The Role of the Academic Reference Librarian in the Learning Commons

Judith A. Wolfe, Ted Naylor, and Jeanetta Drueke, Guest Columnists

Frontline reference librarians purvey their skills in a variety of reference service models. These range from the traditional to the tiered to the information commons (IC) to the learning commons (LC). Libraries might use one pure form of any model, a hybrid model, or a model in the process of transformation. A few libraries with space and funding have fully adopted the latest model, the LC. An examination of transformations to the LC indicates that frontline reference librarians can to some extent effect changes in their professional environments.

Historical Context of the Role of the Reference Librariann

From the beginning of librarianship, the role of the reference librarian has been defined by the patrons’ need for human mediation.1 Reference librarians apply critical-thinking skills, emotional intelligence, teaching ability, and question analysis to connect the user with appropriate resources. While some libraries developed variations (such as tiered models), the traditional model, involving face-to-face interaction between a patron and a librarian who answered every type of question from one or more multipurpose service points, prevailed throughout the “paper era.”

By necessity, reference librarians were shackled to the library and the print collection. Public-access computers and remote access to data sets (i.e., Dialog) quickly sowed the seeds for a revolution in reference routines. Dialog search techniques were only the beginning. Soon, cyberspace was born. Staying abreast of new technology and upgrading computer skills became an integral part of reference librarians’ duties. In the new medium’s infancy, the reference librarian’s role evolved to include nurturing and developing this new electronic “baby.” The concomitant teaching role expanded to instruction in the use of multiple material formats, the online public access catalogs (OPACs), and the Internet. As the need to assist patrons with technical issues grew, the single access point for all types of assistance sometimes frustrated librarians and failed their patron.

Libraries sometimes experimented with new types of tiered models that addressed the need for technical help. At one level, a general-information desk might be staffed by student assistants, graduate assistants, or staff. Another desk, staffed by specially trained librarians and paraprofessionals, might provide technical assistance. Specialists might be designated for word-processing, spreadsheet, SSPS, Blackboard, RefWorks, and other software assistance. Subject-specialist librarians might provide in-depth research assistance, often by appointment. Instruction sometimes became closely tied to reference services. Other libraries maintained a traditional service.

With the number of remote library users rapidly growing, the need for new reference venues is clear. Reference services have implemented e-mail, chat, instant messaging (IM), voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), and text messaging. All of these new services provide new communication challenges in reference and instruction.

Whatever the service model, attuned librarians recognize that the library website, the physical facilities, the print and electronic collections, reference, and instruction should be essential and interconnected components.

The Information Commons

One response to technology was the development of the information commons (IC). Beagle defines a library IC as a “new type of physical facility” or section of a library “specifically designed to organize workspace and service delivery around an integrated digital environment” along with the support technology.2 The physical library space is coordinated to become an extension of student study areas, and workspaces are organized to accommodate collaboration. Therefore the physical commons is designed to incorporate a cluster of access points to the digital arena. Armed with these access points, trained staff help users query, navigate, and process information.

In this “functional integration,” some reference librarians continued to assume the role of general-information provider, technical expert, referral assistant, point of contact, and help center. Even more than before, librarians became jacks-ofall-trades and had insufficient time to master any one trade.

If one envisions the library as two interacting spheres—the virtual and the physical—the library as interactive system and the user experience of that system demand attention. The stage was set for the next new thing. There were, it appeared, many stakeholders in library services. The interactive system expands to include not just library-based information-technology specialists, metadata librarians, media specialists, and bibliographic instruction coordinators, but also campus-wide technology professionals, instructional designers, and distance-education coordinators. The evolutionary stream of social technology blurred the boundaries of print, and the “functional integration of technology and service delivery to realign the library with the rapidly evolving digital environment” became the order of business.3 For some libraries, this order of business is leading to the next step from the IC to the LC.

From Information Commons to Learning Commons

The terms information commons and learning commons may easily be confused. Bennett, however, defines an LC as a place that brings people together not around informally shared interests, as happens in traditional common rooms, but around shared learning tasks, sometimes formalized in class assignments. The core activity of a learning commons would not be the manipulation and mastery of information, as in an information commons, but the collaborative learning by which students turn information into knowledge and sometimes into wisdom.4

Libraries often create new LCs during an extensive renovation or new building project, where money is flowing and new space can be added. Though some might consider the LC a necessary response to a changing environment, a high-performance LC requires the luxury of a committed university administration and community; a budget big enough to build, renovate, or reorganize existing reference space; and the ability to bring together units or groups with disparate knowledge and culture.

The most visible and highly touted feature of the LC, in comparison to the IC and other reference models, is the number and variety of stakeholders both within the library and within other campus groups and units. Intended to foster collaboration, communication, and easy access to assistance, the added physical space might be a new environment for reference librarians.

The Reference Librarian in the Development and Implementation of the Learning Commons

The frontline reference librarians’ role in initiating, planning, implementing, and operating LCs is unclear. Scholarly articles about LCs often focus not on reference librarians but on the students at the center of the LC or on the other stakeholders, such as university administrators. While the literature does not acknowledge the fullness of the reference librarians’ role, a few pale signs appear.

Reference librarian service on LC planning and implementation committees does appear to be common. For example, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s LC Planning Committee, in its final report, notes that in addition to the original library representative, “the Library’s Information Services Department requested that two additional librarians from their department serve on the committee.”5 In the case of the LC, they write that “evidence-based information exchanges between librarians and their faculty and student constituencies continue to fuel collaborative partnerships.”6

Haug, in “Learning Curve: Adapting Library Spaces,” points to librarians’ observations as the origin of the LC at Longwood University:

Library staff began observing that groups of students frequently crowded around a single PC to work on collaborative projects. University professors seemed to be assigning more and more group activities, and library staff saw that the commons area should be redesigned to meet the need for more collaborative style workspaces.7

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