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.


2 thoughts on “Why Johnny Can’t Research

  1. Ron, good point. I guess I kind of took it for granted that everyone reading my post would agree that all of us who work in libraries and have contact with users/patrons/members/students/visitors must provide the most positive experience possible. A student who had problems getting a fine paid at the circ desk may never want to approach our reference desk. A security guard at the turnstiles who gave someone a hard time about their ID card swiping abilities is not going to help us present a welcoming and helpful atmosphere.

    I have to admit that I’m not wholly convinced about our ability get students to line up to use our reference services based on word-of-mouth recommendations and better marketing. We need to find ways to overcome people’s natural habit to satisfice in their efforts at information seeking. In academia, one small way that we can address that is by finding ways to work more with faculty in other departments to help design assignments that are research driven and that include as part of the assessment a look at the quality of the sources used in the assignment.

  2. Thanks for the comment Stephen. I completely agree that we need to work with faculty to craft assignments that will give students the opportunity to develop their research skills.

    However, while we all may agree that everyone who works in the library should be providing positive experiences for our users, I don’t think we can all claim that we are all providing those positive experiences. The lines may be wishful thinking, but I believe that reference librarians can/should/do play an important role in helping people develop information seeking skills. And if people had positive experiences at the reference desk, the service would see a lot more use.

    Marketing won’t do any good if the service isn’t there to back it up. However, I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of word of mouth, which can drive people to your services or away from them.

    The bottom line is if we are doing a good job at our reference desks (and there is a need for reference desks – which I believe there is), then people will come to the reference desk.

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