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With nearly five million volumes spread across 11 locations, access to hundreds of journals and databases, a host of special collections, and partnerships with institutions around the world, the University of Iowa Libraries’ sheer size can be daunting. Students and others seeking information—especially those unfamiliar with major academic libraries—may wonder where to start.

Fortunately, they can turn to a group of expert guides and the Libraries’ most vital resource—librarians.

You’ll still find library staff at the reference desk, but the University’s librarians continually find ways to go where library users are, even far from campus.

“I help many people without ever seeing them in person,” says Dottie Persson, head of the Psychology Library in Seashore Hall, one of the nine branch libraries that with the Main Library and the Hardin Library for the Health Sciences, make up the UI Libraries system.

Persson fields questions and shares literature searches via e-mail; teaches students and researchers to organize their work using RefWorks, a web-based bibliography tool; and helps them obtain electronic copies of book chapters and journal articles via the Libraries’ article delivery service. She’s even been known to review drafts of papers, theses, and dissertations upon request.

That kind of one-on-one service is what librarians have always been there for. But their work is ever more important as the global exchange of information grows, encompassing both vast online collections and other outlets that aren’t always complete or reliable.

“There’s a scary amount of information available. The trick is getting people to that little bit they need,” says Dan Gall, coordinator of distance education at the Main Library, whose work involves making sure off-campus students get the same service they’d find on site.

Gall and colleagues staff a chat reference service that lets users—be they on another floor or another continent—connect with librarians by instant message. They’ve also started a “roving reference” project, regularly wandering the Main Library to be more available to students.

“The other day I walked into the bound journals area and heard a guy shout, ‘I don’t know where this thing is,’” Gall says. Fifteen minutes later, Gall had shown the student how to find relevant articles in a database, use InfoLink to link available online articles, and got him started using RefWorks to keep track of his research and build his works cited list.

Whether reaching out to users electronically or in person, librarians emphasize a simple message: don’t be afraid to ask.

“I want students to see us as approachable and helpful,” Persson says. “There’s no need to preface a question with ‘I’m sorry to bother you’ or ‘This may be a dumb question.’ We all want students to feel confident, and we want to help them succeed.”

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