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Ask a magician. Ask a librarian.

I’ll be honest. I was teary-eyed by the end: A Love Letter to Librarians.

That said, it’s worth noting that as an academic librarian, I don’t feel this necessarily applies to me. And yet, the bibliothecarii of higher education ultimately perform the same duty. We introduce students to the mysteries of greater knowledge and the joy of delving deep into the complexity of a topic. We help them to develop the mental tools for lifelong learning and liberal thought. As I see it, we are less magician and more scientist in our approach to student learning.

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Goals for the 2015-2016 academic year: Reference

For the past fifteen years I’ve operated on an academic schedule. When September rolls around on the calendar, it begins to feel like New Years is approaching and I shift into resolutions mode. At my library we are in the midst of our annual review process so we are all thinking about what we’d like to see and do in the coming year.

One of my big goals for this year is to revamp our reference services by creating a more flexible desk schedule, shifting our attention to research consultations and virtual reference, and redesigning our student training process. Ideally, I’m hoping to create a model that (1) utilizes librarian time and attention more efficiently; (2) properly trains students to triage and refer reference questions to library staff; and (3) increases the awareness and accessibility of library reference services among students.

For us, the reference desk is no longer a primary place of academic support, but one of customer service and technical support (this conclusion is based on two years of detailed statistics). Rather than continue to push a model of reference that isn’t useful to our students in that location, I want to focus our energies on creating real reference connections in other spaces. Some of the specific milestones for this goal include:

  • Develop an FAQ website for reference questions using the Libraryh3lp platform consisting of, at minimum, the top 20 questions asked at the Info Desk.
  • Create a Libraryh3lp training workshop for librarians.
  • Set up a system that allows for students to reserve a research consultation time with librarians.
  • Create a new training module for all library student workers that teaches how to identify, capture, and refer reference questions to a librarian.
  • Develop a marketing plan to highlight virtual reference services, especially text-a-librarian.

From the user’s perspective, our reference desk setup will look exactly the same, but I’ll be making changes on the back-end throughout the semester. If my plan is successful, we may move away from the traditional desk model altogether. Or it may further necessitate the need for the desk. At this point, we don’t know which way the winds are blowing.

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There’s more to reference

I, too, hesitate before telling a student my official job title, unsure of what associations the word reference may bring to mind, but I worry about the implications of stripping “reactive reference” from our service model:

“Taking a reactive position in our reference work doesn’t fit with our users’ desire for self-sufficiency. They don’t want to have to rely on us to get their research done. We are and should be a last resort.”

There is an assumption here that the only end game of reference is finding something, but there is our pedagogical role to consider as well. Every reference transaction is an opportunity to teach a student something deeper than “here’s where you search for articles”. By designing spaces that are perfectly centered around the needs of the user, do we push out important opportunities for learning?

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I am Morpheus

My favorite quote from this talk:

I have this rather grand vision of myself as Morpheus from the Matrix. “Here, students, are two pills. Take the Red Pill and your life will never be the same again, the world of information will look fundamentally different, and there will be no turning back. Take the Blue Pill and you’ll probably pass your term paper.”

Source: Locations of Literacy: Information Literacy (plenary panel at MnWE 2014)

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The 3rd law

I spend hours trying to connect users to information resources. As a public services librarian, most of my week is spent in front of a classroom or working one-on-one with students trying to connect them to the resources they need for their assignments. Every reader his or her book. But how often do I give time and attention to the third law of library science? One of my goals for this semester is to spend more time finding the right users for some of our resources. Because books want to be loved. And I’m a biblio-match-maker.

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How do you define reference?

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.

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

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.