Trends Reflection: Reference and information literacy instruction

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    • #1076
      Bronwyn Linthwaite

      Trends Reflection: The historical relationship between reference work and information literacy instruction in academic libraries
      Reference work has been defined as a series of transactions between librarians and clients in which the client is assisted with their information needs through reference to particular sources of information, instructions in their use, or feedback with interpretation of information sources. Information literacy as a movement took hold in the 1990s at a time in which a shift was observed from modern industrial society to the emergence of post-modern information based societies. This shift also has changed reference services as well as the nature and method of information literacy instruction. There have been many changes to the field of referencing over the last 10 years to the point which some claimed that reference work was no longer viable. However Laura Saunders asserts that information literacy instruction “has been a core component of reference job descriptions since the mid 1960s” and is actually increasingly emphasized as an important library skill and service for library clients.

      The digital age certainly presents unique challenges in reference work. The traditional role of academic libraries and librarians was as ‘central mediators’ between students and information sources. However students these days more commonly use search engines as a reference tool. Indeed many users claim that library mediation is redundant for them, a phenomenon described as disintermediation. The implications of technology use is that users browse and skim material on websites rather than engaging in reading and evaluating sources/arguments. In addition, experience with search engines has influenced a noted preference among users for natural language searching and an under-appreciation for search strategies such as Boolean.  Librarians through reference work can close this gap in understanding of the online information environment so that students do not rely on the open web (google and Wikipedia) to complete academic assessments.

      In an interesting discussion regarding trends in referencing Frank Menchaca from Gale Cengage Learning asserted that the future of reference work in academic libraries depends on librarians asserting (and promoting) their role as information literacy experts. Wikipedia is essentially acting as a reference service; the popularity of this platform indicates that reference services are still required by information seekers! Interestingly despite this trend the results of a recent nationwide survey of US librarians established that reference work was the most frequently engaged in activity for these librarians. The perception of the decline of reference services may be due to their decentralisation. Different service models have been experimented with however most libraries have initiated a virtual reference service. In this way traditional reference services have been re-conceptualised both online as well as in the library for example with the instigation and promotion of librarian reference appointments to students. The latter is in line with the trend towards bringing reference services to people such as in airports.

      As internet search tools are preferred as discovery tools thereby directly competing with library services a trend has been observed of increased marketing of reference services to both vendors and students. Branding and communication of library services is a hot topic including the potential for social media to facilitate this however one issue has proven to be limited staff resources for these tasks.  In terms of information literacy instruction some believe faculty should take responsibility for directing students to the library, others emphasise the importance of embedded information-literacy instruction programs.

      The fluidity of information has changed the way reference services are organised. Ranganathan’s fifth law of library science is that the library is a growing organism. The library therefore should has needed to adapt in line with user needs/capabilities in order to continue its service to students. Librarians have explored creative solutions to engage in information literacy instruction in the digital era.  Changes in the information environment have required innovation in reference services, however the relationship between reference and information literacy instruction it could be argued is more important than ever. Mediation is still necessary to facilitate information literacy skill development which students can take with them in future independent research.






    • #1172
      Georgia Pardey

      Hi Bronwyn.

      I agree with what you wrote about the decentralisation of reference services. Drawing on another comment from Frank Menchaca, the measurement of the effectiveness of modern reference services should be reconsidered since the delivery of reference services has evolved. Services such as simple, fast Ask a Librarian don’t have the same feedback loop as face to face interactions. If online reference services are popular at a particular library, then evaluative measures should be taken to ensure the service is as effective as in-library interactions. A reference librarian may not get to know the needs of a student to the same extent when there is only an email back and forth, rather than an in depth conversation. The evaluation of reference services must adapt alongside the delivery of these services.

      I enjoyed reading your insights, Bronwyn, and am now geared up to write my own trends reflection!

    • #1272

      I enjoyed your interesting reflection Bronyn and your perspective. I’m learning a great deal from reading accounts of this topic from the forum posts and agree with you that online and face to face reference work are complementary, sharing different roles. Short quick questions are well served by chat functions but longer and/or more complicated queries are better served by a conversation in person. I thought Georgia’s comment, that reference librarians may not get to know the needs of individual students when interaction occurs only via email, was interesting – as we become more and more able to complete tasks online we can spend a lot less time interacting with each other and much can be lost along the way. I hope both services can be maintained into the future.

      Thanks for this well written account of the topic.


    • #1426
      Leena Riethmuller

      Thank you for your trends reflection on information literacy an academic libraries, Bronwyn. It’s so important to understand historical contexts in order to get a better idea of why people think what they do today. I have encountered many a person who thinks being a librarian is about contacting books and shooshing people. I correct them, of course!

      I am constantly amazed by the way libraries continue to adapt and reshape alongside technology. The role of reference librarians in particular interests me because I think they are the guide between the information and the information seeker. As you explained, there is so much about what they do that Google can’t. I think part of the reason old fashioned perceptions of librarians and libraries exist is because people may not be aware how much information actually exists. It makes sense that as there is a growing  amount of information available, it is very important to have information experts around to search it. Anyone can find information, but not everyone can find the best, most accurate and most helpful information.

      You mentioned that there is some contention about who should be responsible for teaching Information Literacy. Do you have an opinion on whether it should be taught or embedded in the content, or something else?

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