Monday, February 13, 2012

Reference and Outreach

First of all, I've asked a former student Lindsay Greenawalt to be a guest blogger this week. She's going to write about her new job as reference librarian. Feel free to post comments.

This week we are actually beginning to tackle some practical issues in library & information science. Outreach is so important for the longevity of cultural institutions. The web provides so many opportunities to provide outreach and I think libraries, archives, historical societies, and museums take advantage of the benefits of the web to make their collections available and accessible to a diverse audience. But outreach is more than that. It’s getting out into the community and learning what our patrons need and want. It’s helping the disadvantaged, homeless, and isolated individuals take advantage of what the library has and can offer to them. Ms Wong’s presentation was very inspiring.

Reference is near and dear to my heart and my love of librarianship. Reference is the aspect of librarianship that was the focus of my studies and continues to be an interest. While I may not be as interested in its philosophical underpinnings, I’ve seen them change and grow over the decades as reference morphed from print to digital and electronic. Evaluating reference tools, teaching reference sources, and understanding how they work is one of my true interests. In fact, I am even interested in how these major types of reference sources are created. Understanding how reference tools work, records are organized, and information is disseminated is so important. How does that database work? What does it search? How does it search? What types of answers are retrieved? How can I narrow or broaden my approach? All these are questions that you should be able to answer for yourself and your patron when you help them search for information. Learning how indices work and the types of information retrieved is part of the skills you should hone as you work at the reference desk, as you search a catalogue or database.

While I found all the readings interesting this week, Morris provides the philosophy, Weigand the story, and Elmborg brings it all together. Rubin will give you the underpinning as usual. Over and over, I kept asking myself, what’s changed over the years? Has anything changed? And how can we bridge that gap between what the articles teach us and the reality of 2012?

There are two main topics this week that fall under user services. The first is outreach to our patrons to help them see and use the benefits of the library, common examples being book mobiles and services to the visually handicapped, and literacy programs. The second is actually providing reference services at the desk in and through all types of cultural institutions.


The podcast by Wong does a great job of describing the programs her library instituted, in cooperation with other organizations, to bring literacy and libraries / books to the public. The lesson you want to take away from that talk is you need to get out into the community, learn what they need, and help provide those services. This form of outreach is so very important for keeping the library visible within communities and constituencies. What types of outreach programs does your library offer? What are some you think are missing?

Bell & Deane are two articles that also focus on bringing customer service to the user and making our services useful and useable to the public. Deane’s lesson is the same, that librarians need to get out of the library to learn what patrons want. Bell emphasizes working to open up the library to all users and serve their needs. Even more important, librarians and archivists need to stand on the ‘other side’ of the desk, on the patron side, as a patron doing research to see where service and access is lacking. As a librarian who engages in research for hire, I’m constantly on the user side of the reference desk. The quality of reference service really varies depending upon who is on the desk and the institution where you as the questions. Since there’s no “standard” except excellence, you, as budding librarians, need to be cognizant of the needs of your patrons and provide the best assistance possible. One question to keep in mind is “Why come to the library, real or virtual?” What do our patrons gain by asking questions of the librarian or using our resources? is an interesting, generic library outreach site. Does it work for your library and your community?

The other topic is reference and the rest of the articles really focus on a wide variety of aspects surrounding reference.

Morris’ article is the theoretical article that homes in on database design and asks “what types of researchers really need from this set of data or citations?” It is important to consider the needs of the user. The more you work with databases and search engines, the more you hone your ability to research using a wide variety of resources, the more you will understand how important that question is. Many databases were created for the librarian and the expert researcher with little concern for the skills and needs of the novice. This is particularly true of early databases, before the web was available to just about everyone. Yet, many databases are still difficult to use and master.

Some questions you should ask yourself while reading Morris are: how have databases and search capabilities changed in the past 15 years? How has the ability to search using natural language changed the types of results databases provide? Who are these databases created for? And how easily and comfortably do researchers find what they seek?

Kuhlthau’s various stages of research (Morris, 26 and Rubin, 278) should help the reference librarian understand the types of information researchers seek. As the research project progresses, the types of information sought are more refined, exacting, and often more difficult to locate. Asking good reference questions, conducting an effective reference interview is key to assisting the patron in their search, whether they want a good book or a specific piece of research, or an exact title.

Today we find that many of these questions are considered by practitioners of Information Architecture and Usability Studies. Of course, the design of websites and databases affect our ability to find information sought by ourselves and our users.

Morris and Rubin provide excellent examples of the types of reference questions do ask during an interview (Morris, 28 and Rubin, 276).

Elmborg’s article focuses on teaching at the reference, particularly in academic institutions, but these suggestions also apply to public libraries. His article talks about the two different philosophies of reference; doing the work for a patron and teaching a patron how to do the reference or search. The latter is the type of reference we should strive to provide.

His definition of different types of researchers / learning styles on pg 456 goes well with Weigand’s article. Can you think of other examples of learners? More importantly, what happens if we always provide the answer for our patrons instead of teaching them to be successful researchers? What are the exceptions to this philosophy of reference?

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