Dwindling Reference Questions

“If you build it, [will] they will come[?]”

As another season of baseball is just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about ways to get hits and avoid strikes—so decided to break out a classic quotation from Field of Dreams and apply it to academic libraries. In recent years, our library has seen dwindling reference questions. We’re not getting nearly the number of students at our front desk asking questions, nor making as many appointments with librarians, compared to pre-pandemic.

I’m not totally sure what to make of this. I can’t imagine students not needing library services, such as help with literature searching, questions about using databases, or help with citation management software. Not to pump our tires up too much, but these skills typically don’t come intuitively or out of thin air—at least at the level academic librarians support students. Our help is still needed, but without students seeking us out to get that help, we’re missing out on a huge number of opportunities to make students’ lives easier. We want to help.

I suspect that in our post-pandemic era, a ‘generation’ of students don’t have the same familiarity with libraries as they did in previous generations. Did these students miss out on using their high school libraries when they were completing high school largely from home? Did social interactions change post-pandemic? Do students prefer online reference questions and consultations, rather than in-person? And is this affecting the number of questions we’d normally get?

While this is a problem, there’s also opportunity; opportunity to devote more time to seeking in-class instruction—where you seek students out and not vice-versa; opportunity to work on offering enhanced library services; opportunity to plan library events; and more.

I’ve thought about how to address shrinking reference questions. If you assess the number and type of reference questions you’re getting, and it’s different from before—such as fewer or simpler questions—in broad strokes you can approach the issue from a couple perspectives:

  • You can make decisions reactively (e.g. less library staff at the front desk, shorter library or front desk hours), or
  • You can make decisions proactively (e.g. broad, university-wide promotion strategies to inform students what library staff can do for them, reinforce there are no stupid questions and it’s worth getting help from library staff).

Whichever approach you take, you need to think about your goal: are you reacting to fewer reference questions to maintain the status quo or are you proactively trying strategies to ensure students are getting the help they need, and meeting them where you are?

I always think that if we build it, they will come. But maybe we have to tell them what we’ve built. And one thing’s for sure: we must think hard about what to build.

A Wrinkle in Time

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Susanna Smith, Acquisitions Librarian and Instructional Designer at Georgia Highlands College Library. 

Last time I wrote for ACRLog, back in June 2009, I was a librarian working as a Library Technical Assistant managing a one-person library at a small satellite community college campus in Alabama. Whew. Today … life is completely different, and not just because I’ve been working from home nearly a month! I’m currently the Acquisitions Librarian (who also wears a Reference and Instruction hat most days) at a medium-sized state college in Georgia. I received my M.Ed. in Instructional Design and Technology a couple of years ago so I also work as an Instructional Designer for our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, developing workshops for faculty and consulting with them on course design. And boy, howdy, I’ve been busy. I’ve recently been working with a library team to revamp our student learning objectives, assessment tools, and our peer observation form. I was part of the group who successfully got the library faculty included in the promotion and tenure process. And in my acquisitions role I’ve helped us switch to a new LMS, started a major weeding project removing 20k plus monographs, learned to negotiate with vendors and manage database resources, and juggled what was for me a mind-boggling budget. That’s a long way from sitting for ten hours a day at a tiny library’s circulation desk!

So how did I get from there to here? As with most stories, it starts with an unexpected change in circumstances.

In 2011, I got a new job. When I started the paraprofessional position in 2007, I helped open a branch campus library and this new job was much the same, except I would actually be library faculty. WooHoo! So my husband and I packed up our bags, moved to northwest Georgia, and I set to work building a new library from the ground up. The physical space was already determined, but I designed the layout, chose the furniture, and built the collection (mostly with second copies culled from the main library). It was another one-person-library situation, but it became clear pretty quickly that we definitely needed a second person to hold down the fort because I was in the classroom so often. For three years I continued to teach 30-50 library sessions a semester on two satellite campuses, and spent the rest of my time at the reference desk. I even had the opportunity to attend ACRL Immersion, which was a life- and instruction- changing experience for me. (Quick plug: I highly recommend it, especially if you feel inadequate in front of a class full of students.)

But ultimately, I still felt the siren-call of technical services. In a past life I was a bookstore special orders and office manager so in 2015, when our beloved Acquisitions Librarian retired, I applied and moved to the main campus to take over. It was a dream come true! I ordered books, managed databases, worked with vendors, did some cataloging. I still spent time at the reference desk, but I was mostly involved with back-office technical services projects.

Until….

I realized I actually missed being in the classroom. Wait a minute … I’m an introvert … how was that possible? Those few classes I had to teach at my first job were always the least fun things I did. But after being in the classroom so much in my recent position, I’d come to enjoy the interaction and now I realized I wanted to continue that. Enter another unexpected opportunity: At about the same time as this surprising self-revelation, the college’s web-based course offerings expanded mightily. The library needed someone to become an “embedded librarian” and work with those online faculty and students. I volunteered, and discovered a whole new world. I worked with faculty directly to develop assignments and even, in a few cases, did some grading. I learned how to use technology in ways far beyond searching databases for information. I started working with assessment, and scaffolding instruction sessions which would lead to better student learning, and considering what a structured one-shot class should look like instead of the free-for-all “teach the students everything in an hour” that is still common practice.

