Library Reference Scenario

for DLI2 Planning at Virginia Tech

Jane Schillie, College Librarian for the Social Sciences
June 4, 1998

As more and more traditional library materials become available in electronic and digitized formats, more and more people are relying on computers to meet their information needs. Anyone can type in a search request and instantly access thousands of web sites with an Internet search engine. Overwhelmed by the quantity of information retrieved and seduced by the glamour and convenience of searching the World Wide Web, few people make an effort to sift through the results and evaluate sites for credibility and reliability. While good information is available on the World Wide Web, more often than not what is retrieved is simply trash. Unfortunately, most undergraduates fail to distinguish between a study posted on a web site by a research institution and a research paper posted by a college freshman. All information is created equal, right?

For librarians, teaching students information discrimination is not a new task but it is one that has taken on increasing importance in the digital age. As books, journals, magazines, newspapers, reference sources, maps, photographs, videotapes, films, slides, art work and other materials traditionally found in libraries are digitized, librarians are uniquely positioned to provide the personalized research assistance, guidance and instruction students need but can’t find on the World Wide Web or computer help screens. Familiar with a wide array of information resources--both print and electronic, tangible and digital--and skilled at asking probing questions, reference librarians are adept at guiding patrons to useful information sources. Studies show that most people, when asking a librarian for assistance, do not initially ask the question they really want answered. (And most undergraduates do not even know what information they need!) It is by asking thoughtful questions, listening carefully, and analyzing and interpreting a patron’s response, that librarians discover a patron’s information need and are able to guide him/her to appropriate resources. Through this process, a trained information professional discovers, for example, that a student who requests assistance in finding information about the women’s movement really is interested in finding primary source material to help her analyze Gloria Steinem’s influence on the movement as the following scenario demonstrates:

Sarah approaches the reference desk while Jane Schillie, College Librarian for the Social Sciences, is on duty. She says she needs information about the women’s movement. Jane asks several questions and discovers that Sarah is really interested in researching and writing about Gloria Steinem. She wants to analyze Steinem’s writings and public appearances and evaluate Steinem’s impact on the movement. She admits she searched Alta Vista but became frustrated trying to sort through the results. Other than an interview with Steinem that appeared in Ms. magazine she didn’t find anything very useful. Jane pulls up Alta Vista, motions Sarah to the computer and asks Sarah to replicate her search. Sarah types in gloria steinem and retrieves 283,703 results. Jane suggests that she do a more precise search by typing in "Gloria Steinem." Four thousand results appear and they scan the first few titles. Sarah grimaces as she reads the title "Gloria Steinem Naked" but chortles when she sees "Gloria Steinem and Garbanzo Beans." She agrees to try something else. Jane directs Sarah to a web site that lists criteria for evaluating web sites then guides Sarah to the University Libraries’ subject contacts page for Women's Studies. The page provides links to web sites selected by Jane and leads Sarah to Feminist.Com where she finds Steinem's speeches in full-text. Next, Jane points out a television archive and the two work together to locate video and audio clips of Steinem. From there they head to the Ms. magazine web site and a treasure trove is discovered. Scanned images of Steinem and her personal correspondence are linked to the site. Thanking Jane for her time, Sarah heads off to work on her project. Several weeks later she sends Jane an email message containing a URL. Jane pulls up the site and smiles as she looks at Sarah's finished project. Hypertext links to the primary source documents are embedded, as are links to the electronic sources Sarah cited in her bibliography.

It is unlikely that even the most sophisticated search agent would understand the initial query as successfully as Jane would.
June 5, 1998 (GMc)

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