Thursday, May 1, 2008

Promoting Information Literacy via Roving Reference

On Monday and Tuesday I decided (with the approval of my supervisor) to try an experiment and do some roving reference in Idaho State University's Rendezvous Building, which was finished just last August. I checked out a laptop from the library's Information Technology department and also took some scotch tape, a stapler, a notepad, a water bottle, and my own planner. Circulation let me take a book truck. My first adventure involved a spill, when my noisy, rattling cart bumped into a protruding slab of concrete and everything but the laptop went flying onto the sidewalk. Gratefully, I had my hand on the laptop. This opportunity for learning prompted me to bring everything in the laptop's suitcase on the second day. I had simply left the suitcase in my office that first day.

Upon entering the Rendezvous I worried that the student at their Information Desk might tell me I couldn't conduct my roving-reference experiment, or that he would
have to seek approval from a supervisor. Fortunately, he had no problem with it; maybe the fact that he hails from my hometown (actually he lived only five houses down the street from me) had something to do with it, but his co-workers had no problem with it the next day, either. So I was good to go.

Basically, I approached individuals with a basic introduction that went something like this: "Hi, I am a Roving Reference Librarian, and today I am answering questions. Are there any questions I can help you with?" Most people responded that they did not, so I would usually go into another line of questioning or public relations for the library. "Do you use the library?" "How do you use the library?" Depending on their responses I varied what I would say.

In a sense, it felt like I was pestering people, but most individuals had the decency to give me at least a minute’s worth of their attention. Yet, I feel strongly that the library can be a significant key to a student's success. I've heard the president of ISU say in a meeting I attended that those students who use the library and its resources are more likely to succeed and graduate. Therefore, whenever I encountered a senior nearing graduation (this week), and they said they had spent many hours studying in the library or had used many of the books/articles I would congratulate them and say that they are proof of this idea.

Here are a few of the questions people asked me:

• My professor ordered some articles for me via Inter-Library Loan. How can I request items through ILL for myself?
• How many books can I check out at a time?
• I need to find out if bacteria grows faster in cow or soy milk. Where can I look to find articles that may address this? This was a difficult one for me; I’m not very satisfied with how I approached this one.
• What is the circumference of the earth? Yes, this guy was being facetious and light hearted, but we had fun finding the answer in the Oxford Reference Online database, albeit in terms of kilometers and not in miles. By the way, the earth’s circumference is wider around the equator than around the poles, longitudinally that is.
• If I check out books now, how long can I have them? I told them that they would be due at the end of the semester, but they could renew them online to extend the loan period.

I think I answered nearly 10 questions in the approximately two and a half hours I was over there. Interestingly enough, I recognized a few student faces as they had been in a recent instruction session I had taught. Their class was meeting about the time I was over there.

For those students who did not have questions, I asked if they ever used the library and what they used it for. I put in a plug for continuing to use the library and to come ask us questions whenever they have them.

Additionally, I met a couple of instructors, and one of them belongs to the economics department. He talked to me briefly about an assignment that he gives his students, and I requested that he send me a copy of it. He has graciously done so, and he gave me permission to share it with my library colleagues. I forwarded it to my colleague who develops our economics's collection.

On my second day fewer persons asked me questions. It could very well be due to my pre-conceived idea that few would have them. When mentioning this to colleagues, they suggested that in such circumstances it might be better to ask open-ended questions like "How is your research going?" Definitely, this roving-reference activity would probably be better during the middle of the semester or at least a couple of weeks before the end of the semester--not the last week.

Anyway, I received lots of valuable feedback on the second day. When I found out one student was majoring in political science I asked her if she had found everything she had needed in the library for all of her projects. In a recent assignment she had not found much on the organizational styles of the US presidency. Apparently, her textbook lists six or seven different styles, and she remembered four or five: collegial, spokes of the wheel, competitive, hierarchical, etc. The following day I noticed that approximately $93 remained in the political-science budget, so I looked for similar types of books in our catalog. We have 29 items that qualify for the search: "presiden? styl?" One of the best subject heading turned out to be "Political Leadership--United States," for which there are 34 titles in our catalog. When conducting similar searches within the University of Iowa's catalog, I discovered a few good titles that seemed to match what this student was looking for, so I ordered a few other titles related to this topic.

Two students had similar ideas, expressing interest in receiving specific information from the library. One suggested that we send a mass email to students, so they can keep abreast of any changes to the library. Later a colleague told me that with an RSS feed, students can receive notice in their emails when the "Library News" gets updated. At the very bottom of the blog is a little link that allows you to receive these updates. The second student remarked that he would appreciate seeing the usage statistics that number how many books have been checked out and how many times people search and find articles in the electronic databases. Again, later I found out the on the "Library News" they post the library newsletters which do include this useful data.

Roving reference turned out to be rather productive and beneficial in my opinion. I hope we pick this up as a regular practice in the future.

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