Category Archives: Reference

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world” – John le Carre

My RIOT pulled me in a couple different directions. In light of our new single service point plans, I started out looking for information about how other libraries handle the transition. The best examples did away with a desk altogether because it was “a forbidding counterstyle barrier that formalised the traditional expert/student relationship” (Ellis & Phillips, 2012). Instead, a lot of libraries are opting for collaborative learning spaces where librarians work side-by-side with students (see also Spencer, 2007).

Then I started thinking about the types of questions we answer at the desk. There are some that I answer several times of day, like, where is the stapler? or, how do I print? in addition to questions about specific book locations. I do not see these as teaching moments and I do not think that users want to ask me these questions. This got me thinking about using smartphone apps in libraries that could cover some of this basic information, a topic covered in this article by Bishop out of the University of Kentucky, wherein the author analyzed reference questions out of 15 service points, including chat, email and phone, on campus over the course of 3 years to find that 77% of questions were wayfinding (where is 1.339?) or attribute questions (what are your Spring Break hours?). The author also discussed using the geospatial web to allow students to find the nearest color printer, for example, no matter which library they are in. This could also work for call numbers, but I think we should get bookbot instead.

I could not find many examples of my specific vision. NCSU’s mobile site comes closest, and I know some of us have talked about how cool their webcam to the coffee shop line is. Being able to join the computer queue or to see the KIC scanner queues, or being able to reserve a study room on your phone would all be beloved conveniences for our students.

In any case, I wouldn’t mind getting a report on our reference transactions similar to the one given in this article, or, better yet, I would be interested in trying SUMA, the ipad app that NCSU developed to gather data at libraries. This tool seems to open up the possibility of creating a culture in which we are all diligent and invested in collecting meaningful statistics and one in which we all share and are all informed of the data so that we can all move forward in making decisions on things like space design, technology purchases and service design based on that data.

UT students may already be familiar with the design of this app, which includes a map, a mobile tour, a calendar and a newsfeed. Some students at the ischool here developed an app for searching the catalog, but I do not see a mention of incorporating wayfinding into the app to help students physically locate a book. I think the call number links to that general page we have about finding books in the libraries with the stack guides (Broussard et al, 2011).

So, taking this all into consideration, I guess I want to know some thoughts on how your service desk handles “wayfinding and attribute” questions. Do you think a mobile app would be the answer, or would you be scared to lose the face-to-face time with students and therefore the opportunity to open the conversation into their research or to do a reference interview?

What are your favorite reference experiences like? What, if anything, stands in the way of them happening? What facilitates them?

Do you feel like you are informed about how students use the reference desk at your library? What would be helpful to know so that you can improve services?

Broussard, R., Zhou, Y. and Lease, M. (2010), University of Texas mobile library search. Proc. Am. Soc. Info. Sci. Tech., 47: 1–2. doi: 10.1002/meet.14504701385 (

Bradley Wade Bishop, Analysis of reference transactions to inform library applications (apps), Library & Information Science Research, Volume 34, Issue 4, October 2012, Pages 265-270, ISSN 0740-8188, 10.1016/j.lisr.2012.06.001.

Jenny Ellis and Andrea Phillips, “Redefining the Service Experience: Forging Collaboration Between Librarians and Students.” Proceedings of the IATUL Conferences. Paper 5.

Mary Ellen Spencer, (2007) “The state-of-the-art: NCSU Libraries Learning Commons”, Reference Services Review, Vol. 35 Iss: 2, pp.310 – 321. DOI: 10.1108/00907320710749218

This I Believe…All Libraries Should Be Teaching Libraries

Catherine Palmer. (2011). This I Believe…All Libraries Should Be Teaching Libraries. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 11(1), 575-582.
If we expect not to just survive but to thrive in the near and long-term future, the decision to become a teaching library is not “Will we?” but “How will we?” (582)
Reading this article after being immersed in libraryland for four days at ACRL was the perfect capstone to that experience. The themes of changing service models, changing philosophies, and re-envisioning modes of access to content in the academic library ran strong throughout the conference.


