Reference to Reference:
How do Students Seek
Information? What can Reference Services do to Help?
Oberlin Group Annual Meeting
How do students seek
Three large-scale studies
have recently been completed on students' information seeking habits. The
following findings are ones of interest in reconsidering reference services:
OCLC White Paper on the Information Habits of College Students (June 2002)
- Accuracy of information is important to students.
- When students need help using information, they
prefer face-to-face interaction rather than remote help.
- They will ask fellow students or their teachers for
help more often than librarians, but when they ask librarians for help,
they are as satisfied as they are when getting help elsewhere.
- Students use the library; 89% of students report
using print resources (books and journals) for at least some of their
Dimensions and Use
of the Scholarly Information Environment conducted by Outsell for Digital
Library Federation and Council on Library and Information Resources (released
Oct. 16, 2002)
- Though 80% of students and faculty say the Internet
has changed the way they use libraries, two-thirds report they have not
decreased their use of libraries as a result. Faculty are more likely than
students to use the library less as a result of desktop access.
- Information provided by libraries is trusted and
- Both students and faculty report being comfortable
using both print and digital resources and expect to continue to use both
formats for at least the next five years.
- Most respondents claim to verify information found
online in a print resource. Though this is suspect, at least it reflects a
sense that online sources are not infallible.
Internet Life study: The Internet Goes to College (Sept. 15, 2002)
This study presents some
methodological problems that impair its usefulness. Two quotes and analysis
will suffice to demonstrate what I mean:
- "The Internet, rather than the library, is the
primary site of [college students'] searches." The questions asked of
students made no distinction between the "free" Web and
library-provided Web-based sources--nor did it acknowledge that even
library catalogs are now searched on the Internet.
- "It is our observation that [students] use
electronic resources more than paper resources." The observations
were made by researches standing near public computers in libraries,
dorms, and elsewhere on campus, which limited their field of observation
significantly. They did not attempt to observe students in the stacks or using
carrels or in the process of composing from sources.
note: In 1990 I did a small-scale qualitative study of the research processes
of successful undergraduate researchers ("The Research Processes of
Undergraduate Students," Journal of Academic Librarianship 18 [July
1992]: 163-169); last spring I replicated the study to see if there were
significant changes in a digital world. Though I haven't finished analyzing the
interview transcripts, initial results suggest that, while the tools and
resources may be quite different, their processes for defining research
questions, locating and selecting evidence, and using it in their composing
process haven't changed significantly.
What are the implications
for reference service?
- The library (physical and virtual) as a site for
reliable information remains important. Students expect to do their
research in a hybrid print-electronic environment for the near future;
they are not abandoning traditional library resources. By extension, the
real reference desk may still have a function if we position it properly.
- Face-to-face help is preferred over remote help. This
may explain why so many virtual reference services are not drawing many
- The reference desk is not well identified as a place
to get expert help; however, students who discover it are happy with the
help they get. We need to do a better job of making clear what
reference is all about--and why it's valuable.
- Working with sources in print remains very
important--whether in print originally or printed from a digital source.
This has practical implications (the continuing need for working printers
and photocopiers) as well as implications for the development of
intellectual property law and product development. (For example, studies
of patron use of e-book readers suggest the assumption older readers will
resist e-books, but students will embrace them have been confounded by
studies conducted at the University of
Rochester and Ball
State University.) We shouldn't develop alternative services
without first determining if, in fact, there is a market for them. Find
out first if our assumptions about what students want are true.
"Top Five Bad Reasons to Move to Virtual Reference"
- We'll save money. No librarian in her right
mind would make this assumption, but non-librarians might assume sharing
one librarian virtually among several libraries will be cheaper than
hiring many librarians.
- If we don't weave ourselves into the Web,
students will Ask Jeeves instead. While we do need to do a better job of identifying
the reference desk as a place to ask for help with research, what Jeeves
does and what we do at reference are two different things; see my essay in
for further ranting on this subject.
- Students always prefer online access to
information and like the anonymity of virtual reference. In fact the studies above
suggest students prefer face-to-face help; the anonymity of virtual
reference is particularly troubling since many virtual reference software
programs track questions and answers. Researchers using virtual
transaction data are doing so without informed consent of the patrons and
retaining this data not only makes it available for discovery in the event
of a subpoena, we may be retaining records of information use in violation
of state data privacy laws (though it's totally in keeping with the
invasiveness of the Patriot Act).
- We'll answer students questions immediately at
the times when they want answers. This, of course, suggests reference services are
about providing quick answers like fast food, rather than about providing
individual help in sharpening a research question, querying sources, and
putting them to use in deriving an understanding--work that takes time and
effort on the part of the student (as well as the librarian).
- Students are our customers; to serve them, we
should behave more like business. In fact, business does a poor job of providing
service as good as what we traditionally have given at the reference desk.
See a recent
article on the dark side of Google Answers for the gory details.
(Incidentally, the author of the author was fired by Google after the
article was published.)
practical suggestions for making the analog reference desk more
- Integrate reference into the instructional program.
Have faculty formally build a visit to the reference desk into their
nurturing of students' research processes. For example, librarians working
with faculty in the disciplines could put up a course resource page at the
beginning of a semester, meet with the class as a whole for a workshop in
the library when they have started work on their projects, then faculty
could assign students the task of discussing their project individually at
the reference desk to go over options. Some of our faculty require
students to have a librarian sign off on their preliminary bibliographies;
others have students fill out a form that requires them to formulate three
questions for the reference librarian (aka "stump the
librarian") and note down what they've learned as a result.
- Invite faculty to hold their office hours in the
library and give them a place to meet students that's visible and readily
accessible to computers, the stacks, and the reference desk. Nothing tells
a student more clearly that librarians know their stuff than having a faculty
member approach a librarian with a question; seeing their teachers in the
library will also confirm for students that the library is a site of
scholarship and discovery.
- Adjust reference desk schedules as much as possible
to mesh with students' needs (while taking into account the different
diurnal clocks of college students and older adults). We need to be there
for them during the evening and on weekends--in person, not just remotely.
- Make every effort to bear in mind the instructional
mission of the library when making any changes in library services.
The reference desk needs to be one effort of many to sharpen and focus the
library's centrality to teaching and learning.
Barbara Fister - October 16, 2002