Modern Reference = Information Literacy

Modern Reference is much different than reference services of the past.  In yesteryears, reference was all print-based; books, periodicals, and indexes were used.  A librarian would assist the patron in finding the answer to their question(s).  As time progressed, computers came into play.  In my studies, I learned that with the advent of searchable databases, the duty to find material within those also fell to the reference librarian.  Why?  It was a combination of reasons.  First, the searching skills were not frequently taught, especially outside of graduate school.  Second, there were either costs per search, costs per minute of searching, or both when using the databases.

Now fast forward to the modern era.  Databases are now patron accessible.  Subscriptions costs to a database are often a flat fee for a designated period of time.  In addition to the print material and databases, the Internet is widespread and permeates everyday life.  This widespread access to information, everywhere, every day requires a new method of reference services.  Reference is no longer just about finding a patron’s answer.  It is also about helping them to locate and interpret information themselves.  This is where Information Literacy enters the picture.

According to the Association of College and Research Library’s (ACRL) Information Literacy Competency Standards, Information Literacy is defined as:

“…a set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.’”

Modern Reference teaches Information Literacy in addition to helping a patron find an answer.  While the Standards I quoted were issued by an American Library Association division for collegiate study, the Standards are equally applicable to all libraries.  How can a librarian do this?  Here’s how I was taught.  As part of the reference interview, we find out what the patron is looking for and what type of sources they need.  Then we explain to the patron what we are doing throughout each step of the search.

For example, say a patron needed information on General Grant’s Siege of Vicksburg for a research paper and the sources must be either print books or peer-reviewed articles.  First, we could search the online catalog using the terms .  This provides two teachable moments for information literacy.  We can teach about the Boolean Operator “and” (possibly introducing “or” as a counter-example) and we can demonstrate the catalog.  If needed, the consortium catalog and WorldCat could also be demonstrated for a third teachable moment.  Second, with the need for scholarly articles, we can turn to the database.  To start this process, I would first go to the list of databases by subject or the research guide for the subject (these usually list the databases as well).  If I were still at Ellis Library, for the example of Grant and Vicksburg, I could go to with the “History, 19th Century American” database list or the “19th Century American History” LibGuide.  To access these, I would have first gone to the webpages that listed every subject to choose these from the list, such as in this database example or this LibGuide example.  This enables the patron to see if he/she can apply the skills they are learning to other subjects as well.  Then we would select a relevant database from the history subset, say American History and Life, to try our search in. If needed, the search can be repeated within other databases.

While searching within the catalog and database, I explained every action I took (such as  imposing a limiter in “advanced search”), how the material is ranked (usually relevancy), how to read the records (in this case, the catalog record or citation and abstract), and how to determine if the source might be useful (based on the record or abstract).   Next, with the books I either helped them to locate the correct section of the library to find the book based on the call number or, if it was off-campus, to request it.  With the database searches, I would either show them how to link to the full text, whether it be via a link resolver or in the database as a PDF or HTML document, or how to take the citation they found and locate it within another database or in print.  This fits with the locate and evaluate goals of Information Literacy.

The idea here is that by showing the patron every step we took, they will follow along and learn how to locate material for themselves.  Then next time they visit the reference desk, they can let us know what he/she has already tried.  However, we must also keep the patron engaged.  There are many ways to do this, from the patron volunteering search terms and picking a database to letting them select the material they desire from the lists.  Yes, the former may lead to a bad set of search results, but then you can point out ways that search could be made better and retry the search.  These also make great teachable moments in Information Literacy.

Does anyone have other methods of teaching information literacy at the reference desk?

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5 thoughts on “Modern Reference = Information Literacy

  1. Amy you are right on target on the need to explain exactly what you’re doing to the patron, instead of just grabbing the keyboard and working “voodoo key-flying magic” while the patron checks her cell phone or whatever. I never thought of this “best reference practice” explicitly as information literacy teaching before, but that’s exactly what it is.

    • Thanks Rachel! I think I came to this realization when Dr. Budd assigned the Information Literacy Standards in the Academic Libraries class. We had to not only read them, but create a lesson plan that addressed the standards. I started to make many comparisons!

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