I read an interesting blog post earlier today from Andy Burkhardt who wrote a guest post for ACRLog titled Don’t Make It Easy For Them (read it – it’s not too long). It really struck a chord with me – one of the bugbears in my previous job was when colleagues (in my opinion) spoonfed students. I shared the post on Twitter and an interesting discussion began about whether or not we, as librarians, should make it easy for students (I’m referring to students but the same applies to most library user groups).
My personal view is reflected in my comment on the blog post (currently in the moderation queue):
I agree with the idea that information literacy sessions can be more rewarding both for the students and the teacher if students are able to discover the tools for themselves, however think some initial guidance is needed (perhaps which databases to use and how to get to them). This method of teaching is also intensive and therefore often needs more than one member of staff to support the session as students explore. It’s certainly my preferred method of teaching though; I found many students learnt more this way.
I also agree with your point about the reference desk, I see the role of a librarian as one who can show people how to find the information for themselves, therefore empowering them to do it in future. Having said that, many of the students I encountered on an enquiry desk didn’t want that – they see the librarian as a resource to utilise to get you your research. They pay their fees and expect us to offer a service – doing their research for them. It’s a difficult thing to address. I always took the approach that I would try to show them how to do something, but I had some colleagues who would just do it for them. Some students preferred learning to do it for themselves, others just wanted us to do it for them and found my approach frustrating.
I think a balance is needed but it can be difficult to know what is best and I think this probably changes depending on the situation and the persons involved.
I wrote this before most of the conversation on Twitter, and although it is written very much from my primarily academic library background I think it holds true for many librarians. I think librarians have a role to play in terms of education – it’s something that was discussed at both LILAC and the Librarians as Teachers event last year. My personal view is that librarians do need to be aware of the pedagogy involved in user education, even if their interaction is solely through enquiries and not formal teaching sessions. I accept that in a commercial world (legal libraries, business libraries etc.) and in health libraries, the librarian is more often utilised as a skilled professional to get hold of the relevant resources and pass them on to the user (with the user having little or no involvement in searching/locating) – however I do think there is still a place for educating users how to find some things for themselves. This is partly due to a resource issue (i.e. the library may not have the time/staff to find all the information), but I also feel quite strongly that it is the role of a librarian to educate people in terms of information literacy – whether that’s being able to construct a search strategy, or find a resource, or evaluate different results in a search engine.
Going back to the academic library example (which is the focus of the ACRL – Association of College and Research Libraries), I think students should be taught how to study independently during their time at University. This includes equipping them with the skills to find information for themselves (though obviously they may need assistance for more complex research enquiries). I agree with Ben Elwell:
I know as an undergraduate student I learnt a lot from playing around with online databases (in my case ScienceDirect was my main one) to find useful journal articles. And it might sound really sad (maybe it was why I eventually became a librarian!) but I felt proud when I was able to use the library to find things for myself. I remember going to the stacks and discovering all sorts of gems from the references I found online.
I have stuck with the title used about “not making it easy” but it’s not that I want to make it difficult for people. I want to enable and empower people, and I think the best way to do that is to support them in learning how to achieve things themselves. If someone came to the enquiry desk with a research question, I wouldn’t send them away and say “go and look it up on our databases”, but I also wouldn’t go into my office and do the research for them. What I prefer to do is to talk the research through with them and give them some ideas of how they could find resources; show them how to construct a search, demonstrate how to use a database, help them refine the results, show them how to download an article or access an e-book etc.
I know that there is a major issue with the way libraries are perceived (I didn’t even know I had a subject librarian when I was an undergraduate student, and I never asked a librarian a research question), but I don’t think that this approach is a barrier. OK, it’s a bit more work for the user in the short term, but it will help them in the longer term and I think they should be involved in the process. I don’t think libraries are places where you should just place an order and receive your product, they’re places to learn. By supporting users and developing their information literacy skills whilst also helping them get to the resources they need – now in my opinion that’s good customer service. It’s a big challenge, but it’s something that we should be taking on.
I wonder if some librarians are concerned that educating users will mean there will be no need for librarians in future, but I don’t think this is the case, certainly not any time soon. There is so much to learn and the information environment is constantly changing – we need to be able to be at the forefront of this and supporting our users develop new skills to deal with the changing landscape. I know it’s nice to be needed, but it’s so rewarding to help someone develop – that’s what I find so satisfying about being a librarian.
I’ll get off my soapbox now, but I’d be very interested to hear other people’s views on this, there were some really interesting points made on Twitter this afternoon. What do you think? Should we make it easy for them or not? (By the way, I’m testing a new comment system at the moment – if you have any problems, please let me know).