Why Johnny Can’t Research

According to the Association of Research Libraries, the number of face to face reference transactions declined by more than half between 1995 and 2006 (1995 Average – 210016.76; 2006 average – 90522.1226). This trend is generally blamed on the expansion of electronic resources during that time and a shift away from traditional print reference tools. But don’t people who are using electronic reference tools need help using them? Is using Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature in print that much more difficult than using the electronic version? And was the purpose of the Reference Desk simply to instruct people how to use the print indexes to do their research? Isn’t there more to the job than that? Aren’t the reference librarians there to help with research? Shouldn’t the kind of questions that made up reference transactions still need to be answered? With the explosion of information, shouldn’t people need even more assistance developing their research strategies?

I believe that the students and faculty really do need our help, but for some reason they are not using our reference services. Stephen Francoeur lists some reasons why students may not ask for help in his post Why don’t our students ask for help? Interestingly, all of the 8 reasons listed could be addressed through better marketing of the reference services:

  • They don’t want to ask a “dumb question” or appear incapable of doing the research themselves.
  • Libraries and research make them anxious.
  • They don’t know they need help.
  • They’re overconfident.
  • They really don’t need our help.
  • They forget that reference services exist.
  • They don’t know that reference services exist.
  • They had a bad reference experience elsewhere that turned them off the service.

If students don’t know or can’t recall that reference services exist, then clearly the word is not getting out. Since students (and faculty) do need our help, we clearly aren’t communicating or demonstrating the value of our services very well if they still believe that they don’t.

One thing that is missing from Stephen’s list is the librarians themselves. All of the reasons listed talk about what the students do or don’t do, but to solve the problem of anxious students, librarians have to do a better job of making the students feel welcome and comfortable asking whatever questions they have. And bad experiences (elsewhere of course, because they never happen here) can only be countered by ensuring that all the experience that students have dealing with the library are good experiences.

During the most recent ALA Midwinter Conference in Philadelphia, I angered 2 colleagues of mine when I suggested that the number of reference transactions is falling is because we aren’t doing a very good job. If we were doing a good job, people would be lining up to use our services. The best marketing tool is the satisfied user. I believe that students need the help of professionals who can help them formulate a research strategy and execute it. When reference statistics go down, it means that fewer people are getting the help that they need. And if that is the case, then libraries are definitely not performing their job very well.