SCLA 2011: Library Research Consultations: Who Benefits Most

Speakers: Allison Fairfax, Reference Coordinator, Coastal Carolina University
Amanda MacDonald, English Adjunct, CCU
Brooke Taxakis, Reference/Instruction, Campbell University

The speakers are hoping to publish their study in a peer-reviewed journal.  I don’t want to steal their professional thunder by blogging their study in detail before they have a chance to seek publication, so here’s a quick summary of their study & findings.

Their situation: Their college has been expanding rapidly, but they haven’t been able to hire more librarians to help their rapidly growing student population.  Because time has become an increasingly precious commodity for the librarians, they were looking for some help figuring out which student research appointment requests to prioritize during crunch times when they can’t fulfill every request.

They were inspired by a Reference & User Services Quarterly paper by Martin & Parks called “Reference Desk Consultation Assignment: An Exploratory Study of Students’ Perceptions of Reference Services”.  The librarians chose to conduct their study with an entry-level English Lit class for freshmen and a capstone class for Psychology seniors.

They wanted to find out if a library skills class alone constituted adequate training for the students, or did all students benefit more from access to one on one research consultations.  Their findings, essentially, were that the Psychology students benefited from the research consultations, but that the freshman in the entry-level English class saw a slight drop in the overall grade for their research paper.

The librarians and the English professor surmised that as a result of the research consultation, several factors worked against the freshmen.  The main issue seemed to be that the students had found more research than they really needed for their project.  They were so excited to share what they had found that they filled their  papers with quotes and missed the point of the assignment, which was to formulate their own opinion about a piece of literature.  The presenters pointed to some communication issues between students and faculty and between faculty themselves which might have lead to some of the problems.  For students in introductory-level courses, one general library skills overview class might be sufficient for students’ success.

The Q & A after the presentation:

Q: Did you think you were doing a bad design study?
A: Well, we’re comparing perception so the difference in discipline & class wasn’t as important.

Q: So everyone had a general instruction class?
A: Yes.

Q: Down the road, though, they’ll benefit from knowing how to gather better resources
A: Yes.

Q: Two questioners agreed that the students were overwhelmed
A: Yes, they just had so many resources there was no room for them to demonstrate that they understood what they were reading.  They do feel this was a helpful study for the librarians to know who to turn away given a lack of time to help everyone. They feel like it’s best to stress the reference desk’s place as where to go when you need help.

Q: He works in an embedding situation & they don’t do consultations, they tell people to go to the desk.

Q: This could be good for librarians to understand that we can be TOO helpful because we’re not serving their present NEED if we bury them in information overload.
A: Yes!

Q: What time during the semester was this done?
A: Toward the end.

Q: Did anyone come back twice?
A: Well, someone tried to say they’d been & hadn’t.  🙂  Even if they had time to go to more than one session, they’re as freshmen, not skilled enough to parse that much data & make that choice.  And of course some students don’t use their time wisely & cram papers in the night before.

Q: How often are faculty proactive about giving the librarians the assignment.
A: Librarians had the assignment, but yes, maybe they should have told all librarians about it.  (They didn’t because they didn’t want the librarians to all know the study was being done.)

Q: Was the teacher present during the general instuction?
A: Yes, they won’t do the session without the teacher present.

I thought that this study provides a great example of how we as librarians need to fully understand the scope of a patron’s reference question before we try to answer it.  We should be careful to do the best reference interview we can and tailor our search to the needs of the patron.  It’s important to strike a balance between making sure our users know we have more resources if they need them and giving them a case of information overload.

If you’d like more details about the study, I’m sure they’d be happy to hear from you!

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