Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Structural and Theoretical Constraints on Reference Service in a High School Library Media Center

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Structural and Theoretical Constraints on Reference Service in a High School Library Media Center

Article excerpt

This paper is based on a presentation made at the Reference and User Services Association's Fourth Annual MOUSS Research Forum, June 27, 1998.

School library media specialists are exhorted to become instructional collaborators with teachers, information-seeking process facilitators, and information literacy or problem-solving skills instructors in their instructional roles, in addition to performing traditional library services. Since none of the published national guidelines pertaining to this type of library address everyday conditions in school contexts, this study examines what actually happens in a school library media center on a "typical" day, when time is constrained by classroom scheduling, clusters of multiple users, sick staff, and the need for library media staff to assist in the enforcement of the student location system. To collect the data, service activities conducted by a librarian and at the circulation desk were recorded (audio and video). An analysis of data collected shows: (1) that information work is not the predominate form of service assistance in the school library media center, because of the way students enter the library at the beginnings and endings of class periods and because of the librarian's and clerk's need to assist students in the use of technology; (2) that enforcement activities compete with service almost on a one-to-one basis; (3) that there is a presumption that users can help themselves after staff get them started; (4) that blurred labor categories exist between librarian and clerk; and (5) that RUSA behavioral guidelines for reference service are not relevant in this context.

Contemporary school library media specialists are expected to be instructional collaborators, information-seeking process interventionists, and information literacy skills and problem-solving instructors instead of, or in addition to, more traditional library practitioners who provide one-on-one reference service and collections to students and teachers, or manage staff, volunteers, and technologies. Their time and activities, however, are constrained by unique and rigid institutional demands, such as the division of time into discrete class periods, being part of the enforcement of school or district-wide pass systems, and dealing primarily with "imposed queries." Often overwhelmed by students for short periods of time when classes change, school library media specialists must perform a sort of "triage" before anything resembling reference service can take place.(1)

Most of the professional guidelines on reference service ignore specific constraints on the process, including where, when, and how queries are presented outside the dynamics of the interview itself, which is presumed to be generic to all contexts. These guidelines also seem to presume that librarians will deal with one user at a time for as long as it takes. For example, the RUSA Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services Professionals state that "A successful librarian must demonstrate a high degree of interest in the reference transaction." One of the ways the guidelines suggest doing this is to appear "unhurried during the reference transaction." School library media specialists, however, may well find these guidelines unrealistic, because they ignore the real life situation of multiple users with a variety of needs arriving for service at the same time. For example, school library media specialists often are confronted with multiple students wanting access simultaneously to the media center at the beginning of a forty- to fifty-minute class period, some of whom are working with classes, some of whom are working independently, some of whom are clueless about where to start looking for what they want, and several of whom have forgotten their passes.(2)

In addition to a day ruled by class periods, school librarians, more than their counterparts in many other library contexts, also have an instructional function built into their role. …

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