted to tour the library out of a blend of personal curiosity and parental concern. I would have to appeal to both if I wanted to really make these tours enjoyable and engaging as well as informative. I wasn’t simply a tour guide, either. I was also a budding librarian intent on seizing every opportunity to educate myself. I was going to have an uninterrupted hour with people who have a great deal of influence over soon-to-be users of U-M Library, people likely eager to remind their children of the many tips learned during orientation.

At this point I should mention that incoming students don’t get such a tour of the library. Due to time and scale constraints, they are given a 30-minute orientation in the lobby of Shapiro that includes a short video tour through the Undergraduate Library. There simply isn’t time to talk about interlibrary loan, our research guides, how to locate a book in the stacks, or the many other topics and services that new patrons should ideally know. Our major goal for orientation is that they leave knowing they can always Ask a Librarian - the name for our online and in-person reference services.

My goal for the parent tours was to expand on this central idea by discussing the many services we offer undergraduates and underscoring the need to Ask a Librarian earlier than the day before the essay is due. I did this while also covering the history of the buildings, showing them the spectacular view from the eighth floor of Hatcher, and walking them through the beautiful Reference Room with its vaulted ceiling and classical murals.

I liked to start the tour with some quick facts that illustrate U-M Library’s relative position among its peers - sixth largest academic library in the country with 6.8 million volumes, 40,000 periodical subscriptions, a $50 million annual budget, and 4.5 million visitors each year. In addition to the pride they felt at knowing that their child had been granted access to such a world-class library, the parents also immediately understood why getting their child some navigational assistance is so important. They were all ears when I explained that they could help their children by sharing with them the information I was now going to provide.

Throughout the tour I relied on the “Can you believe how good kids these days have it?!” theme, to which the parents would eagerly agree and then often share “Back in my day…” stories to everyone’s amusement. For example, chuckles and head shakes would inevitably follow my explanation of how their students could, with the click of a ‘Get This’ button, have library staff pull a book from a shelf on North Campus and have it ready for pickup at Shapiro the following day. But when I took them through the labyrinthine North Stacks and explained that the arrows and compass directions on the floor are there because people so frequently get lost, they saw the practical considerations underlying our generous services.

I also tapped into the understandable parental anxiety over book prices to highlight our interlibrary loan services, emphasizing that while we could not order textbooks for every student, we could get almost any other book their child might need, and for free. Judging by the appreciative glint in their eyes at hearing that last word, I’m confident the parents who took my tour will be extolling the virtues of ILL to their kids. I can only hope they do the same for the rest of the information I provided, and that I get a chance next summer to reprise my role as library tour guide.

Even if I don’t get that chance, I now hope to find a job after graduation that offers me the chance to build on this experience in some way. Planning and leading these tours reminded me of the pleasure I feel at promoting the library and its services to the public, especially when I can interact with them face-to-face. I never gave it much thought before, but now I’m wondering if I’d find working in development and PR to be rewarding and enjoyable. The experience has also made me realize the pleasure I might receive from designing and hosting library programs for patrons and the public, an area of librarianship I had not really considered. No matter how this learning experience manifests itself in my life as an academic librarian, I have leading the parent tours to thank for teaching me that being somewhat loud, easily enthused, and very talkative can actually be a benefit to me professionally rather than a hindrance.