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libraries, reference, students

Finding Balance

Although I spent the last year working in an academic library, it was not a research institution and so the needs of the users and the perspectives of library staff are different than those at medium to large Canadian universities.

Lately I’ve been thinking about my users (slight tangent – no the library does not use ‘users’ as its preferred terminology; that’s just my own preference). At the college library I really only thought of the students as my primary users. Yes, I did outreach with some faculty and we would serve faculty at the reference desk, but for the most part my relationship with faculty was ultimately about aiding students rather than assisting the professors’ own research. This may have been because not as many professors at the college do scholarly research but I just don’t know.

One of my first days of work at my new library, a staff member commented how she believed that faculty and graduate students are the users that we should be most focused on – that our services should be directed to them. This was an opinion I had not actually heard from anyone before, though I think I’ve encountered it in readings somewhere. We were discussing changes in the library and I brought up how it is difficult to find a balance between providing services and information for students and serving their homework up on a silver platter.

Despite her comments, I still see undergraduates as my target users. Faculty and most grad students have already unraveled the mysteries behind research. They are expert researchers (well maybe not as good as us librarians :-p). If they cannot find something, they know where to get assistance. (yes, I’m making broad generalizations without evidence.) Undergraduates not only have more difficulty formulating research questions and digging for information, but are known to be hesitant about asking for help whether because they are afraid to approach the reference desk, or they just don’t know where to get it.

Reference librarians and librarians in other areas of user services are spending a lot of time trying to outreach to students; trying to figure out the best way to help students. Librarians are trying to be where the users are (IM, Facebook, Second Life, etc.) so that there are fewer barriers for undergraduates looking for help. We’re trying to get integrated into their courses so that we can reach more of them before they get too lost.

The question on how to best help users has focused on a few areas, one of them being the reference desk itself. Discussions of different models – where should it go, how should it be staffed, should there be one at all – have taken place both recently and in the past. Personally, I think there will always be some form of a desk as long as there is a physical library (and probably in virtual ones too). I know I’ve heard some people compare roving reference to staffing at retail stores but I love to shop and let me tell you – it’s not easy to find someone when you want to. Even just yesterday I was in a store and really wished they had an info desk so I could ask where something was (instead I wandered around without finding the item or a store clerk, so I went to another store instead, and no, a customer service desk is not the same; I’m not waiting in line to ask a directional question).

Ok, so I like reference desks. I’ve worked at a few and used a few so I know some set ups are better than others and some are just different. Back to the balancing act: should the reference librarian focus more on giving answers or instructing the user on how to do it? Again, this does really vary by the particular question, the user, the time of day, shift changes – there’s a dozen variables that come into play and there is no direct answer. At the college library there was a definite sense that instruction was the main duty. We had two computer terminals by the reference desk that we would help set students on to do their research, and we would regularly leave the desk to go to a student’s workstation to help them – sometimes for extended periods of time (those nursing students really had some hard stuff to do!). Instructing at the reference desk was not consistent among all reference staff, but I do believe that in general we did that more than just give out answers; I certainly did.

At my new work, the setup of the desk isn’t as conducive for helping individuals learn to use the library and its resources. I know the librarians are not against individual instruction at all and they do do it, it’s just that it is not as practical. There are no student workstations at the desk, and it is not easy to go to the students’ computers because they are further away, and some are behind pillars so it is difficult to keep an eye on the desk at the same time. I know reference staff do spend time explaining resources or search strategies to students, but it is more of a show-and-tell than a hands-on experience. I have seen them get up from behind the desk to help a student, but it has not been as frequent as I was used to. I’m having to adapt to this style of reference because too often I try the show-and-tell instruction and the student needs me to repeat myself two or three times so that she can go back to her workstation to try it alone. I’m sure it’s tiresome for us both and just easier if I provide an answer. And so, here I am trying to find the right balance – giving them just enough to try it themselves, while also providing something substantial. For example, taking them through a search, helping with their search terms and choosing databases, and also emailing an article from the search we do together.

That’s just a little of what’s been on my mind. There are a lot of differences between my current workplace and my past ones. I’ve enjoyed all my jobs though so I can’t compare by saying one is better than another – they’re just different. (Though between you and me, I wish my new work allowed covered drinks in the library; I feel so guilty when students see me bring my coffee to my office when they’re not allowed.)


About Jen

An instructor, a reader, a dog-owner, and advocate; that's how I define myself and these aspects directly impact my interests and conversations.


One thought on “Finding Balance

  1. I think the most important aspect of my ref. desk is the swivelling monitor. People learn better if they can see what you’re describing. And if the desk is tall, make it so they can lean. If it’s short, have a chair. But don’t have them bending awkwardly to try to talk to you, or to see what you’re doing on the computer. That was the biggest mistake at my last library. There was a half-cubicle wall, and the monitor took serious force to swivel.

    Posted by Devon | 18 Mar 2008, 12:58 AM

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