The Undercover Library Student

Your task is to develop a persona, and make up a research question that persona might ask.  It can be anything you want.  Once you have a question, take it to a reference desk at a library/archive/historical society of your choosing. Then write a paper about the experience.

Sound familiar? No, it’s not a rejected subplot from Skyfall.  It’s an assignment I’ve encountered in two different classes this fall, which is my first semester of library school.  And from talking with other LIS students, it seems like this is a common assignment regardless of your school.  It’s the “secret shopper” theory of observation at work.  An anthropologist might call it “extreme participant observation.”  The theory says you’ll learn more about something if you immerse yourself in it, giving no impression that you’re REALLY doing research.  That the other participant doesn’t know they’re part of an experiment should make their actions more truthful than if they knew they were being observed.

Are you SURE you’re not a library science major?

From having gone through the two assignments this semester, I can concede that there is something to this approach.  I had horrendous experiences with several institutions while attempting to get a general reference question answered for the first assignment.  More recently, I had a less awful, but still less than stellar experience at a certain world-renowned archive (no, not that one, the other one) while trying to complete the second assignment.  Putting aside my sociologist/anthropologist hat for a second, I can say that I probably wouldn’t have had those experiences had those behind the desk known what I was up to.

But from the beginning, the ethics of these types of assignments have bothered me, and continually came up as I discussed this with others.  Is lying to librarians and archivists the best way to experience reference services?  Additionally, as Alison pointed out earlier this week, many of us are pretty introverted and struggle with interactions to begin with. Is adding a certain level of deceit to the heightened blood pressure and clammy hands we’re already feeling actually worth it?

Those I’ve talked to have offered up opinions on every part of the spectrum.  Some have pointed out quite rightly that introverts need to be pushed out of their shells sometimes, and that the data gathered is really invaluable both for students and for the profession.  Others have told me that their anxiety got to be so great that they caved and told the reference person what they were doing and ended up having valuable conversations out of it.

Academic Librarian wrote a series of posts about this from the perspective of the person being asked these questions a while back that I think are worth reading.  While it’s a sort of over-the-top sense of how our professional colleagues might feel about encountering waves of LIS students asking questions they obviously don’t want the answers to, it’s worth considering the impact of these assignments. What happens when you go back to that library and apply for a job and the reference librarian asks how your project about 13th century depictions of Minotaurs came out?  Or perhaps more relevantly, what if that librarian sussed you out and now doesn’t want to give you an interview?

I find myself landing in the middle on this issue. It’s a valuable style of assignment, no doubt.  But most of us have come to library school to network and gain practical experience, not necessarily to do research.  Perhaps a more subtle form of observation, or a shadowing/mentoring program would be a better way to go about this, as well as help us build professional networks? I honestly don’t have an answer.

What do you think? Are these “secret shopper” assignments common in your program?  What’s been your experience? What do you see as the value (or lack thereof) of this approach? Tell us!

Author’s note: The above photo was an outtake from a photo shoot for an annotated bibliography group project where we were given free reign to do whatever we wanted, within a couple of parameters. Now THAT was an assignment we all got behind.

20 replies

  1. This article exactly expresses how I feel about these assignments! I’ve had to do a couple of them and they make me feel super awkward! On the one hand I appreciate that the assignments make me explore a variety of local institutions and look at library services from a patron’s perspective, but on the other hand I feel like I am wasting the archivist’s/librarian’s valuable time!

    By far the most awkward experience was when I went to the archival repository in my local public library to conduct a fake research topic of my choice for an assignment. I kept calling in advance to feel out my research topic and make sure they would have materials in the repository for me to look at, and my research ideas kept falling flat for the purposes of my project. The poor archivist was offering to process portions of unprocessed collections for me, directing me to other repositories, and asking me pointed questions about my research topic so that she could help me locate what I was looking for. I spent my time evading her questions, abruptly ending conversations, and trying to disguise my voice when I called back two minutes later with a different question. I’m a terrible liar, and I was so tempted to say “Just let me visit your repository, go through the motions of being a researcher, and write up a report for my intro to archives class!” I felt even worse when I finally visited and saw that she was incredibly busy and the repository was understaffed. Then, just to turn the awkwardness up a notch, I ran into her later at a conference. (I don’t think she recognized me.) I think there has to be a better way to structure these assignments. If I was cut out to be an undercover spy I would’ve taken my skills to the CIA…


  2. We did a variation of this assignment for our Intro Ref class, with the point of comparing an in-person and online reference interaction. To avoid some of the awkwardness, our professor required we use a real information need. We were to purposely ask a broad question, so as to ferret out more information through the course of the interview. Having that real information need certainly made it easier for us than pretending to have a question. Overall, the experience was eye-opening, even if it felt somewhat like spying.


