Shameless Research Help: Setting New Expectations for Students

christopher evans is *so* embarrassed

CC Image courtesy of hessiebell on Flickr

In a recent post, Consumers, Learners, and the Reference Transaction in Academic Libraries, I considered student expectations of a typical reference transaction in which the student initiates the interaction. In Revamping Reference, Aaron Schmidt wrote about a different approach in which the librarian initiates the interaction, aka “roving reference”. He observes that despite roving reference being a large part of the literature, you still find librarians tied to “hulking desks peering into computer screens, essentially ignoring what’s going on around them.” As a reminder of the obstacles faced by students in need of assistance, Schimdt points to Constance Mellon’s theory of library anxiety and the shame associated with asking a librarian for help.

Consider the roving librarian model in terms of student expectations. If you buy into my speculation, students approaching a reference desk or other reference service come with a service expectation; and therefore they expect answers and nothing else when they ask a question. But what are the expectations of students who are approached by a roving librarian? They are no longer the initiator of the interaction, but rather the recipient. My guess is they have no expectations, at least initially. This provides a golden opportunity to set new expectations of service, to establish a user experience (UX) like that described by Stephen Bell in Fish Market 101: Why Not a Reference User Experience?

Bell cites the Ritz Carlton experience in terms of anticipating needs of the guest and creating emotional connections. One point is that the guest’s needs and desires are anticipated and met before they even know they had them. For instance, with a traditional hotel service, when the guest has a bad night of sleep the guest approaches the desk and asks for an extra pillow. However, when staff are empowered to take personal responsibility, they might recognize that the guest is having difficulty sleeping due to the circles under their eyes. The staff member than takes initiative and suggests an extra pillow before the guest even thinks of it on their own. The hotel chain, LaQuinta Inn, calls this clue-scanning – La Quinta studies clues, gets back to basics.

Let’s translate this to a library in which the guest is a student and the hotel staff is a librarian. The request for a pillow (article) might be met with a suggestion that what they really need is not a pillow, but a better approach to sleeping (better approach to research). Although this might be entirely accurate, is it a satisfactory experience for the guest/student? Already feeling shameful for having had to resort to asking for help, they are told their question is wrong and they need to rethink their whole approach. (Not in so many words per se, but the practice of moving from a initially simple inquiry to a broader consideration of their research problem is a standard practice.)

However, what happens if we flip the script? What if the guest/student is approached proactively and offered both the pillow AND the suggestion for a better approach to sleeping? Wouldn’t the guest/student be more receptive to the additional advice? Isn’t it an unexpected service instead of unwelcome advice?

When the student is the initiator, they have expectations and the alternative advice comes off as arrogant, unwelcome, or even demoralizing. However as the beneficiary of an unanticipated service, provided through the roving reference model, students may be pleased that their needs are being anticipated. Additional advice is readily accepted or at worst, treated neutrally.

Whats more, this approach provides perhaps the easiest, least shameful way of signaling a need for help. If the roving librarian is consistently engaging students and expectations have been established, a student need only take a seat at a computer in the library and begin doing something resembling research. As roving librarians, that should be a signal that this student is open to the possibility of help.

Schmidt points out that librarians are afraid this is “bothersome” and “too aggressive”. I’ve been in that camp for years, but have come around to a new way of thinking. Librarians need to set new expectations about what happens in a library. In the name of “meeting the needs of students”, library computing areas have become nothing more than another computer lab. No longer a place reserved for a special function, they are a place where anything goes. Some resisted this transition by locking down computers, outlawing e-mail and Facebook, and setting time limits. Though most have relented and given students free reign. There is no going back now and it would be the wrong thing to do. It is not about controlling behaviors. Its about establishing expectations.

In this model, students who use computing resources in library buildings should come to expect that librarians will want to talk with them about their research. No, librarians should not bother a student who is clearly catching up with friends on Facebook. But, if a student is using Google, a library database or the library catalog, they should expect that a librarian will chat them up, ask them about their research, and offer advice. And if students are bothered they can say “No Thanks”, or they can go somewhere else – and that’s O.K ! “This is a library dammit! And WE shouldn’t feel shameful about that!”

To be sure, adopting this model will require some training (hmm, idea for another post).  It could easily go horrendously wrong. But done well, it could be a wonderful thing.

What about you? Tell me about your “roving” successes and failures. What nightmarish scenarios have you experienced? When have you felt like a hero?

Thanks again to libscenster and pascibrarian too.

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