How do you define reference?

February 9th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

dictionary definition

I’ve been thinking about the definition of reference. In fact, I was asked to define reference services at MPOW for a task force charged with determine ways to increase “discoverability” of library services. We ultimately defined reference as:

“mediated information seeking which
 utilizes the expertise of librarians to connect users with library 
resources. This includes both formal and informal reference transactions, especially those which teach users how to analyze and assess the value of 
information, its accuracy, and its appropriate use.”

This came out of various discussions about RUSA’s definition and one offered in Rosemarie Riechel’s book on youth reference services (I especially like the phrase “mediated seeking”). But why this particular definition? Why these choices of words?

I wanted to accomplish two things with this definition. First, I wanted to define reference services more holistically, not as a technical act but as a philosophy of service. To wit: providing reference should establish, build upon, and leverage the relationship between us and our users (“mediated information seeking”) and between our users and information (“connect users with library resources”).

Secondly, I wanted to highlight that reference requires unique skills and highlights the specialization of librarians (“expertise of librarians”): we are more than just “human googlers.” We learn to rely as much on non-verbal queues as verbal ones. We understand the nuances of human information behavior, especially in research environments, and we are able to respond with timely and appropriate resources.

As a task force, we struggled with defining the scope of reference. We considered everything from directional questions at the ref desk to curriculum-wide information literacy instruction. However, reference shouldn’t be equated with public services. It is an instructional activity, either formal or informal, that (ideally) teaches each user about the role of information in (1) her life; (2) her work; and (3) in society. Additionally, I intentionally left out any mention of technology or format (e.g. email, chat, phone, etc.). The definition is format agnostic and is applicable to any situation in which librarians, information, and users come together.

Admittedly, the definition’s scope is broad. Reference can occur anywhere within the library system, both physically and virtually. It is more than just the public face of the library: it is the personal face and the point at which human relationships develop. Accordingly, with the recommendations of the task force, I hope we can unify the libraries’ approach to reference through assessment, standardization, innovation, and leadership.

Though I won’t be present when our recs are presented to the administration, I’m looking forward to hearing the response.

photo credit: from sickmouthy on flickr (used under Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0)

We’ve built the brand. Now let’s build celebrities

May 9th, 2011 § 2 comments § permalink

a celebrity librarian

Does it matter that students don’t know what academic librarians do? Should we care that they usually cannot differentiate between student workers, staff members, and faculty librarians? If the answer to these is “yes,” then what can we do to improve the situation?

These are the issues underlying the research of Rachel Bickly and Sheila Corrall, the authors of “Student perceptions of staff in the information commons : A survey at the University of Sheffield,” published in the latest Reference Services Review. They surveyed students of the Information Commons at the University of Sheffield in the UK and for the most part confirmed what many already assumed, though had never explicitly studied in an IC setting. Among the key findings were:

  • Students are more likely to notice and hence approach younger librarians (e.g. trusting people they perceive as peers)
  • Students are unaware of the educational background of academic librarians
  • Students do not completely understand the academic function of librarians
  • Students are generally unable to distinguish between different types of library staff members
  • Most importantly: These attitudes haven’t changed over time.

Before getting into how these perceptions could be changed, one could ask, “Does it matter?” Does it matter if librarians are seen and not heard, not understood, or not fully appreciated in a way that we (only we?) think is appropriate? Is it possible to be effective librarians and simultaneously be invisible to the students we serve?

I’m sure there are some who would say that it doesn’t. That no amount of information literacy classes will ever make a student appreciate fine-tooth cataloging, curated resources guides, or tiered reference, but by making these things available, we are helping their research process nonetheless.

There are others who might argue that we could do so much more if students only understood how hard we worked. If they only knew what skills we possessed and the knowledge we brought to the table. After all, most assessments of bibliographic instruction, especially those that happen one-on-one, show that students have a positive perception of the experience (see also J. Fagan, “Students’ perceptions of academic librarians.” The Reference Librarian, 37(78).)

I would argue that it does matter. It does matter knowing that my primary care physician is also an ENT specialist. As a result, I am confident asking him certain questions knowing that he has a unique understanding of the subject. It matters knowing that my co-worker is a native-born German speaker because I can bring specific, German language cataloging questions to him. Etc. etc.

So what is to be done? According to this study, we haven’t been doing it right. Each institution is unique in its users and their needs, but I would start by recommend the following. All of these are based on one simple idea: make first contact with as many students as possible and make it in spaces where they work.