  3. I’ve had two secret shopper assignments as a parpro-student, but neither were centered only on the reference desk. One was an extensive compare and contrast paper on two different libraries of our choosing that included the look, variety and availability of materials and resources, the behavior of the staff, etc. The current assignment is brief and simply requires a visit to any library and our overall impression of it.

    Why wouldn’t the librarian give you an interview, even if he/she DID remember you and your assignment? If you behaved well during the assignment, I think it shows you take your work seriously and had a positive enough impression of that library that you would consider working there. We are already encouraged to visit libraries prior to applying or interviewing.


  4. This post did a great job in expressing exactly how I felt about this assignment when I completed it my second semester of library school. I was scared to approach the reference desk as an undergrad because I thought it meant I was stupid. Now as a graduate student studying library science, I have a whole new perspective and wished I would have taken advantage of the services librarians had to offer! I remember struggling to come up with a good question for this assignment and sweating bullets having to approach the reference desk at my local academic library. I also had to ask the same question on chat reference. I felt very strange and like I was setting the librarians up. I believe it would be (and in the case of my school is) a much better practice to observe a reference desk for a set amount of time to learn the techniques and strategies libraries use to conduct reference. I learned a great deal watching the reference desk and believe it provided a solid foundation for cultivating reference skills as I sit at the same library information desk as an intern this semester.


  5. I had an assignment like this my first semester of library school and it was incredibly awkward for me because no only did I feel uncomfortable wasting the librarians’ time (asking chat and in person reference questions for fake assignments) but I was also on the other end of the questions as a grad assistant at my university library’s information desk. It was worse when students in my class who had intentionally asked tricky/convoluted questions essentially discussed how poor all of their experiences were/how poor the service was (especially over IM) without realizing I had been on the other end of some of their questions.

    I went over to the Academic Librarian’s blog and read his posts, and while I generally feel for him on this issue and lean more towards being frustrated with this assignment, he doesn’t really acknowledge that students don’t have any power in this situation– it’s pretty hard for new students (since most of these assignments seem to be in the reference core class) to say to their professor that they take issue with an assignment. I think that’s the real problem, professors/instructors who may be disconnected from the professional world don’t realize how awful these assignments are. Observation or reading transcripts could achieve a similar end and be as valuable, without the weirdness of secret shopping.


  6. As the author of the Academic Librarian posts on this (now fleshed out into an article:, I’ll say that I don’t think the students should be punished at some later point for doing a required assignment. As much as it irritates me to be lied to, I hold the offending professors who give this assignment responsible. Even in the interactions, the only time I actually got angry was because the student, who was obviously doing this assignment, started getting hostile over IM after I politely referred the student to the chat reference librarians at his or her own institution. I think this a bad assignment that can’t possibly do what it tries to do, but students don’t create the assignments.


    • Thanks for chiming in, Wayne! And thanks for the article link as well.

      I should note- I meant that particular example of the job applicant only as a worst-case scenario, and don’t mean to imply that it’s happened, or even that it will happen.


  7. We haven’t had to do this assignment, instead we were assigned a researcher from the university for whom we had to do an extended literature review including conducting a reference interview, then we had to reflect on the experience for the actual graded assignment. I got a topic that I don’t normally work with so learned the skills of reference work as well as got to experience other resources and got to contribute to a useful piece of research. I honestly believe that I learned more from that assignment than can be gained from being the customer,mystery or otherwise. I can see the value of the mystery shopper type assignment but there are less awkward exercises that are out there surely?


