Running Head: REFERENCE TRANSACTIONS IN A HIGH SCHOOL LIBRARY 1 Reference Transactions in a High School Library Staci M. Novak Emporia State University
Running Head: REFERENCE TRANSACTIONS IN A HIGH SCHOOL LIBRARY 2 Reference Transactions in a High School Library When I was a high school student in Iowa I remember walking into my high schoollibrary and being immediately greeted by both the sunshine coming through the windows and abright face telling me, “Good morning!” It was a welcoming environment where a student couldgo to do research, read a book, or simply spend time. My classmates and I knew that if we hadquestions the librarians were more than willing to help us not only find the physical location ofitems but also give us a jumpstart in researching our topics. The library in which I observed hadseveral of these factors but during my observation I did not, according to Jones (2009), see thehighest level of mentoring nor relationship building occur during the reference process. My observation took place February 10th and February 12th from 9:30 a.m. until 11:00a.m. both days. I chose these days and times specifically because I knew that a senior Englishclass would be conducting career-related research. This high school library is very openspatially with many windows to allow in natural light. There is a large area with tablesconducive to student work as well as a horseshoe of computers. When you enter the library, thelibrarians’ desks are up against the wall next to the long checkout counter. Both librarians havecomputers at their desks and have their backs facing the books, tables, and computers. I thinkthis creates an environment that is unwelcoming and not advantageous to students who wish toask questions. Not once during my three hours of observation did a student approach their desksto solicit assistance. As previously mentioned, the students in the senior English class were researchingcareers. While many of these books were not found in the reference section the librarians hadcollaborated with the teacher and had books pulled for them. These were set on a table withinthe reference section. Students could easily access these books but many of the other books were
Running Head: REFERENCE TRANSACTIONS IN A HIGH SCHOOL LIBRARY 3located behind the librarians’ desks and I assumed students must ask for assistance beforeobtaining them. When I presented this question to one of the librarians she clarified that thestudents were welcome to browse and use the materials as needed. With the exception of the twoor three students searching for materials in relation to their respective careers, I did not observeany students or any activities in the reference area. During my time in the library I witnessed several transactions. Each transaction beganwith the librarian getting up from her desk after noticing a student lingering or browsing throughthe books. She said that her personal style and preference is that if the students need assistancethey can come to her. She doesn’t like to hover around them because she doesn’t want to seemlike a pushy saleswoman. Only if she notices that they seem lost will she approach them first. Ithink how an information professional goes about beginning an interview is a matter of personalpreference; however, in dealing with high school aged students, establishing rapport and creatingpositive relationships is essential to effectively diagnose the information need (Jones, 2009,p.78). One of the first interviews I observed was that of a young lady looking for books aboutnursing. She told the librarian what she was searching for, and without responding, the librarianpulled a book from a shelf and began looking in the index. She showed the student what she wasdoing but didn’t explain how to use the index. When they found the section of the book thelibrarian asked, “So you want to be an RN?” The student said she wasn’t sure, so the librarianused her background knowledge to explain what an RN was and what they did. The girl clarifiedsomewhat by saying she wanted to work in a hospital specifically. The librarian said, “So youwant to be a surgical nurse?” The student again said that she didn’t really know what that was.The librarian looked through a few more books and said that the other students were using most
Running Head: REFERENCE TRANSACTIONS IN A HIGH SCHOOL LIBRARY 4of the medical books, so she should go and check with them. The girl gave a sigh of frustrationand simply walked away. As the student left, the librarian turned to me and said, “I don’t thinkshe had any idea what she wanted.” This statement struck a chord with me because it is thecentral concept of what we do as information professionals. According to Grover and Carabell(1995), “information professionals may become frustrated when their clients are unable toarticulate their needs, yet clients should not be expected to know what to ask” (p.2). This isespecially true when dealing with a younger clientele. Librarians that deal with students need todo more than simply retrieve a source or show a student where those sources are located, andthey must also remember that many “Lack both the cognitive structure and the experienceneeded to evaluate and synthesize the information they find into something meaningful” (Cassell& Hiremath, 2009, p.308). During the interview the information professional used closed questions that elicited only“yes” or “no” responses and limited the response of the student. When the student said shewasn’t sure if she wanted to be a surgical nurse, the librarian could have asked her to explainwhat it was she wanted to do as a nurse. Because of the questioning technique, I felt that thediagnosis of the service cycle was unsuccessful and not user-centered. According to Dervin andDewdney (1986), “If the librarian uses communication techniques that are not addressed to theuser’s key, the resulting interview may be ineffective” (p.510). I also felt the prescription wasunsuccessful. Instead of telling her to ask the other students the librarian could have found othersources for her to use or went with her to look for the other medical books. In other words, herresolution did not meet the needs of the user and the appropriate sources were obviously notfound for her.
