Wednesday, April 21, 2010

On Ubiquitous Instruction

David Michalski
Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian
University of California, Davis

Unlike our counterparts in the bookstores, corporate libraries and even some public libraries, education is central to our mission in the research university. The social promise of the university is to improve the society that supports it by making its members more knowledgeable, more inventive, more skilled, and wiser. As librarians we have a unique role in this mission. Our instruction differs from that of the lecturer or professor. Our teaching is at its core dialogical. Our pedagogy is based on a certain art of conversation.

There is no shortage of studies in the library literature on the “reference interview” or “reference transaction” as it is often called. The reference process has been meticulously analyzed by information scientists and planners who seek to break it into bits in the effort to locate the kernel, or coin of value passed from the librarian to the patron. The interview, however, is not like a vending machine. The student cannot simply pay for information and walk away. Our practice is better understood as a diagnostic one, one that assesses both the interpersonal and social context of each project, and leads to decisions, which attempt to enable not only access, but the incrementally improved ability of the patron to take possession of library as a tool and field in their quest to reorganize information as knowledge.

Librarians, who imagine their role reduced to the mechanics of information delivery, are often left with a sense of purposelessness. A symptom of this lack arises in the current anxiety about the future. It surfaces in a discourse that depicts a contemporary competition between the librarian and the machine. Such questions about the future, dismiss the historic impact librarians and scholars have had on information technology since the profession began. Librarians have had prominent roles working to marshal the efficiencies of technology in the service of our core values. Today, we must reaffirm these efforts by translating our values and pedagogic mission into the info-space of the digital environment, not positioning our values against the digital realm. In part, this means imbuing our machines with the conversational and dialogic skills nurtured by our human practice. We ought to ask: How can people leaving library interaction (whether online or in person) be better prepared to discover and understand the information environment? How can our tools, websites and our people, not only provide easy access to known documents, but teach discovery techniques and the diverse ways in which information is organized? As heuristic devices, how can our tools train better researchers? It is no more appropriate for a search engine or catalog to simply churn out singular responses to a question than it is for a reference librarian to act simply as a medium for the exchange of information. Our exchanges must be value-added. Our catalogs and search tools must facilitate the construction of better formed questions and more sophisticated thinking. It is not an easy task to develop such tools and sites, and it is made even more difficult by a growing gap between search tool designers and librarians, but it is our professional charge and it is worth the effort.

One alarming consequence of treating our tools as simply location devices is the impact this outlook has on our own service roles. When the digital reference experience is diminished to a mechanical transaction, our own interviewing, listening and questioning skills tend to atrophy. Without use ours skills can be forgotten, and as I mentioned in a previous post, our disconnection can make us lose track of our public. With so many databases marketed as automatic, simple and direct we can be tempted to forgo the hard work education demands. We can forget that even our most powerful tools for indexing information are inadequate surrogates for teaching the social life of information. In exchange for expediency and mass capacity they can treat Works as the inert products of remote labor, as objects detached from authors and readers alike, as removed from cause or argument. We ought not to replicate this disregard.

Undoubtedly, the disintermediation of the information world has positively transformed the way knowledge is distributed and produced. Information seekers have more direct access to information providers and the mundane middling tasks of the librarian have largely evaporated. The trend towards disintermediation, however, does not dissipate the mediation of the intellect, which takes form in the course of learning. Technological immediacy does not substitute for the work of critical thinking. In the best instances it may support it, but in the worst instances it can disguise its necessity.

One of the foremost roles of the reference librarian has always been to persuade the patron to think out-loud, to state and restate, to read and question, and to read, write and return with a deeper understanding. Unnecessary difficulties and formalities can not be tolerated, but where information is complex, it can not be represented as falsely simple. Instead, we ought to help our students acquire the skills appropriate to the challenges their projects face. At each stage, helping them see a little bit more by encouraging a deeper engagement with their topics.

Even when patrons come in demanding immediate results, my colleagues and I have discovered creative ways to widen their bibliographic imagination. I’ve met thousands of students over the years and no one approach can be applied uniformly. Not one reference conversation is the same as the next. Each takes on its own shape. Sometimes I am unsuccessful in my application of, what I like to call, ubiquitous non-invasive reference instruction. Some students cannot be bothered, sometime I become impatient, but with each encounter I try to improve. I try to learn more about the public I serve, and find better ways of providing the unique service reference librarians at a research university can provide. These include new ways of fostering critical thinking, information literacy, and new ways of expanding the potential of our collections.

By practicing and honing our unique form of pedagogy, in formal library classes, in the design of our online tools, and in our everyday interactions with our public we can renew our sense of purpose and positively support the educational mission of our university.

The Qualitative Place of the Reference Desk Today

From General Reference to Subject Specialty


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