University of Rochester

Rochester Review
January-February 2010
Vol. 72, No. 3

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In a League of Their Own Here they are to save the day—or at least the research project. Rochester librarians call on their inner superheroes as part of a new effort to let students know how to find help. By Kathleen McGarvey

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s . . . a subject librarian.

For students in hot pursuit of information, librarians who know a collection inside and out can save the day. But often, students don’t even realize that finding the appropriate librarian is a critical step for their research projects.

So the librarians at Rush Rhees Library have stepped in to help with a series of initiatives to make themselves more visible to students. Among the recent innovations is a set of collectible trading cards that make finding a library expert a snap.

“One of our goals is always to connect the student with the subject librarian. We’re always looking for ways to get in front of them,” says Katie Clark, associate dean of public services and collection development for the River Campus Libraries.

Clark got the idea when she met the head of the reference department for the library at Carleton College in Minnesota. She showed Clark a set of trading cards librarians had developed there. “Quite a few libraries are now doing it, based on what they did at Carleton,” Clark says.

Initially, Clark and colleague Marc Bollman, a senior library assistant in the Art and Music Library, planned a series of cards based on pulp magazine covers—but when they invited librarians to develop their own characters, the project took on a life of its own. They found inspiration in figures from Fay Wray to Rosie the Riveter.

“I wanted something a little more all encompassing, something that would draw more on the librarians’ own personalities,” says Bollman. He knew he had tapped into their secret selves when several of them dressed as their alter egos for Halloween.

The back of each card lists the librarian’s “superpowers, vulnerabilities, secret weapons,” and other vital pieces of information. “Sometimes he is forced to use the terrifying power of Historical Context, or the fabled Wayback Machine, but he still maintains his public identity of Alan Unsworth, mild-mannered History Librarian,” proclaims the card of world history specialist Unsworth, who doubles as library superhero Flashback.

At orientation, “parents were collecting full sets to give to their children,” Clark says. “Kids are starting to recognize librarians by name because they know who we are from the cards,” she says.

So do the trading cards reveal that librarians are really superheroes and wizards and the like at heart? “Well, it took a little bit of prodding” to convince some to go into character, Clark says.

“But once Marc showed people what the cards were going to look like, they were in.”