Friday, November 12, 2010

Article note: On being a renaissance librarian in academia

Citation for the article:

Smith, Debbi A., and Victor T. Oliva, "Becoming a Renaissance Reference Librarian in Academe: Attitudes Toward Generalist and Subject Specific Reference and Related Profession Development." Reference Services Review 38.1 (2010): 125-151.

Read via Emerald.

I mean renaissance in the sense of being a good generalist, not a Renaissance specialist. The main issue of the article is looking at how librarians may handle reference queries outside their specialized areas of expertise. A good reference librarian is pretty much a generalist, so how do these generalists deal with something a bit more specialized than the usual? And how do they train for such situations? That is what the article tries to answer.

Larger libraries usually have subject specialist librarians. Smaller libraries however have reference librarians who have to answer a broad range of questions, and they usually cannot just refer someone to a specialist. On these generalists, the authors of the article write, "reference librarians who can handle a vast range of reference questions become veritable renaissance librarians" (125). On a small side note, I wonder if we may be having a small dearth of good generalist librarians who can handle things like a solid reference interview due to the trends of "everything is online" and "let's all do librarianship via social media." No, I am not being facetious or cynical; it is not the first time I have pondered the question, and at least one of my colleagues has asked the same question as well. Maybe something to ponder for a future post.

The article seeks to learn about the attitudes of reference librarians when it comes to the service that generalists and specialists provide in terms of reference. This includes how they feel about any training options and opportunities. Thus the authors hope to provide some guidance in terms of prioritizing professional development opportunities related to reference services. Given extreme budget cuts, a lot of the training is likely to be on the cheap. The study reported in the article is based out of Adelphi University, where they have 12 full time library faculty members (librarians). They are described as follows:

". . . they are accustomed to broadening their intellectual horizons by cross training informally with each other and obtaining formal training from their colleagues and from outside sources. They attend conferences, obtain additional graduate degrees, take professional training classes, read professional literature, and engage in other formal and informal training practices" (126). 

According to the authors, they used that experience as the basis for their investigation of other academic librarians in other places. There is a good amount of stuff from that list that I do-- the cross-training, the occasional training class (if you can count some of the basic webinars I can get when I can as a training class), reading the professional literature, and a couple other informal things. But conferences? All I have to say is it must be nice if you have the funding for it. For those interested, this previous post does have a description about how my bosses see professional development to give an idea. Overall, the article looks at how the academic librarians perform when called upon to be generalists, how they improve their skill set, something I consider extremely important, and their attitudes about it.The investigation then was done via a survey; the authors obtained 491 valid responses. They asked about self-directed education, informal training, formal training outside and inside their institutions (129).

Some notes from the article:

The authors cite K.C. Hill, author of an article in The Reference Librarian, in arguing that reference librarians (as far as I am concerned, it should be all librarians) should have a broad cultural literacy. They write:

"Hill (2001) states that reference librarians should be able to field questions in all areas of scholarly endeavor through broadened cultural literacy: knowledge of current events, watching educational television programs, visiting museums, browsing core research journals, book prefaces and the reference collection, as well as meeting with teaching faculty and attending classes and seminars" (127). 

I have to wonder how realistic the last option is, the one about attending classes. If it means auditing a class, I can see it, but if it means actually enrolling in a class, I can see some obstacles from cost to time. Most of the other stuff I mostly do already. The challenge is avoiding information overload. We should not just give lip service to having broad knowledge; we should be doing it. We owe to our patrons when they come to our reference desks to be knowledgeable. Way I see it, you either know where to find the information and answers needed, or you know where to refer someone to find said information and answers. This is why we need to keep up professionally in terms of librarian skills as well as in terms of general knowledge.

