Harbin Engineering University
Harbin, Heilongjiang 150001
University of Northumbria
Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8ST
ABSTRACT: There is a marked contrast between the approach to reference services in Harbin Engineering University, China and Northumbria University, UK. Both universities have experienced increased pressure on library services due to a rapid growth in student enrollment. In both institutions, the academic staff are a vital link between students and the library. The emphasis at Northumbria is not on the provision of a reference service for academic staff but on making them aware of the resources and how to access and use them. In Harbin Engineering University, teachers are VIP library users. Delivering an effective reference service to teachers will encourage students to use information.
While student numbers increased by over 100%, academic staff increased by about 50%. This expansion has resulted in changes in teaching methods, with more group learning and an increasing emphasis on student-centred (or self-directed or independent) learning - students acquire knowledge and understanding for themselves with limited guidance. The development of the Internet and the World Wide Web, together with a VLE (Virtual Learning Environments) facilitate the development of distance learning and the distribution of learning materials and information resources to remote students. Because of the origin and development of the university and the need to attract students in a highly competitive market, Northumbria is student-centred not research-centred. In other words, the emphasis is on students and ensuring the quality of the student learning experience. Courses are regularly reviewed to ensure quality, and the reputation for teaching quality is excellent.2 Although Northumbria is a teaching university, there are many researchers on the staff, not a few with international reputations, and the University has many research institutes and research centres. Library reference services at Northumbria are provided for academic staff with major distinctive characteristics from that at Harbin Engineering University.
Subject specialists at Northumbria have direct, formal links to academic colleagues. Each information specialist is responsible for providing print and electronic resources, information skills instruction and a specialised enquiry service to a number of subject divisions. They sit on School Learning and Teaching Committees, School Programme (Course) Committees, School E-Learning Committees and so on. All have subject degrees; most have higher degrees; some have teaching qualifications; and some are active researchers working with academic colleagues. Liaison with academic staff and students to ensure effective communication and understanding has always been a key activity for the subject librarians at Northumbria. Twenty years ago, what reference services did we provide for academic staff?6 We answered enquiries – that is, academic staff or students asked a question and we found the answer for them. Sometimes, considerable research was required in order to do so; we undertook literature searches for them – finding books and journal articles for their teaching or research; we compiled bibliographies and scanned journal articles to provide a current awareness service based on their teaching and research interests. This was in the days of print abstracts and indexes and the early days of computer searching. Literature searches could take many hours to complete using print sources, and computer searching required knowledge of the specialised command language and incurred online telecommunication costs. The library was a building with books, journals, microfilms, and some videos. These services were time-intensive and required specialist knowledge and techniques. And how did academic staff contact us – they came to see us in the library; they used the telephone; or they sent written memos.
Notably, the role of subject librarians has been changed in the following areas:
Library staffs at Northumbria know that lecturers are probably the most important link between information resources and students. This is not a novel observation. "As the head of one academic library observed, LIS promotion of EIS is of limited usefulness to students unless backed up by regular recommendations or ‘pressure’ from their academic tutors or lecturers."15 Because students are expected to study independently – and that includes finding and evaluating their own information - it is particularly important that they are directed by their lecturers to the best sources to find the information. But academic staff do not always know all that is on offer in this complex, rich information environment. Why are they ignorant about what we have? Less contact with subject librarians? Fewer visits to the library? Too many and too complex resources in a virtual environment? They are too busy; as the student population has grown so has staff workload. We have to ensure they are aware of the full range in their subject areas, and the full range of services on offer: our opening hours, services for distance learners, the database of reading lists hyperlinked to the OPAC and made available on the VLE, linking to exam papers on Blackboard and so on. We organise awareness sessions for staff to inform them about our resources and how to use them, but again our focus is on helping the students. We want the academic staff to use the resources themselves, and we want academic staff to recommend the resources to the students. We use every opportunity to present "awareness sessions" to groups of academic staff to bring them up-to-date. We go to Schools and subject divisions, to committees, to conferences, to staff training sessions – anywhere we can!
