Tag Archives: reference

Supported Vulnerability and Help-Seeking

Early in my career I was my library’s liaison to the Graduate College of Social Work. The commonly held sentiment among my colleagues was that I would have no trouble encouraging social work students to meet with me or ask for help outside of class. In fact, the trouble I might have would be in finding the time to meet with all them individually. There was an unspoken judgement that, I’ll admit ashamedly, I initially bought into. It was that these students, who were primarily women, were needy. They needed a lot of “hand-holding” and “reassurance” and I would have to “set appropriate boundaries,” to do my work well.

The more I worked with and got to know these students, the less inclined I was to buy into this characterization of them as somehow deficient, less-than, or needy. They were intelligent, motivated, and eager to do good work. Meeting with them was easily the best part of my day. I remember eventually discussing my feelings towards these wonderful students with a colleague who shared a great bit of insight: Maybe they, as individuals entering a helping profession, were more comfortable with help-seeking and more confident that the people who say they are there to help you are actually, well, happy to help you. It was the best explanation I could muster for these students’ behavior, and their openness and acceptance at the time. I was a 26-year-old new librarian. Many of these students were returning to graduate school to bolster or change careers. They trusted me when I said I was there to help them and I was so thankful that they did.

The Courage of Asking for Help

It’s a decade later and I’ve never been able to shake the early connection I felt to students in that program and social workers in general. I’ve recently joined a Relational-Cultural Theory reading group, inspired to focus on this branch of scholarship by conversations I had a few years ago with a social worker friend of mine. In our reading group (shoutouts to Alana Kumbier, Anastasia Chiu, Lalitha Nataraj, and Jo Gadsby), we’ve been focusing on The Complexity of Connection, which are a series of writings from the Stone Center’s Jean Baker Miller Training Institute that explore the concept of connection and relational activity as central to human growth and empowerment. In a chapter on Relational Resilience, which is not the kind of resilience that’s proven so problematic in libraries in recent years, Judith V. Jordan writes:

Asking for support directly…is…putting the person doing the asking most at risk–we feel most vulnerable when we let people directly know about our need.

…we live in a cultural milieu that does not respect help-seeking and that tends to scorn the vulnerability implicit in our inevitable need for support (p. 33-34).

Reading these lines was mind-blowing. It completely reframed the way I remembered those social work students operating in an academic setting and has made me rethink the ways in which I conceptualize help-seeking in students now. Those social work students, who had no qualms about sharing their research ideas, talking through their searching dilemmas, and asking for feedback on their understanding of an issue, were brave. They were making themselves vulnerable to judgement, but were willing to take that risk in an effort to forge a connection with me, and seek empowerment for themselves as students, scholars, and clinicians. They couldn’t have known that I would be supportive or that I wouldn’t judge them in silence (or in conversation). But they took that risk, and that took so much courage.

Those students were practicing what Jordan refers to as “mutual empathy,” the willingness to be open to growth through connection. Our meetings always started off with what I initially thought of as “just a talk.” They always, without fail, wanted to learn about me–my background, my day, my semester, my work–and it in turn really made me interested in them as people and students. I never realized how rare that was. To me, it was just a part of library-work, but really, I was learning from those social work students how to engage in mutual empathy and understanding. They were modelling a method of fostering connection and affirmation, and it’s a practice I continue to engage in to this day.

The Judgement in Our Questioning

We are the profession of “Ask Us,” and “Get Help Here.” We lament that reference statistics keep dropping and encourage/cajole/beg our students to come to us for help. We are anxious about library anxiety and work to actively create positive interactions with students/patrons who come to us. What I think we don’t do enough of is considering the courage and vulnerability it takes for students to come to us for help. The onus is on them to seek us out and to admit what they may see as their own shortcomings. And how do we respond? We do the reference interview, which is built on the assumption that people don’t completely understand their own (information)needs. We ask questions that seem to be value-neutral:

  • when is this assignment due?
  • when did you start?
  • what have you done?
  • where have you looked?
  • what do you need?
  • is that really what you need?
  • really?

Yet I have seen far more students than not who, in the face of these questions, look guilty and ashamed. I’ve had students apologize in response to these questions. I’ve seen their bodies hunch over and their eyes look away. I’ve heard their voices get smaller or louder and defensive. I’ve listened to stories that explain their answers to these questions that broke my heart. I’ve had to actively work to combat the judgement inherent in those seemingly innocent questions. I’ve explicitly said, “there is no judgement in this space between us right now.” How can I, who am sitting on a pile of email that I’m too afraid to respond to, in good conscience be frustrated at any student who has decided to start researching at a time that is close to the project due date?

