Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Cyberspace or Face-to-Face: The Teachable Moment and Changing Reference Mediums

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Cyberspace or Face-to-Face: The Teachable Moment and Changing Reference Mediums

Article excerpt

This article considers the teaching role of reference librarians by studying the teachable moment in reference transactions, and users' response to that instruction. An empirical study of instruction was conducted in both virtual and traditional reference milieus, examining the following three services: Instant messaging (IM), chat, and face-to-face reference. The authors used the same criteria in separate studies of all three services to determine if librarians provided analogous levels of instruction and what factors influenced the likelihood of instruction. Methodologies employed included transcript analysis, observation, and patron surveys. Findings indicated that patrons wanted instruction in their reference transactions, regardless of medium, and that librarians provided it. But instructional techniques used by librarians in virtual reference differ somewhat from those used at the reference desk. The authors conclude that reference transactions, in any medium, represent the patron's point-of-need, thereby presenting the ideal teachable moment.


The teachable moment, sometimes referred to as the "Aha!" moment, is defined as a "moment of educational opportunity: a time in which a person, especially a child, is likely to be particularly disposed to learn something or particularly responsive to being taught or made aware of something." (1)

Reference queries present prime examples of the teachable moment. They catch researchers at their point of need and provide opportunities for one-on-one personalized instruction and hands-on learning. Reference work in academic libraries has been deeply affected by technology. One of its most noticeable effects has been on the instructional role of librarians. As more patrons access library resources remotely and fewer visit the reference desk, opportunities for face-to-face instruction decrease. As they become more computer-savvy, patrons may feel that the need for instruction also decreases. Such changes raise the following questions: To what extent are librarians instructing patrons during reference transactions? Is there a difference in the amount and type of instruction offered in virtual reference such as instant messaging (IM) or chat? Do librarians at the reference desk provide more instruction than their virtual counterparts? Do they provide it more often? Are they taking advantage of potential teachable moments?

In today's ideal reference model, librarians show patrons how to find information rather than simply provide answers. RUSAs "Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers" emphasizes the importance of instruction in all reference environments, including virtual reference. (2) We might assume that it is simpler to provide instruction face-to-face and therefore more common at the reference desk, but is this true? The authors examined this question as it relates to IM and chat reference in two recent studies. "Chat" was defined as commercial software developed for libraries, and "IM" as free or home-grown messaging software without co-browse capability The current study builds on the two previous studies by comparing IM and chat instruction to instruction at the traditional reference desk, using the same criteria.

The purpose of the first study, conducted in 2005, was to gauge the amount of instruction being offered through IM reference) Using transcript analysis and a user survey, the authors determined how often librarians provided instruction and under what conditions they were most likely to provide it. They also inquired about patrons' desire for and willingness to receive instruction as well as their perception of actual learning. The authors also developed a classification of teaching techniques employed by librarians and measured the frequency of their use.

The following summer the homegrown software for the service was replaced with commercial chat software with co-browsing capability To test whether the co-browsing feature made a difference in the amount and type of instruction offered through chat, the authors conducted a second study, comparing the results using the new software to the original home-grown product. …

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