YDS Personal Librarian Program: ĎA Quiet Revolutioní

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

For the first time ever, each and every student at Yale Divinity School has access to his or her own personal librarian.

Working This fall semester marks the third year the Yale Divinity School Library has offered its Personal Librarian Program (PLP) to new students.  But it is the first year that all YDS students have access to a personal librarian, since it takes three years for the entire student body to recycle.

Beginning in 2009-10,  all entering students have been given an introductory letter from his or her personal librarian offering individualized reference and research assistance.  For students who have not studied at a research university before, or for those coming from colleges with smaller libraries, this is a big plus, since the sheer size of the resources available through Yale’s colossal library system can be overwhelming.

Third-year student Kate Stratton, who, like many YDS students, had spent a number of years between the end of college and the begininng of graduate school, said, “Getting back into the groove of researching doesn’t come naturally for a lot of new students.” Now a self-described “avid fan” of the Personal Librarian Program, Stratton said the program was “an awesome idea and an accessible reality.”

Personal librarians function as navigators, helping students steer through what can appear to be a sea of endless information. “The personal librarian basically acts as mediator between the student and a complex research library,” said Reference and Instructional Services Librarian Suzanne Estelle-Holmer, who heads up the Divinity School’s PLP. “Our role is to help students identify and locate the resources they need for their work—but we certainly don’t write papers for anyone”

The most enthusiastic users of the program are second-career students such as YDS and Berkeley Divinity School student Lisa Zaina. After having worked for years as a lawyer at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, Zaina was quick to understand how beneficial the PLP could be. “Carolyn (Engelhardt), my personal librarian, has always been very accessible and knowledgeable,” said Zaina, “and she knows exactly the person to whom I should pose my questions if she doesn't know the best way to address my inquiries.”

Because students pursing a Masters of Divinity degree are confronted with the task of writing in various, highly specific styles—research papers, exegeses, sermons, lesson plans—personal librarians can be extremely helpful when it comes to crafting different genres.

According to Estelle-Holmer, the most frequent users of the program are students working on papers requiring research and those preparing annotated bibliographies for reading courses. 

Following the letters that go out to incoming students, Estelle-Holmer and the rest of the library staff offer information sessions where they introduce students and others to the PLP.  In addition to Estelle-Holmer, five other librarians serve in the PLP program: Paul Stuehrenberg, Divinity Librarian; Eric Friede, Asst. Divinity Librarian for Technical Services; Christine Pesch, Serials and Preservation Librarian; Martha Smalley, Special Collections Librarian; and Carolyn Hardin Engelhardt, Director of the Ministry Resource Center.

The library will be hosting a reception in late October so students can meet their personal librarians and so faculty and staff can learn more about how the program works. 

As the Personal Librarian Programs spread to different libraries across academia at the undergraduate level, as it has at Yale College, students will undoubtedly over time be more familiar with the PLP and take more advantage of this remarkably helpful system. As for the moment, Estelle-Holmer said, “On the whole I wish students would come and see us more.”

The Personal Librarian Program at the Divinity School is based on the model developed at Yale’s Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. The  PLP program has been described by some as “a quiet revolution” within libraries. Similar programs are emerging at places such as the Boston University School of Theology and Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Posted: 10/03/2011

Revised: 10/04/2011