Reference desk interactions: Helping “library users” versus helping “information creators”

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I was writing a book chapter on the contextual implications of creating information the other day (shameless plug) when I briefly got stuck. As part of the chapter, I was trying to suggest some practical uses for the ideas that I was suggesting that could be applied not only to classroom teaching situations but also the type of teaching librarians often do through reference and other services as well. How can we teach students about their roles as information creators in the relatively brief interactions we have with them through reference?

I’m still kind of mulling this over but after some mental wandering, I did hit on an idea that I think is relevant, though not necessarily practical. It hit me that teaching students to think of themselves as information creators is less about what we say to them and more about how we approach our interactions with them.

More often than not, I find that when a student or other patron approaches me at the reference desk or through our virtual chat service, I primarily think of them as a “library user.” Which means that I view my own role as, essentially, helping them use the library and its resources. In other words, they have an information need. My job is to help them meet that need, ideally through the use of the library’s services and collections.

And that’s fine. Using library resources to meet an information need happens to be an area of expertise for me. I’m happy to share that expertise and help minimize the confusion and frustration people often feel when they need to navigate those resources themselves as part of their research. Maybe they’ll even start to see the library as a valuable component of their information-seeking activities, if they don’t already.

But there’s also something limited and unsatisfying about this. When you view your patron primarily as a “library user,” that means that what you do is largely mechanical. It’s about helping the user choose the right keywords or showing them how to use the right filters to get the search results they need. It’s about teaching them to tell the difference between a book review in a peer-reviewed journal and a research article. This is important stuff, but does it have a lasting impact?

I wonder what kind of difference it would make if we shifted our thinking. If instead of viewing our students and other patrons as “library users,” we started thinking of them as “information creators.”

Because that, essentially, is what they are. The research we are helping them do is going to lead to an information creation of some kind, whether it’s a research paper for a class or a scholarly article or a news article or a blog post or something else.

The difference here is subtle but important. When you think of a patron as a library user, your goal as a reference librarian is to help them use the library better. But when you think of them as an information creator, your goal is to help them create better information.

To be sure, even if we shift our thinking in this way, we’ll still be spending a lot of time showing students how to choose keywords and filter the results in a database. But where before we might have been doing this so to help them become better at using library databases to find what they need, now we might think of it as a way to help them find higher quality information to enhance the quality of the information they are creating themselves. And also to follow the conventions of a particular research context, an important skill for any information creator.

For information literacy instructors, this shift is already starting to happen in the classroom. The Standards represented a form of information literacy that was very much about helping students become better library users (under the belief that library research skills would then be transferable to other research contexts, which they pretty much weren’t). The Framework moves us past information literacy as bibliographic instruction, in part by acknowledging the learner’s role as an information creator and making that an important component of what information literacy is.

I’m not sure if reference is quite there yet. Which is to say, there are some very talented and passionate reference librarians out there who do much more than show students and other users the simple mechanics of searching databases. The reference desk very much is their classroom. And there are probably more who would argue that thinking of our reference-related work as anything other than helping researchers use the library to meet their needs is an unnecessary complication.

But I think that we would all agree that we want our users to think of the library and its services as valuable. Teaching those who come to us for help with their research to use the library is valuable but only in the short term. Teaching them how to create high quality information, perhaps using the library’s tools and resources to do so, is likely to have a much larger impact that will last much longer.

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