Supported Vulnerability

Jordan advocates for a model of connection that encourages “supported vulnerability.” We all need help and support to grow and be our best selves. As librarians, I think we need to stop advocating for two very different ideals that are in direct conflict with one another: the notion of the independent, information literate researcher/student and the researcher/student who feels supported in the vulnerability necessary to seek help. By holding up the independent individual as our ideal we are implicitly saying that the help-seeker is dependent, weaker, and not quite fully developed. There is no way to full-development in this model unless what you want is a researcher who is so afraid of appearing wrong or vulnerable that they just persist in their ignorance without bothering to learn from the people around them.

So what does that mean for our reference practice? One of my reading group buddies talked about a time when they had a 30 minute conversation with a student about their research. There was no “help” involved, no bestowing of knowledge from librarian to student, but it wasn’t really about that. It was about fostering a connection. Now the librarian knows what the student is working on and feels invested in them as a person and interested in their research. It’s the beginning of a foundation on which to build a relationship.

I don’t just want students to come to me when they have a problem or need help. I don’t want them to feel like they have to put themselves out there without me having to do the same. I want to get to know them as people and foster a connection that will help both of us grow and learn. I’ve seen students eager for even the slightest kernel of connection and relatability during a one-on-one. It’s both heartening to know they want this and depressing to think it’s so rare.

I don’t think this focus on connection and mutuality is a part of the model of research support and reference we currently adhere to collectively, as a profession, but I do think it’s one that we could easily shift towards. I know that I am writing about vulnerability from a position of privilege. I am tenured. I read as white to others (despite my best efforts to the contrary). I am a femme ciswoman. But I do think that there is a place for this kind of supported vulnerability in our profession if those of us with privilege could be courageous enough to support the vulnerability of our peers and characterize it as an asset and a strength, not a liability.

 

Director at the Desk

This week I’m trying something I’ve never done before: I’m working one evening and one weekend shift at our Reference Desk. All librarians in the library where I work take a few short Friday evening shifts, including me, but until this semester I’d not yet done reference up to our later weeknight closing or all day on Saturday (though in the past I’ve taught classes at both times).

My main interest in taking these shifts is to learn more about what the library’s like during our evening and Saturday hours. We do a full headcount multiple times each semester of everyone using the library, and keep the usual statistics about reference transactions, circulation, and printing, so we do have some sense of how the library’s used when the full-timers aren’t there. And of course our evening and Saturday library faculty and staff share any concerns or news with us, too. But as both a library director and a researcher interested in how students do their academic work, I’ve been more and more curious to see for myself. How are students using the library outside of the standard work week? What areas of the library see the most use, and are there bottlenecks (if any)? Are there services or sections of the library that aren’t used in these off-hours?

I admit that I was somewhat nervous in the run up to this week. It’s not that I’m concerned about making grave errors — our work is important, but the library’s not an emergency room. But since I’m not on the desk often I feel like my reference skills are somewhat rusty. Our discovery layer was added after I became a director (and stopped teaching regularly), so I’m much less practiced at using it than I was with our online catalog. Technology questions can be tricky, too; I’m grateful that we’ve added a dedicated tech support staff member at the reference desk, which is a huge help for the inevitable questions about campus wifi or using the LMS, not to mention printer jams.

I drafted this post during the second half of my evening shift, and I was delighted to be there! I’m a little bit out of practice in explaining the research process clearly and concisely, but I’m getting better with each question. Midterms are only just over a week away so I’ve had a fair number of research consultations in between requests for the stapler and scanners. It’s been interesting to see the ebbs and flows — we are really, really busy during the 5-6pm class break, especially with students printing out assignments and readings before class, but then things slow down considerably. The quiet floor is quieter than during the day, and the talking floor is quieter, too. I still miss the regular interaction with students that I had before I became Chief Librarian, and it’s been great to have that experience again this week.

Other than scheduling enough time for me to eat before my shift started (which was entirely my own fault), I’m chalking up my stint at reference earlier this week as a success. Tomorrow’s Saturday, and I’m looking forward to going back for more.

Reorienting Reference

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Judith Logan, Reference Librarian at the University of Toronto.

The job title in my email signature is “Reference Librarian.”  Every time I send a message to a new faculty member, student, or other non-library person, I always worry that they won’t know what that means. There’s good evidence that my worries are well founded. Kupersmith (2012) compiled over 51 library usability studies and found that “reference” was one of the most commonly misunderstood or not understood terms.

