Reference Desk Consultation Assignment An Exploratory Study of Students’ Perceptions of Reference Service

Pamela N. Martin and Lezlie Park

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This paper describes the experience of three sophomore English composition classes that were required to visit the reference desk for class credit. Student perceptions of reference consultations are analyzed to gain a clearer understanding of the students’ attitudes toward reference services. Findings of this exploratory study indicate that students suffer from library anxiety and are much more likely to seek out reference help if they are convinced that a consultation will save them time.

As an English composition instructor and an information literacy librarian who collaborate to teach sophomore classes, we want our students to take full advantage of the library’s reference services. However, it has become painfully evident to us that including the following “tip” on college composition assignment descriptions will not result in student action: “Our class librarian is available for help in locating sources for your research paper.” Though students will nod in fascination as the course instructor delivers her spiel about librarian expertise—explaining such baffling concepts as “Boolean,” “peer-reviewed,” and “discourse community”—we have come to realize that neither discussing nor writing about this largely untapped resource actually spurs student initiative. Nunberg’s observation that “most people will fall back on perfunctory techniques for finding and evaluating information online” is validated in our experience every semester.1 We have concluded that where there is no will to consult a librarian, there is no way it will happen.

Recent research corroborates our experience in the classroom and library. During a library study on subject searching in the library catalog, students who had conducted unsuccessful searches were asked what they would do next to locate the information they needed.2 Though they were searching the library catalog in a library, not one student mentioned asking a librarian. This is just another example of a larger trend. Librarians are being asked less and less for help. According to the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), reference transactions have dropped 51 percent since 1991.3 In recent years there have been many debates about the nature and utility of the reference desk, largely in response to declining reference statistics. Libraries have attempted to combat this decrease in demand by offering reference services in new ways. Librarians have experimented with new forms and technologies to conduct reference consultations. Some reference desks have entirely disappeared; some have merged with other library service points. While reference librarians have many different views about what a reference consultation should or could be and what role the reference desk should play, our study focuses on students’ attitudes. In light of falling reference desk transactions, do students perceive one-on-one consultations with a reference librarian as useful?

To answer this question, we conducted an exploratory qualitative study at Utah State University (USU). USU is a land-grant university with roughly fourteen thousand students enrolled full-time. For our study, USU students in three sophomore English composition classes received classroom library instruction and were then required to visit the reference desk on their own. After completing the reference consultation, they filled out an informal anonymous survey about their experience. All participating students were from classes taught by the same instructor and librarian. In addition to informing the debate and experimentation surrounding the reference desk, and describing the reference desk consultation assignment, our study’s primary objective is to assess student perceptions of reference interview transactions. A clearer understanding of students’ attitudes toward reference services is a necessary step toward theorizing strategies for reversing the downward trend.

Literature Review

Many published studies have focused on students’ perceptions of reference services. In her 1998 article, Massey-Burzio describes focus groups that were conducted at Johns Hopkins University to gain student and faculty insight into reference services.4 Thirty-eight students and faculty members were interviewed, and Massey-Burzio found that patrons were not comfortable asking for help, often found service points unhelpful, and had an overblown sense of their own library skills. She also reported a “lack of interest in [library instruction] classes.”5 She recommended that professional librarians be clearly recognizable and better marketed to the campus community. In addition, Massey-Burzio suggested that the “teaching/learning library philosophy as practiced in formal classes” be dropped.6 At Central Missouri State University, 201 undergraduates were surveyed concerning their perceptions of reference, and Sandra Jenkins concluded that “students do not have a clear perception of the reference collection or the reference librarian.”7 While these studies paint a bleak picture of student perceptions of reference services, other studies indicate that students with more library experience (especially in the classroom) appreciate and understand reference services to a greater degree.

Saunders, analyzing ARL data, found that library instruction actually “increases the demand for reference services.”8 In a recent study, Gremmels and Lehmann investigated college students and librarians’ perceptions of learning in reference consultations.9 They found that students not only saw reference work as instructional but also “understood the connection between reference instruction and their in-class [library] instruction.”10 So perhaps the problem is not too much library instruction, as Massey-Burzio postulated, but not enough. Indeed, Fister discussed students’ “fear” in a 2002 Chronicle of Higher Education column and called on librarians and professors to collaborate to create more meaningful reference experiences for students.11

Reference Desk Consultation Assignment

Similar to Fister’s suggestion, in our classes we found that convincing students to value reference librarians’ skills can be accomplished most effectively by incorporating a reference consultation into a larger writing assignment (read with points attached). On their own, students often overestimate their ability to locate credible information. Nunberg makes this point using results from a Pew Project survey in his article “Teaching Students to Swim in the Online Sea”:

There is a paradox in the way people think of the Web. Everyone is aware that it teems with rotten information, but most people feel confident that they can sort out the dross … 87% of search-engine users said they found what they were looking for all or most of the time … [yet] only 38 percent of search-engine users were aware of the difference between unpaid and sponsored search results, and only 18 percent could tell which was which.12

The end result of this naiveté in composition classes includes embarrassing reference lists (e.g., “.biz” websites, National Enquirer articles, or the grandmother of them all, Wikipedia entries) or worse: sources that only remotely relate to the research topic.

When hearing that librarian consultations are a required part of the research project, students utter a collective sigh; however, they often comment afterwards that they experienced a “breakthrough” in their information search during the consultation with a librarian, as is evidenced in the following remark from one of our post–assignment surveys:

I didn’t think they [the librarians] could really help but they looked in resources I didn’t know about or consider but yeilded [sic] results… . She [the librarian] was very approachable and helped me find several odd resources relevant that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.

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