Ask the library

Information literacy among users and librarians is promoted by digital reference services
Living in the information age means having constant access to considerable amounts of information. However, access to information is not to be equated with intellect and knowledge. Quantity is not quality. To evaluate information in a qualitative manner requires competence. Librarians are a professional category endowed with this particular competence. Therefore, many use the libraries to satisfy their information needs and to receive guidance. Nevertheless, while the need for guidance through the information jungle is greater than ever before, librarians are receiving less and less reference queries. How come? One answer among many is that more believe that all information these days, whatever it may be, can be found on the internet.

In other words, the internet appears to be satisfying people’s need for information outside the library sphere, yet they might still be in need of instruction. This is where the virtual library can perform a valuable task. By allowing the user access to licensed databases and recommending free but hard to find electronic resources – the library can unlock the hidden web. Consequently, alternatives can be offered to the unspecified, and the often so hard to interpret, web contents, retrieved by the search tool.

‘Ask the Library’ or as its Swedish heading reads: ‘Fråga biblioteket’, is a Swedish digital reference service. It accepts all kinds of questions between heaven and earth. A growing network of librarians among the public libraries of Åland and Sweden answer queries via chat sites and e-mail. Ask the Library can therefore be said to be the Swedish public libraries’ joint information counter in cyberspace.

During this coming autumn, Ask the Library will initiate a collaborative project with the Swedish university libraries’ reference service, ‘Librarian On Call’, or its Swedish heading: ‘Jourhavande bibliotekarie’. Its purpose is to bridge services, and in the long run create a national digital reference service. One of Ask the Library’s main tasks is to create accessibility and guidance. Through this digital reference service the library reaches out to those who by their own accord fail to visit the actual library and can offer instruction on options that might not always be apparent to the user.

Society’s educational structure has changed. New pedagogic methods encourage independent studies and problem- based teaching. Demands are thereby placed on the student’s ability to search, evaluate in a critical manner, to structure and utilise the information in a creative way. To maintain knowledge of new findings and current research in working life requires a degree of information literacy. Lifelong learning implies that we are all to an extent students throughout life. Research has shown that about 50% of the public libraries’ visitors are there to pursue studies. Ask the Library’s chat forum has in excess of 80% queries that are related to studies. This brings forth a pedagogic challenge for the librarian, but also the prospect of marketing the library and in the process encourage users to further information searches or a visit to the library. Ask the Library visualises the library’s virtual reference counter and students discover that the library can actually improve upon the results displayed by Google.

Making the library’s electronic resources visible and offering guidance in how to execute searches is a major aspect in reducing the information chasm apparent in society today. To offer everyone the same possibilities to obtain knowledge and learning, and thereby diminish ‘the second digital chasm’, is a democratic issue. The significance of a library as a place of learning, both on its physical premise and at a distance is increasing, and with that also the library’s pedagogic role. Two of the factors which have made a positive contribution to information retrieval and learning, are interest and motivation. This is where the library’s user instruction is likely to succeed if the ‘pedagogic moment’ can be captured as the student poses a question. This is where Ask the Library and the information counter has the pedagogic advantage over the user-instructional sessions taught to groups. The exchange of the reference query is initiated by the user and is known as the ‘moment of truth’. This is where the user decides whether the library is an institution of competence where qualified assistance can be attained, and if it was worth the trouble using the information counter or its digital counterpart.

Linda Ward Callaghani divides the reference process into five sections:

  1. the patron’s expression of what information is needed,
  2. the reference interview to clarify the request,
  3. the librarian’s interpretation of the patron’s information needs,
  4. the materials available in the library’s collection, and
  5. the librarian’s ability to identify, locate, and suggest various materials either in the collection or from other sources.” All sections are dependent upon a functioning and efficient communication. The user occupies the centrepoint.

A hitch in all this is that the student views information retrieval as a quest for the one and only answer, or even worse, the completed essay. This could involve a conflict between the user’s desire and the librarian’s policy to offer instructional guidance in order to increase the user’s ability to retrieve information.

