Tag Archives: reference

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.

A Personal Touch

Earlier this week the Chron reported on the new Personal Librarian Program at Drexel University. Every incoming freshman student this year has been assigned an individual librarian, and students are encouraged to contact their personal librarians throughout the semester whenever they have questions about doing research or using the library. While Drexel is not the only academic library offering this service, the publicity around the Drexel program has inspired lots of conversation this week among librarians I know both in person and online via Twitter, Facebook, and blogs.

It definitely seems like there has been a rise in individual services to students at academic libraries over the past few years. Some libraries are experimenting with librarian office hours; sometimes they’re held in the library, and sometimes a subject librarian will offer consultations in an office in each discipline’s department. Many libraries promote individual consultations by appointment with reference librarians for students and faculty. We started offering this service at my library last semester and it’s working well. It’s been great to be able to offer more in-depth assistance to students without feeling the pressure of the busy reference desk.

As an instruction librarian I’m used to interacting with students in a class, but working with many students at once is very different from a one-on-one interaction with a student. Maybe it’s just in the air, but more and more often I find myself thinking about ways to work with individual students. I think these services are so attractive to me because it seems like they would encourage stronger student engagement with research and critical thinking. No matter how relevant (e.g., assignment-based), timely, interactive, or entertaining a classroom instruction session is, it can be difficult to fully engage every student in the room. But working with students one-on-one removes some of the obstacles–like fear of asking questions in front of the entire class–and lets us work at each individual student’s level of experience and need.

I have to admit that the numbers are a bit scary. The ratio of Personal Librarians to incoming freshmen at Drexel is about 1:100. How can academic libraries at colleges with a different ratio–say, 1:500 or even 1:1,000–offer these kinds of individual services? One thought is to start small, with students in a specific discipline or major, and I’m sure there are other groups of students that would work well for a personal librarian project pilot. And assessment should help us evaluate the impact of individual services as compared to group instruction, and help us decide whether to offer a personal librarian program. (Assessment is on my mind this week as I’ve been making my way through the new ACRL Value of Academic Libraries Report, but that’s a post for another day.)

If you’re experimenting with individual services in your library, what have your experiences been?

Gone Camping

It’s summertime, so last week I packed my bag and headed off to camp: LibCampNYC, a library unconference held at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

This was the first unconference I’d ever attended, having narrowly missed out on signing up for Library Camp NYC in 2007. One of the defining features of an unconference is its loose structure. I have to admit that I came into the day somewhat skeptical that the model would actually work, that 100+ people would be able to plan the day’s events on the fly first thing in the morning. While the organizers had done some pre-planning, arranging the topics proposed by participants on the preconference wiki into clusters of similar themes, the 4-5 sessions that ran in each timeslot were determined by the entire group. It was amazing to watch the schedule coalesce right before our eyes.

I went to four sessions over the course of the day, opting to stay in each one rather than move around. Lots of interesting things were discussed:

  • In the How should we handle the dinosaur known as the reference desk? session, the point was made that at academic libraries students may not feel comfortable approaching the reference desk when it’s not crowded because the librarian on duty looks busy, and students don’t want to interrupt. On the Twitter backchannel, bentleywg shared that his library places signs in front of the librarians’ computers on the ref desk that read “Please Interrupt Me.” Such a great idea!
  • I co-facilitated Information literacy instruction and strategies, and I was especially pleased that so many public librarians came to that session. It was so interesting to learn about the variety of opportunities that public librarians have to teach their patrons, from kids through adults, aspects of information literacy. I’ve often wondered about how my library could partner with the public library, since we only have our students for four years and public libraries have them for the rest of their lives (but that’s probably a topic for another post).
  • The Open access session was fairly free-form, with discussion on the topic ranging far and wide. Advocacy was a recurring thread, especially how academic librarians can educate faculty about open access on their campuses. One of the most interesting suggestions was to engage students in advocacy, as discussed at the SPARC session on this topic at ALA’s Midwinter meeting in 2008. For example, Students for Free Culture, a multi-campus organization, seems like a great partner for librarians working on OA issues.
  • The final session I attended was Critical pedagogy/critical information literacy, a topic I’m very interested in though just starting to read and learn about. A big theme in this discussion was the “tyranny of the one-shot,” with many librarians chewing over how to bring critical pedagogies to a library session that may be restricted to as little as 45 minutes.

The day went by in a flash and was great fun. My only small frustration was that the sessions seemed too short. By the time the participants said a few words introducing ourselves and expressing our interest in the topic and the conversation really got going, the session time was nearly half gone. But it’s also true that longer sessions = fewer sessions, and I wouldn’t have wanted to drop any of the four that I attended.

Longer sessions would also have allowed for more space to accommodate the variety of experience with and interest in a topic that everyone brought to the sessions. And while I do think that this diversity of perspective added depth to our discussions, sometimes a conversational thread that was interesting to me was snipped short and I wished we had more time to for it. But of course that’s the spirit of an unconference, that the program evolves continuously. And that made the event one of the most exciting and learning-filled professional events that I’ve ever attended.

But I think that what I valued most about LibCampNYC was the ability to connect with librarians from across the profession. I spend most of my time with academic librarians, and it was great to have the opportunity to learn from my colleagues in public, special, medical, and other libraries. I also appreciated the diversity in experience — the mix of both newer and more seasoned librarians in addendance. And of course this was much more participatory than a typical conference, because the program and topics were determined by all of us, together.

If you’re interested in reading the session notes, you can find them on the LibCampNYC wiki. I can’t wait to go library camping again!