The road to mastery: It used to be easy to introduce the library’s riches. Here’s how to get back to the good old days

John Dove

There are moments and conversations that stay with you long after they end. For John Dove, one such moment was during a lively discussion at the 2006 American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting at a panel of the Reference Services in Large Research Libraries Discussion Group, when one reference librarian shared the challenges of providing reference in the digital age. Her comments were pivotal to crystallizing Dove’s life’s work: creating a better reference experience in the online world than was ever possible before.

The librarian said that her greatest professional satisfaction came when students who had recently decided on a major showed up at the reference desk. She would take them to the reference shelves and point out some of the great subject encyclopedias in the relevant field. She described how students’ eyes glistened upon finding a subject encyclopedia that could provide the context and starting point for a mastery of the field and might indeed lead to a livelihood. This librarian was nostalgic for the day when these interactions regularly occurred and lamented today’s work and study environments, which almost never allow for them.

That conversation helped Dove to understand the real challenge in creating a great online reference experience: the need to re-create that eye-glistening moment and the instructional opportunity it provides. It was clear that technologies existed that could be leveraged if properly designed around the learner’s experience. An online reference service would need to be much more than just a provider of facts and figures—it would need to provide context, vocabulary, and user guidance to help students “crack the code” of their field of study.

John Shawler

Time marches on

Much has changed in the library environment since that conversation. We are beyond the point of merely hoping for these changes to occur; rather, they are quickly becoming necessities for today’s learners. Electronic reference books and journals are outpacing and replacing their print counterparts in libraries from the smallest public branch to the largest Ivy League university.

A surprising aspect of this evolution is how much effort librarians have put into accelerating it. While the reference section will always hold a special place in the “heart” of the physical library, the lack of usage and of space to support its noncirculating resources are compelling reasons to usher in reference’s digital era.

In the midst of all this change, academic librarians are expected to take an active role in the educational process by collaborating directly with teaching staff and faculty. For some, this offers an opportunity to establish meaningful connections with users, to experience once again that moment when a learner’s field is laid out in its entirety. As exciting as this may be, though, the question remains: How can reference librarians best facilitate the transition from being keepers of knowledge, as seen in the example above, to playing a more active part in the learning process?

There are several critical times when information literacy tools and technology, combined with authoritative reference, can boost a learner’s journey. The opportunities start when indi­viduals first enter the academic world, often without a clear idea of what problems they will endeavor to solve, and continue through to applying their skills in the workforce. Today’s technology allows all of these experiences to be shaped according to the personality, goals, and mission of each community of learners. Here we share some examples from three academic institutions: Quincy College, MA; South University, Savannah; and Morgan State University, Baltimore.

Welcoming students to the academic space

Students enter institutions from various cultural and demographic backgrounds, and an introduction to the world of reference can be an important first step toward integration. Janet Lanigan, chair of library services at Quincy College, explains the need for varied instruction. “Our challenge,” she says, “is to find a common level with our information literacy instruction that can be of interest and be of lifelong use to the ­students.”

Strong reference collections are particularly useful to students who haven’t been exposed to the research process before. South University believes in the power of introducing new students to the collection at the very beginning of their academic journey. This view is also embraced by the school’s administration, including Kate Sawyer, assistant vice chancellor, University Libraries. “Our students often come to college ill prepared for college level research and writing,” she says, “either because they have been away from academia for a long time or never learned skills for finding and using information.” Additionally, “reference content organized in a manner that is transparent for a beginning student to follow and understand is a great alternative to Wikipedia or Google, giving students not only the overview they need but the critical thinking links to delve deeper,” she says.

Providing a plethora of resources is not enough to propel new students to success, though. Perhaps the most important information literacy skills are the ability to evaluate different types of information and knowing what questions to ask when encountering a new source. Is this reliable? Is it up-to-date? Was it written from a particular point of view or does it have an inherent bias? Knowing that new students don’t always have the tools to answer these questions, Quincy College library teaches information evaluation using the reference collection. During their instruction, both Lanigan and Sarah Dolan, another Quincy librarian, stress the importance of identifying authoritative sources and how to understand the essential criteria that define sources as credible.

As more and more librarians are expected to shape the learning process, South University librarians have found ways for faculty members to help shape the world of reference. They work hard to include faculty in vendor trials and invite feedback to insure that the new system is a good fit, before and after the purchase. “[South librarians] offer program-specific training, as well as general, all-faculty training on integrating resources into their curriculum,” Sawyer explains. “Our three-part program is based on faculty/librarian interaction, and faculty were included in every part of the design of that program.” Librarians also work individually with core faculty to maximize buy-in, says Sawyer, stating that “we feel this is key, as we know individual instructors can be instrumental in making the rest of the faculty aware and supportive.”

