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Reflecting on Reference

September 29, 2012
English: Ballard Carnegie Library checkout des...

English: Ballard Carnegie Library checkout desk, ca 1907. Source Via the Seattle Public Library and Ballard Historical Society. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Returning to graduate school (as a non-traditional student) has my brain working harder than it has in a long time, but I am enjoying all of it immensely. Currently my brain is processing numerous aspects of librarianship, but reference service in particular. As a first-year student in the University of Iowa’s SLIS, I had a slot for one elective in my schedule this first semester. After debating my options, I chose to take Reference and Information Services. Coming into this class, I had no idea what to expect, not just because I am new to librarianship, but also because I assume reference has changed greatly since I first began going to the library, due to the technological advances that have taken place. I realize that what I’m about to describe will date me, but the truth is that I grew up at a time when reference in my school library consisted of print editions of Encyclopedia Brittanica, a world almanac, a dictionary, and a thesaurus. In contrast, the university I now attend has more online databases than I can count. Such change has surely affected reference services, but what does modern reference look like?

My class has approached this question from many perspectives, from that of librarians, from that of patrons, from theoretical perspectives, and from ethical perspectives. While I was considering these perspectives, a post by Jessica Olin, “My Reference Desk Conundrum,” showed up in my RSS reader. Since I am hoping to become an academic librarian, I was particularly interested in this post. Having a strong educational background myself, I do believe that instruction should be a part of every reference interaction in an academic library. I realize that sometimes students just want a quick and simple answer, but I also believe that it would be doing an injustice to those students to not show them the steps the librarian performs to find that answer. I realize that time is sometimes a constraint, but I think an academic librarian should always be providing as much instruction as time will allow. These beliefs have been supported both by the articles I have read for class and by the librarians I have met who are providing reference service in academic libraries. I also noted that many of the commenters on the post above agreed that instruction is an important part of reference service at an academic library.

View from a library desk

View from a library desk (Photo credit: yanajenn)

Such instruction is one thing in a  face-to-face reference situation, but how does this work in a virtual reference environment? As another post by Jessica Olin explained, “Chat Reference is a Weird Beastie.” Can instruction still be an essential part of reference when the service is provided through chat or email? It may be a different environment, but walking a student through the steps to conducting an effective search is still instruction no matter what the environment. As long as librarians performing virtual reference take the time to outline the steps they’re taking, or even to walk the student through those steps, the student is still receiving instruction on how to use resources.

As a lifelong learner myself, I believe strongly that the skills I learned at the library helped me change my life. Those skills helped me find a way to work through a chronic illness, and have since helped me find a new path for my life. I want others to have those same skills so that someday when they are in need, they can have the confidence to seek quality information for themselves. This is why I am becoming a librarian. As the sea of knowledge grows greater and greater, librarians can show others how to navigate those waters without getting lost. Reference gives us that opportunity.


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