This week was the start of the new academic year here in Cambridge, which as you can imagine meant a lot of extra work in all my various libraries. As well as all the regular work associated with this time of year — registering new students, printing introductory material and preparing welcome packs, leading induction tours and so on — I took the opportunity this year to help out at the libraries@cambridge stall at the Freshers’ Fair. The stall was manned by a rotating team of staff from various Cambridge libraries, and was designed to help new students get started in Cambridge’s various libraries and make them feel welcomed in what can be a very daunting, confusing library system.
The Fair itself assailed the senses. It was packed with stalls for all of the main sports clubs, societies, student politics groups and charities, as well as those of some local businesses (Pizza Hut and Domino’s were doing a roaring trade, engaged in a sort of stand-off at the entrance to the Fair, competitively thrusting vouchers into students’ hands and handing out slices of free pizza). The student radio station was broadcasting live from the sports hall in which the Fair was taking place, blaring music over the PA system. The libraries@cambridge stall was wedged in between two graduate networking/recruitment agencies, both of which seemed to be competing about how many students they could sign up, and the sheer number of students at the Fair meant the crowd often ground to a standstill at various bottlenecks. To compete with all that while armed only with free pencils, sweets and postcards seemed daunting.
We did have the good fortune to be located near the entrance to the Fair, so there was a lot of through traffic. After ten minutes or so, I had my ‘pitch’ down to a fine art. Most students did not approach the stall unless they had very specific questions, so my coworker and I stood in front of it, brandishing pencils and postcards. We passed out postcards to anyone who seemed interested, at which point I would launch into a very brief description of the links which were on the back of the postcards. Sometimes this would prompt questions from the students, which I would then answer, but for the most part they simply took the cards, grabbed some sweets and a pencil, and were swallowed up by the crowd.
This meant that I really needed the information I gave out to be absolutely clear, and able to be conveyed in about thirty seconds. In induction week, students are absolutely bombarded with information, and it’s unlikely that all of it will sink in. For this reason, I had to make sure that they knew where to go if they had any questions: their college libraries, faculty libraries and the University Library itself. Often I asked them what they were studying, so that I could give information more specific to their subject area — scientists, for example, often have a perception that there is nothing in libraries of any use to them, so it’s important to let them know that their libraries can be used as study spaces, they can talk to their librarians about ejournal subscriptions or interlibrary loans, and their libraries often provide training in referencing and making use of various resources. Humanities students need to be made aware that many of the faculty libraries allow readers from other faculties to use their books, so they can try multiple libraries if an item is not available in their ‘home’ faculty. I tried to think of the questions I was most commonly asked in the three libraries in which I work and find a way to provide answers when engaging with the students.
Overall, helping at the Freshers’ Fair stall was an enjoyable experience. It was fun to work with library staff from other libraries, as well as to be the public face of libraries@cambridge. My favourite aspect of library work is the customer service element, and I found it interesting to meet the new students and try to represent the Cambridge library system in a way that was helpful and welcoming to them. I hope to see many of them again in the various libraries in which I work!