Warming Up To The Idea Of User Education

Reading the latest (November 2007) issue of Against the Grain brought two surprises in one article. In his regular column (In My Humble But Correct Opinion) Rick Anderson takes up a public service issue, not his usual fare. So surprise number one is that he’s taking on the problem of the reference desk and the need to create some change. He’d like us to be “more motivated to try harder to put our desks out of business”. Perhaps he’s been reading ACRLog posts, the Chronicle or Library Issues more recently. But the big surprise is that Anderson may be warming up to the idea of the benefits of user education. In the past his writings and presentations have come down rather hard on library instruction. I believe he referred to it as “eat your peas” librarianship – forcing our students to become mini-librarians. So imagine my surprise when one of his suggested alternatives to sitting at the reference desk is “Couldn’t that hour be more fruitfully spent in front of a class somewhere else on campus…”.

Yes Rick, librarians can achieve positive outcomes when they educate users. I know our research systems should be so easy to use that no one ever again needs to think about what words they should use in a search, or whether it makes a difference if you use a business or humanities database or whether an article comes from a popular magazine or scholarly journal. But until that time it may be that getting out into the classrooms – or having the students come to the library’s instruction center – is a constructive strategy for equipping students with the knowledge and skills they need to conduct effective research. Not only might it eliminate the need for a stop at the reference desk, but it’s a good thing when students get to know librarians through user education experiences. They actually learn who their friendly, departmental librarian is, and in many cases the next time that student needs help he or she will go right past the reference desk and down the hall to that librarian’s office for a consultation. Think of it as “pre-emptive reference“. Great suggestion as well about integrating library services into the curriculum (and courseware and social networks). Some of us call that the information literacy initiative.

As always Rick’s writing is first class and thought provoking – and when it comes to how one views the future of the reference desk – he and I might finally be in agreement about something. If you aren’t reading his IMHBCO column regularly you need to get a copy of Against the Grain – which is always chock full of great stuff. Now I will REALLY be surprised if Rick joins the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community and shows up for our next webcast about information literacy.

2 thoughts on “Warming Up To The Idea Of User Education”

  1. Hmm…maybe I am reading into things, but is there a bit of sarcasm here?

    “I know our research systems should be so easy to use that no one ever again needs to think about what words they should use in a search, or whether it makes a difference if you use a business or humanities database or whether an article comes from a popular magazine or scholarly journal.”

    I don’t think anyone is arguing quite that. As someone who would would choose at this point to focus on better interfaces over more instruction (IF forced to choose, which we are–aren’t we?–due to limited budgets and resources), I still care very much that users be able to choose an appropriate database, distinguish between scholarly and popular types of information, and choose effective keywords for searching.

    In fact, improving our interfaces would free us up to spend precious face time with students on just such matters–instead of teaching them to navigate confusing and jargon-filled library websites and vendor interfaces (hello, LexisNexis).

    I’m sure all of us have seen first-hand how library instruction can have a drastic and immediate impact on the quality of student research and work. Our challenges as I see them are (a) quantifying this observation with more than anecdotal evidence and (b) effectively advocating for more staff (or, as Rick Anderson seems to be arguing, reallocation of existing staff time) so that we can actually *reach* most if not all users.

    At my institution, we have a teaching librarian:faculty ratio of about 1:20; a teaching librarian:student ratio of about 1:1250. Librarians’ teaching loads are heavier than ever–something we are happy and excited about–but it is still literally impossible, given existing staffing levels and/or organizational priorities, to ensure that every student is part of at least one library instruction session during their academic career. We’re addressing this problem in a number of ways: improving interfaces, creating online tutorials, and implementing “teach the teachers” approaches for some of the very large undergraduate courses, whereby instructors receive support from librarians and lead library instruction sessions for their own classes.

    I haven’t gotten a chance to read Rick’s article yet, but will be looking it up. Thanks for another thought-provoking post on what is sure to remain a hot topic in academic libraries for many years to come.

  2. We’ve been talking about this in my reference class too lately, and I blogged a bit about this (see More Instruction or Better Interfaces http://cogscilibrarian.blogspot.com/2007/11/more-library-instruction-or-better.html, and thanks to Emily for that question).

    We definitely need instruction! We definitely need one-on-one reference! We definitely need better interfaces!

    We spend thousands & millions of dollars on these resources, and we spend hundreds and thousands of hours cataloging them, so we NEED to make sure our users can find and use them.

    I don’t know what the right balance is, but we need all three.

    This is a conversation that will be going on for quite some time…

    -stephanie / CogSciLibrarian

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