4 Characteristics of Reference Services That Make It More Important Than Ever

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It is ironic to think that with the increased emphasis on information literacy learning, more and more libraries are replacing professional librarians at the reference desk with students and non-professional staff in an effort to juggle limited human resources. I’ve heard a range of excuses to justify this, from a drop in reference statistics to the belief that reference is not the same as instruction.

HERE’S THE IRONY: The characteristics of reference services are much more closely aligned with the way students learn than is classroom-based library instruction.

Reference services are:

Personalized. Personalized learning is a big trend in education, and reference services are as personalized as you can get. Students are able to get the targeted help they need that facilitates mastery of the content and skills they are currently learning.

Flexible. Flexible learning is characterized by choice. Reference services are flexible in that they allow students to choose the way in which they want to interact with the librarian. Chat. E-mail. Phone. Web conferencing. In person. Different strokes for different folks.

Ubiquitous. Ubiquitous learning means anywhere, anytime learning. And 24/7 reference services that can be accessed anytime, anywhere are ubiquitous too.

Just-in-Time. Just-in-time learning is ubiquitous learning at the point of need. Just-in-time reference services allow students to get help at the very moment they have a reference question (like at 11:30 pm, the night before their paper is due). For libraries, that means providing 24/7 reference services through multiple avenues.

In the world of e-learning, technology is making it possible to create learning that is personalized, flexible, ubiquitous and just-in-time. Libraries that provide 24/7 reference services through multiple avenues of communication are already doing this. And more libraries should be focused on providing reference services this way.

By viewing reference services as an ideal model of information literacy learning, libraries can turn their focus from viewing reference and instruction as separate entities to viewing reference services as an inherent part of information literacy learning. Effective information literacy learning is personalized, flexible, ubiquitous and just-in-time. It seamlessly connects the classroom to the library to the student’s home environment.

What does that mean for libraries? Well, I think libraries need to stop compartmentalizing their services. That may mean consolidating service desks, utilizing the strengths of all library staff, retraining library staff as needed, and viewing the library not as a separate department or building on campus, but as the central hub of learning. In other words, libraries should adopt a learning commons frame of mind (and you don’t need a big budget to do that!).

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2 thoughts on “4 Characteristics of Reference Services That Make It More Important Than Ever

  1. Could you elaborate on 24/7 reference some more? To me, 24/7 reference implies you are able to get some person on a communications medium 24/7. I know some libraries have services where third parties outside the institution take questions when the library is closed, but that seems to diminish the “personalized” aspect of reference service.

    This is mostly a quibble. I agree with most of what you say about the value of reference service. I think the real challenge is helping people see that value and find us? Or that we find better ways of being where they are!

    • Yes, that’s what I mean by 24/7. Example: QuestionPoint, where 24/7 reference services are shared by a cooperative of libraries.

      Personalized learning from an educational perspective is creating learning environments that meet the needs of individual students. I think that services like QuestionPoint that are staffed by professional librarians can help meet that need. With e-learning gaining such momentum, I think that 24/7 library services are becoming a must-have for libraries. However, at institutions where the vast majority of students live on or very near campus, it may not be as important (at least for now). However, those students probably do expect the physical library to be open 24/7!

      Getting people to find us is a challenge, but I think we are entering into a paradigm shift within libraries, and part of that is doing a better job of connecting with people in their informal learning environments. If we can manage that, they will find us and value us!

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