Sustaining and transforming services to 21st century academic library customers

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1 Sustaining and transforming services to 21st century academic library customers Chawner, Brenda 1 ; Oliver, Gillian 1 1 School of Information Management, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand Abstract This presentation will discuss the results of a survey of New Zealand academic subject/reference librarians conducted in mid The survey was part of an international collaborative project involving over fifteen countries. The aim of the survey was to identify the most highly valued knowledge, skills and competencies of reference librarians working at academic libraries in the tertiary sector. Library staff working in reference services in university, polytechnic and wānanga libraries were invited to complete an online survey. Respondents were asked about their daily work as reference librarians, and what activities they considered to be most important. They were also asked to share their views on future knowledge and skills required for reference work in the digital environment. The results show that serving academic library customers requires not only traditional reference skills, but also skills in customer service, technology support, and training. Good communication skills were also rated highly by respondents, and the high value placed on adaptability/flexibility shows that most respondents expect their roles to continue to change in the next decade. Software troubleshooting skills were also considered important. The results also suggest that traditional paper-based reference sources are expected to become much less important than online ones. There is also a shift toward using social media to interact with customers, and a focus on building sustainable relationships. The presentation will conclude with suggestions for further work on this topic, including repeating the survey in other contexts. 1

2 Introduction What skills does an academic reference librarian need in the 21 st century? Changes in information and communication technology (ICT) used to communicate with members of an academic library s community mean that library staff involved in providing reference services need to develop new skills, while at the same time maintaining their traditional skills. These traditional skills include knowledge of reference sources, the reference interview, and the ability to provide information literacy instruction, while the new skills include the use of social media, such as blogs, Twitter, and Facebook to reach out to new clients. This paper reports on the results of an online survey of New Zealand academic library reference staff, asking what activities they carried out as part of their daily activities, as well as what skills and knowledge they judged to be important in the future. The results will be useful to library managers, staff involved in designing professional development programmes, and academics in library and information schools. Literature review This literature review focuses on the evolution of reference services in the last half of the 20 th century. While there is a wealth of professional literature about reference competencies, much of this focuses on specific skills or new service models, such as virtual reference (Pinto and Manso 2012), ebooks (Bell 2009), embedded librarians (Hoffman 2011, Kennedy 2011), or roving reference (Gadsby and Qian 2012). Considerably less attention has been paid to the overall context of reference work in academic libraries, or the range of skills staff need to be effective. Tychoson (2011) examined trends in managing library references, noting that four core functions of reference work were first identified in the 19 th century. These are: 1. Teaching people how to use the library and its resources 2. Answering questions from library customers 3. Recommending resources to meet customers information needs 4. Promoting library services to its community (Tychoson 2011, p. 259). These four functions provide a good basis to understand the types of skills a reference librarian needs, since these functions involve interacting with users and non-users, as well as understanding the library s collection. Fagan s suggestions for new reference librarians cover all four areas, including learning about the wider organisation and community, learning about the physical and digital collections, and learning how to conduct a reference interview (2000). In 2001, Cardina and Wicks (2004) conducted a survey of academic reference librarians to determine how their duties had changed between 1991 and They found that the mean number of different tasks reference librarians performed increased from 10.6 to 14, face-toface reference and bibliographic instruction both decreased, and designing web pages and online tutorials was increasing. Wang, Tang, and Knight (2010) analysed job advertisements for academic reference positions in the United States between 1966 and Their findings showed a steady increase in the number of positions advertised, as well as increasing diversity in position titles in the sampled advertisements. The scope of the positions appeared to increase from the late 1970s, with instruction and outreach more common from This suggests that the first and last of the core functions Tychoson discussed have become more 2