There are two other major new areas of activity worth mentioning. The University now has an extensive network of partner colleges in Britain and overseas, including several in China. Subject librarians in my team support partners in several ways: offering access to our electronic resources, advising library staff and lecturers about the resources, and conducting information skills and awareness seminars for staff and students.
The other developing area is in encouraging academic staff to embed library resources and other reusable objects in our VLE. We are advisors about content, copyright, and licensing. We have developed guidelines, demonstrators and case studies to show them how to link reading lists to the OPAC, how to link to journal articles using persistent identifiers, and how to find and use images and datasets and many other types of resource in Blackboard. More recently, we are moving into developing repositories of reusable learning objects because we have knowledge of applying metadata, recording, ordering and retrieving, that is, cataloguing and classification, and resource discovery. And of course, we continue to answer enquiries, few though they are now.
Reference services in university libraries are available to all members of the university community. But the services are provided primarily for the teachers and students. As information users, teachers are very different from students. Students’ information needs are derived from the requirements of their coursework and dissertations. Their subject knowledge is limited, often to what they have been told by their teachers before they begin the information retrieval process. Academic staff, on the other hand, have to keep abreast of new information and learning, and be aware of the latest scholarship and developing areas in their specialized fields of teaching and research. They are information providers as well as information users. Their very position as academics means they will be long-term users of reference services. At the same time, they are in a unique position, in the course of their teaching and research, to enhance students’ consciousness of the need for high quality information, to encourage students to find and use such information efficiently, and to be aware of the reference services available to help them to do so.
And academic staff say of themselves:
All academic staff need information and need to be information literate. So a major task for the reference librarian is to find suitable ways to achieve this objective.
Firstly, improving our service model. Traditional reference services focused on face-to-face enquiries, a very direct service. As reference librarians, we need to offer a service to academic staff in all ways available, including the traditional reference enquiry desk. But the direct reference service cannot cope with more and more staff and students. Modern network technology makes possible a one-to-multi or multi-to-one reference service. Traditionally, the ability to answer enquiries is limited to the resources and staff in one library. Now it is both possible and practical to cooperate with other reference librarians and access a huge knowledge database to meet academic staff’s information needs without subject or staff limitations. OCLC’s QuestionPoint demonstrates the potential advantages of such cooperation in China. Also, HEU’s reference services are focused on academic staff’s research interests. The service has to give more attention to the requirements of their teaching, for instance, helping staff to provide more useful reading lists and references to their students and encouraging them to initiate students into the research process (including development of information skills) by linking their teaching to actual research projects.
Secondly, developing interaction with academic staff. VIP users should be offered a personalised reference service. To do this, we need to collate information about the teaching and research programmes of the University and collect and analyse feedback from academic staff about our services. The resulting data should enable us to find more effective ways to serve academic staff. Interaction between reference staff and academic staff is very important for a successful reference service. Reference librarians need the experience of information retrieval for actual research projects to become competent librarians. Cooperating with academic staff and sharing their professional knowledge will enable the librarian to understand their research projects more easily. On the other hand, with the support of the librarian, academic staff shall be encouraged to recognise their information needs and utilise the librarian’s professional knowledge. In face of the different information needs of so many staff, it is all the more important for reference librarians to acquire effective communication skills. It is difficult for academic staff with a low level of information literacy to express their information needs precisely. Reference librarians have to look out for useful clues during the reference interview to understand the questions and try to encourage the enquirer to say more about their research in order to identify the concepts which will be used in the retrieval process. Once useful information has been retrieved with the help of the librarian, it may be apparent that more information is needed or the need may appear later as the research progresses. There is no better way to stimulate information enquiry than a successful interaction between academic staff and the reference librarian.
