[Libs-Or] does Oregon need reference librarians?

Brzozowski, Bonnie Bonnie.Brzozowski at corvallisoregon.gov
Wed Oct 3 16:37:29 PDT 2012

Being a Reference Librarian and having taught reference to graduate students at a library/info school makes it hard for me not to weigh in as I can say with certainty that my primary job function is not dead.  I am regularly instructing people on how to best pose their query to a database or an internet search engine, explaining the nature of information (how it is collected, used, made available), and making clear the processes behind finding accurate information quickly and efficiently.

It has changed a lot in the short time I've been a professional Reference Librarian (5 years; I agree w/ another responder that ready reference is pretty much dead), but I found my reference course at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to be incredibly valuable (it was required at the time; I graduated in 2007) - I learned about and had to use tons of resources I had never used before and I learned a lot about the importance of the reference interview.  On the job and by working with other more experienced librarians is how I learned the bulk of my practical skills, but the foundation was laid by my reference class.

I had the unique experience of teaching the graduate level reference course for the University of Texas' Information School in Spring 2011 (it is not a required course there).  It was incredibly challenging to figure out what to teach and how to approach it, but I incorporated some real reference question answering (students answered four questions each for the ipl2) and I included an assignment that had students evaluate their experiences asking questions of librarians in a virtual and real-world context.  I was concerned that the latter assignment wouldn't work out so well, but, after our class discussion, it was clear the students were thinking very critically about the reference interview as a good number of them were dissatisfied with the reference services they received in those contexts.  The ipl2 answers I graded very critically - I often had to figure out how to answer them myself before I would grade them.  I provided lengthy comments to the students about the sources chosen to answer the questions, whether or not they had interpreted correctly what was being asked, etc.  There were many instances where answers were unsatisfactory, sources provided were not credible, or the answer was just flat out wrong.   Some of the questions asked on ipl2 are pretty challenging as a number of questioners have exhausted Google and do not know where else to turn.  While the students were already pretty information literate, I did find that I had to go over what made a credible reference source on many occasions.

I did emphasize the reference interview in the class I taught as I do not think it should be underestimated.  Google and other search engines cannot put a question into context; that's the value of a good reference librarian.  We are capable of fully understanding where a patron's been in a search, where they want to go, and why they're trying to get there - something a search engine cannot do.  I emphasized what sets a reference librarian's service apart from just Googling something.  The student evaluations were overwhelmingly positive and I think being a practicing librarian and constantly telling them about questions and other things I handled on the reference desk every day was very enlightening to them.

I think it'd be great if practicing professionals could have more of a hand in educating library students on reference services.  The established reference librarians I met at my first job that had been doing reference before Google was a thing, taught me so much and I worry about losing their amazing knowledge when they retire.  Having taught, though, I must say that the time commitment is no joke.  I worked 10-20 hours a week on that class in addition to my 40 hour workweek.  I was invited back for Spring 2012, but I declined before I even knew I was moving to Oregon to accept a new position as I just can't handle that kind of working life (I do love me some free time!).  It'd be really great if a college/university would consider allowing a team of reference librarians to teach a course like that.

Here's an analysis of the class I taught from the Hack Library School blog: http://hacklibschool.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/declassified-reference/ (a former student compares it to the same course offered at Indiana; best quote: "I love, love, love that this course was taught by a working librarian; in fact, this course is offered in other semesters and is taught by a well-respected professor but I decided to go for something different." :) )

Here's a link to the full syllabus: http://www.bonniesue.net/documents/syllabus_bb.pdf


Bonnie Brzozowski
Reference Librarian/
Interlibrary Loan Coordinator

Corvallis-Benton County Public Library
645 NW Monroe Avenue
Corvallis, OR 97330
(541) 766-6965
bonnie.brzozowski at corvallisoregon.gov<mailto:bonnie.brzozowski at corvallisoregon.gov>

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