3 important in recent years, in contrast to the 20 th century, when there was more focus on understanding sources and the reference interview. This is supported by Johnson s 2011 reflection on the changing nature of reference work in the last 25 years, where he notes a generational divide between new staff, who are comfortable using technology to locate resources and interact with users, but lack knowledge of the physical resources that can also be used to answer clients questions. Knibbe-Haanstra notes that reference librarians appear to be positive about these changes in reference work, despite the relatively rapid rate of change, and increased responsibilities (2008, p. 24). The evolution of reference work has also had implications for the way reference is taught in library and information studies programmes. Roy (2010) notes that the current generation of students may have more experience with online sources than print ones, and may be reluctant to use proprietary sources because of their experience finding information through freely available sources such as Wikipedia. So far no one has examined changes in reference in academic libraries in New Zealand, though the international nature of the field suggests that many of the changes identified in the literature will also have happened here. Methodology In mid-2011, the authors were invited to be part of an international survey of reference librarians intended to extend previous research examining the competencies required for academic reference librarians (Saunders 2012). The online survey used in the original U.S. research was modified slightly for the New Zealand context, retaining as much of the original wording as possible to allow the results to be compared. The survey asked respondents what they did in a typical week, and to identify which skills and competencies they considered important for reference librarians, including general, technology, and personal/interpersonal skills. It also asked them which two or three of these are most important, currently, and in the next decade. The final section of the survey gave respondents an opportunity to describe what competencies they look for in new reference librarians. The survey was anonymous, though respondents were asked to identify their institution in order to track response rates. An invitation to complete the online survey was sent out to the managers of all tertiary sector libraries listed in the Directory of New Zealand Libraries, with a request to ask any staff member with reference responsibilities to complete the survey. In addition, a reminder about the survey was posted to tel-sig, an electronic mailing list for the tertiary library sector. A total of 81 responses were received, with the majority of respondents (67, or 82.7%) employed in university libraries. Findings and discussion This section presents and discusses the survey results. The respondents were predominately female (67, or 82.7%), with a majority aged between 41 and 60 (52, or 64.2%). A further 18.5% (15) were aged between 31 and 40, 14.8% (12) were over 60, and only 2.4% (2) were under 30 years of age. Most worked full-time (80.2%, or 65), and over half (51.8%, or 42) have been members of the library profession for more than 20 years, with a further 30.8% (15) with between 8 and 20 years experience as a professional librarian. One-third (27) have worked at their current employer for between 8 and 15 years, and approximately one-quarter (24.7%, or 20) for 4-7 years. Overall the respondents appeared to have had stable careers, 3

4 meaning their experience spans the time period during which most of the technological changes affecting reference work have occurred. Respondents held a range of qualifications. Roughly 4 in 10 (34) had a Master s level qualification in library and information studies, with a further third holding a diploma in library and information studies. One respondent was currently studying for a Master of Information Studies degree. Approximately 10% (8) held a Master s degree in another discipline. Since most university libraries place a high value on formal qualifications, this result was expected, and it suggests that at least three-quarters of respondents had studied reference work as part of their formal education. Respondents job titles were varied, with a range similar to that in Wang, Tang, and Knight (2010). Though 32 (39.5%) identified themselves as a reference librarian, other job titles included variations on Information Services Librarian (9), Subject Librarian (8), and Liaison Librarian (4). Only a small proportion of respondents indicated that they held a management position, which ranged from Team Leader to Library Manager. The range of activities respondents undertook in a typical week showed considerable variation, and it appeared that no two positions were identical in scope. A majority (60.5%, or 49), mentioned desk shifts, and over half (53.1%, or 43) were also involved in collection development. The list of activities included teaching/instruction, identified by 46 respondents (58.6%), ICT troubleshooting (24, or 29.6%), and developing online subject guides (20, or 24.6%). The most common activities showed a similar pattern across all respondents, with desk shifts, collection development, and training/instruction the most frequent. The next section of the survey asked respondents to identify which qualifications, skills, and competencies they felt were currently needed for reference work. Tables 1 through 3 show the results categorised as general, technology, and personal/interpersonal skills. Table 1: General qualifications, skills, and competencies n %(n=70) Customer service Search skills Familiarity with online reference sources Traditional reference interviews Familiarity with paper reference sources Pedagogic knowledge and skills Current events awareness Assessment and evaluation Master s degree in LIS Bachelor s degree in LIS Research/publishing Marketing Knowledge of cataloging Budgeting Second Bachelor s degree Supervisory experience Negotiating, for instance with vendors Foreign language Second Master s degree

5 Table 2: Technology qualifications, skills, and competencies n %(n=70) Online searching Software troubleshooting Social media Web maintenance Chat/IM Hardware troubleshooting Web design Programming Table 3: Personal/interpersonal qualifications, skills, and competencies n %(n=70) Verbal communication Approachability Listening Adaptability / flexibility Comfort with instruction / teaching Self-motivated Written communication Working in teams Sense of humour Building relationships with co-workers Building relationships with other professional colleagues Organizational awareness Conflict management Stress management Respondents were also asked to indicate which two or three of these were most important, with the results showing that these were the most frequently mentioned qualifications, skills, and competencies, with the exception of current events awareness, which was not rated as most important. However, there were some clear differences when respondents were asked which qualifications, skills, and competencies would be the most important for the next decade. Figures 1 through 3 compare the skills, knowledge, and qualifications respondents felt were important now with the ones they believed would be important over the next decade. These show similarities and differences in priority, and give some indications about which skills are core to reference work, and which are expected to change because of changes to the context in which reference work is done. Figure 1 indicates that respondents expect the traditional reference interview and familiarity with paper sources to become less important in future, while marketing and research and publishing will increase. They also see a Master s degree becoming more important than a Bachelor s degree, perhaps because of the need for research and publishing, which is more likely to be an integral component of a postgraduate degree. 5

6 Figure 1: General skills important now, and in the next decade Figure 2: Technology skills important now, and in the next decade 6

7 Figure 2 shows that there was less variation in the technical skills respondents thought would be necessary in the future, with online searching and software troubleshooting continuing to be the most important. Web maintenance and Web design are expected to become somewhat more important, as will programming, though this remains the least important skill in both time periods Figure 3: Personal/interpersonal skills important now, and in the next decade Overall, Figure 3 shows that respondents expect there to be little change in the personal and interpersonal skills important for reference work, though written communication is expected to become less important. This again suggests that respondents expect priorities to change as academic libraries become more reliant on virtual services and interactions with their clients. This finding is supported by the responses to a question about which aspects of reference work have changed the most in the last 10 years. The most common themes in the responses were the shift to virtual communication and the use of online sources, combined with an increased need for teaching users about information literacy, and being able to solve hardware and software problems. This comment sums the responses well: At its core, we are still WHAT we have always been: a service industry to assist and enable our patrons. However the HOW has changed noticeably: electronic resources have increased our options and effectiveness (and sometimes our frustration), certainly our efficiency. With increased connectivity has come a 7

8 need for critical evaluation not that we were necessarily less discerning in the 20th century... we merely had fewer options! The next section of the survey asked respondents what skills or competencies they felt had been lacking in new reference staff. While there was considerable variation in the responses, one theme that emerged was a lack of general knowledge and current awareness. This may reflect the tendency for Google generation individuals to take a superficial approach to information seeking (Rowlands et al. 2008). At the end of the survey, respondents were asked to provide additional comments on reference work in the 21 st century. As with the previous section, there was considerable variation in the responses, with little commonality. One comment reflected the increasing complexity of the modern reference environment, saying that it is increasingly important for employers to give all staff time to learn new things, while another emphasised the importance of the traditional reference interview, saying although the format and delivery mode changes, the traditional reference interview skills are more important than ever. This respondent also acknowledged the outreach aspects of the role, noting that relationshipbuilding and marketing skills are becoming more important, especially in academic liaison work. Overall the results show that the scope of reference work in academic libraries is expanding, with increasing emphasis on communication and the ability to build relationships with stakeholder groups. One noticeable difference from the original U.S. survey is the lack of support for a second Master s degree. Saunders (2012) found that 28.2% of respondents from U.S. academic libraries supported the need for a second Master s degree, while the equivalent value from the New Zealand results reported here was 7.1% (5). In contrast, support for a second language was roughly the same in the two samples, with 11.9% in the U.S. supporting this, compared with 10.0% in New Zealand. Limitations Though respondents represented every New Zealand university, plus seven ITP libraries and one Wānanga, they are unlikely to be representative of academic library staff with reference responsibilities in New Zealand. The results are likely to overrepresent the views of reference staff working in universities, while Wānanga and ITP library staff are underrepresented. The voluntary nature of the survey means that it is probable that respondents were particularly interested in changes to reference work, which may mean that traditional views are not well represented. Conclusion The data from this survey provide a useful snapshot of the knowledge, skills and competencies of librarians working in reference roles in our tertiary sector. The variation in scope of existing positions shows that there is definitely not a one size fits all reference librarian position academic library managers seem to be taking innovative approaches to providing reference services, adapting them for the context of their parent institution. This may reflect the changing nature of the role of reference librarian today, or uncertainty about the future of the traditional role. The findings from the survey suggest that the nature of the role is changing, with an increasing emphasis on the first and fourth traditional functions of the role Tyckoson (2011) identified, namely instruction and outreach, and a decreasing emphasis on the second and third, answering reference questions and recommending sources. 8

9 Also of interest are the observations relating to a perceived lack of general knowledge/current awareness on the part of new employees. This, together with a relatively high ranking accorded to the current need for familiarity with paper reference sources, suggests that there is a risk that the depth of reference work is at risk of being compromised, and only partially compensated for with greater breadth. This is a key area that needs to be monitored, both by educators, from a curriculum perspective and by library managers, from a training needs perspective. The most noticeable changes in the skills respondents felt would be need in the future are in the general qualifications, skills, and knowledge, while personal skills are the most stable. Predictions for future competencies, such as the ability to deliver outreach services and advocate for the library, plus increased research and publishing, provide clear signals for educators to take into account when developing curricula and designing courses. As educators, we can emphasise the importance of understanding the organisational context, but it is the managers of libraries who have the responsibility for ensuring that appropriate training and resources are provided for their specific setting. When the overall international study is complete any similarities or differences between New Zealand and the other 14 countries will be identified, together with the identification of any overall predictions for future needs. However, there is also further work that can be done within New Zealand. Replicating the survey for the special, school and public library contexts will provide valuable insight into the needs of New Zealand s library community as a whole. Gathering data from a larger sample of reference librarians working in wānanga would also given an insight into the similarities and differences between their perspective and those working in other types of New Zealand tertiary institutions. Given increased trends for collaboration, it would also be very useful to survey the archival community about their perceptions of archival reference work. Identifying points of difference and areas of commonality would greatly assist the development of front-line service for converged institutions. Acknowledgements We would like to thank the reference librarians who took the time to complete the survey and give us insight into what their work currently involves. We are also grateful to Laura Saunders and Mary Jordan, from Simmonds College, for inviting us to be part of the project, and for setting up the survey on SurveyMonkey. References Bell, S. J. (2009). Today's reference librarian needs e-book skills. Reference Librarian, 50(3), Cardina, C., & Wicks, D. (2004). The changing roles of academic reference librarians over a ten-year period. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 44(2), Fagan, J. C. (2000). Guidelines for creating a self-directed training program for a new reference librarian: A framework and a checklist of activities. Reference Librarian, 34(71), Gadsby, J., & Qian, S. (2012). Using an ipad to redefine roving reference service in an academic library. Library Hi Tech News, 29(4),

10 Hoffman, S. (2011). Embedded academic librarian experiences in online courses: Roles, faculty collaboration, and opinion. Library Management, 32(6/7), Johnson, W. G. (2011). The evolution of the reference librarian. Community & Junior College Libraries, 17(2), Kennedy, S. (2011). Farewell to the reference librarian. Journal of Library Administration, 51(4), Knibbe-Haanstra, M. (2008). Reference desk dilemmas: The impact of new demands on librarianship. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 48(1), Pinto, M., & Manso, R. A. (2012). Virtual references services: defining the criteria and indicators to evaluate them. The Electronic Library, 30(1), Rowlands, I., Nicholas, D., Williams, P., Huntington, P., Fieldhouse, M., Gunter, B., et al. (2008). The Google generation: the information behaviour of the researcher of the future. ASLIB Proceedings, 60(4), Roy, L. (2010). We begin our conversation: Let's talk about education for reference librarians. Reference Librarian, 51(3), Saunders, L. (2012). Identifying Core Reference Competencies from an Employers' Perspective: Implications for Instruction. College & Research Libraries, 73(4), Tyckoson, D. A. (2011). Issues and trends in the management of references: A historical perspective. Journal of Library Administration, 51(3), Wang, H., Tang, Y., & Knight, C. (2010). Contemporary development of academic reference librarianship in the United States: A 44-year content analysis. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 36(6),

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