Monday, February 27, 2012

What’s on your minds this week

Between last week and this (weeks 6 & 7) there has been lots of discussion about reference, customer service, and library users. The most active discussions revolved around the catalog, classification, and how information or books are retrieved. You pose great questions and are definitely ruminating about the issues. The reflective journals echo these concerns as well as issues that jump out at you. I’d say Weigland’s article was the most popular and put reference, information seeking, and information needs into perspective. As I mentioned in my podcast, I didn’t see the benefit of the article originally, but after ruminating on the idea of how we make decisions, Weigland is right on target.

Some of you continue to write about reference interviews, giving information to patrons vs. teaching them to find it. It’s important to remember that although each reference encounter is a teachable moment, sometimes they just want that “factoid” and a quick, here’s the source. and the info may be good enough for the patron.

As the patron continues to return to the reference desk, you’ll get a sense that teaching them to find the information will be helpful and more rewarding. I’m thinking here of genealogy & local history, literary criticism, art history and school paper topics.

My favorite question used to be “Where can I find the Bible?” My response was, “What type and what language?” Sometimes that elicited a longer reference interview; sometimes I just took them to the 292’s and showed them how the Bibles and biblical commentaries were arranged. I always ended the discussion with “If you didn’t find what you want or need more, come back and I’ll help you find it.” Today I hear the refrain as “Did that answer your question completely?” If you remember that reference is a multi-step process, you’ll help the patron learn step-by-step.

Here’s another example of searching step by step, but not necessarily in a mediated manner. Look at what Ancestry is doing with their TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?”  They make genealogy research look really easy, just log on and put in your name, and voila, there’s a leaf and your family tree is growing. What you don’t see, unless you work in a genealogy or local history department, is how difficult it really is to use the database. When we examine the searching mechanisms at Ancestry we discover that, while their search engine pulls from their huge database of documents, it also provides imprecise answers and the searches are difficult to replicate. It is almost impossible to get the database to retrieve a specific item unless you save it. The imprecision and the huge number of hits, frustrates patrons. It just looks easy but it’s not that easy. I love searching Ancestry, and they have raised the publics’ awareness of the importance of libraries, archives, and museums and the vast collections housed within their walls. If you watch their show carefully, individuals seek assistance in their research from librarians, archivists, and historians. When it comes to searching for information, librarians and archivists are an essential part of the equation and solution. We, the librarians, help our patrons make sense of databases and information, so their search is successful or at least somewhat fruitful. [1]

As librarians and archivists, as professional researchers, it is important to take the time to learn how databases and search engines retrieve data and citations. What elements do they actually query? How do they rank or select the elements for each data set? How is the located data displayed? All these factors are important to consider as we explore resources, search catalogs and websites, and teach these reference tools to our patrons.

By the way, if you are interested in reading more about teaching at the reference desk and / or collaborative teaching, check out James K. Elmborg and Sheril Hook, Centers for Learning: Writing Centers and Libraries in Collaboration, Publications in Librarianship No. 58 (Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, ALA, 2005).

[1] My comparison is a gross simplification of the differences between database search, retrieval, and output mechanisms.

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