Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Asking the best questions

Last night a class was sent by their English 101 teacher on a library scavenger hunt. They were given a list of questions to answer based on library resources. The questions were of the “busy work” type rather than the analysis type. For example, “Where is the library catalog?” Answer – “On line.” “Does the library own Time Magazine in microfilm and which years?” Answer -- “Yes, 1923-1997.“

One student asked where the book check-out desk was located. I pointed him to the big sign less than 15 feet from where he was standing. He then asked where can he find the reserve book collection. I answered right here. He looked puzzled. I asked him what he wanted to know. After much thought he wanted to know what books are on reserve for a biology class. He asked a question, got a correct answer, but the answer did not give him what he needed to know. The teacher wanted the students to know that the reserve books are found behind the circulation desk. However, knowing what is on reserve for a class they don’t take will not help them.

A better approach for the teacher would be to tell them how to check the list of reserve books. This listing system changed this semester and it is doubtful that the teacher knows about the changes. Students need to be taught how to ask questions that will lead them to what they need to know. Asking, “Does the library own any microfilm?” will not teach them how to find the titles they need. Some students asked “Where are the microfilm kept?” Since the New York Times and Chicago Tribune are the most frequently requested films, the students were directed to their storage space.

The task of a reference librarian is to help library patrons use library resources to their best advantage. It is better to teach the patrons the principles of looking up answers than to give them the full answer. Figuring out the best questions is the major part of the research.

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