Lunch with Lynda (1/3): Reframing Reference

Today I had a delightful lunch with Lynda and we challenged each other to blog the conversation to see where our overlaps are for a potential future project. From my perspective, the conversation fell into three parts, so welcome to my three part series: Lunch with Lynda.

  1. Reframing Reference
  2. Librarians in the 21st Century
  3. Professional Personas

So today is….. Reframing Reference.

This is an idea I’ve been toying with for about two years. I need to carve out some time to do some serious work with it, because I think it could be a useful conversation to have amongst reference folks, but I need to do a bit more study and talking with faculty about their research approaches, etc.

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The idea stems from the fact that though I reside in a Reference and Instruction department, and though I think (and my evaluations would suggest) I am a very strong teacher, I do not think of myself as a reference librarian. I dread the desk. I never feel confident as a student approaches, I always doubt I provided the best answer, and I am haunted by the fact that there are other people who are really really good at reference (whereas my core competencies reside in other areas) and if we could just switch off the entire library would be in a better place. I’m doubly haunted by the knowledge that most every reference librarian I know loves the hunt. They love unusual questions, the look of delight when they can get a patron to the right information, and the challenges of unexpected topics. When I talk with reference folks about reference, I know I’m part of a different tribe.

In sharing some of these deep dark fears with colleagues in the profession (including Lynda) I am regularly reminded that if I am teaching information literacy well, then I’m doing reference, and those skills allow me to answer 99% of the questions I get. And that’s completely true. Every time I finish a shift I realize that there weren’t as many questions as I expected and that I answered them all well. So it’s all really an unfounded inferiority complex. (Though, I’d say there’s some personality traits at work here, which we’ll discuss in part three of this series.)

This inferiority complex has eaten away at me the entire time I’ve been on the reference department–since July when I started my new position. And as a person who tends toward reflection and “rational” approaches, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint why I feel resistance. And as you might guess I have a theory.

Typically reference (in larger departments) is staffed by specialists. People might focus in on one or five disciplines and target those departments. Of course, a reference librarian has to be generalist enough to answer any question that comes to the desk, but specialize for upper-level questions. My departments, for example, are Philosophy and Women’s and Gender Studies.

When there are Philosophy reference questions, I can nail them every time. Philosophers use library resources in very specific ways, and typically very differently than other humanities. Philosophers won’t (unless they’re doing some very contemporary postmodern work) need biographies, primary sources,  histories, literary critiques, or any of the typical humanities sources. Philosophers need to know who else has written papers based on other’s work so that they can trace the line of argumentation around a certain philosophical stance. This is a very specific approach to research.

Reference Department When I get Women’s and Gender Studies questions, I feel good about them about 15% of the time. I (as you might guess) specialized in feminist theory in my undergraduate work. Feminist theory looks a lot like philosophy research. So if those come up, I can help quickly and effectively. If someone wants to know about a biography of a famous woman, I can typically hack it together, but that’s not something I’m very experienced in. If someone wants to do a social science approach to WGS (psychology, sociology, etc) I can do it, but I rely on skills I picked up as a Communication major and I know it’s not my strength. If someone wants to know how many women live in a specific area, what a target market of women is for a potential new business, or how women’s biology differs from men’s… then I’m of almost no help. (I say that, but really I do get them there. I just feel like it takes me longer than it should.)

Reflecting on this, it’s clear to me that I’m good at the research I was trained to do–which is philosophical research. I’ve observed colleagues who are amazing at the research they were trained to do–literary critiques, sciences, business, etc. For traditional disciplines I think this works really, really well. Especially if a department is large enough to pair people with the discipline they have training in. However I think the model breaks down a bit with interdisciplinary fields that utilize several different research methods.

So what I’d love to do is to try to figure out if there are certain “families” of research approaches. Maybe history and literature have more in common than history and music. Maybe some traditional groupings, social sciences, make a lot of sense the way they are. Maybe interdisciplinary reference work should be broken down beyond just a specific department. Maybe the only disciplines impacted by this are multidisciplinary ones (though I doubt it because I don’t think philosophy fits in with traditional humanities). I’d love to do a bit of exploring to see if there are “families” of research styles that don’t necessarily line up along disciplines or traditional groupings of disciplines.

If I ever find the time for it, I think the next step is to find out from faculty how they actually do their research–for real–in a number of fields. It’d be so useful to talk about the entire research process, and then specifically where the library fits into that for them. Then we could use that information to frame how we teach students to research in each discipline and we could use it to improve reference services. Of course, I know there are studies out there for specific fields and for some approaches, but I’m thinking something very systematically done. (Is anyone aware of anything out there like that?)

Then, I could imagine staffing built around common research practices and/or training built around them to help folks like me, who actually never did the more typical humanities style research, for example.

Of course, the easiest way to deal with this personally is to either work reference a lot more in order to get more comfortable with it, or work reference a lot less and focus on other areas of work. But the easiest path isn’t necessarily the most (theoretically–in that I actually really like theory) fun. :)

Okay, so that’s part one of today’s lunch discussion. I’m hoping I’ll be able to get to post two tomorrow. Until then…

Also, PS: Someone at Wake (we have no idea who) has made this amazing ZSR Ryan Gosling Tumblr. Check it out. We liked it so much we’re featuring it on the homepage.
My Awesome Library

My name is Lauren Pressley. This is where I think out loud, document what I'm doing, and share the things that I like. I'm the Director for Learning Environments at Virginia Tech University Libraries and author of a few books. This blog focuses on libraries, education, information, & the internet. When not at work or blogging, I spend most of my time with John and our son, Leif.

8 thoughts on “Lunch with Lynda (1/3): Reframing Reference

  1. Having been present for two of the previous Lauren-Lynda lunch brainstorms (well, one was dinner), I cannot wait to see where your ideas connect and what project might come! And I agree that grouping reference by research method makes sense on a fundamental, yet fundamentally different, level. As our faculty increasingly become more inter-disciplinary in their research, that will naturally spill into inter-disciplinary studies/classes for our students, impacting the ability of reference librarians to best support research needs. Also, if the economy continues to remain less robust than before, and student loan costs rise, the concept of subject specialists, especially those with a second Masters in a subject area, might be challenged on various economic fronts, from decreased dual-degree holders to decreased numbers of staff.

  2. Exactly. I think the interdisciplinary nature of the evolving academy is the major force here. The disciplines-as we think of them-is a relatively new development in the history of education. Maybe, in some ways, it is something shorter lived than we would have guessed. If that’s the case, I’m guessing that a lot of university/college work (from libraries to registrars’s offices and policies related to majors to tenure and scholarship) will also be rethought. At least in part. :)

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