May 01, 2013

For some, the word librarian brings forth images of individuals laden with books in one arm and a card catalog drawer under the other … but these days, a modern librarian is more likely to have her iPad in one hand, as she steps into the fiber optics plugged into the future of research. Laura Robinson Hanlan is one of those future librarians.

Craving knowledge of the evolution in library science, we caught up with the research & instruction librarian in the Gordon Library to find out just what she does in a Day…


Tell us about your career path here at WPI.

I’ve worked at WPI for seven years. I started in October of 2005, overseeing the library’s interlibrary loan system that enables our library to get materials from libraries around Massachusetts and around the world. I became a research & instruction librarian in July of 2010.

What is your primary role as Research & Instruction Librarian?

I consider myself primarily an educator. I teach students how to find, evaluate, and effectively use information – none of which are easy tasks in 2013. The research and instruction librarians work with faculty and students from over 200 classes and project teams per year in order to provide customized in-class research workshops, online resource guides for courses, and tutorials. We also meet with students and faculty on a daily basis for customized research consultations.

What type of education goes into your position?

Contrary to popular belief, knowledge of the Dewey Decimal system is not a job requirement. An MS in Library & Information Science or the equivalent is required to be an academic librarian. In addition many academic librarians hold second master’s degrees or PhDs. We live in a wacky, exciting, and ever-changing information environment, so the librarians I most admire are those with eternal curiosity and the ability to be nimble, have fun, and find creative solutions to any information need that comes their way.

How much traffic does the Gordon Library see?

The library is an awesome campus hangout and also a huge digital and print collection of materials. Both the building and the website (which is the primary access point to all of our collections) are hopping. Last year we had an average of 13,000 visitors to the building every week and our website had over a million hits.

In what ways do you help the students at WPI?

My hope is that my work enables students to realize that research and information seeking is a complex, ever-changing but rewarding process. Being effective at finding critical information quickly and evaluating and using it in meaningful ways enables them to be successful in their course work, allows them to keep up with their careers and other interests past graduation, and helps them to be better informed citizens and neighbors.

In what unexpected ways are you able to help students?

Research librarians provide students with stress relief. Most students realize at some point in their education that using one search engine and basic keyword searching is not enough to effectively find all the information to solve a complex academic or real-world problem. And yet they have heard the myth over and over again that “everything can be found on the web.” The research librarians have the privilege of helping to educate extremely bright students so that they can more effectively navigate the complex information landscape.

How does your role/library function change in the summer months?

Summers are surprisingly busy at the library. We support faculty who are focused on research during the summer months and we continue to work with summer classes, as well as summer groups visiting campus. We also go into “project” mode. For the research and instruction team, it’s time to reflect on our teaching, consider our successes, and consider how to improve what we do in the coming year. We start planning for fall orientation as soon as D-Term ends.

How are librarians relevant in today’s Internet-based world?

Librarians help people cut through the information clutter and get you to the good stuff. Neil Gaiman said it best: “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Can you tell me what the Library Vision is all about?

The Library Vision is a document put together by the entire library staff. It reflects our drive to support the college’s mission through providing state-of-the-art services, spaces, and collections that support the evolving curricular and research needs of the WPI community.

Fill us in about the person behind the Librarian?

I’m 38 and live in a little house in the woods on an unofficial bird sanctuary in Spencer with my husband, our two children, and too many cats.

What’s your favorite book?

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Who is your favorite author?

It’s a tie: Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen.