Redesigning the Reference course

Please spread this post far and wide (I ask of the 4 people who are reading this)… I’d like to get feedback on this from as many corners as possible.

I’m one of the two faculty instructors for INLS 501, the Reference course in the School of Information and Library Science. That’s not to say that only the two of us ever teach the course; the School has several other instructors, but they’re all adjuncts: PhD students and librarians from the various campus libraries. I say that not to be disparaging to adjuncts (quite the opposite: I’d like to see more professional librarians teaching courses in library school), but just in the interest of clarity. And in fact, I haven’t taught 501 in a long time: since Spring 2010, to be precise.

But now it’s caught up with me: I’m on the slate to teach 501 in the Fall 2012 semester. Which is long enough ago now that I need to rethink my approach to the course. And anyway, librarianship in general and reference in particular is changing so much that what was a timely and relevant course 2 years ago would look pretty stale now. I mean, when I taught 501 last, social Q&A was a big deal, and I had an assignment to match. Now, Google has killed Aardvark, and I’m not sure social Q&A is as interesting from a reference standpoint as we (or maybe just I) thought it would be. That’s just an example; there are many others. I’m going to restrain myself from trying to list them, because that’s kind of the point here: I want your input on what’s interesting from a reference standpoint; I don’t want to potentially bias your input by telling you what I think is interesting.

So anyway, here’s the point of this post: in a few months I’ll be teaching Reference for the first time in a few years. I’ve thought for a long time that INLS 501, and Reference courses in general, need dramatic revamping… and if that was true two years ago, it’s even more so now. (Whether Reference should any longer be a required core course in LS programs is another issue entirely, one about which I have strong opinions, but which I will not address here. Another rant for another time.) So now’s my big chance: I have the summer to completely redesign 501. The problem is, I’m not on the front lines of reference and other customer-facing services in a library these days. So, gentle readers, I need your help.

Do you work on a reference desk as any part of your job? Do you do any form of reference-like work? E.g., liaison librarianship, research consultations, etc. I’m sure there are other reference-like things I’m not thinking of… which is, of course, the point here: I need help in identifying what the State of the Art is for reference and reference-like activities.

I want to teach a reference course that will prepare students to go out and do that kind of work in real environments, and be aware of the issues and trends that will face them over, say, the next 5 years. What I don’t want is to teach the same course that I’ve taught before. In my own defense, I make some changes to every course I teach every time I teach it… but in the case of the reference course, that feels like tweaking around the edges (not to say rearranging deck chairs). My syllabus for 501 is still fundamentally the same framework as the course I’ve been teaching for years. I want to break the frame, really seriously re-envision what a reference course can be and should be. And for that I need your help.

Speaking of my syllabus, here it is. As it says right at the top: Please note that this syllabus is under development. In particular, I do not plan to use all of those assignments. I’m considering using each of those assignments, or some variation on them, but not all of them. I think that would be too much, both for the students (who are, after all, taking more courses than just mine) and for me (who, I admit it, tends to be slow in evaluating and grading student work). For another thing, I’m thinking of dropping Bopp & Smith as the course text… maybe using selected chapters, but not requiring that students drop almost $50 for it.

Also, here’s the course schedule: a link to the Google Calendar (back it up to Spring 2010, remember) and to a PDF export of same. The readings and other notes for each class session are in the Description field. I apologize for the poor readability of that field in the PDF.

In terms of the structure of the course, here are some things I’m thinking about. I’m fond of project-based courses: witness my Digital Libraries and Library Assessment courses. I’m thinking of making Reference project-based as well, though maybe not a semester-long ├╝ber-project like those two other courses, but smaller projects, like organizing a street reference event. Thoughts? If reference can’t be taught by apprenticeship (which, honestly, I believe would be the best approach), perhaps an active learning / action learning approach would be second-best.

Further, let’s talk about case-based education. As usual, Kevin Smith totally nails it: in his recent LJ article he makes a case for law school-like case-based education in library school. I’ve had that thought myself, but have always been stymied by a dramatic lack of existing cases to use, which means I’d have to write them all myself. Thoughts on what would make good cases for a reference course? Anyone want to write one?

So: Lay it on me. Do your worst. Topics, order of topics, assignments, texts, basic structure, you name it. I want feedback, suggestions, ideas, proposals on all of it. I’ll acknowledge all input on the syllabus. I’m also thinking of contributing my syllabus to GitHub.

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14 Responses to Redesigning the Reference course

  1. If reference questions where the goal is a dataset rather than a publication make your syllabus (and I do mean “if;” I’m well aware research-data issues are not mainstream in current librarianship), I strongly recommend Kristin Partlo’s “The Pedagogical Data Reference Interview.”

  2. I’m intrigued by provocations by Eli Neiburger (Ann Arbor District Library) that librarians are “wasted at the desk” and that we should instead redeploy staff to work on projects that help patrons engage with participatory culture on the web. See his comments at the 57-minute mark in his 2012 presentation at VALA, “Access, schmaccess: libraries in the Age of Information Ubiquity” for details.

  3. Re reference case studies: I wonder if looking through what’s called “refgrunts” might lead to case-study inspiration. Quite a few ref-librarian bloggers occasionally or often blog casual timelines of reference sessions; these often include stumpers both informational and situational.

    The Library Day in the Life project might also be worth combing for examples.

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  5. Eric Forster says:

    Drop Bopp & Smith, never to be replaced; IPL is useful and good; you might strongly encourage the Undergrad library as a choice over Davis for the ref eval. Digging through the ref books and online sources looking for answers was useful; presenting on ref. books or e-books was somewhat useful, but less so than just using them.

    You might try having the students come up with questions for each other, which could be hilarious good fun, particularly as some may come up with the unanswerable (a good experience to go through, I think).

