More specifically, I’m thinking about how I answer reference questions. The analogy I’ve always used is about teaching someone how to catch fish versus giving them a fish right now. It’s rare that I just answer questions at the reference desk, especially when the asker is a student. Instead, I escort the student over to one of our public computers and walk them through the process of figuring it out for themselves. I make them work for it because I believe that working for it means they’ll eventually be able to answer questions for themselves.
My thinking on this is definitely evolving, so I’d love to get your input. For the librarians (degreed or otherwise) in my reading audience, how do you handle it? Further: does your library have an official stance on how to handle reference desk interactions? For the library science students, what have your professors had to say on the subject?
These are some interesting questions/thoughts. At our reference desk, the questions usually take the form of ‘how do I…’ or ‘where can I find…’, which lend themselves fairly readily to the teach-them-to-fish approach, though of course there are certain patrons who just want us to provide information (e.g. a call number) that they could get themselves but they don’t want to.
Our email questions are much more likely to demand an answer, but I think most of us do provide information about how we located the resources we provide in our response. Some of my favorite questions have been ones where the patron asks ‘how do I research this?’—those are fun to answer. :)
Many of my patrons are really busy, really afraid of technology, or have a really weak educational background. I try to gauge through questions whether they are interested in learning how I am finding the answer, or just need a quick information fix.
For instance, I had a (senior citizen) lady recently who wanted to see a few verses on the Bible in the NKJV. For whatever reason, we don’t have much in the way of Bibles, and so I asked, “How do you feel about the Internet?” and then, when she said she could do some things on the Web, I walked her through a free website that lets you compare translations. She was a good candidate for being empowered to answer her own questions.
Sometimes that’s not the case. The harried mom with four kids in tow, the caller who sounds a million years old and just wants to know when the library closes — I can give them a good experience with the library so that they can come back with more in-depth questions later, but I don’t try to teach them every time. (Even if I really wish the latter would learn to look at our website!)
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