“What’s reference? And other library related questions”

My current job in graduate school is a library supervisor for a residence hall library. Our residence hall library system is unique here at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign which gives us the opportunity to interact with undergraduates in their residence halls. Our collection consists of the latest fiction, nonfiction, movies, TV shows, CDs, and magazines. Essentially a public library-like collection in an academic setting. It’s awesome, to be so close and helpful, and students don’t even have to leave their residence hall!

My co-workers and I have tried to provide reference support in the libraries. This past semester I spent eight hours a week doing “Office Hours.” Essentially, come visit me, ask your reference questions. Then, during finals, one of my co-workers did a “Roving Reference” table throughout several residence halls. At a recent staff meeting he shared that when he was roving many undergraduates asked him, “What’s reference?”

This may hurt us as library staff. We hope (and perhaps sometimes assume) that what we take as implicit knowledge (e.g., what reference is) is also implicit to the people we work with.

That’s not always the case.

Additionally, during our Clerk Advisory Board (CAB) meetings this past semester, our clerks have told us that students don’t understand how a library is organized (“Isn’t it in alphabetical order?”) and more generally, what the point of a library is in the first place. I know that it could be easy to throw up our hands and be like, “Really? You don’t know?” but instead step back and think about why students are confused.

When I reflect on my own personal struggles serving undergrads (and the deep desire to help them in any and all ways), I think about instruction. What instruction is missing from their lives as teens to could provide more instruction about libraries? And maybe instruction is the wrong word – what are ways that library staff can help teens see how a library operates and how it is there to help them succeed (both at that current moment and in the future if they venture off to college)?

And maybe this gets into a larger discussion about how libraries are viewed today. I think, because we spend lots of time and energy thinking about how the space will be used (and how it can be functional, comfortable, and flexible to be used for many different purposes) teens might think of the library as simply a space to study, someplace quiet where there is ample room to spread out (and sometimes eat snacks). They haven’t realized or fully understood the library as more than four walls – they see it as a place to be, not a place where information (both digital and print) is in abundance. Additionally, that there are people (aka us as library staff) who actively want to help them find information and are good at finding all sorts of information. During my office hours, I felt that some students just walked into our libraries to study, as if they were blind to the books and DVDs that were displayed and organized all around them.

So I’m curious (as a soon-to-be-professional), what are library staff doing in terms of instruction about the library with teens right now? Both in high schools and in public libraries? Do you have formal instruction or are there ways you sneak in library lessons without the teens knowing? How are you helping prepare them for using libraries in the future? Or am I off base and you don’t see these knowledge gaps with the teens you work with?

About Hailley Fargo

Hi, I'm a first-year MLS grad student at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. My focus is in youth services and I hope to work in a public library after I get my degree. Currently, I'm a part of a Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity grant to help eliminate the digital divide in Urbana Champaign. I'm teaching digital literacy at two after-school programs and I'm excited to work with kids (K-12) and for the professional development I gain through this hands on research assistantship.
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