  1. Build relationships with grad students, especially TA’s. Knowing that students are more likely to talk to a TA than a faculty member, make sure your graduate student population knows the benefits of a strong relationship with a librarian. They’ll be the first ones to recommend you as an additional source of research help.
  2. Get into the CMS and onto course web pages. This can be especially useful for courses that are repeatedly offered each semester. Even before going to Google, many students use course materials for their research (reading lists, syllabi, etc.). If there’s a link on their course page or syllabus, you already have an in where it’s most likely to be seen.
  3. …Or create your own. Even if you can’t work your way onto a syllabus, you could create a research guide for a particular class. Again, this is also helpful for classes that are offered every semester. And if it’s popular, students are likely to pass along this information to their friends who are also taking the course.

Each of these requires building strong relationships with faculty and department liaisons. As this article and others have suggested (see Foster & Gibbons. (2007). Studying students: The undergraduate research project at the University of Rochester. ACRL, Chicago.), doing so increases the likelihood that professors will invite you into their classrooms and direct (or push off) students to you for additional research help.

Academic libraries have spent much of the past decade building their brand. We’ve seen some spectacular projects that raise students’ awareness of the existence of the library and it’s welcoming, always available services. Now let’s start working on building local celebrities.

(photo credit: ShellyS)

Walking a new reference beat

May 6th, 2011 § 5 comments § permalink

Circle of people on laptops

People conducting research in libraries are less mobile than they once were. Not only do they have their papers, library items, and a coffee carefully positioned, they also often have a laptop, a phone, and a music device on display as well.” Aaron Schmidt, Revaming Reference – The User Experience.

When I read that sentence, I was struck dumb. Holy mother of Xenu! You’re right! When I’m at the reference desk or when I look around the reading room, I see nothing but students on laptops. It’s so normal that I never give it a second thought. So why should I think that these students are going to get up from their seat to spend 5-10 minutes with a librarian while their precious hardware is sitting unattended? NYTimes recently warned of the perils of leaving your tech unattended in public spaces and academic libraries are not immune to theft (as the campus police reports constantly remind me).

Ok. So I’ve finally realized something that is completely obvious. Schmidt goes on to talk about the social awareness needed to understand when a patron can be approached in the spirit of “proactive reference,” how reference desks can be reshaped and roaming models rethought. At one point, he quotes Martha Flotten, a Multnomah County librarian who claims to have “mind-blowing reference transactions weekly.”

Again, I was struck. I want this.

So let’s work this out. Embedded reference. Blended reference. Roaming reference. We’ve all heard these terms before. But what are the strategies that make these concepts work? Here are a few ideas:

  1. The Latte Librarian approach. Do you know where the engineering graduate students go for coffee between labs? Why not set up office hours there? Get in touch with the graduate coordinator for the department and make sure they pass the word along. See also Some Librarian.
  2. The Tablet Librarian approach. Get a tablet and roam the reading rooms,  study halls, and collaborative work spaces where students get things done. If you have to, wear a shirt that says “Free Librarian” (or wear a bow tie). Use your social insight to find students who need a helping hand. Great waiters/waitresses know when you need their help and when to leave you alone. Channel your inner waitress.
  3. The Celebrity Librarian approach. Build a brand around 1 or 2 of your most charismatic reference librarians. Set them up with Foursquare and location-based social programs and get the word out about their movements. Let students follow them. Make it game (I have a Waldo costume on stand-by). Patrons may be more inclined to seek out a librarian if they know one is nearby.
  4. The Student Librarian approach. Work with indiviudal students to create [paid] library ambassadors that extend reference services into particular dorms, schools, buildings, or other campus locales. Build in them strong research skills and train them how to teach these skills to others. MPOW will begin a similar program in the fall.
  5. The Librarian-For-Hire approach. Reach out to student government groups, Greek societies, and professional societies within the university system and offer your services. Go to their meetings and talk with the leaders of those organizations. I’m sure that the local political societies would love to have a seminar on finding resources for their various campaigns. It may require teaching some classes outside the normal hours, but it’s a connection to students who are really passionate about a subject.

The central theme of all these approaches is location. Meet the students where they are and stop expecting them to come to you. You can do this by making small changes. Instead of having office hours in your office, have them in a public space. Instead of standing behind the reference desk, stand/lean/walk-around in front of it. Visibly express your availability and eagerness. Stop being afraid of intruding.

These are just a few ideas for revamping your reference service and getting you out from behind the desk. Maybe they will work for. Maybe not. Maybe they will just be excuses for you to procure special project funding and find an excuse to drink more coffee (or buy an iPad). But the need for human mediation in the information search/evaluation/use process will never disappear, no matter what the deathers claim. We just need to be more proactive in finding gentler ways of making that first contact.

How has your library tried to revamp reference and reach out to students where they are? What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked?

photo credit: cindiann