There may have been a time when the word “reference” was both intelligible and valuable to most users, but that is not the case now. Reference remains both a physical location and a service point in most libraries, but the landscape of user-support has changed around them. Any veteran reference librarian can tell you that our users no longer need us as they once did. Our declining annual statistics corroborate this.

So what do we do? Bemoan the loss of a valued function within the library and stubbornly assert our continued relevance while doing the old work that may no longer be necessary? Some, like Verdasca (2015), are going this route, but I think we can do better.  The research skills and service values that we honed over decades are still very useful to both our users and our institutions. We just have to deploy them more effectively.

They don’t need us anymore and that’s a good thing

Usually, reference works like this:

  • A library user encounters a problem
  • The user approaches us asking for help with this problem
  • We use our reference interview skills to analyze the problem
  • We help the user fix the problem or suggest alternatives if it is unfixable
  • The user leaves happy (hopefully), so we are happy

Of course, this is a gross simplification of a reference interaction.  I’m using it only to show that the emphasis of reference work is on the user in front of us.  It is a reactive position. We wait for problems to occur and solve them as best we can, considering our sphere of influence and available resources.  Essentially, we wait for our systems to fail.

Our LibQual results tell us that our users value self-directedness. The Information Control section, which includes such value statements as “A library website enabling me to locate information on my own” and “Easy-to-use access tools that allow me to find things on my own”, always has the highest score for desired service level. And this isn’t just at my library. Check out the ARL notebooks for results from each year’s participating libraries.

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.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with a little support, especially in the areas that need a higher level of skill.  Any public service librarian can tell you that we can save our users a great deal of time and frustration. But our support should never be necessary more often than it is desired. As Schmidt and Etches (2014) so perfectly put it “if someone has to be taught how to use something, then it’s the thing that is broken, not the user” (p. 5).

Putting ourselves out of a job

The fundamental goal of reference work should be self-destruction. We know they want to be able to do it themselves, so we should be working proactively to make the library system so easy that they don’t need us to navigate it.

Granted, the resources our user communities need are vast, complicated, and expensive. We’re not going to be able to change the landscape of academic publishing and distribution quickly or easily, but there are lots of little opportunities for improving our services and facilitating better research. We should be using our reference service points primarily as a means of discovering those opportunities.

I’ll give you an example from my library.  Our discovery tool, Summon, indexes many kinds of resources, but we market it primarily as an article discovery tool. Since its implementation in Fall 2011, the search results were filtered to articles only, but if a user performed a new search from the search results screen, the articles filter would be lost and book results would appear in the new search.  Only the very keen eyed user would notice the missing filter or the presence of an ISBN under the title.

Ironically, these book results didn’t even direct users to the catalogue.  They went to our article link resolver—which most users interpreted as a dead end since the “article” never appeared.  You can imagine the confusion and frustration we observed in our users.

For years we addressed this in information literacy classes and online learning objects like screencasts and FAQs, but these interventions were designed to fix the user’s behavior, not Summon.

We finally solved the problem by collaborating with our technical services department. They were working on a redesign of the library website, so we suggested some functionality changes along with the look-and-feel update to Summon. Now it keeps the article filters by default, even in a new search.  Users only see catalogue results if they actively remove the articles filter.  This solution has been in place for about a month now and we’re already receiving thank you messages from users about this specific functionality change.

This is just one small example of how we can use our first hand experience with users’ “pain points” to make the system easier for users to navigate on their own. The trick is communicating this experience to the right collaborators at the right time

The broader implications

What does becoming more user-centered and proactive mean for established reference librarians, units, and services?

First of all, we should be thinking about the way we connect with users.  Are we putting our efforts into services that have the most impact for them? The only way to know to is to ask them and be willing to make hard decisions in response to what we hear. We may love our reference desk, for example, but if it’s not valuable to our users, we need to be willing to let it go.

Many libraries are doing this kind of user experience research to inform service design.  At my library, for instance, our research found that our users often feel confused, lost, and frustrated trying to navigate our giant, concrete building, so we’re piloting a distributed service model where student staff members will provide preemptive support throughout the building (Bell 2013). So, rather than waiting for them to find their way to us (if they can), we’ll go to them.

Secondly, we need to be working more closely with our colleagues.  I come from a large institution where metadata activities, technology services, circulation, reference, and collections all operate quite separately.  We don’t work together and share information as closely as we could, but our big win with Summon showed that collaboration can be very fruitful.

