Alchemical Thoughts

Article Note: On Librarian Office Hours

Posted on: October 7, 2009

I am posting this here because it seems Blogger is having another one of its "I am not working" days. I need to seriously consider moving my main blog someplace else. Unfortunately, here is not really an option since they restrict comments to registered users, something I dislike. Anyhow, here is the post.

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Citation for the article:

Avery, Susan, Jim Hahn, and Melissa Zilic, "Beyond Consultation: A New Model for Librarian's Office Hours." Public Services Quarterly 43.3 (2008): 187-206.

Read via Interlibrary Loan.

This article looks at the Librarian's Office Hours program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. According to the article, the service was established in 2005, and it is described as a "once a week, two- hour session during which students were welcome to drop in at any time" (189). It is also described as a hybrid of reference and instruction services; the service takes place in their instruction classroom. The service is staffed by graduate assistants, which initially made me wonder if there was some not so true advertising going on; a service of librarian office hours not performed by actual librarians? Then again, this is taking place at a large campus with a library school where it is common to have LIS students perform services like this. In that context, it should work. Here, on the other hand, students pretty much come by the reference desk, where they will find an actual reference librarian except for the first two or three hours of the day, when we have a graduate student reference assistant. Or students can pretty much find a librarian on the spot. We are fairly accessible overall. Still, this article was worth a look for me.

The literature review provides as summary of other library services: term paper consultations, departmental office hours, and the Brandeis Model. They also provide a summary of practices they have done at UIUC.

As I often do, let me make some notes and comments:

  • As you plan and decide to move on to a new model in your services, something to keep in mind: "The time that library staff invests in the provision of services beyond the instruction classroom and reference desk needs to be carefully considered in the development of any new service model" (195). And yet, this is often not considered by the administrators.
  • Marketing is still very important: "Key to the success of the implementation of any new program in the library is garnering student awareness and interest and appropriate marketing must be employed to do so" (197).
  • While they do suggest using a library's PA system for announcements of the service on the spot, for us that would be out of the question. This is due to certain restrictions from our facilities people that pretty much tell us we can't use the library PA system other than to announce when the library is closing for the day and emergencies. I have an opinion on that short sighted rule, but I will keep it to myself for now.
  • We could probably schedule our instruction room for a similar service in theory. In practice, since the space is shared with at least two other campus agencies (instructional design, which works on training faculty, and campus interactive television), in practice this would likely not work out. It is important to note that, just like they do at UIUC, when the space is for the librarian office hours, the space is only for students requiring assistance. In other words, it is not an open computer lab (that's what the library's lab and the campus labs are for). It is for students that need research assistance.
  • An advantage according to the article: "Librarian's Office Hours have an advantage over the typical reference desk because there is additional time for interaction and a separate space for learning. We can walk through steps as we would for a library instruction class, but use the student's assignment topic instead of an example" (200). Also, this service goes beyond just finding research sources, but it provides help with the next steps as well: finding the sources in different places (i.e. where are those sources, what database is appropriate? can I or should I use the Internet, namely a search engine?), evaluating the sources, and even help with citation formats. I will add that librarians can be ambivalent on the helping with citations issue. Some, including colleagues here, think that is something a place like a campus Writing Lab should do. I tend to think we should be able to provide that help as well as the Writing Lab. After all, we are the information experts: we should know how to find and deal with the information as well as presenting it. It's part of information literacy.
  • A stage in research I have often helped students with: the dip. "Being in the dip has been identified as occuring after the student has collected sources but before the student has found the confidence of a focus in their approach to the topic" (201). In other words, this is the "I have all these sources on a topic, what do I do now with them?" stage. Well, one thing I try to do with students is to get them to see the patterns in the information they are finding.
  • And going along with "the dip," I do conduct a reference interview as needed. Sometimes all they need is to have someone ask them some questions and let them bounce ideas. The article authors write, in more words: "In the course of the reference interview, by offering the student a chance to talk about their research problem, the student has had sufficient opportunity to come to a new understanding of their topic. Synthesizing two different sources verbally to another person is sometimes all a student needs to break through the research dip" (201).
  • Here is probably why the service is tended to by graduate students: "Office hours are intentionally scheduled during some of the busiest times in the library with a late afternoon and evening session. These sessions are held early in the week when more students tend to use the library" (202). Now I am not being light about this, but let us be honest, larger libraries will often staff their late hours with graduate students. This is pretty much common practice, and it is a way for those future librarians to get some experience (on the assumption the large school has a library school with it). I know because I did my share of those hours at the reference desk at one time or another. Now try getting a degreed librarian to cover some of those times, and you may get some groaning; especially at the large school where they may have faculty status, then they sound like the senior professor being asked to teach an introductory class. You get the idea. But yes, you do have to schedule the service when it is going to be used. Personally, I tend to like working reference some evenings. It can be quieter, and there are no administrative interruptions (since the bosses left for the day). It means I can interact more with students for one. And I do like doing the basic classes; I don't do enough of them these days. I do like my graduate students as well; for one, they are often better behaved. Anyhow, just a thought.
  • And this is something I, as an Instruction Librarian, have pretty much known since I started doing this for a living: "students who remain after a library instruction class to ask their composition instructors questions give librarians an opportunity to hear the types of issues and concerns students have and the interaction between student and teacher" (204). I just do it because I want to be helpful, but as the authors point out, you can also do it to help further promote the office hours service.
  • A challenge, or why a good librarian should be a good generalist (at least if you work on the front lines): ". . .this can create some challenges for those staffing the service in that they need to be prepared to handle a multitude of questions in a wide range of disciplines" (205). Having said that, those staffing also need the freedom to refer the question to a specialist if necessary. You may be a good generalist, and you may know where to find information in just about any tool, but there are still the moments when referring someone to the specialist is an acceptable answer.

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