  8. I haven’t encountered this type of assignment in my program. During our intro to reference class, we were given an assignment to actually conduct a reference interview for someone we knew (not a patron we might have to help at a real job) who had an information need. We then did the research and brought back the materials and had another conversation about whether these materials helped the “patron”.

    It was my favorite excercise of the class. I helped my little sister research her top schools and major choices for college. I had to research schools, programs, labor stats on which jobs had better salaries, working hours, and job outlook. I even found a message board forum comparing and contrasting the pros and cons of the two majors she was interested in!

    I then was even given the opportunity to talk about how much my “patron” should trust each information source. (Online forum vs Bureau of Labor Stats info) After our reference experience was completed we reflected on it. How well did we do? What did we find hard, surprising, etc.


  9. I’ve had to do a couple of assignments in library school that stretched the bounds of what I would consider ethical, including one like this. I understand the point of it, but the knowledge gained from the experience could be acquired in other ways. I had an assignment where I had to observe a reference librarian that I felt gave me a more clear picture of reference work than pretending to be a patron in need – and I was able to do it without feeling like I was wasting the librarian’s time or taking time away from an actual patron in need.


  10. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the assignment as long as you are asking a question you really have. When I was doing my library degree, I was also doing a Masters’ in Art History. I often needed to consult reference librarians in various institutions for my research. I don’t think in those cases I had an obligation to “out” myself as a librarian. These interaction can be really enlightening, especially when you have a bad interaction, you can learn valuable lessons.
    To sum up, ask a real question, asking a fake question I think is a waste of the librarian’s time and doesn’t mimic the experience because it is hard/impossible to have specific answers to follow-up questions.


  11. I’ve had these assignments as well. I always tried to incorporate reference questions that I really wanted to know just so I could feel good about it. I do understand the value of the assignment after having been on the receiving end of frustrating reference interviews. Doesn’t mean that I like them though.


  12. I had this assignment in two class this semester (my first at SI). In one case, we were encouraged to come up with a persona and do actual research, so that the culmination is a 20 page paper. Ten pages on our research topic, and 10 pages on Reference and Information services at the archive we visited.

    The other assignment, we could be ourselves, were told to walk away if one of our peers were on the desk, and could choose any topic that would help us in some way. In this case, because we had to use two different environments (in-person and online), I chose to ask two different questions to avoid making comparisons about the results and compare the service. They were both questions dealing with projects I have a part in at work, but aren’t strictly library related.

    I thought both experiences were valuable as someone that works on a Reference Desk, it made me more conscious of how I am interacting with my patrons. It also gave me ideas for the innovative service paper we have to do for our Reference class before the end of the semester.


  13. I haven’t had this assignment but can see the value in a non-deceitful variation: ask to shadow the reference librarian for an hour (scheduled ahead of time). See how they react to their patrons. Chat with them during any down time and I think I could learn a lot more. We also interviewed an academic librarian and staff member for a paper. This was a great way to see the library from the inside *and* gain a little networking.


  14. Interesting…I never had this assignment. In my reference class we role-played the reference interview in the classroom with the professor providing a “script” for the person playing the patron role. We also had to choose a professional librarian to interview and observe on the reference desk, and then write a paper about it.


  15. We had to complete both assignments in my LIS program (SJSU) and I see the value in both- first we had the mock ref question exercise, then a few assignments later, the ref desk shadowing. I used the first exercise as an opportunity to find a librarian with excellent customer service skills, then I asked her if I could shadow her on the desk. I really wanted to see the job done right and glean some practical wisdom that we didn’t cover in class.

    I never saw the assignment as deceitful- above all, the librarian’s duty is to provide quality customer service. If anything, I found the first assignment slightly depressing- the majority of the interactions I had at the ref desk were overwhelmingly lacking in any substantive discourse… and I went to five different branches of our public library system and two in our neighboring county and the library affiliated with my school!


  16. My professor didn’t say that we couldn’t say we were library students. I actually asked about the difference between academic and public library work — still 2 out of the 3 sources I asked my question of gave me pretty miserable feedback. So, I don’t think ref librarians are actually always on their best behavior when they know they are talking to future professionals. The two poorer services were chat and email reference, so that may have also had some impact.


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