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:

Tweet from @benelwell

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).

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  • Part Troll

    I think I agree with Ben Elwell. Students need to learn how to use the resources available to them independently, but also with the knowledge that there is always someone to help them out if need be. I have recently started working in a school library and am sooo keen to instill in the students the merits of being able to search, find and evaluate sources of information whether they are Y7s or sixth formers. It IS empowering and I wish I had learned about it sooner! Good post!

  • Liz Jolly

    HI Jo
    As usual you make some really interesting points, thank you would say that the role is academic librarians has always been, and continues to be, to enable students to develop the skills to become autonomous lifelong learners. However, in the UK setting I would add that there can be a dichotomy between high National Student Survey scores (which are all-important to most institutions) and the development of such skills.

    • Hi Liz, many thanks for your comment. It’s an interesting point, but are the two mutually exclusive? Can we not work to develop skills whilst also achieving high NSS scores? I appreciate it can be easy to just give people what they want as quickly as possible to improve satisfaction, but I think as long as you are supportive and willing to help they may be even more satisfied if you have helped them develop skills as well as get to what they wanted. Or is that a bit of a tall order?!

      • Liz Jolly

        Hello Jo, I completely agree with your comments about the two not being mutually exclusive. My point though is about *perception* of helpfulness in a rapidly changing higher education environment. There is already a tension between the idea of students as lifelong learners and that of students as customers and this will become even more apparent with the raising of the fee level. There will always be students who are interested in developing learning skills as well as some who are not so interested. If a student who perceives themself as a customer wants an immediate answer then giving them a skills session may not be perceived by them, at that time, as being particularly helpful! However, as you say, that shouldn’t be an excuse for us to waiver from our commitment to our key role in the academic process – we are here to enable students’ learning.

  • I think it is possible to agree with Ben’s comment while not necessarily feeling this means every interaction with the user needs to be a teaching moment. However, as was picked up in the Twitter discussion – every circumstance is different – and different libraries have different priorities.

    My first ever library job was in a commercial environment, and while sometimes the library members wanted help in using the library, if someone wanted an article or item then you got it for them. It is also worth noting that at this time librarians did all the database searching because of the costs involved (both in terms of time spent online and per search/result charges)

    I started my professional career in medical libraries – and if someone wanted an item it was my job to get it to them as quickly as possible. However, these jobs also came with an educational element – I was responsible for services to student nurses as well as running training for medical and paramedical staff on how to do literature searches etc.

    In University libraries (where I’ve worked for the last 10 years or so) it is slightly different – especially with students – there is less of an expectation that the library staff will simply deliver items to the student (although sometimes more of this for academic staff in my experience) – but for me much of this comes down to limited resources – it would be completely impractical to provide a this type of service to each student. However, this doesn’t mean I don’t believe in teaching Information Literacy – I do, and think we should be both integrating this into the curriculum and also taking opportunities as they arise.

    What I think we need to be careful about is making students or other library members, jump through hoops just because they are there. Those tasks that carry no real intrinsic value in learning should be made as easy as possible in my opinion – whether this is finding the location of a book, or downloading an article – and if we had the resource to actually offer a personal service for this I don’t see why not – after all, the hard bit is surely identifying you want an item, and assessing it’s value to you once you have it – those are the aspects I’d really want to spend time teaching – once you know what you want, I think the library should do everything it can to put it in your hands (or on your screen) as quickly and easily as possible.

    This is definitely (for me) not about protecting the role of librarians – but making sure we concentrate on the right things to teach, and ensuring the trivial stuff doesn’t get in the way of this.

    • Thanks for such an insightful comment Owen, it’s particularly interesting to hear about your experiences in different types of libraries.

      I agree we need to concentrate on the right things to teach, but perhaps there are differences in what we think these are. To take an example, locating a book is something that I think is a useful skill to learn. My approach when helping a student find a book was always to go with them and explain how the system works and where the book should be located (then hopefully find it together). This also often meant that they were then able to browse much more easily than if I had just fetched the book for them.

