Reference is the Best Instruction

Today’s a reprint, because I’ve been rethinking the issue. What’s below originally appeared in LOEX News, Volume 28:1 (Spring 2001), 4, 8.

I’m trying to articulate what I think about reference and instruction, and this was an early pass at the issue. At the time I was playing around with a few catch phrases of the day (“just in time,” “point of need”) to argue that traditional BI wasn’t a good use of anyone’s time, and that reference provided better service to the students. I’m now coming to the conclusion that the reference service as traditionally provided is much less necessary than before, and I’d prefer an aggressive research consultation service and a train the trainer service, which I’m planning to write about during my next reference shift.

Still, for those curious about the reference and instruction views of a librarian just a year out of school at the time, read on. I like to think I’m a better writer these days, though.

Reference is the Best Instruction

What is the best library instruction? I think a case can be made that the best instruction for students comes just in time (when they need it), at the point of need (where they need it), and is individualized as much as possible (what they need). At my college, we try to make sure every professor who wants an instruction session has a particular assignment in mind, and we try to schedule the session within 2-3 weeks of the time the assignment is due. That way, the reasoning goes, the students will have a reason to pay attention in class. They won’t just be going through the motions of typing keywords into boxes on the screen, but will instead be earnestly trying to learn how to research effectively. After all, they have an assignment due in a couple of weeks.

You’ve probably figured out by now that this model of library instruction, like all the others, has its problems. Of course the students should pay attention in class, and learn how to find research articles on their topic or background information in a reference book. Somehow it doesn’t always work out that way. I see many students from these sessions come back to the reference desk apparently clueless about what they were taught in class. Some may argue that if nothing else they learned they should go to the reference desk for help, but that tidbit of information is a bad trade for my time, if you ask me. I used to resent this, but then I realized that the students were acting on the philosophy we used to justify our instruction classes. We want to be there at the point of need. We want them to know what they need to know just in time to do their research. And we want to individualize the session as much as possible.

But the students are coming to the reference desk at the point of their need (even if it is a little late by our standards). At the reference desk we are giving them what they need just in time. And only at the reference desk do the students get just what they want, and what they think they need. For the individual student who needs to learn how to research a particular topic, which is the most effective: a library instruction session or a one-on-one encounter at the reference desk? Who would argue that the former is usually more effective? Put this way, the question arises: is reference the best instruction?

When the students go to a BI session, they may or may not be interested. Sometimes it seems the students are all but ready to fall asleep. This could be a comment on my teaching style, but I don’t think so. Most of the students just aren’t interested, no matter how politely they go through the motions. The general student opinion seems to be that library instruction is boring. We all know that isn’t true. Or we don’t want to believe it’s true. Either way, the students may think it’s boring because the session doesn’t meet their need when they actually feel their need. The student has nothing to do with scheduling an instruction session. The timing of the session is up the course instructor, sometime with a little negotiation with the librarian. If we want the student to “own” the instruction, then we should present it when they feel the need, which is usually right before they come to the reference desk. How often do students at the reference desk seem uninterested in what they’re being taught? It happens, but not as often as in the classroom.

The reference interaction provides the students with the help they need just in time. Sure, students often begin their research too late. They may do bad research because they don’t have time to take advantage of interlibrary loan. They don’t find the best resources. But the students will be doing that regardless of the instruction session. The motivated students won’t wait for the library instruction, and the rest will come up at the last minute. The last minute students may learn an important lesson about good research, a lesson they won’t learn just because we tell them to do their research early.

Finally, the reference encounter is the most individualized instruction possible. Some may counter that students may not like one-on-one encounters, or that the reference librarian may never really know what the student needs. That’s possible. But the negotiation at the reference desk is more likely to identify the individual needs of the student than the general BI session is.

But compelling reasons exist to focus energy on traditional instruction rather than traditional reference.

One reason is limited resources. Let’s say we teach an hour-long BI class to 15 students. To give each of them an hour would be just too much time. Even if each of them really needed only 20 minutes, that’s still 5 times the number of hours of a BI session. I can think of 2 possible objections to this excellent assertion. One, the time later spent at the reference desk helping those students who didn’t get it the first time should count against the total hours. Two, the reference encounter still provides the better service to the student. Which is more important, time or the student? In any real library, compromises have to be made, but I think the option that best serves the student is the one to try for.

Another good objection argues that the students need to know the overall scheme of research, and not just the exact particulars that help their immediate research. A BI session for an entire class makes sure they all understand the general organization of information for their topic. They know about good reference books, good databases, good bibliographies, even if they don’t use any of them for their own research. They have a broader understanding of a knowledge base.

I’m not sure how realistic this objection is. As librarians, we know the importance of understanding the organization of a field of knowledge, but for the students who don’t care, all our teaching is for naught. If they ever learn such a thing, the most likely way is through building up the knowledge step by step through work on individual projects.

One could also argue that the students may never get any instruction if left on their own. This is definitely possible, and they’re a couple of responses. The cynical response is, so what? They’re in college, and they need to learn how to do research on their own. This view has some appeal for me, but usually after a long day. The generous response is to publicize the reference desk more. Many students don’t know what reference librarians do, and they should. Instruction classes are certainly a great way to publicize reference services, but there are other good ways, and we would be helping our students by finding them.

I’m certainly not saying that anyone should give up traditional instruction. But I do want people to consider that some of the best instruction students may get happens at the reference desk. There may be reference librarians who don’t teach formal BI classes and think they don’t do instruction. But the reference desk is a great teaching environment. Some instruction librarians insist that we’re always doing library instruction, whether in the classroom, at the reference desk, or chatting with faculty about databases. I don’t want to fall prey to that variety of instruction monomania, but there’s a bit of truth to the statement. I don’t think there is any one best way to provide instruction, because the contexts for learning differ so much by student, librarian, institution, etc. But if our criterion for effective instruction is giving the students what they need when and where they need it, then reference might be the best instruction.

3 thoughts on “Reference is the Best Instruction

  1. Hello Mr. Bivens-Tatum,
    I discovered your posting this morning and just want to say that I agree with you totally. I think instruction given at the point of need at the reference desk is the most effective instruction. I actually wrote an article on this topic that just appeared in the most recent issue of Reference & User Services Quarterly. In case you’re interested, I’ve pasted the citation below.
    “Fostering Self-Regulated Learning at the Reference Desk,” Reference & User Services Quarterly 47 (Fall 2007): 16-20.
    Best regards,
    Ed Eckel
    Engineering/Science Librarian
    Western Michigan University

  2. I am starting to agree with you too, and I just quoted this article:
    “No Longer the Sacred Cow – No Longer a Desk: Transforming Reference Service to Meet 21st Century User Needs”
    Gabriela Sonntag & Felicia Palsson. Library Philosophy and Practice 2007
    to my class of library school students in reference. At Cal State San Marcos, they did exactly what you suggest.
    And in my class, we are having long discussions about more instruction vs. better interfaces. Hope to blog about that soon …
    Now I’m off to read Ed’s article in RUSQ!!

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