Consumers, Learners, and the Reference Transaction in Academic Libraries

Our ideas and understanding about learning have changed dramatically.  Our ways of providing reference have not.  Other than the lack of color and missing computer, the photo below could be mistaken for one taken last week in just about any library.

Reference Desk Ballard Library ca. 1907

Reference Desk Ballard Library ca. 1907

The scenario…

Let’s start with an assumption that all the ideas about social constructivism, situated learning,  active learning, communities of practice, etc… are basically on target.  And the “sage on the stage”, “students are a vessel waiting to be filled with knowledge” stuff is wrong.  From that let’s consider a scenario in which a student has a question.  In a classroom, following the contemporary learning models,  that question is probably met not with an answer, but rather with a question in return.  If learners construct their own knowledge you can’t give them the answer. They have to find it themselves.  Students in a classroom have a range of reactions to these methods including frustration and annoyance, but perhaps amusement and intrigue as well.  In any case if they don’t participate they fail  – so they participate, sometimes reluctantly.

Now, let’s take a question asked by a student at a reference desk (or via chat, phone or e-mail for that matter).  If we librarians, as practitioners of contemporary learning models meet their question with a question (or employ other techniques associated with contemporary learning models), the same reactions ranging from frustration to intrigue will occur. Except in this case, the student has approached the encounter with different expectations and a freedom not available in the classroom.  A reference desk or other mode of providing reference comes with an implied or sometimes even a explicit service orientation. The average student approaching a librarian with a research question is not expecting a lesson. They want answers!   If they are frustrated or annoyed by our teachable moment approach, they’ll end the interaction.  If this happens enough times, they’ll find another way to get answers and they won’t come back.

Reference is a consumer service…

ASK GraffitiStudents approach a reference desk or chat with an expectation of service because the mode of conveyance implies it.  Our promotion and naming of reference describe it in service terms (i.e. Ask a Librarian).  What do YOU expect when you “Ask” a question?  You expect the same as anyone, and the same as students. You expect answers.

When we attempt to turn reference into a legitimate learning experience, we are attempting to change students expectations about what should happen when they enter into this particular service scenario.  Against all odds, we do this from time to time and get students that come back to us again.  They stick around long enough to have that satisfying sensation of accomplishment from understanding something on their own.  With our guidance, they make sense of something they couldn’t make sense of before.  They come to understand that the interaction isn’t about providing answers, but rather about an engagement  around a research dilemma they have.  The ones that come back either enjoy the learning experience and find value in it or are willing to put up with it long enough to get what they need.

The problem and opportunity as I see it…

By providing and promoting reference the way we do, Ask & Desk, we’ve stacked things against ourselves.  We are not only trying to accomplish the difficult, yet rewarding task of engaging with students in a legitimate learning experience, but we are doing it with surprised, unprepared, unwilling,  and impatient participants who expect something entirely different from what we give them. And it is our fault! It is easy to say, that students just don’t get it, are lazy, and ill-prepared. But we have control over how we interact with students.  We can offer options.  We can rename, reconfigure, and re-imagine reference.

Here is where I take huge leaps to conclusions….

Outside of books, reference is the most recognizable element of libraries.  And it barely reaches the level of consciousness of most people.  To our students, it is oddly named and poorly executed.  In my opinion, this all points to a tiered research consultation model with triage.  To be sure, some libraries have already figured this out.

Already it sounds better as far as setting expectations for students.  First, you start  with ONE desk – a SERVICE desk.  Ask a question here and you get answers.  Or you get a referral for research consultation, which in service terms is nearly as good as an answer.  It is like saying, “Let me get my supervisor.”  Now the consumer feels special and thinks, “I’m so important and my question is so unique they need to get extra help for me.”  It is good for students to feel important.  They are important.

Students know what research is, or at least have some idea.  As opposed to reference, which they thought were the things they put at the end of their papers. Consultation carries a vastly different service implication.  Consultation is still a service and students are still consumers of the service.  But consultation implies discussion, guidance, advice giving.  Which is all much closer to teaching and learning in the contemporary sense. It is no longer about answer giving, it is about answer finding – something we can do together, not something I do for you. It also carries a time dimension.  The shortest consultations last maybe 5 minutes at the very least compared to shortest service desk interactions which last 30 seconds and involve minimum exchange of words.  (think of buying a candy bar at your local gas station/mini mart).

We need to rethink our services and how they are staffed.  Our Ask & Desk services need to be staffed with people who provide answers and referrals.  BTW, self-referrals are just fine, but they have to be handled carefully.  They need to feel like an upgrade in service, not a refusal to answer a question.  If we want to provide something other than answers ( a learning experience for example), we need to offer a another option and name it, promote it and staff it appropriately. Consultation Center, Consult a Librarian, Research Appointment, Research Conference, Research Clinic, Research Seminar come to mind.


This is not to say we should do away with our consumer focused Ask & Desk services.  A&D is in our DNA. These are our most public facing way of initiating one-on-one contact with students. However, we should recognize them for what they are – a place for answers and a place for referrals.

This post only brushes on how social media, digital and physical spaces, curriculum integration, and collaboration with faculty influence and are impacted by rethinking reference. I intend to continue thinking and writing about those topics in future blog posts (this is why you should subscribe to my RSS feed!).

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think. Is reference a service model or an educational model? Can it be both? How can we transition from the Ask & Desk model to a a more fluid, engaging learning experience for students?


Almost forgot to say a big thanks to Erin Dorney at Library Scenester for advice and editing.


5 thoughts on “Consumers, Learners, and the Reference Transaction in Academic Libraries

  1. Leporidae Saltatorius says:

    As more and more students arrive at a collegiate environment, conditioned from the standardized based K-12 world to regurgitate facts without truly understanding how to evaluate, apply and create with those facts, meeting critical thinking objectives becomes harder and harder. The solution needed: to de-condition this fill in the bubble mentality and promote more metacognitive approaches to learning, could be accomplished with an attack on multiple fronts. As an instructor I’ll model good research practices- and assign work that my students would need to apply those practices to, in order to succeed. As a librarian- the caretaker of many of those resources, and the best travel guide for navigating the same- Yes! you should engage students in the learning process when they come knocking. Together we can cultivate a deeper involvement with information- rather than a cut and paste relocation of ideas.

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