Category Archives: reference

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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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.