December 19, 2009

Teachable moment: for here or to go?

I have to say, I'm often a bit disappointed with the SLA magazine, Information Outlook, but this time, I found a few articles very useful. In the current December 2009 issue, Derek Law discusses the coming of age of digital natives and how librarians need to consider this group when providing library services and content in Waiting for the (digital) barbarians.

After giving a brief overview of the interests and technology activity of Gen-Y, he points out what librarians should consider upcoming challenges.
It is very depressing to review the results of the OCLC user survey (2006) showing that user satisfaction decreases when librarians try to help. Online users are in a hurry to find the answer (or a shortcut to it), but what we offer is a choice between showing them how to conduct a proper search or not helping them at all. This has been described as the "Eat Spinach Syndrome" (eat your spinach, it's good for you).
When providing reference and instruction for high school students during a summer science internship program, myself and my colleague were sure to stress that if they asked for help, we would work to make their research easier for them; I really think this is key especially with this age group, being a Gen-Y-er myself. Teachable moments are very important, but I think we need to provide both -- give them what they're looking for and tell them how to find it themselves next time, not necessarily simultaneously. The reference I provided was virtual, so what I did was provide resources the student was looking for because I knew he was stressed out and at that point in time just wanted the information, but in the second half of the message, I explained how I found the information, including which terms I searched for. If he didn't want to read that second half, then that's his prerogative, but at least he had the choice of how much time he would spend on that while trying to complete his research.

Instead of appearing as a barrier to information by being perceived as imposing a mandatory training session on how to find resources, I think it is valuable to provide both, and as takeaways. For example, with an in-person reference interview, help the student find what is needed, and then pass out a subject-specific handout on how to find that information next time. If he or she needs something more detailed or has more niche needs, then collect an email address and email the information. If the student seems in a rush or not interested, it doesn't have to be one or the other, as far as provide the teachable moment or only give them the resources without instruction; the information might be wanted for later, but not at that instant.

This was how I felt about the library while earning my undergraduate degree: I did not really want to ask the librarian for help because I didn't have much time and I did not want to have to sit through a possibly intimidating and lengthy lesson on how to use the library when I had a paper due in a couple days. Of course my opinion has changed over time, but I definitely can relate to other Gen-Y students.

Law wraps up his article soundly with,
We need to determine that we can make users' lives easier, not force them to learn something extra before they get to what they need.
So succinct and so suitable.


Law, D. (2009). Waiting for the (digital) barbarians. Information Outlook, 13(08), 15-18.