  6. Michelle Kazmer says:

    I haven’t taught reference in a long time but I teach assessing info needs and I’ve started job shadowing students which is awesomely informative. What I like here in your proposal and the responses so far is the groove on thinking about reference as a way to help people in their “situations” (term used purposefully) rather than a way to use Sources to answer Questions (although that’s an important part). I think you’re right, it calls for large-scale ‘cases’ where the person and situation (wow, I’m really going back to R. S. T. here) — or perhaps sets of people and situations — are treated holistically. Which in turn forces questions and answers and sources and thinking through interactions and negotiations and also how alternative sources (such as Q&A) and social media and produsage play into the mix. I’m thinking about projects that involve interactive learning and of course I’m frantically figuring out how to deploy it online but hey, you don’t even have to figure that part out! You have corpora. So I’ll leave the implementation to you.

  7. Andy Keck says:

    I think it would be fascinating to walk with faculty member through a new book project, or a PhD student through the literature review, or perhaps an institute The trick with all of these is finding the right partner. And perhaps another model might be to start to scratch – as a class, we are going to learn a whole bunch about a certain topic and students can explore from different disciplinary perspectives and share research, research strategies, and sources along the way.

  8. Lorri Mon says:

    Two more ideas – for question-answering, there is Slam the Boards!
    and Wikipedia has launched an Education Program for students and faculty:

  9. Beverly Choltco-Devlin says:

    Jeffrey, I teach Info Technology at the iSchool in Syracuse. I taught reference before there. Here are a few ideas:
    1)One thing that the students this year found exciting was the ability to actually practice virtual reference. OCLC offers LIS programs Questionpoint accounts for free to teach students online chat. Practical experience is a huge component. 2) Conveying an understanding that principles and best practices never goes out of style. 3) As others have said…case studies in all modalities. 4) Understanding the differences/similarities between ftf reference and chat or text reference….in theory and practice. 5)how to use and develop common best practices in each . Most students (and employers!) want a theoretical framework coupled with practical experience.
    6) Reference on the fly…Ad hoc reference. 7) Reference collection development – is print dead? 8) How to evaluate reference services in all modalities. 8) Dual components and balance between the (I call this “The I’s Have It- Balancing Information and Instruction in Reference and Information Services- 9) Business principles and management in reference/information services including Operations Research/Systems Analysis, Human Resources (traits of a good information specialist), Budgeting and Allocation of resources. 10) Conducting reference using social media sites 11) Marketing and promoting services in all modalities. (I also have taught reference and information services to professionals and paraprofessionals for 18 years). Hope this helps

  10. Kate Adler says:

    I agree that on the fly/ad hoc reference questions and exchanges are important. I would stress not only finding resources but (at least for students who may find themselves in an academic setting) explaining the process. Requiring or suggesting that students volunteer with ipl is also a great idea. Examining/utilizing various reference tools (chat, statistics trackers like gimlit, building subject guides and so forth) may be good exorcises.

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  12. Mellanye Lackey says:

    Thanks for asking for our input!
    I am happy to share my consults (topics and chances to observe) with public health students. I typically have 40+ every fall with Masters and PhD students. I’ve saved the topics from the last five years worth of consults, too, so have a treasure chest of public health topics for searching examples.
    I also have a very successful librarian office hours effort during the school year. I set up a table in the SPH atrium once a week to act as a reference desk in their space. Usually get 3-5 questions in an hour. Lara, KT and I wrote a paper on it a while ago.
    Also, I volunteered for the IPL in library school. Thought it was really helpful.
    Finally, a current SILS has told me that boolean searching is not taught there. I have found boolean to be really helpful in creating good searches for public health students who have no controlled vocabulary so fall through the cracks of subject databases.
    my .02. Thanks for asking. email if you want more details.

  13. Jackie Werner says:

    The thing I wish I spent more time on in my reference course was the reference interview. Working with the IPL was great, but I never got a sense of what the actual back-and-forth of in-person reference was like. I also like the idea of students coming up with questions for each other; that way, students can give feedback to each other on how well they explained what they were doing, whether or not they got to the core of what the “patron” was really asking, etc.

  14. caleb tr says:


    I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of months and I hope it isn’t too late or too circuitous a path to say all this.

    The main thing reference class did for me in library school – and I think I had the same one you did, just a few years later – was give me some strategies for managing the transition to open web resources as satisficing sources. I don’t think the course was designed that way, but that was the effect. You can’t really prepare students for the next 5 years, all you can do is ground them in what is and what has been and give them the confidence to go forward.

    Today’s big trends in libraries are all about our waning relationship to print. I’ll probably change my mind about this statement tomorrow, and we don’t know that it’s a transition yet, there are definitely trends: academic libraries can’t afford journals and the public libraries are limited in the purchase and use of ebooks in so many ways, I cry.

    Can a reference course prepare a new librarian for this? Well someone oughta.

    Give them confidence in themselves as librarians. You give students a sense of the history of it all (the oed! britannica! wikipedia!), teach some techniques for doing it (reference interview, evaluating sources, collection development for reference, being welcoming to all patrons for $200 alex), and give them some opportunity to practice (your local statewide chat reference service, practice questions, IPL, internships, all that stuff).

    You don’t have to focus too much on thinking about hot technologies and services because they won’t matter. Sure, virtual reference pays my gourmet grocery store bills, but it is not really about the technology. It is about people inviting libraries into their lives to help with search. I’ll change my mind about that tomorrow too.

    But I don’t think your goal should be to churn out reference librarians. It is to give librarians the confidence that they can do reference and therefore anything else, too.

    Maybe this is helpful!

    Another take: the state of the art is to, literally or figuratively, swivel your head on your neck, make eye contact with people, and ask them what you can do to help.

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