Value–Added Reference Education: Information Desk Fieldwork

Janet Black, Diane Nahl, Ann Coder

and Margie Smith


The Information Desk at Hamilton Library at the University of Hawaii at Manoa is the first contact point for library users and is situated near the building entrance. Its function is to answer questions about the UHCARL online catalog and the location of materials and facilities in the Library. Farther into the heart of the building, the Library’s Reference Desk makes available indepth research and reference assistance. Graduate students do fieldwork at the Information Desk for a required reference course in their first semester at the University of Hawaii School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS). This exposure to public service work is a benefit to the Library, a benefit to the SLIS program, and a big benefit to the students themselves.

This unique program actually arose out of a combination of factors. In the early eighties, budget cuts forced staff cutbacks in the Library, adding pressure to an already busy staff at the Reference and Information Desks. They were ready to welcome an offer of help. Dr. Therese Bissen Bard who was teaching the SLIS introductory reference course at the time, approached the library administration with a request that SLIS students be allowed to serve on the Information Desk as a required component of the course. The SLIS faculty felt that with adequate training, the students would have a good opportunity to tie class work to experience with information work. A pilot program began in 1986 and has continued to evolve since that time.

The purpose of the Information Desk is to handle directional, referral, and online catalog questions. These questions are often repetitive and do not demand professional attention, despite the fact that they occupy much of a librarian’s time. SLIS students can master this knowledge rapidly because it encompasses a restricted and specific portion of the librarian’s total knowledge. This report describes the cooperative project and presents the results of an evaluation of the SLIS students’ work on the Desk.1

Information Desk Training

The students are given special training to allow them to perform their duties at the Desk. They receive a copy of a specially prepared handout, the “Information Desk Reference Manual.” They are required to take themselves on a self–guided tour of the Library, following information given in the handout along with floor plans of all six floors. Online catalog training on the UHCARL system involves a selfinstructional handout, the “Basic Library Skills Workbook,” exercises, and two training sessions in the electronic classroom that include demonstrations by the Head of the Reference Center and the Information Desk Coordinator and hands-on work by the students. The Coordinator also gives a presentation on communication skills to acquaint students with some of the situations they may experience with library users.

After the initial training sessions, when they begin at the Desk, the students are assigned for their first four hours to assist the paid SLIS interns who regularly staff the Desk. Following this, the students work a minimum of 16 hours more on their own or with other SLIS students. Some continue to work more than the required hours because they enjoy the experience so much.

Throughout the semester, the training is reinforced by the SLIS professor as students discuss situations arising from their experiences at the Desk. Additionally, there are classroom practice sessions for reference interviewing and reference problem solving. Throughout the semester, the Information Desk Coordinator keeps the professor abreast of any new information or changes within the Library.

The Information Desk Experience

After instruction on what to record, students keep journals about their activities at the Desk, and use these to help write reports of their experience. The reports include an analysis of two of their reference interviews, followup on several questions so that they experience the entire process from the users’ point of view, and a statement of their own personal reference service philosophy. Much of the data which follow were extracted from these reports.

Since they are new to the library, a majority of students report that they begin their Information Desk experience with some apprehension, though they are instructed not to do reference work, and to refer everyone who needs more indepth assistance to the reference librarians. However, they quickly master the library locations and basic UHCARL commands, and despite the restricted set of questions dealt with at the Desk, they find much variety and interest in the questions themselves.

A great deal of the work at the Desk involves helping library users to become familiar with the UHCARL online catalog. This includes familiarizing people with the basic commands, record structure, and search strategies. It also involves showing some of the different databases available through the UHCARL system such as Uncover, ERIC, Bishop Museum, Hawaii Pacific Journal Index, etc. Accessing each of these databases requires a different technique of navigating the system.

