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Volume 45, Number 1

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The Thirty Second Lesson

by Jane Schillie

Recognizing that libraries are favorably positioned to advance information literacy education, administrators have been focusing considerable attention on library instruction sessions that take place in classroom settings. The University Libraries at Virginia Tech, like many academic libraries, document the nature of instructional sessions, recording the number of sessions taught and the number of students in attendance. These statistics, though proudly stated in annual reports, only show part of the instructional picture. They do not account for the significant amount of individualized instruction provided by reference librarians at the University Libraries' various reference desks during a typical day.

In an effort to verify that numerous one-on-one instruction sessions take place throughout the course of an average day, User Services staff members conducted an informal, day-long survey on March 25, 1998. Each staff member recorded the questions patrons asked on index cards, writing down exactly what was said when possible. Staff members also described the actions they took to assist the patron. Shortly after the transaction was completed, staff members used pre-established criteria to code the types of transactions that took place. Five categories were used to classify transactions: instruction, location, procedures, reference and technical(Figure 1).

The categories used to classify transactions were selected by reference librarians after studying the results of a similar survey conducted in the fall of 1997. The earlier survey categorized questions as either reference, location, procedures, record interpretation, or technical transactions, but did not specify any criteria for the categories. Without guidelines, the determination of which category a transaction fit into, especially if it was instructional in nature, was rather haphazard. To ensure that the Spring survey more accurately reflected transactions that typically occur at reference desks, the decision was made to amend the categories and specify criteria for each. A discussion of the criteria clarified the types of questions that fit each category and highlighted the distinction between reference and instruction transactions. Charles (Buddy) Litchfield, Science Reference Librarian, recommended a separate category for instructional activities: "I thought that it was important that we recognize, and be given credit for, the educational instruction that occurs at the reference help desks. While we all keep track of the number of training classes we teach, and how many students are in each, very little recognition is given to the significant number of students receiving library instruction "on the fly" at the reference desks." Those participating in the survey agreed to classify a transaction requiring an answer as reference, whereas a transaction involving teaching would be designated instruction. The instruction category also incorporated transactions that involved record interpretation.

After the survey was completed, Litchfield checked the index cards to make sure each transaction was coded correctly. He changed only a very small percent of the designations, finding most transactions classified correctly. Litchfield tabulated the data and prepared spreadsheets and graphs (Figure 2) to illustrate the survey's findings. Five of the seven desks reported that more than one-fifth of all transactions involved instructional activities: 24% at Newman Library's Humanities/Social Sciences Reference Desk, 24.47% at Newman's Science Reference Desk, and 32.26%, 22.29% and 30.67%, respectively, at the branch libraries for Veterinary Medicine, Art and Architecture, and the Northern Virginia Center. In all, the seven desks participating in the survey recorded 766 transactions with 168, or 21.93%, categorized as instruction.

The survey indicated that one-on-one instruction is a prominent activity. "This type of teaching is very important, in that it is 'point of need' instruction, where students have defined goals regarding information needs, and for the most part are receptive to the instruction being given. The quality of instruction given, in the context of a reference interview, can be crucial to their success or failure in finding the information they seek," Litchfield said.

Librarians providing instruction at the reference desk often have only 30 seconds to impart the same amount of knowledge covered in a 50 minute class period. Not only must they teach needed skills in a very limited amount of time, they must do so without the luxury of having time to plan the most effective way to teach competencies or the benefit of knowing a student's requirements in advance. Making the thirty second lesson worthwhile requires reference librarians to have a wide range of talents including the ability to teach. "To me, the role of librarian is changing dramatically, especially in the academic library, " Litchfield reflected. "The different types of instruction now given at the reference desk take on even more significance as the availability of information resources becomes more complex. The opportunity to provide needed instruction to the students, at a time when they need it most, should be viewed as an important activity that contributes to their overall educational experience."

[For more information ,please contact Jane Schillie or Buddy Litchfield at the University Libraries, P.O. Box 90001, Blacksburg, VA 24062.]

Figure 1

University Libraries - Virginia Tech

For the reference desk survey on Wednesday, March 25, please mark each index card you fill out with one of the following five categories. Record the nature of each transaction that you have with a patron being as detailed as possible with your descriptions of what library users ask, and what you actually end up doing for them.

I -- for INSTRUCTION -- include in this category instruction given for a "How do I use" question. Databases, such as VTLS, MLA, ERIC, et c. as well as ILL and document delivery forms, and searching the Internet, could fall into this category. Also include questions dealing with VTLS interpretation, call number and stacks explanations, searching in the shelving rooms, and questions about bound and unbound journals.

L -- for LOCATION -- this category is for very simple, straight-forward directional questions. If a patron asks the whereabouts of the current journals, or where are the history books, and it turns into an INSTRUCTION or REFERENCE situation, then don't record the transaction in this category.

P -- for PROCEDURES -- use this category for questions involving Library Policies, such as "How many books can I check out?" Requests for borrowing a pencil, stapler, hole punch, tape, etc., can also stay in this category, as well as handing out CDs, when the person needs no instructional help.

R -- for REFERENCE -- this category should be used for the more "traditional" reference activities, such as finding specific information, using various reference tools, or conducting an "interview" with a patron in order to best help them to get started on a research project. This last activity may be a "gray" area, because it almost always includes some instructional activities, too. Just use your best judgment, and maybe count the first encounter with the patron as REFERENCE, and subsequent interactions as INSTRUCTION, LOCATION, PROCEDURES, et c.

T -- for TECHNICAL -- use this code for equipment and access problems such as paper jams in printers, disc stuck in PC, can't access a CD, database is down, workstation will not reboot, etc.

Jane Schillie is College Librarian for the Social Sciences at Virginia Tech. (540)231-4118 Fax (540)231-3694

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