DIY Reference Desk: Should We Have Patrons Navigate the Searching Themselves?

I had a really enjoyable conversation the other day with someone from our Technology and Learning program while I was getting some help creating a survey. We were talking a bit about how the TLP’s approach to instruction with faculty (their primary demographic) was to try to teach to fish, rather than do it for them. One thing this might mean, we discussed, was having the faculty member actually work the computer herself. For example, if one were creating some learning module in Blackboard, the tech expert would walk the faculty member through it, not by demonstrating it themselves and having the faculty member watch and listen, but by having the mouse and computer operated by the faculty member, with the tech expert giving verbal instructions about what to do.

We were having this discussion within the context of autonomy supportive pedagogy – with facilitating learning rather than dictating it – and it occurred to me that this method was obviously correct. I always tell students, for example, to follow along with some of the pointing and clicking if I’m doing an instruction session, because it will help them remember. But here’s what was really interesting to me: based on my observations of reference desks at several different universities, I’ve literally never seen a librarian, when asked by a student, e.g., how to find an article, say “Okay, well first go to the library homepage,” and then sit there and wait till the student navigates to the library homepage his or her self. But it sort of struck me that this, at least in most cases, is obviously what we should be doing.  Sure, most librarians turn the screen toward the patron so they can see what’s happening. And our reference desk even has a second keyboard and mouse. But instead of having a patron watch us point and click while we explain the process, it should be vice versa: we should be having the patron point and click while verbally walking them through the process.

Interestingly, I said to TLP guy I was talking to that I”m pretty sure other librarians might think I was nuts if I started to do this. But maybe that’s not fair, and maybe it’s a much more common practice than I know.

What do other librarians think of this? Have you ever just said, “Here’s the keyboard” and told a patron how to navigate? Super curious to hear people’s thoughts!



Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel

4 responses to “DIY Reference Desk: Should We Have Patrons Navigate the Searching Themselves?

  1. Dani Brecher

    I actually do this almost always I’m on the reference desk–this was pretty normal when I was doing public library instruction, and I’ve just continued doing it. It would surprise me if people thought you were crazy for trying this! Sometimes it can be frustrating when you just want people to “Click there. No, there,” but patience pays off.

  2. Holly

    When I worked as a graduate student (in an academic library), our library’s “reference desk” was a two-person cafe table, and we carried iPads. Consequently, I almost always would walk students to a public computer station, have them take the keyboard and mouse, and verbally guide them while they did the physically navigation. The bonus was that I could then, if needed, walk away to assist others and let them continue to independently search from wherever we left off. It’s more difficult to do that at my current institution, with the physical configuration of the reference desk, but I definitely prefer and try to do it this way as much as possible.

    • Kevin Michael Klipfel

      Huh, that’s really cool, Holly, thanks for your comment! I actually think our desk here is really nicely set up for this, since we do have an extra keyboard and mouse we always put out (although usually it mostly gets used for, like … if they have to fill out a form or something, not the actual robust part of the searching). What you describe their sounds like a really nice solution to the “it might take a lot more time than if the librarian just did it for them” issue. I suppose in absence of that, though, one just needs to exercise reasonable discretion about how busy it is, and so forth.

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