Especially, working with user experience (UX) librarians or units can be mutually beneficial if your library is lucky enough to have them. We can identify useful avenues for UX research and contextualize findings for them while they can help us turn our anecdotal observations into hard evidence and ultimately changes that benefit the user.

If you don’t have a user experience librarian or team at your library, you can take on this role. UX isn’t hard. There are lots of resources out there to help you get started:

  • Check out Weave, a new open-access journal about UX in libraries.
  • Sign up for Influx’s newsletter.
  • Follow @UXlibs on Twitter or attend their conference if you can swing it

Finally, we should also think about what we call ourselves.  It may seem trivial, but it’s critical that our users—our raison d’être— understand who we are and what we can do for them. A new name would also help us reposition ourselves in the minds of those who may hold a narrow, outdated, or pejorative view of what reference means: dusty encyclopedias and bespectacled librarians frowning from behind a big wooden desk.

Reference in its previous incarnations has diminished in importance to our users, so it’s time to regroup and refocus. Like all library services, reference is dedicated to facilitating our institution’s research and teaching activities. Instead of accomplishing this mission reactively—by fixing problems (read: user behavior) as they present themselves—we should be accomplishing it proactively—by listening to our users’ frustrations and desires, and reconfiguring our services and resources to address them.

Works cited

Bell, S. J. (2013, August 6). Recent user experience: Greeters – NO / Preemptive Support – YES. [Blog post]. Designing Better Libraries. Retrieved from http://dbl.lishost.org/blog/2013/08/06/recent-user-experience-greeters-no-preemptive-support-yes/

Kupersmith, J. (2012). Library terms that users understand. Retrieved from http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/3qq499w7

Schmidt, A., & Etches, A. (2014). Useful, usable, desirable: Applying user experience design to your library. Chicago: ALA Editions.

Verdesca, A. (2015). What’s in a word: Coming to terms with reference. The Reference Librarian, 56(1), 67–72.

Research Librarianship in Crisis: Mediate When, Where, and How?

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Bohyun Kim, Digital Access Librarian, Florida International University Medical Library. She blogs at Library Hat.

The talk about the crisis of librarianship is nothing new. Most recently, back in May, Seth Godin, a marketing guru, has written on his blog a post about the future of libraries. Many librarians criticized that Godin failed to fully understand the value of librarians and libraries.  But his point that libraries and librarians may no longer be needed was not entirely without merit (See my post “Beyond the Middlemen and the Warehouse Business”). Whether we librarians like it or not, more and more library users are obtaining information without our help.

One may think academic research libraries are an exception from this. Unfortunately, the same trend prevails even at research libraries. In his guest editorial for the Journal of Academic Librarianship, “The Crisis in Research Librarianship (pre-print version)”, Rick Anderson makes the case that patrons are finding information effectively without librarians’ help, citing the drastic decline of reference transactions in Association of Research Libraries (ARL).  According the ARL statistics, the number of reference transactions went down by more than 50-60 % since 1995.

This is particularly worrisome considering that at research libraries, we tend to place reference and instruction services at the center of the library operation and services. These services delivered by physical or online contact are still deemed to be one of the most prominent and important parts of the academic library operation. But the actual user behavior shows that they can and do get their research done without much help from librarians.  To make matters worse, existing library functions and structures that we consider to be central appear to play only a marginal role in the real lives of academic library users.  Anderson states: “Virtually none of them begins a research project at the library’s website; the average student at a major research university has fewer than four interactions with a reference librarian in a year (and even fewer of those are substantive reference interviews); printed books circulate at lower and lower rates every year.”

We have heard this before. So why are we still going in the same direction as we were a decade ago? Could this be perhaps because we haven’t figured out yet what other than reference and instruction to place in the heart of the library services?

For almost three years, my library has been offering workshops for library users. Workshops are a precious opportunity for academic librarians to engage in instruction, the most highly regarded activity at an academic library. But our workshop attendance has been constantly low. Interestingly, however, those who attended always rated the workshops highly. So the low attendance wasn’t the result of the workshops being bad or not useful. Library users simply preferred to spend their time and attention on something other than library workshops.  I remember two things that brought out palpable appreciation from users during those workshops: how to get the full-text of an article immediately and how to use the library’s LibX toolbar to make that process even faster and shorter.

What users seemed to want to know most was how to get the tasks for their research done fast, and they preferred to do so by themselves. They appreciated any tools that help them to achieve this if the tools were easy to use.  But they were not interested in being mediated by a librarian.