Most of the directional questions are of a specific nature and usually require familiarity with the physical layout of the Library. These include questions like where is the closest rest room, the Asia Collection, the Xerox machines, etc. Some questions require familiarity with the collections, such as where are the tax forms, the encyclopedias, the current periodicals, where can I find this call number, etc. On certain occasions, a question will lead the student to a more extensive interview; for example, where can I find books on the problem of AIDS. This kind of question requires identifying the particular aspects of the problem library users are interested in and leads the students into their first experiences with reference interviews. After an initial search in the online catalog, such questions are referred to reference librarians.

During the 20 hour experience at the Desk, the SLIS students are exposed to a variety of library users’ needs and meet a variety of people. While the majority of their reports describe how grateful the public is for the help received, several students comment on situations that were not as happy, for example, complaints about the problem of not being able to find books on the shelves, and other frustrations in information retrieval.

SLIS students learn that there are a few basic things to do which can help both staff and library users. One is to be available for service; that is, not to be busy with other work. They further learn that it is very important to appear approachable by smiling, being friendly, maintaining eye contact, and appearing eager to help. In other words, they discover that they can influence the success of their duties by practicing communication skills in addition to library research skills.

Students report that many library users seem nervous when approaching service points for help, saying, “I don’t want to ask a stupid question, but.…” The students have a special value here, since they are new to the Library themselves and can empathize with such users. The fact that they know more than the average user also gives them a chance to appreciate just how valuable their help can be to the public.

Working with experienced SLIS interns gives the students another kind of exposure to public service. They can learn about the job from someone who is working in the position, whose practical knowledge complements the theory and cases studied in the reference course.

Evaluation of the Information Desk Fieldwork

Some librarians were concerned that staffing the Information Desk with SLIS fieldwork students might result in diminished service. Therefore it became important to show that SLIS students with training could provide service comparable to that given by the regular staff, when answering directional and online catalog questions and referring users to the appropriate reference desk.

In reference work, the well–known 55% rule states that reference librarians are accurate half of the time with answers to ready reference questions.2 In contrast to this, Beth Woodard reported that the accuracy rate for the SLIS students she tested was around 70%—a rather favorable comparison.3 For students who are involved in active learning processes, like the UH SLIS group, it has been found that

… subjects who learned in order to teach were more intrinsically motivated, had higher conceptual learning scores, and perceived themselves to be more actively engaged with the environment than subjects who learned in order to be examined.4

A research project was designed to further evaluate the quality of services given by the SLIS students at the Information Desk relative to that provided by the experienced staff.5 In addition it sought to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Information Desk fieldwork experience in enhancing the students’ knowledge compared to students who took reference course work only. The project is reported in detail elsewhere6 and is summarized below.

The Test

A multiplechoice test was created to assess the students’ knowledge and attitudes. The questions were derived from Information Desk training materials and from student reports of previous semesters. They covered the location of materials and services, online catalog knowledge, search strategy, reference interview skills, and service attitudes and philosophy.7

Three groups were compared. In Spring ’93 fourteen Hamilton reference librarians took the test. Two groups of students were involved. Fifteen Spring ’93 students took a pre–test in the first meeting of the reference class and, after completing both reference course work and also undergoing the Information Desk training and experience, took a post–test at the end of the semester. Twenty–five Summer ’93 students took the pre–test, and after the same reference course work but without the Information Desk assignment, took that post–test.8 The students from both groups typically had little experience with online searching, and prior to their first test had taken fewer than two SLIS courses.


It was expected that the students’ scores for both the Spring and Summer ’93 pre–tests would be similar to those for the students tested in Fall ’92, around 50%, compared to around 90% for the librarians. This was the case: the Spring group averaged 64%, the Summer group averaged 56%, and the librarians averaged 89%. The 8% difference between the pre–test scores for the two student groups is not statistically significant; whereas the 25% and 33% differences between pre–test scores for the respective student groups and the librarians are statistically significant.9 Figure 1 illustrates these results.


Gain in Students’ Proficiency Relative to Librarians

While both groups of students improved their scores on the post–test, there are significant differences between the average scores of the (Spring) fieldwork students (87%) and the (Summer) course–only students (74%). Comparison between the average scores of the fieldwork students and the librarians shows that there is only a 2% difference which is not statistically significant, whereas the 15% difference between the course–only students and the librarians is significant. The 13% difference between the average scores of the fieldwork students and the course–only students is also statistically significant. The results of the evaluation project indicate that the fieldwork students are approaching the standardized knowledge of the professional librarians for this service point, while the course–only students did not achieve the same level of proficiency.