Running Head: REFERENCE TRANSACTIONS IN A HIGH SCHOOL LIBRARY 5 During this transaction nonverbal communication was apparent, especially that of thelibrarian sitting at her desk with her back to them. “The librarian can also look approachable byroving through the reference area…[because] many users may not be comfortable initiating aconversation with a librarian when they need help” (Cassell & Hiremath, 2009, p.18). Had thelibrarian been moving around the student with the nursing question may have felt morecomfortable asking for help and her presence may have also facilitated more questions fromother students in need of assistance. The last reference interview I witnessed was much different from this one. The librarianwas already up working with students when a boy approached her with a question. His questionwas much more specific than the nursing student. He told her he wanted to be an automotivetuner. The librarian said, “Okay, let’s see what we can find under automotive.” When shesearched and couldn’t find anything she said, “You know I’m not really sure about this subject.What else can you tell me about it?” The boy went into more detail about the profession and thelibrarian gave him a book on the auto industry. She asked him if that would apply. He lookedthrough it and said yes. She then asked if the book would be helpful. The student seemed pleasewith her selection in that he said yes, thanked her, and walked away. I felt this transaction was a much better example of what a reference interview issupposed to look like. She began with an open question to get a better understanding of what theprofession was. Since she already knows why they are researching and what they are going to dowith the information, I felt the open-ended question was appropriate in place of a neutral one.Towards the end of the interview she moved to closed questions in order to evaluate thediagnosis and bring the transaction to a close.
Running Head: REFERENCE TRANSACTIONS IN A HIGH SCHOOL LIBRARY 6 The nonverbal communication in this interview was also much more positive. To makesure the student had what he needed she stayed close to the reference section and shelved severalbooks. A few minutes later he returned for more information. The information professionalasked, “Did you find what you were looking for?” The boy said that he had not. She lookedthrough a few other books and handed him one. “Did you look at this one yet?” He pagedthrough it and replied that he hadn’t but that it looked promising and he sat back down. In this case, she made herself more available to her users and I think his positiveexperience with her made him more likely to return, unlike the previous transaction. When theboy was explaining the topic she maintained eye contact and nodded to demonstrateunderstanding. Her nonverbal communication told him that she was willing to help him andlisten to his information gap. During both reference interviews I also noticed two different types of closure. In my firstobservation of the girl looking for information on nursing, the librarian employed a strategy ofnegative closure. The librarian made it obvious to the student that her search had ended whenshe told her all of the books on that topic were already being used and that she should check withthe other students. Of the ten negative closure strategies described in Ross and Dewdney (1998),this falls under the eighth when “the librarian states explicitly that the search has reached a deadend” (p.756). In the other observation I didn’t really feel as though the closure was negativebecause she asked him both times if the source would work for him. However, I feel that theclosure could have been improved with a follow up question such as, “If that turns out not to bewhat you’re looking for, make sure you come back and we’ll look for something else.” When I walked into the library to complete my observations I expected to walk into myhigh school memories of sunshine and smiles, which was in part what I observed. I think the
Running Head: REFERENCE TRANSACTIONS IN A HIGH SCHOOL LIBRARY 7information professionals in this library truly want to be helpful to our students but I wassurprised by the way in which this was done. It is no secret that library science is movingtowards a more user-centered perspective but it seems as though our librarians are still in the oldmindset of librarian rather than user-centered techniques. A library should be a place wherestudents feel welcome and a place they can find information. For this to occur, a librarian mustutilize the best tactics in conducting reference interviews.
Running Head: REFERENCE TRANSACTIONS IN A HIGH SCHOOL LIBRARY 8 ReferencesCassell, K. A., & Hiremath, U. (2009). Reference and information service in the 21st century (2nd ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.Dervin, D., & Dewdney, P. (1986). Neutral questioning: A new approach to the reference interview. RQ, 25(4), 506-513.Grover, R., & Carabell, J. (1995). Toward better information service: Diagnosing information needs. Special Libraries, 86(1), 1-10.Jones, J. (2009). Dropout prevention through the school library: Dispositions, relationships, and instructional practices. School Libraries Worldwide, 15(2), 77-90.Ross, C.S., & Dewdney, P. (1998). Negative closure: Strategies and counterstrategies in the reference transaction. Reference and User Services Quarterly, 38(2), 151-163.