Palmer discusses her experience touring Elmhurst College’s library outside of Chicago, which had recently transformed its services around the idea that teaching students was the central mission of the library.  The reference desk and other physical elements of the library had been reconfigured to reflect that mission.  Palmer envied the ability of this library to take its small staff and get everyone on board this new idea.  She recognized that a similar transformation at a larger research university library was unlikely to be as simple and required gaining buy-in from many reluctant parties who were more focused on pursuits outside of instruction.


She draws a comparison between what she imagines needing to happen in academic libraries and the steps the FDIC took to transform failing banks, chronicled in a recent This American Life episode:
The FDIC agents came in at 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon; and, by Monday morning, XYZ Bank had become ABC Bank, with the same customers, assets intact, and a new financial future. Of course, many of the details did not match up, but it made me wonder, “What would our library look like if we closed on Friday with our traditional services and structures for providing them in place and opened on Monday, having been transformed into a true teaching library?” (576)
As we move through this strategic planning process, I think many of us find ourselves wishing we could just start from scratch and that there weren’t existing structures to undo and adapt to a new vision for the Libraries.  Palmer embraces the idea of instruction as marketing, but moves this idea beyond the concept of making users aware of services.  Instead, she makes a statement that so perfectly aligns with what we see happening here in Texas, as different political groups make their arguments about the purpose and value of a university education (I couldn’t help but think about the Rick O’Donnell situation).  She describes the idea that most see the work of the faculty as being the most important to a research institution and concedes that in term of scholarly output, that remains true.  But in terms of assigning value to a university education, the education of undergraduates, most of whom will not go to grad school, should be the most important concern of the research university if it hopes to remain relevant to the larger community of taxpayers.  It’s the undergraduates that leave the university in the highest numbers, entering the workforce and contributing to the community.  It’s those undergraduates who are going to allow the university to have the widest influence outside of the university as they join the communities that need to support the university for its continued growth.
If we expect our society outside the academy to understand what it is that its tax dollars allow research institutions to do and to make informed decisions on how to support those institutions, then it is undergraduates who are most in need of understanding how universities “make knowledge.” (578)
Palmer provides a vision of what the teaching library might look like within the larger research university — the bullet points include ideas like employing purchase-on-demand models, curriculum mapping for information literacy integration, and transforming the library website from a collection of links into a more educational experience.  My favorite bullet point reads, “We would spend less time trying to anticipate how to make it easy for patrons to use our resources and more time learning how people learn, and then we would learn how that works in our environment.” (580)


Palmer then continues with a plan for transforming the library into a teaching library by employing a localized Immersion-like experience among professional staff.  She considers what it might look like to have an instructional services department of 2 or 3 permanent staff who were solely focused on teaching.  Other staff in the library would retain traditional subject specialist roles of collection development, reference and instruction, but would rotate as members of the instructional team, essentially committing to a 1 or 2-year residency to gain the pedagogical expertise necessary to transform their approach to their other subject responsibilities.  The central idea is that a culture of instruction is created amongst all staff and that culture then informs all decision-making, moving librarians out of the traditional framework of the library and positioning the library within the culture of teaching and instruction throughout campus.


While all of this is easier said or proposed then done, I believe in Palmer’s belief that this has to be accomplished for the library to remain relevant on campus.  I wonder what it would look like within our own organization if we learned from the transformations that have happened on smaller campuses and examine our larger, more bureaucratic structures to figure out how we can move a similar mission to the forefront of our planning efforts while positioning our other activities related to collecting and preservation around this idea.

Domo Arigato – Strategies for the Chat Reference Interaction

As librarians, especially teaching librarians, we want to be everywhere at once in an effort to provide assistance in the times and places where students and faculty encounter the most frustrating or beguiling of problems. Students and faculty demand help that is both immediate and convenient. As a result, our digital reference service is heavily used and heavily marketed. We’ve all seen students get stoked when introducing that librarians are available late night (and online) for their research needs. But, I would be amiss if I didn’t admit that there are times when I feel frustrated with my ability to provide good instruction over chat and to assess the quality of the reference interaction.