The students appear to learn more and consistently describe the fieldwork as one of the most valuable parts of their education. They often comment that they will feel more comfortable beginning their first job because they have had the systematic public service experience. Typical quotes from some of their final reports illustrate how strongly affected they are by the experience.

The Information Desk is that place to establish some sort of middle ground (between people who are worried about asking dumb questions and those who think that librarians know everything and anything available in the Library), to let the patrons know what the library can do for them, and what it cannot, and at the same time, make them comfortable and welcome.

I found that working at the Information Desk offered a fine opportunity for experiential learning. It provided a certain amount of stress necessary to force me to learn new skills and to actually use what was taught in the classroom.

The experience also enabled me to learn more about the Library profession, not only from the patron’s point of view, but also from the staff’s.

It provided me with experience in dealing with people that I couldn’t have obtained otherwise. I became more sympathetic to patron’s needs and anxieties … it will shape my attitude … it is a reminder of what the ultimate concern should be: the patron.

The results of this project confirmed that the Information Desk fieldwork requirement succeeds in promoting the standardization of the graduate students’ knowledge more than the reference course alone. SLIS faculty and Hamilton librarians view such fieldwork as an essential component in the education of future reference librarians. Through the training and fieldwork, SLIS students are able to acquire the knowledge and attitudes necessary for providing basic Information Desk service. Thus, they are better prepared to enter the profession and serve the public.

Janet Black, is Health Education Services Librarian at Kapiolani Community College, University of Hawaii, (Internet:, Mailing Address: Kapiolani Community College, 4303 Diamond Head Rd., Honolulu 96816. USA; Diane Nahl, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies, (Internet: Ann Coder, Ed.D., is Head of Reference, The Reference Center, Hamilton Library, (Internet: and Margie Smith, is Reference Librarian and Information Desk Coordinator, Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii at Manoa. (Internet:, Mailing Address: University of Hawaii at Manoa, Hamilton Library, 2550 The Mall, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822–2319 USA.


1. A 1992 survey of ALA accredited programs shows that this school is the only one using this kind of required fieldwork, though others use students after their first reference class. See Kimberly L. Nakano and Janet Morrison, Public Service Experience in the Introductory Reference Course: A Model Program and Survey of Accredited Library Schools, Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 33(2) (Spring) : 110–128.

2. Peter Hernon and Charles McClure, “Unobtrusive Reference Testing: The 55% Rule,” Library Journal (April 15, 1986) : 37.

3. Beth S. Woodard, “The Effectiveness of the Information Desk Staffed by Graduate

Students and Nonprofessionals,” College & Research Libraries 50 (July 1989) : 455–467.

4. C. A. Benware and E. L. Deci, “Quality of Learning with an Active Versus Passive Motivational Set,” American Educational Research Journal 21(1984) : 755.

5. Funding for the project came from The Research Relations Fund of the University of Hawaii.

6. For a full description of the evaluation project and results from the Fall 92 tests, see Diane Nahl, Ann Coder, Janet Black and Margie Smith, “Effectiveness of Fieldwork at an Information Desk: A Prototype for Academic Library–Library School Collaboration,” Journal of Academic Libraries, in press.

7. Diane Nahl–Jakobovits and Leon A. Jakobovits, “Bibliographic Instructional Design for Information Literacy: Integrating Cognitive and Affective Objectives,” Research Strategies 11(2) (Spring 1993) : 73–88.

8. Students taking the course during the regular Spring semester would have served as a better control group, however there is an ethical problem in withholding valuable experience from them. None of the students in the short intensive summer session course was required to undertake a fieldwork experience as it could not be offered within the limited time frame.

9. The student and librarian scores were analyzed using ANOVA and paired t tests on both the pre– and post–tests to assess the changes and differences among the groups.