Philosophy of Reference

At the reference desk, there often is a tension between meeting the patrons’ immediate information needs and insisting that they develop the skills necessary to meet their own information needs in the future.  How much teaching should go on at the reference desk?  A common answer, at least in academic libraries, it that is better to teach people to fish for themselves than to just give them fish.

My view is that this is true, but only up to a point.  When a person is hungry, a lecture on how to fish may not be particularly helpful or useful.  Similarly, when a patron has an essay due in three days, it may not be the best time for them to learn new skills.  In addition, many people learn best by watching a task being performed many times before trying it for themselves, and many cultures emphasize the role of observation in the development of new skills.  So I believe that that there are many situations in which it is entirely appropriate to have a patron sit on the shore and watch while I catch the fish.

For this reason, I try to follow a reference interview by demonstrating at least one successful search.  How much running commentary I give during this process crucially depends on the mental state of the patron.  If the patron is operating in panic mode, then the best course of action may be to find what they need and hand it to them, hoping that this will leave them with a sense that the library is a welcoming and supportive place and that librarians are welcoming and supportive people.  If the patron’s mental state seems to be such that instruction will be welcome and useful, then I explain each step as I take it and then encourage the patron to attempt similar or analogous searches.

Most patrons are eager – or at least willing — to learn whatever I can teach them, but some are already suffering from information overload when they approach the reference desk, and if the reference interaction results in still more information that they are ill-equipped to assimilate, they will probably not be so foolish as to approach the reference desk again.

As a reference librarian, my knowledge of a patron’s situation is often incomplete: they may be very tired, having just worked a shift at the mill or stayed up all night with a sick child; their language processing capacity may be severely overtaxed, particularly if they are just learning English; they may have learning disabilities that make it difficult from them to process large amounts of information quickly.

As a person with learning disabilities, I am often asked how learning disabilities should be accommodated at the reference desk, and the answer I give is that the librarians should slow down and pay close attention for verbal and non-verbal signals that the patron is feeling overwhelmed.  Also, I don’t insist on instruction at the reference desk if that is not what the patron wants.  If a patron’s learning disabilities are at all severe, then finding what they need for them when they need it may be a perfectly reasonable accommodation.   Since there is often no way to tell if a patron has a learning disability or other learning challenge, and since they may not choose to disclose the details of their situation to me,  the safest course is to take my cue from the patron and give them the sort of service they appear to be seeking.  There will be another opportunity to instruct if the patron comes back to the reference desk, but a patron who leaves the reference desk feeling judged or reprimanded is unlikely to return.

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