Megan Oakleaf and Amy VanScoy had similar issues it seems because in the most recent issues of Reference and User Services Quarterly, they’ve published an article entitled Instructional Strategies for Digital Reference: Methods to Facilitate Student Learning, which analyzes a year-long collection of chat transcripts to reveal strategies for providing and guiding student learning in a digital reference transaction.

While often instruction and reference departments are seen as separate, integrating instructional strategies and concepts into reference transactions means that students are getting a two-for: both the information they need, delivered in a highly effective way, as well as at a specific time of need, to deliver perfectly tailored, just-in-time learning.

Oakleaf and VanScoy focused specifically on strategies that can be employed within the digital environment. Integrating educational theories such as metacognition, constructivism and active learning, and social constructivism, they derived eight strategies, listed below:

from Metacognition

1. Catch Them Being Good:  Oakleaf and VanScoy note this as a way to “reveal to students that information-seeking is not random, but rather has a logical problem-solving process,” which is easily revealed by thanking a student for coming to chat to ask a question since this acknowledges they had a question they could not answer on their own. Complimenting student behavior will reinforce positive behaviors that students may have brought with them to the reference transaction and may comfort any anxiety they may have about not having found the answer on their own.

2. Think Aloud:  Narrating the process, showing our work, and how we may fail even when trying to find an answer, demystifies the research process for students. It’s no longer something they can’t do, but also shows that it really is a recursive process and necessitates patience and often times, another brain.

3. Show, Don’t Tell: The authors talk about using “co-browsing” to share your screen, as well as pushing URL’s, tutorials, videos, or to ask students to open a browser window and follow along, narrating their own steps. Not only does this integrate activity and keeps the student interested, it also accommodates multiple learning styles.

4. Chunk It Up:  Because most likely we cannot stay with the student long after they have completed their task, it may be helpful to prepare them for the road ahead, especially if there are particularly tricky tasks up ahead.  The authors also identify this “chunking it up” part to allow students time to practice the guidance of the librarian while being able to come back and ask questions when they have completed one task.

from Constructivism & Active Learning

5. Let Them Drive: Invite students to describe what their research process has consisted of, where they began, and to allow the librarian to be the guide. This, of course, is not new to us in our instruction sessions, but it can sometimes be tricky to do this in a digital setting – especially without co-browsing.  This discussion based chat-reference interaction allows the librarian to guide the student to see “patterns, ask relevant questions, and encourage reflection.”  It also allows the librarian a peek into the student’s research process, much like how in #2 Thinking Aloud, allows the student into our thinking process.

from Social Constructivism:

6. Be the Welcome Wagon: The idea here is to initiate students into this new community of which they are now part since they are information-seekers, but it also calls upon librarians to acknowledge that students also bring something to the table.

7. Make Introductions: Acknowledging that there are others with expertise who may serve students better demonstrates that there is a wide community of people with specializations that can help answer a student’s question in an efficient manner. Again this also illustrates that there is a system in place for problem-solving.

8. Share Secret Knowledge: Our acronyms stump people, as do our subject headings, and other librarian-speak that seem natural to us but confusing to others. We can demystify the library’s inner workings and share tips and tricks in order to cultivate inquiry and understanding in a novice researcher’s expectation.

The results of this specific analysis can be found within the data preparation and results section of Oakleaf and VanScoy’s article, so I will turn my attention to what I find the most thought provoking piece of the article, which is the idea that digital reference can in fact employ very similar strategies to an in-class/in-person information literacy  session. This may seem an obvious point, but I rarely stop to reflect on my digital reference techniques – especially if chat is particularly busy. The integration of multimedia, such as specifically tailored how-to video captures, have gone a long way to perfecting the “Show, Don’t Tell” technique to engage multiple learning styles.  Using a keyword/brainstorming grid can illustrate abstract concepts hard to verbalize in a short IM conversations, but the interview process of asking students to think critically about what they find during a chat session seems a lot harder without visual expressions and intonation. How do we engage students who may come to IM chat for a quick answer into a longer reference-interaction?

Ideas for Reflection

  • Do you use any of these strategies during your chat reference?
  • Are there concepts, descriptions or analogies that you use during an instruction session that you’ve employed in digital reference?
  • What have been the most/least successful?
  • Anything that you’ve been wanting to try but haven’t figured out a way to do so?