      Having said that, I also worked to improve the layout of my areas of the collection to hopefully make it easier to find items and I definitely agree that libraries should do everything they can to get users to the resources they need as quickly and easily as possible.

  • Interesting. I’d take the stand that it’s not our job to make it easy for students: I’d always go for teaching a student (or staff member, etc) how to find something themselves so that they can find the next one on their own. However, I think sometimes we can make things hard for students when they don’t need to be: it’s the old argument about whether we should teach people to use our systems better or make better systems which don’t need to be taught!

    I’d draw the line at whether the skill the user would pick up would be realistically of use to them in the future (although that’s always going to be based on a little guesswork). This line is why it’s fine to provide articles in a corporate environment (if that’s what the service is there to do) as the users don’t need the skills themselves (while the service exists!). However, in an academic environment that would only apply to ‘outlier’ tasks, which wouldn’t include finding a book or an article.

    • Thanks Katie, I agree some of our systems are far too complicated and I’m certainly all for making things easier in general, hence the caveat about not wanting to make it difficult for people, just not spoon feeding them either.

      I also agree that skills should be taught if they are going to be of use, though take on board the fact that this can be difficult to determine. As librarians we might think these skills are important for students to develop, but will they see it the same way? Sometimes not.

  • Elaine

    Excellent post. I was really interested when I saw some of the tweets about this yesterday. In the context of academic libraries I agree that our role is to educate the student in the use of the resources and empower them to locate material for themselves. In the example of responding to enquiries at the reference desk I would always say it’s best to show the student how to find something rather than to simply do it for them and then supply the pdf. In doing so we are actually making things easier for them in the long run, whereas if we simply do it for them, whilst solving the immediate problem, this does not make it any less difficult for the student the next time they need to find an article. In an academic library setting it is usually appropriate to turn such an enquiry into a training opportunity.

    • Thanks for your comment Elaine – I couldn’t agree more! Excellently put 🙂

  • There is a way of combining the teaching and retrieval functions – when I’m on the enquiry desk and get this kind of request I usually try to run the search with the screen angled so the person with the query can see what I’m doing (maybe after a little private investigation to get to the right resource first!). I also try to talk them through the steps as I do them – that way I provide the result they’ve asked for but have also shown them how to find it, then it’s up to them what they do with that information.

  • Richard Perkins

    Found this on Wednesday in a Pret a Manger booklet (I know, I know):

    “Tell me and I’ll forget
    Show me and I’ll remember
    Involve me and I’ll understand”

    Chinese proverb

    Damn – I feel like a sandwich now…

  • Jo Webb

    Long time after the original post but I’ve only just noticed this.

    I think the fundamental issue is about whether we are trainers (‘Do this, click here’) or teachers. If we want to claim the latter, we need to behave as teachers. The purpose of education is to draw learning out of people, and that doesn’t mean making stuff too easy. We might need to create learning scaffolds, so our learners start with simple things and move on to more complex and demanding activities, but that does require us to hold back giving out answers and letting people learn, explore and develop, and develop their own routes to the answers rather than the single golden path of the right answer. We need to remember that many learners like to be challenged as long as the learning activities are not unreasonable (which normally means the learning outcomes need to be aligned to any assessment/activity and be valued by the learners)

    Chris Powis and I talk about making the learning activities simple but not simplistic.

    I could write at much greater length about this here, but I’ve written about this previously in Teaching information skills (with Chris Powis), published by Facet in 2004, probably available from your library.

    • Thanks for your comment Jo, I really enjoyed reading yours and Chris’ Teaching Information Skills book.

      I remember attending a session of Chris’ a couple of years ago and him emphasising the point about making it challenging to make it more interesting for learners, and it’s something I tried to incorporate into my information literacy sessions (which I certainly think of as teaching).

  • The problem is that it takes less time to find information for students than to teach them how to do it themselves. This is a constant struggle. Very good discussion.

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