Information Literacy at the Reference Desk

I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in a challenging and stimulating project: developing an information literacy curriculum for my campus.  If it seems like a long time coming–it is.  While my library has consistently been providing reference and instruction services to our students for a long time, its only been recently that we’ve had to develop a serious curriculum to justify our efforts.  As our university is busy with reaffirming of our accreditation and we’re faced with the usual budget crises, the time came to be able to legitimize our services and collections with an information literacy curriculum.

To articulate our mission, content, pedagogy, and assessment of our services and collections, we had to first take inventory.  To do this, we developed and implemented a citation analysis project.  First, we identified 3 sections of a required course in our most popular academic program.  For the face-to-face section of the course, we delivered a standard information literacy session that covered keywords, Boolean operators, and other database-specific skills.  For the online section, I developed an online guide that covered the same topics and I participated in a discussion forum where I answered specific questions.  THis section also, independently of our suggestion, required that each student meet with a librarian for a reference session.  The final section was our control group where no workshop was given.  We then analyzed the final papers of each section and applied a rubric that measured how well the students cited their sources and integrated them in their papers.

The results of our analysis gave us a lot of great insight into how we can improve our workshops, the topics the students need more help with, and how to better promote our collections.  The most interesting result, though, was the revelation that regardless of any other intervention, the students that came to meet with a librarian did better on their final paper than those who did not.  To put another way: reference interactions are just as an essential component to information literacy instruction as one-shot lessons.

I”m not sure why this surprised us so much, but it definitely did.  Perhaps because we unconsciously equate information literacy with in-class workshops, or because we’ve seen a steady decline in amount of reference transactions, or perhaps just because we weren’t the ones to suggest that students be required to see us, but in any event we learned an important lesson to consider our entire range of services when assessing information literacy.  I recently completed a Library Juice Academy course in critical pedagogy where we learned that information literacy instruction happens everywhere, in all aspects of our work.  We gave examples of how we practice a critical pedagogy in our collections, in our campus committee work, and, of course, in our classrooms.  But none of us considered how the work we do when a student comes to us with a reference question is essential to our pedagogy praxis.  Indeed, the kind of personalized attention we give a student during a reference interaction is the perfect time to bring that student a little closer to information literacy.

Now that we know the significance a personalized reference interaction makes, we’re brainstorming ways to systematically incorporate them into our work.  Perhaps we can suggest professors strongly encourage their students to bring their research topic to us as a requirement of the assignment.  Or, we could set up a discussion forum in our classroom management platforms for online or hybrid classes.  Finally, we could consider a roving reference program to meet students working around campus.  What has worked for your library?

When thinking about our work as librarians, it’s essential to consider all aspects of what we do and to start to engage with creative ways to promote information literacy.  The reference desk is an interesting place to start.  In what surprising locations does information literacy live in your library?  Leave a comment or tweet me @beccakatharine.

2 thoughts on “Information Literacy at the Reference Desk

  1. Thanks for sharing this- very interesting! I also would not have put one-on-one reference interactions on the same level of classroom based instruction, but it does make sense once I think about it. Those who come see me for individual meetings are getting information tailored to their individual project or paper, so it is much easier for them to retain what I teach.

    We have a ‘Book a Librarian’ service (adapted from our local public library system) where we encourage students and faculty to come and meet with us to discuss their information needs. I’ve had some response to the flyers, etc, but I do get quite a few students walking in now as well.

  2. Wow, these results are fantastic, thanks for sharing this Rebecca! While my colleagues and I definitely consider Reference and Instruction to be two sides of the same coin, we don’t often present/analyze/discuss those statistics/assessments together. This is a great reminder to do just that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>