Learners need a reference interview skills set

Part of the Comp 121 syllabus revision is the “embedding” of librarians into the participating classes. Basically, you get a college librarian assigned directly to your class, to be called on to present library orientations, attend class on certain days to help with student research, and to address student research problems via email, live chat, or Blackboard course access. I’ve arranged for embedded librarians several times in the past, and it has always been a major success on several lines.

First, my students hear someone authoritative, other than me, telling them all the same things I am telling them. This triangulation of authority makes me more credible.

Second, my students learn that librarians can be helpful. These students may be more likely to seek out the help of professional librarians in the future.

Third, many of my technophobic students get immediate assistance solving the challenges of learning to use the library website and databases, which adds to their skills set and increases their confidence.

But from the feedback I receive from some students, even this much face-to-face contact with real, live librarians (up to 4 or 5 class periods per semester) does not equip students for successful reference interviews with librarians they have not met before.

One of the librarians associated with the 121 syllabus revision attended our meeting the other day to let us know what information the library needed from us in order to serve us properly. She gave us a handout listing the services the librarians can provide and suggested librarian points of contact. She also asked for descriptions of where the librarians “fit in” to our teaching methods, course schedules, and subject matter.

I asked if the library had any short videos prepared to teach beginning writers how to handle a reference interview. The librarian assured me that they had it covered, but she didn’t say exactly how. I kept asking my question in different ways, thinking I hadn’t explained myself sufficiently. Finally, the librarian suggested that my students were just not working very hard. I didn’t want to take up any more meeting time on my question – and by this time I thought it was pretty unlikely that any such video existed – so I just laughed and let the conversation move on.

Bless her, that librarian later emailed me to say she felt that my question had not been sufficiently answered and to invite me to discuss it further with her, if necessary. This is what I wrote in reply:

Thank you for following up with me. It is evidence of how much effort you put into designing and facilitating access to all of the vital services you perform at CLC. I want you to know that I do understand how hard you and the other librarians work, and I don’t underestimate the impact your division has on the rest of the college. I worked at the children’s and adult reference desks in public libraries in California and Illinois for a few years, attended a year of library school, and then completed a PhD at GSLIS at UIUC. I may be one of the few instructors who knows firsthand the extensive training that librarians receive, as well as the value of the unique media and information literacy skills set you offer.

In our meeting, I may not have communicated clearly what it was I was asking for in behalf of my students, or why I was asking. For the past two and a half years, I have taught Composition 122 at Lakeshore. A large percentage of my students at Lakeshore do not have a family tradition of literacy mastery, and many of them have never set foot in a library of any kind. That means they have a higher anxiety level than most CLC students who are faced with library-based research.

Some things I have learned about my Lakeshore students:

  1. They do not know what is available at the library, so they do not know what they should be asking for during a reference interview.
  2. When a librarian shows them certain resources, they do not know if those are the resources they will actually need.
  3. They are reluctant to take your time because they feel stupid. They don’t realize that most people don’t know how to fully access all the resources the library offers. Also, they are panicking because they think they are in over their heads.
  4. They are not technology savvy. They will not remember how to use the databases or how to email things to themselves once they are at home. Or, they do not have Internet access at home, so they can’t get on the library website once they step off campus.
  5. They are reluctant to bring home lots of materials (first, because they don’t want to be responsible for overdue fees or lost item fees; and second, because they often don’t have a car, and so transporting lots of items around is a problem).

I know that, as an experienced community college librarian, you have faced these challenges many times during student reference interviews and class-based instruction. (This video is a pretty funny example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDSP622Cra4).

You already have a skills set for handling these challenges. But my students don’t. And they need one.

I can do a lot in class to teach them what to expect and how to handle the student side of the reference interview. I was just wondering if there was some sort of short video or series of short videos that the CLC library has made or can use to demonstrate to students what a reference interview is like and what their responsibilities are as students in that sort of interview. Some other libraries have made various orientation videos, such as the ones I’ve listed at the bottom of this email.

My students at Lakeshore face the same sorts of challenges in their Writing Center interviews and peer review sessions in class. I can make my own videos to help my students in these situations. I just wondered if there was anything available or in use at CLC to teach students how to make the best use of a library reference interview.

This is the list of library orientation videos I sent her:

Tour the Library at Harper College

Welcome to the Library

Undergraduate Library Rap – UIUC

The Magic of the Library – University of Bergen

And just for fun (because the organization of library resources doesn’t make any sense to many students):

The Two Ronnies: Confusing Library

I do plan to make “how-to” videos for Writing Center interviews and peer reviews. I think the Writing Center video would be super helpful for the Writing Center tutors as well as for my students, because it would let the tutors know what I as an instructor expect from them.

More on this when I begin work on the videos or hear back from the librarian.


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