That work led me, eventually, to an instructional design program in 2016 and to where I find myself now. As I’ve been considering what to write for this post, I realized how much has changed in my life over the past ten years. It didn’t seem like such a seismic shift when I was in the moment, but reflecting back I am in awe of how different I am today. And that brings me to another startling bit of self-reflection. What should I call myself? Librarian, certainly. But I also live a lot of my life now on the “teaching faculty” side of the house, wearing my instructional designer hat. I’ve had the opportunity recently to apply for a library managerial position as well as an instructional designer position. I decided against both because, as I told my husband, “I am a librarian at heart.” I never wanted to be an administrator, so that was easy. And I can connect students and faculty with the information they need when they need it using all my hats. In reference and instruction, I do it the old-fashioned way. In acquisitions, I listen to what they need and find the resources to meet that need. As an instructional designer, I work on a meta-level, through pedagogy and design and lay the groundwork for teaching BOTH faculty and students how to better meet their information needs.

If I’ve changed this much in ten years, I wonder what life will be like in 2030? Onward and upward!

One of Today’s Lucky Ten Thousand

If you aren’t familiar with the webcomic XKCD, go take a look now. I have been a huge fan for years, and find his comics relevant to many areas of life. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this one:

XKCD, “Ten Thousand,” https://xkcd.com/1053/

As a reference librarian, I get a lot of the same questions day in and day out. (I know that a lot of you can relate.) How do I find a book on my topic? How does the printing system work? Can you help me connect my laptop to the Wi-Fi here? Where is the bathroom? How does citation work? It happens in the classroom, too. How do I narrow these results down to scholarly journals only? What do I do if it says “no full text available”? Can I put a book on hold from off campus?

I’m going to take a moment to clarify that today, I’m not talking about the questions like, “I wasn’t paying attention; can you show us how you got to that page again?” I’m also not talking about the same person showing up every single day to ask for help logging into their online homework system but they don’t remember their own username and password, or where they wrote that information down when you helped them yesterday. I’m only talking about the questions that we answer over and over for different people every day, week, semester, and year.

Sometimes, I used to get frustrated or annoyed by having to answer, “Where is the classroom?” twenty times in a row for each individual student attending library instruction that hour, or showing different students how to find books over and over on the same three argument paper topics all week. And I see the same thing happen to my colleagues, especially during this time of semester, when midterms are gearing up and every other student we see is working on one of a handful of similar assignments.

But then I remembered this XKCD comic, and it reminded me of a few things.

One: We are here to teach people the things they don’t already know. If students already knew how to find resources or write citations or even where the classroom is, what would they need me for at the reference desk?

Two: Everyone has to learn a thing before they know it. That sounds really obvious, doesn’t it? To dismissively think, “You’re in college, you should know this!” is to do your students a disservice.* It reminds me of all the times I’ve said I haven’t seen a particular movie, and someone reacts with an overly dramatic gasp and, “But you’re in your thirties! How have you never seen The Godfather?” It makes me feel guilty, like I’ve avoided that movie on purpose, instead of just not being shown the movie or being prompted to go find it and sit down and watch it. I know it exists (like a student knows the library exists), and I’m aware of several of the more famous scenes (like a student knows that libraries can help students with research); I just haven’t watched it myself (like a student who hasn’t used library resources or asked a question at the reference desk). A better reaction, in my opinion, is, “You haven’t seen The Godfather? I highly recommend it. Here, borrow my copy, or let’s watch it together this weekend.” Or, in our case, “You haven’t used the databases? They’re really great, and I think they make it easier to find what you’re looking for than using Google Scholar. Here, let me show you where to find them and how they work.”

And that’s the attitude I try to conjure up in myself three times per semester: week one, midterms, and finals. Because the student standing in front of me needs to find a journal article and does not yet know about the wonders of EBSCOhost, and they are one of today’s lucky ten thousand.

*Side note: At some point, yes, you have to be able to say, “Didn’t you ever have to write a paper before this point in your education?” But if they haven’t, it’s not exactly their fault. I do not present this as an excuse for learned helplessness or not doing the work. We just need to remember that we don’t necessarily know a student’s background or experience when they first approach the reference desk. My college has a lot of non-traditional returning students who may not have done this kind of work in a long time (and during the intervening years, the majority of the process has changed), a lot of students from underprivileged schools (who may have been focused on different priorities from citation and evaluating sources), and a lot of students who are not high academic achievers, and just want to fulfill degree requirements so they can learn a trade, so their English paper is not the high priority it is to some other students, who may want to transfer to a four-year university and major in literature. This “one of today’s lucky ten thousand” concept does rely heavily on giving each student the benefit of the doubt, and not being discouraged by the ones who do ask the “I didn’t listen to what you just said; can you repeat it verbatim?” questions.

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.