In the context of reference librarianship, training encompasses a variety of endeavors intended to help a reference librarian become or remain proficient at his or her job. Training can be theoretical or hands-on, formal or informal, and could include library school coursework, site-specific orientation, software-specific training, and continuing education coursework, among other activities. Training is therefore important all stages of one’s career as a reference librarian.
It should be noted that the training of reference librarians is not a neutral issue, but has in fact been heavily debated among information professionals during the past few decades. For example, librarians have long complained that library school programs inadequately train their graduates for library work (Dougherty and Lougee, 1983). Furthermore, recent studies have found that a majority of libraries lack comprehensive reference training programs, and suggest that this is partly responsible for Hermon and McClure’s now-infamous findings which indicated that reference librarians gave accurate responses to reference questions approximately 55% of the time (Blenkinsopp, 1992; Hermon and McClure, 1986). This article intends to survey the various types of training a reference librarian is likely to engage in, and summarize the debates surrounding each type of training.
Training During Library School
The fact that MLIS programs often do not fully train students to work in libraries is both understood colloquially and recognized in the library science literature. Indeed, it would be impossible for library schools to provide comprehensive practical training to their students, given that libraries vary widely in their practices and procedures, and given that many libraries update their technologies frequently. Thus, skills learned in library school may be useless or obsolete in a particular library setting. Blenkinsopp cites William Young: “the obvious fact is that each library, having variations in user populations and services offered, is unique,” (Blenkinsopp, 1992 p. 176). Indeed, libraries may have divergent values and missions depending on factors such as type of library, location, size, and community. While a public library, for example, may endeavor to make its materials as widely available as possible, a special library containing rare books and manuscripts may value preservation over access. Because libraries are so diverse, the training provided by library schools is primarily theoretical, and can include introductions to the history of librarianship, to issues surrounding librarianship such as access, privacy, and intellectual freedom, to the structure of libraries, and to the theoretical underpinnings of that structure. Nevertheless, library schools have been criticized for leaving their graduates unprepared to step into professional jobs upon graduation.
Because library school students often do not learn many of the practical skills needed to succeed as a reference librarian in a particular library, they must learn those skills on the job. However, studies have found that many library reference departments do not have a comprehensive training program for their newly hired reference librarians. Jody Condit Fagan cites a 1996 survey conducted by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), which found that 57% of academic libraries did not have such a training program (Fagan, 2000). Heather Blenkinsopp’s 1992 survey of libraries in the Albany, NY area, which included academic, public, special, and medical libraries, yielded similar results; she found that a majority of libraries were not utilizing “basic reference training methods.” (Blenkinsopp, 1992, p. 179). This is worrisome for Blenkinsopp. Adequate training programs, she argues, are essential to effective reference service. Indeed, she suggests a correlation between the purportedly low accuracy rate of reference librarians (Hermon and McClure, 1986), and a lack of rigorous training. “Those being trained in the provision of reference service are seeking more structure, better written guidelines, and a more inclusive program of reference training. What most are receiving now is spotty at best, non-existent at worst,” she concludes. (Blenkinsopp, 1992, p. 181).
Although many reference librarians do not engage in an “inclusive program of reference training,” almost all reference librarians receive some type of training. For example, as libraries acquires new resources or updates its technologies, reference librarians are likely to receive ad-hoc or database/software-specific training. New librarians may also work with a more experienced mentor to acquire needed skills, and will almost certainly ask colleagues for assistance as they encounter difficulties.
Continuing Education: Self-Directed Training
More recent literature indicates that many libraries continue to lack comprehensive reference training programs. In response, some practitioners have urged new reference librarians to undertake self-directed training programs (Fagan, 2000). Fagan’s model for self-directed training recommends conducting an assessment of one’s needed skills, then formulating a plan to acquire those skills, taking care to periodically assess the success of the program. Librarians Susan Sykes Berry and Erica W. Reynolds also advocate self-directed training, noting that “an extensive orientation is not typical of most libraries.” According to Berry and Reynolds, self-orientation programs should include: “(1) languages specific to your library; (2) electronic resources; (3) print materials; (4) collection organization; (5) people (patrons and peers); and (6) long-term learning goals.” (2001).
Still others, such as Mark Herring, have emphasized the importance of “non-library education,” arguing that continuing one’s general education is crucial to providing excellent reference service. (Herring, 2001, p. 145). Herring recommends that reference librarians read widely, stay abreast of current affairs, and consider taking graduate-level courses to develop expertise in fields outside of librarianship. “Good reference librarians are polymaths, are jacks-of-all-trades and may even master one or two,” says Herring (Herring, 2001, p. 144). Kierstin C. Hill agrees: “Reference librarians have an obligation to themselves and (those) they serve to broaden and expand their subject knowledge.” (Hill, 2001).
Self-directed training can also include professional development activities such as workshops or online courses. Library associations such as the American Library Association (ALA) make available these types of courses, which are designed to help librarians sharpen and improve their skills. See for example the Reference and User Services Association’s (RUSA, a division of ALA) online professional development courses: http://www.ala.org/ala/rusa/rusaevents/professionaldevelopmentonline/prodevonline.htm.
Berry, S. S. & Reynolds, E. W. (2001) “I got the job! Now what do I do? A practical guide for new reference librarians. The Reference Librarian, 72, 33-42.
Blenkinsopp, H. (1992). How’s the water? The training of reference librarians. The Reference Librarian, 38, 175-181.
Dougherty, R. M. & Lougee, W. P. (1983) Research library residencies. Library Journal 108, 1322-1324.
Fagan, J.C. (2000). Guidelines for creating a self-directed training program for the new reference librarian: a framework and checklist of activities. The Reference Librarian, 71, 59-70.
Hermon, P. and McClure, C. R. (1986). Unobtrusive reference testing: the 55% rule. Library Journal 111, 37-41.
Herring, M. Y. (2001). Readin’, writtin’ (sic), ‘rithmetic: reference desk redux. The Reference Librarian, 72, 137-154.
Hill, K. C. (2001) Acquiring subject knowledge to provide quality reference service. The Reference Librarian, 72, 219-228.
Sarah R. Lehmann