Quincy College is also aligning its online reference collection with professor requests to facilitate further collaborations between librarians and faculty. After all, students may never be convinced of the usefulness of their school’s resources until they see their professors embrace the power and value of a quality reference collection. Quincy has accomplished this in part by embedding reference content directly into its learning management system. By targeting specific learning outcomes using reference materials, librarians reach students at the exact moment they need assistance, cementing the value of the reference ­collection.

Reference for retention

Information literacy instruction often takes one of two approaches. In some cases, students are offered a class that covers how to use the library, where the reference desk is located, and where to find databases. Unfortunately, after such an overview, students tend to be reluctant to ask questions or to pursue a deeper knowledge of information and how best to find or use it, leaving them to fend for themselves for the remainder of their academic careers. In other instances, programs eschew directly teaching the research process at all and choose to focus on creative writing, critical thinking, or other subjects and let the students work out the research process for themselves. What users require is a more dynamic approach to information literacy, one that is present throughout a student’s education without taking time away from coursework.

South University may have found the answer with its system of “just-in-time” help and instruction. The school’s first-year seminar course introduces students to LibGuides and emphasizes the importance of using them throughout their education. Rather than providing students with yet another endless content stream, the LibGuides collate reference material in a way that makes it comprehensible and useful to students. “LibGuides allows us to create customized pages that target a specific topic, course, or assignment,” Dolan says. “We can feature reference material that students might otherwise miss on the larger library website. I also like that we can feature content within an electronic collection—for example [linking directly to] Credo’s Topic Page on “Global Warming” rather than just linking to the main search screen of the database.” Directly alongside the reference content on these guides, at the point of need, are educational modules that steer students through the research ­process.

The material students find via these guides has to be engaging and meet their expectations regarding what’s possible online. Simply representing print subject encyclopedias online in true-to-print formats, such as PDF, misses the great opportunities opened up by today’s technologies. Online reference should fit the new learner’s thought-flow, interlinking subject encyclopedias from multiple publishers, presenting browsable sets of headwords, engaging technology-driven mind maps for ideation and unbridled exploration, providing quick links to other relevant resources, and offering information literacy instruction at the point of need. This exploration has to cross all barriers with no speed bumps and must include not only the broad and deep resources of the library itself (journal databases, monographs, etc.) but the open web as well. And the work should be dynamic and engaging—not just page after page of search results.

Some of these innovative elements will deploy multimedia, an even more focused connection to the best resources an institution or program can provide, and an expansion of the exploratory tools that make the journey to mastery an even greater joy. Use of them will, we hope, make information literacy a seamless part of the learning and research experience.

Preparing for the workforce

Information literacy isn’t over when students graduate, though many of them may believe that research skills become irrelevant after college. The reality is that information literacy is invaluable to everyone entering the workforce, as the ability to evaluate the accuracy and bias of different types of sources is essential to every profession. “A foundation of knowledge built on credible reference content is key to students who are transitioning into the workforce,” reports Quincy’s Dolan. “Employees in any field are constantly doing research whether they realize it or not,” she explains, “and the employee who knows how to use authoritative sources for research will be more valuable than someone who immediately turns to a website like Wikipedia.”

What about students who experience a different life path? Some students at South University, as elsewhere, are returning to education after having already started their careers. “Many of our students are not only already in the workforce but also have busy family and personal lives, so time management is a high priority for them,” explains Sawyer. “Showing students how to quickly get scholarly background information on any subject is of value to them—but only if it is specific to what they will be doing in their career and what they need now.” Sawyer explains that this “just-in-time” learning gives students the confidence and knowledge they need to adapt to situations in which critical thinking is required.

Regardless of the path that users take, they should complete their journey knowing how to use reference material efficiently to get a brief overview of a topic, to set context, and to find a point on which to focus their research. Users who can do this will be more likely to tackle work-related projects in the same way, finding all the broad information they can from a trusted source and then zeroing in on their specialty.

Librarians at South and Morgan State universities are leading the charge for the reference and other information literacy skills they teach their students so they can transition to real-world skills after graduation. South University certifies students in information literacy to emphasize its importance for employment. Morgan State recently secured a grant to fund a curriculum centered on sustainable digital literacy to ensure that students are prepared for the job market. Both institutions realize that the ultimate goal of education is to foster a love of learning. The lifelong learners created at these schools will find and use information to further their employment, lead by example, and make a positive impact on their communities.

Still more to do

While we are marching forward every day, as the examples above illustrate, there’s still more that can be done to reach the vision inspired by that 2006 ALA Midwinter encounter. In order to re-create that moment when learners see the road to mastery all laid out for the upcoming journey, we must be creative in our directions. Today’s students are tomorrow’s decision- makers, and those decisions need to be powered by true knowledge, which requires information fluency.

In 1968, John G. Dove joined a start-up on Wall Street that produced the first end user–accessible online database of stock market information. He’s gained extensive experience in technology businesses including electronic publishing and online education and today is President of Credo Reference. John Shawler, a Credo Solutions Analyst, has taught in public schools in Maryland, Virginia, South Korea, and Thailand. He has also worked at Apple Computer.