Sobel, Karen, "Promoting Library Reference Services to First-Year Undergraduate Students: What Works?" Reference and User Services Quarterly 48.4 (2009): 362-371.
Read via Academic Search Complete (EBSCO).
I continue my look at some articles on reference assessment that I started over here and continues here. This one seemed relevant to me given the work I do as an outreach librarian where a good part of my job is promoting the library. When it comes to promotion for undergraduates, it is something I try to do in collaboration with our instruction librarian when it is feasible. Sobel's article explores three things. First, it looks at how aware are undergraduate students when it comes to reference services. Second, it asks what percentage of those students seek help from reference librarians. Third, the author asks about what online media the students find comfortable to use in communicating with the reference librarians. I think that last question could have been explored a bit further. It certainly can be explored further now given the ubiquity of services like Facebook and Twitter. That would be something I would be interested in especially since we do have a Facebook page for the library, and we use Meebo chat widgets in our subject guides. I know the study took place in 2007, according to the article, when things like Facebook (it opened to everyone in 2006) and Twitter (also founded in 2006) were still gaining ground, but I guess the fact I can ask the question just shows how quickly things have changed. By the way, Meebo was launched in 2005, and the widgets we use in 2006. I guess I am just saying if I was expanding this type of assessment, I would want more on how social networking is used by the library to reach students.
The article opens with a brief summary of promotional techniques that libraries commonly use such as flyers and online links to chat services, things that I will note we do her as well. Readers can go on and look over the specific demographic details in the article.
- Like Ball State, where I got my first master's degree and where I used to work in the library as a library instruction assistant, UNC-Chapel Hill, where the study takes place, requires their English 101 (first year) classes to take at least one library instruction session. We can debate the merits of such a requirement later; it tends to be one of those tidbits that information literacy librarians like to kick around back and forth when things get slow. I notice that the requirement serves to give the author a nice and convenient working terrain. She surveyed a randomly selected set of classes. Note that the survey instrument is included at the end, a detail I always find useful. The questions it features are some of the ones I would not mind asking my students here, though at the moment my instruction colleague and I do have some concerns over "survey fatigue" here on the campus. That issue is another reason why I am reading some articles on reference assessment. I am hoping to find some other ideas besides surveys. However, surveys seem to be the convenient tool of choice for a lot of assessment. I don't have anything against a well constructed survey, but I am against over-reliance on surveys every time someone brings up the boogeyman of assessment (usually for the sake of accreditation).
- "One of Brewerton's major points about promotion of reference services is that librarians tend to imagine their patrons as a 'captive audience,' so no matter the quality of promotional efforts, these patrons will find and use the services out of necessity. However, in reality, some patrons use them well, some use them poorly, some never find the services, and some use alternatives" (364). In other words, patrons are no longer a captive audience, if they ever were captive at all. If anything, reference staff members are often the last resort after Google fails, if they bother to make contact with us at all. This indicates a real need for better outreach and education of our college students, including more and better promotions where we can differentiate ourselves from Google. And by the way, this does not take into account ideas about competency and confidence (see this article for instance).
- Some edgy advertisements, as Brewerton might suggest (qtd. in 364), would probably not work in my current workplace. What can be edgy and playful in a different academic library environment would be deemed inadequate, and in some cases offensive, in a setting like my current workplace. If nothing else, this is a lesson in knowing your audience.
- "Murfin explains that 'the reference department is, in a sense, the expert on library users, on their knowledge, abilities, problems, and responses" (qtd. in 364). And yet at times, we are the last ones consulted by the powers that be when it comes to service and how to provide it. Instead of going by gut feeling and perception, we often need more direct evidence, data gathered in the field, which is then analyzed and interpreted, and listening to the actual experts who do the actual work with the students.
- "Available research describes relatively few methods of advertising specifically to first-year students" (364). Sobel goes on to tell us that the most popular methods include BI, orientation sessions, whether optional or required, online materials, and activities like scavenger hunts. We need to do more, and we need to do it better. We need to be leveraging use of social networking when appropriate as well as other tools such as blogging. The work of Brian Mathews goes a long way in this area.
- Sobel cites research where teens and graduate students state that setting up a working relationship with a particular librarian is helpful (365). This was something I was able to do regularly in my previous position where I had a very active instruction load. Sadly, I don't get to do that as much these days in my current role, though I get to do some with graduate students in education (education is one of my subject liaison areas).
- Sobel found that the main factor we can control when it comes to promoting reference use is library instruction (367).
- Something to be optimistic about: "A total of 73.4 percent of students [in the survey] responded that librarians 'probably' or 'definitely' could help them with the majority of their questions" (368).
- From the conclusion: ". . .academic librarians should make a significant effort to reach out to freshmen in person, but that context is important" (369). A lot of it is still about the old school face to face, making contact. However, and Sobel notes this too, virtual communication remains important too.