What does this mean?  It means that those library services and programs that aim at increasing contact between librarians and patrons are likely to fail and to be received poorly by users. Not necessarily because those offerings are bad but because users prefer not to be mediated by librarians in locating and using information and resources.

This is a serious dilemma. Librarians exist to serve as a mediator between users and resources. We try to guide them to the best resources and help them to make the best use of those resources.  But the users consider our mediation as a speed bump rather than as value-added service. So where do research libraries and librarians go from here?

I think that librarians will still be needed for research in the digital era. However, the point at which librarians’ mediation is sought for and appreciated may vastly differ from that in the past when information was scarce and hard to obtain.  Users will no longer need nor desire human mediation in basic and simple tasks such as locating and accessing information. Most of them already have no patience to sit through a bibliographic instruction class and/or to read through a subject guide.

But users may appreciate and even seek for mediation in more complicated tasks such as creating a relevant and manageable data set for their research.  Users may welcome any tool that libraries offer that makes the process of research from the beginning to the final product easier and faster. They will want better user interfaces for library systems. They will appreciate better bridges that will connect them with non-library systems to make library resources more easily discoverable and retrievable.  They will want libraries to be an invisible interface that removes any barrier between them and information.  This type of mediation is new to librarians and libraries.  Is it possible that in the future the libraries and librarians’ work is deemed successful exactly in inverse proportion to how visible and noticeable their mediation is?

In his guest editorial, Anderson presents several scenarios of research libraries “going out of business.” Libraries being absorbed into an IT group; Libraries losing computer labs, thereby losing a source of transaction with users as laptops and handheld devices become widely adopted; Libraries budget taken away for better investments; Libraries’ roles and functions being eroded slowly by other units; Information resources that libraries provide being purchased directly by users.

So if a library comes to lose its facilities such as a computer lab, a reading room, carrels, and group study rooms, would there still remain the need for librarians? If a library ends up removing its reference desk, workshops, and other instruction classes, what would librarians be left to do?  If we consider the library space that can be offered and managed by any other unit on campus as the essential part of library services and operation, the answer to these questions would be negative.  As long as we consider reference and instruction – the direct contact with users to mediate between them and resources – as the primary purpose of a library, the answer to these questions would be negative.

Libraries may never lose their facilities, and the need for users to have a direct contact with librarians may never completely go away. But these questions are still worth for us to ponder if we do not want to build a library’s main mission upon something on which the library’s patrons do not place much value. The prospect for the future libraries and librarians may not necessarily be dreary. But we need to rethink where the heart of research librarianship should lie.

Don’t Make It Easy For Them

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Andy Burkhardt, Emerging Technologies Librarian at Champlain College in Vermont. He also blogs at Information Tyrannosaur.

I love customer service in libraries. I love improving our systems and services so they are more user-friendly. I love helping students with their research and answering their questions. But I don’t want to make things easy for students. If I did, I wouldn’t be giving them what they want: an education.

In information literacy sessions, which of these two scenarios is easier for students: letting them sit there while you demo the catalog and a database or having them play with the search tools themselves and then explain to the rest of the class how they work? The first one is way easier. Students can sleep, text, or zone out without having to think or learn anything. The second situation is exceedingly more challenging. Students have to actually have hands on contact with the tools. They also have to learn them well enough to explain them to their classmates. They have to talk!

At the reference desk, what’s easier for a student: when a librarian searches the catalog for them and gives them a relevant book, or when the librarian asks them a bunch of questions, has them explain their topic clearly, and makes them search the catalog? Clearly the first one is nearly effortless for the student. Ask and they receive. The second one is significantly more demanding. After asking a question, the student is asked more questions back. They have to work to define and redefine their topic into something clear. And they have to try searching for a book themselves!

When an online student is looking for an article, should we just send a PDF or should we make a quick screencast about how to get to that article in our databases? Sending the PDF as an email attachment would be much easier for the student. It would also be much easier for the librarian. In fact, things that are easier for students are often easier for librarians too. It’s easy to send a PDF. It’s simple to go through the motions of demoing a database you have shown hundreds of times. It’s a cake-walk to give a student a book and send them on their way. But if we take the easy route, we’re failing them. Learning isn’t easy; it’s hard work. It can be interesting, challenging, confusing, overwhelming, engaging, scary and really fun, but not easy. It’s never easy. Part of our service to students is challenging them so they learn and grow.

I try to remember not to make it easy for students, but also not to make it easy for myself. If my job is starting to seem easy, I’m doing something wrong.