Posted by: Emily | May 30, 2008

Keeping my hands off the keyboard

Rule number one for me when working with a student at the reference desk: Do not, under any circumstances, touch the keyboard. We learn research skills the way we learn anything else–by doing. I could sit and watch a glassblower or fly-tier work all day, but until I get my hands on the tools and start manipulating them, I’ll never learn. A student watching me type keywords in Sociological Abstracts? Not so helpful. Part of what’s interesting to me about this strategy is that for me, at least, it had to evolve.

I didn’t start out this way! I love the keyboard and I love the databases–I can really make them hum, and my pleasure in doing so is a third of what makes me good at my job. It was only after some significant time into my gig that I realized that wow-ing the students with my lightning fast queries was actually good only for me and my ego (and really, what college student thinks a librarian with database skills is cool?). Students may have left the reference desk with stacks of relevant articles, but without the skills to do research themselves. As I worked longer and my goals became clearer, it became obvious that I was getting in the way of what I really wanted to accomplish–helping students equip themselves with the radically liberatory ability to find information on their own and for themselves. Ultimately, I had to make a rule out of it so that I could just obey it–turns out, following rules is something I’m actually really good at.

I’m thinking about this today after a week of reference appointments with students from a local high school. It’s been tiring–reference work is exhausting sometimes. By the end of the day yesterday, I was in clear violation of my rules–a student working on the foundations of mathematics was treated to the lovely experience of sitting silently next to me while I poked and prodded our resources for materials about Georg Boole. It’s always easier for me to just do than to teach. How do you deal with this tendency? Do other librarians struggle with the urge to place ourselves at the center of the transaction? Are there ways to make the one-on-one instruction that happens at the desk less exhausting? Are there circumstances where doing for instead of doing with makes sense?



  1. This brings to mind my time in the writing center at UofL, where we were trained to resist touching a student’s paper while in a consultation session. We were encouraged to take a collaborative, non-directive approach designed to make the writing center session a learning experience. Otherwise, the encounter would devolve into a proofreading and editing session, and students would leave with a marked up paper, but they would not leave with an experience designed to help them become a better writer.

    This was a very hard thing to do at first, and even with practice, it was still my first instinct to touch the paper, to point to things, to take a pencil and make marks. In order to counter these urges, I stopped carrying a pencil to the sessions. I would literally sit on my hands. I would ask the student to read the paper aloud while I followed along on my own copy.

    Of course, as with anything, there are exceptions. Learners are different. Learners come to the table with all kinds of educational baggage that inform the way they learn. In some cases, for example, it was appropriate for me to take a pencil to the student’s page to identify a particular pattern of errors. My sense of what the student needed and what would be the best course to take was usually determined with a brief interview at the beginning of the consultation, which now, in retrospect, was very similar to the reference interview.

    All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that yes, I totally struggle with this urge to do for instead of do with, and the reference interview can provide an opportunity to figure out what the student needs and how to best meet those needs. Of course, we can’t know everything about a student’s learning style by asking a few questions, but we can at least try, and then modify our practice as needed.

    And, if needed, we can sit on our hands.

  2. Dude. You make me wish I’d been trained.

  3. […] We debated whether or not we would want to try demo-free classes, and under which circumstances we ask students to ‘drive’ during reference interviews. We have different opinions on the matter, but no quarrels. As we pulled into the campus driveway, […]

  4. […] I won’t give information that students can give themselves. Just the way I sit on my hands when I’m at the desk, I need to learn to shut my fat trap in the library instruction session […]

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