Information literacy is a blessed child with many names (spanning ‘library knowledge to information education’) and there is no bridging definition of the concept. Is it about the practical attainment of search tools or is it about creative solutions? There are a number of factors affecting the search process, and basically there are different approaches to knowledge and these have a bearing on how we relate to information. If information is viewed as a search for meaning and intellect, as opposed to an object or as a sealed and delivered parcel of knowledge, one soon realises that information retrieval is a complex and meaningful process. Knowledge about the sources, search paths, Boolean operators etc. are, of course, important in becoming an independent information retriever, but one’s attitude towards information is of equal importance. To retrieve information in order to learn requires time and reflection. This is an intellectual process, not something merely requiring the mechanical tapping of a keyboard. Carol Kuhlthau (Seeking meaning) speaks of man as a creature of learning and writes about learning as “a process of construction which is an active, confusing complex process of making sense of new experiences”. Mankind attempting to grasp its world. One seeks meaning. For everything new one learns, one’s view of the world is disarranged. The experience is staggering, which in its initial phase is marked by insecurity, doubt, frustration and fear of the new. Kulthau treats these feelings in a serious manner. To merely see to the cognitive aspect of the information process, to view it as an intellectual process is not enough. Aside from ‘the cognitive’ (thought) and ‘the physical’ (action), Kulthau emphasises ‘the affective’ (feelings) in the information retrieval process.

Kulthau sees the theory of learning as ‘a process of construction’, which can be used to better prepare the user for the learning process taking place as seen from without the information at the library. She speaks of ‘the uncertainty principle’ and positions the order of the bibliographic paradigm to that of the user’s sense of insecurity and confusion. The problem is not merely that the user’s concept formation fails to adhere to the system, but also that mankind’s information needs are in a state of perpetual change as long as the information retrieval process and constructional process is ongoing. The user’s information need is not static; it is constantly being revised and reformulated during the search process. The librarian has to realise this and adapt to the user’s perspective to create an improved and more efficient way of coaching.

The virtual reference services make visible the myriad of winding search paths. Using cobrowsing, the librarian can visualise the way from a distance. The user sees the same page on his screen as the librarian. The advantage of the digital reference service is that the conversation is automatically saved, easing future evaluations of the communicative aspects, the answers supplied and to comply with further information when the need arises. Users can also save the chat sessions, enabling return visits to elaborate the original query and for further assistance in the learning process.

It stands to reason that the virtual milieu can be made even easier to navigate and understand. User-friendly manuals can be provided to alleviate the users’ search for information on their own. But, improved systems and user manuals and more intelligent search engines do not make up for the need of a librarian with pedagogic skills. Google cannot judge whether a user is knowledgeable about information retrieval or merely an insecure beginner, or at which level the instruction need be.

The librarian’s competence is too little noticed by far. Ask the Library makes available the electronic resources and the competence of the librarians. To suggest that Ask the Library is a Google with delay, is to assume the attitude that information retrieval is a hunt for ready-made answers. It is true – Google is faster at finding 235,786 hits, but Google does not offer a pedagogic guidance and that virtual human touch, which can be decisive for an advantageous learning process.

Despite good intentions, one does not always succeed. Lack of time is usual given as the main reason as to why one prefers to supply ready-made answers rather than show the way to the information; or that one actually supplies what the user needs as an outbreak of service-mindedness. Another contributing factor can be insecurity regarding one’s own sense of competence in information retrieval.

Information literacy can be viewed as a fully learned skill, or as contextually bound and dependent upon the subject being searched, in what situation and to what purpose, and thereby never becoming fully competent (or as unlikely as becoming fully learned). The different points of view on the subject have bearing when related to library users. A point of view on the search process can be crucial as to how knowledge is acquired and how it is taught to users. If one believes that everything must be under complete control in order to call oneself competent in information retrieval, the librarian will invariably choose tested and tried ways, delivering ready-made answers. Consequently the message emanating is that the search process is a smooth one leading all the way to where X marks the spot – no wonder the user feels incompetent and frustrated when he or she perform their own searches and reach a deadend. This is where they swallow their pride and consult the expert!

If one dares to venture out with the user on a slippery path, one not only shows that one’s learning is still an ongoing process (librarian and all!), but also that an exaggerated respect for databases is not healthy and that it is not a failure if a query misfires or hit results are fewer than expected. The information retrieval process will however benefit, as will the user and the librarian. Lifelong learning must surely also apply to librarians. Every user offers the librarian yet another opportunity to further the learning process!

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Portrait by Åke Nygren

Project leader, Fråga biblioteket Administrator NORDINFOlit.