Friday, December 19, 2008

Troubles for Reference Librarians

I see that the Winter issue of Reference & Users Services Quarterly from RUSA arrived in my mail yesterday. Just this week I finished reading the Fall issue, which I thought had an unusually high number of articles with findings and ideas that I want to contemplate. Perhaps the most serious observation of them all, the one needing the attention of reference librarians everywhere, is found on page 72, on the fifth page of the article "Subject Searching Success: Transaction Logs, Patron Perceptions, and Implications for Library Instruction" by Karen Antell and Jie Huang*. Here is the part of the quote with the disturbing news:

For the twenty-nine unsuccessful topic searches, students were asked what they would do next if they were actually looking for this information. In twelve cases, students said they would simply stop looking or give up, assuming that no information on the topic was available. Other responses included "go to Google," "go to a database," "browse books on the shelf," "go to the law library," and "get advise from my professor." In three cases, the student was unsure what he or she would do next (see figure 5). Notably, not one student mentioned asking a library staff member for assistance.

I see two red flags here. The first is the idea that if a search does not find what is sought that there is nothing to find. At the risk of sounding old fashioned and crotchety, let me say that this sounds like the result of having had too much easy success in the past and settling for just enough. I think we as librarians should work to make our tools as easy to use as possible, with the goal of connecting clients and information/content that they seek, but we should convey that the tools are not perfect. I think some of our marketing that says "Hey, use this , it's easy!" backfires on us. Students and other clients believe us and then assume that if the easy search does not find anything, there is nothing to be found. How we can have positive and encouraging promotions that are still realistic is tricky. We need to think about this.

The second red flag is that none of the students thought of consulting a librarian. Here we may need to make it easy for them. Every catalog station in the library should have a "Librarians Can Help" notice prominently attached. Every search page and results page in the catalog should also offer librarian assistance. I do not know how we do this latter suggestion in a consortium shared catalog, but it seems needed to me if in a test no catalog user remembers that reference librarians could help.

We can not just sit tight after reading this paragraph. If clients can not remember that we are there, we must reintroduce ourselves. Be visible.

*I could not find this article on the RUSA website this morning. Perhaps the Fall 2008 issue needs reloading into the archive. Previous issues are available on the site.


____Maggie said...

I'm scared! We should be the first person that pops into their little ole heads. Maybe they don't have a teaching orientation where they tell them about our jobs.

Our students might be more needy because in all the orientations I've done my evaluations have had only a handful of snarks. You know, the "I can just google it."

I think being out amongst the students instead of behind the counter makes a difference, too. I just wish I could prove this to my co-worker. :)

Marit said...

We have had similar results in Denmark, + that students go to Google when looking for a library book instead of to the database.
We have however introduced a new concept: 'Book a librarian'. You can book a librarian for app. one hour, who will guide you through your problem, in the case of students which databases to use and how to use them.

stevenb said...

If you go back to OCLC's College Students Perceptions report you will see that college students neither see librarians as their top trusted resource for information or as their top resource for learning about new electronic resources. In fact, librarians are at or near the bottom of the responses. However, faculty/teacher is at or near the top. That's why I've advocated that to reach students you have to reach the faculty - that's who students trust and listen to. Also, in the web 2.0 environment "someone like me" is often a trusted source, not so called experts. Students are much more likely to take advice from a facebook friend than an authority figure such as a librarian. So based on what we've been hearing and observing for some time, this paragraph doesn't come as surprising news.