Asking the wrong questions

Library reference service isn’t like it used to be—questions are way down at academic libraries large and small—and the developments that have contributed to its demise aren’t going away. Rather than ask how we can go back to the golden years, I’d like to ask a different question.

The article that has had the greatest professional influence on me, one that I return to again and again and recommend to almost everyone, is Robert Barr and John Tagg’s “The Learning Paradigm,” published in Change in 1995. Barr and Tagg contended that colleges currently exist to provide instruction: “To say that the purpose of colleges is to provide instruction is like saying that General Motors’ business is to operate assembly lines or that the purpose of medical care is to fill hospital beds. We now see that our mission is not instruction but rather that of producing learning with every student by whatever means work best.” (p. 13) Barr and Tagg advocated rethinking the structures of higher education by asking one question: “What would we do differently if we put learning first?”

Traditional reference service puts availability first, not learning. Having librarians visibly present for many hours per week is in itself defined as success, even if students don’t know why the librarians are there or don’t approach them with any questions. Proponents of this school of reference service stress its convenience for the user: a person who can answer almost any question is on hand; users are rarely told to come back later because the person who can help them isn’t in the building.

But that convenience and availability come at a cost. Librarians on reference duty don’t sit idly waiting for questions. They multitask, but remaining aware of and welcoming to students needing help necessarily limits their concentration on whatever else they might be working on. Sometimes—89% of the time as discovered in a study at Stetson University—they answer questions that don’t require librarian expertise: providing directions and troubleshooting equipment, for example. If we put learning first, would we prioritize this kind of just-in-case service? Does reference service generate the most student learning possible in return for that investment of librarian time? Even in the golden years, it would have been hard to answer yes to these questions. The balance between questions and librarian time was almost never right: either the librarian was waiting for questions or there was a line of students waiting to consult the librarian. Now, when it’s not unusual to experience reference shifts completely devoid of questions, the answer is clearly no.

Is there another way to do reference, one that provides a welcoming presence and answer for basic questions while enabling librarians to maximize student learning? I would say that we have made some important steps in the right direction. Our Peer Research Advisors are student workers whose weekly training equips them to answer directional, procedural, and simple citation questions; they are also taught to recognize questions that should be referred to librarians. PRAs are available most of the hours the library is open. Librarians offer scheduled consultations, which are superior to walk-up reference encounters in several ways: 1) librarians can focus their full attention on the research challenge at hand without having to respond to any other users; 2) librarians have a chance to think about the research need ahead of time and plan a consultation that both answers the immediate question and teaches the student information-seeking skills that can be used again in different contexts; and 3) students, having blocked this time out in their calendars, are freed from the demands of multitasking and can concentrate on this problem.

How else might we put learning first? I have some answers, and I welcome others’ ideas. Some of mine are pretty counter-cultural in libraryland. What if we relied more heavily on our excellent PRAs and librarians were not available at all for just-in-case reference help? (I just heard the gasps of librarians for whom this would be heresy.) This semester, that would free up eight hours of my time each week. If I spent those eight hours teaching students in consultations, I’m pretty confident I’d see more learning than is occurring at present. If all our information literacy librarians were freed from scheduled reference duty, what could they do? If only some of that time went to consultations, could we be creating learning objects that would help students master information literacy skills? Could we use the techniques pioneered at the University of Rochester to study our students and learn more about what creates powerful learning environments for them? Could we do more, and more meaningful, assessment? Assessment is a dirty word in some circles, but I continue to believe that asking that fundamental question—are the students learning what we intend to teach?—is a useful and important thing to do.

“How would we change reference if we put learning first?” is a question that liberates us from old constraints. Availability of service and number of reference questions no longer measure our activity or our value. Finding ways to maximize student learning will test our creativity but use our time and talents better. It’s an exciting challenge!

About Jill Gremmels

Leland M. Park Director of the Davidson College Library
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