Findings and some comments:

  • "Virtually all of those surveyed (97 percent) provide reference service at a central desk: 76 percent just at a central desk and 21 percent at both a central and a divisional location" (130). If nothing else, the reference desk is not going away anytime soon in spite of some prognosticators in library land.
  • "Most [respondents] are likely to 'strongly agree' or 'agree' that 'a reference librarian should be a generalist able to answer questions in all disciplines' (92 percent). . . . In contrast, a significantly lower level (47 percent) agrees that 'a generalist reference librarian may be unable to provide specialized reference service'" (131). So overall, we are confident as generalist in our ability to tackle most reference questions that come our way. 
  • From the survey, we learn that academic librarians perceive that an advanced degree may not be such a big deal. The exact statement is that there is "a perception that an advanced degree may not be necessary to successfully assist with a reference question in a particular subject" (131). Hey, for instance, I answer questions for nursing students all the time, and I do not have an advanced degree in the area. The liaison librarian for nursing we have here does not have an advanced degree on the subject either. But we are both librarians, which means we can and do learn what we need in order to help our students. I don't have to be a nurse or health professional to help these students. I do have to have a basic understanding how their field works and have a good degree of subject literacy to help them get what they need. My nursing liaison colleague has gone further in terms of training himself; he can talk the talk and walk the walk as the saying goes. The authors found that "most comments about advanced subject degrees tend to question the need or use for one. This suggests a belief that an advanced subject degree is not necessary to learn the reference tools in a particular field" (140). As I have said, librarians know how to learn, and thus they can gain the knowledge they need to do reference for a particular subject area. I would go so far as to say that unless you really think you will end up in a big, prestigious, very well-heeled campus where they require a second advanced degree, then don't get the advanced degree. It does not make sense economically given the current market in our profession. Now, you want to do it anyways for your professional development or edification, and you can afford it, as in not borrowing money for it, but you have the funds or someone will pay you go get it, then don't let me stop you. Use common sense is my bottom line advice.
  • This was kind of a statement of the obvious to me: "Librarians appear more likely to collaborate with a colleague already at the reference desk rather than refer to a colleague who is not physically with them" (132). However, I will add that if your office happens to be near the reference area, then your phone will often ring when your colleague at the desk needs help. If you happen to be the subject specialist needed to meet a student's need, even more so. Heck, if you are a really good generalist, just count on your phone ringing quite a bit. 
  • Now this is definitely a statement of the obvious that makes me go "duh." The authors state that respondents from larger campuses have higher levels of participation in professional development activities due to factors that include larger budgets (133). Really? 
  • Some validation for keeping up: "Those who frequently read professional library journals, work informally with subject librarians, or attend classes at their institutions are more likely to feel comfortable answering most reference questions" (134). I should not have to say this, but if your institution gives you some good "break" for attending classes, find something you like or can use, and do it.
  • "Librarians who work in institutions with a student enrollment of less than 5,000 also exhibit a higher level of confidence in their ability to answer reference questions in areas of non-subject expertise than do librarians from institutions with a larger student population" (137). This is basically by necessity, and as someone who works in a 6K approx. enrollment campus, I can say this is pretty accurate too. You have to be able to be a jack of all trades at the reference desk. 
  • This seemed pretty evident too, but there is the Catch-22 of, if the institution does not offer support, how much engaged can you really be? One really has to have a lot of intrinsic motivation as a librarian it would seem. The authors suggest "that a librarian must be professionally engaged both within their own institution and with the profession in order to be motivated to continually update their skills" (143). I am not commenting further since I think the quote says a lot on its own. 
In addition, I thought this cite the authors present is both relevant and crucial to what we do. Two usual barriers or problems to this vision tend to lack of funding and administrative indifference or unwillingness to support training and development. The quote then:

"Austen and Chan (2004) point out the importance of an organizational environment that supports and rewards both formal and informal updating activities. In this context, a supportive management that encourages and rewards updating activities and an absence of barriers to participation enhance a librarian's ability and desire to maintain their professional competencies. Such competencies extend beyond subject knowledge. They can include constant re-skilling needed to adapt to the rapid, ongoing technological changes in the internet and electronic resources as well as the implementation of altered work processes and practices. They note that previous studies indicate that the time and effort devoted to professional updating are positively related to an already existing degree of professional competence" (142-143). 

In addition, we do need to remember that these days reference is more than the desk. We do instruction; we work with academic departments; we provide reference virtually in synchronous and asynchronous ways. But we still need the interpersonal skills, knowing how to deal with people. This reminds me of a recent conversation I had with a colleague of mine who is a firm believer in people skills for librarians (at least for the librarians who work the front lines); we both agree these are not being taught in library school. The authors of the article go on to write,  "a good reference librarian must possess or develop personal skills that transcend specific subject knowledge, and that these skills would specially come into play when there might be a lack of specific knowledge about the subject of a patron's query" (143).

Note that the article does include the survey instrument.

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