Thursday, January 17, 2013

In answering reference queries: The need for experience

In a Facebook group that I am a part of, a certain question came up about the use of Library Assistants (LAs) in an academic library to provide reference services. The person asked if any librarians in academic libraries currently practice using LAs to provide basic directional and informational services as well as basic navigational instruction on the use of the OPAC while sitting at the reference desk on rotation.  the person also inquired about the practice of using library school students at the Associate and Bachelors Level to provide the same service. I gave a response that I think might be useful if I share here for others.

Firstly, I am definitely of the opinion that library assistants can be trained to do reference, especially if given an expert system/document to guide them in brainstorming where to go to find information for general reference queries. However, in my experience, neither training librarians or library assistants can really compensate for their own personal experience in doing academic research that requires them to use a variety of research resources. Sometimes, your inter-disciplinary background in library research or understanding research requirements are necessary to help you better meet the needs of patrons.

In relation to point  of experience being required for quality reference work: I recall several circumstances where I was able to help persons in the past as a student library assistant because of my familiarity with academic research and library use from my undergraduate days. (My undergraduate degree was in Political Science with Statistics). I knew where to help an social scientist to find a statistical formula because I did courses in statistics and was familiar with the literature in the field and knew personally that the formula could be found in the back of text books. I also recalled an experience where I was able to point a Mass Communication student to a relevant encyclopedia, because of my own experience of using libraries as a student and finding subject specific encyclopedias. On the other hand, I have observed in my own experience that academic librarians without such experiences seek to  find everything using the databases. But one resource cannot meet every variety of research needs, and as such any one doing reference work needs to think through the research question or query as to the most likely resource that has the answer to satisfy the patron.

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