Thirdly, delivering more effective training, focusing on the needs of academic staff. As mentioned before, training is not only an effective way to improve information literacy but is also a requirement for some academic staff. Some useful and important concepts such as logical operators, position characters, wild cards, stop words, fields, classification, information evaluation, etc. can be learnt in different ways by staff with different subject backgrounds. Therefore, it is neither practical nor necessary to invite all academic staff to take part in a systematic training programme. Training is most helpful if conducted in the right place at the right time. It is very important for us to motivate academic staff to recognise, articulate and meet their own information needs. To provide an effective reference service, the librarian must be at a high level of information literacy, equipped with good IT skills and adept at using the Internet. Compared with many academic staff, librarians know the Internet better and were very early users, quick to take advantage of its opportunities for information dissemination. When this new technology first appeared, many academic staff did not need to develop the skills to use it immediately. Consequently, the information literacy level of many academic staff is lower than that of reference librarians. However, many academic staff are very sensitive and are unwilling to show their ignorance to a librarian. They tend to look for excuses to avoid using computers. So we need to help them to overcome the psychological barrier and encourage them to become sufficiently confident to use computers by themselves. After that, when they have information needs, they will be more likely to approach the reference librarian to request for an introduction to the information resources available in their fields, and ask for help as how to use these information resources and how to evaluate the information they retrieve. This is an opportune moment to demonstrate the worth of the subject librarian. Of course, we also need to think about more flexible and accessible arrangements for seminars and courses for academic staff. The current trend is to make more and more help available on the Web in a variety of formats, covering information resources and their use and information skills training. Training is an integral part of the reference services.
Fourthly, improving the reference service team’s subject knowledge. The reference librarian does not work alone but is part of a team, which should be evaluated according to its pool of shared knowledge. Team members have to cooperate with each other to meet the needs of diverse groups of users. They must keep abreast of new technology and trends in service development and share their knowledge and expertise. Although reference librarians have been recruited in universities in China for several years, there are still too few to meet the demands resulted from the very rapid expansion in student numbers over the last few years. In China, it is impossible for libraries to recruit sufficient experienced reference librarians. Therefore, we should emphasize and utilise the team’s collective strength.
Improving reference services for academic staff, the VIP users, is a long-term task. The measures taken to achieve the objective will differ from university to university, depending on the prevailing organizational culture and the academic priorities. Participating in the teaching process and cooperating with academic staff to embed information literacy into the curriculum will be a wise choice for reference librarians keen to develop their service. Because academic staff are such VIP users of reference services, reference librarians should seize the opportunity to understand their information needs, discover their difficulties in retrieving information, take steps to improve their information literacy, and then offer a high quality and objective service to them. Providing an excellent reference service to influential academic staff will be a very good example to the others. Without doubt, the best advertisement for reference work is the provision of a successful reference service. The library’s value to the university and its reputation will increase as more academic staff receive a high quality service.
2 In the most recent Times league table, Northumbria is ranked 20th for teaching, out of 99 institutions, in the top ten for four subjects and in the top twenty for a further four subjects. Source: Northumbria Staff Newsletter, no.721 (26th May 2004), p.1. URL address: http://www.unn.ac.uk/central/isd/news/stnew721.pdf. Accessed 10th June 2004.
3 Wu, Jianzhong and Huang, Ruhua. (2003). "The academic library development in China," Journal of Academic Librarianship 29(4). p.252.
4 Ping, K. and Zhang, Li. (2002). "Toward Continual Reform: Progress in Academic Libraries in China," College & Research Libraries 63(2). p.165.
5 City University of Hong Kong Library Newsletter, no.1 (March 2002). URL Address: http://www.cityu.edu.hk/lib/about/newsletter/newsletter200201.pdf. Accessed 8 June 2004.
6 Some are noted in Ford, N. "Reader services: for students, teachers, and management." In McElroy, A. Rennie. (1984). College Librarianship. London: Library Association.
7 The changes are well documented. See, for example:
Biddiscombe, R. (2002). "Learning support professionals: the changing role of subject specialists in UK academic libraries," Program 36(4). p.228-235.
Gaston, R. (2001). "The changing role of the Subject Librarian, with a particular focus on UK developments, examined through a review of the literature," New Review of Academic Librarianship 7. p.19-36.
Pinfield, S. (2001). "The changing role of subject librarians in academic libraries," Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 33(1). p.32-38.
8 See for example, Rodwell, J. (2001). "Dinosaur or dynamo? The future for the subject specialist reference librarian," New Library World 102(1/2). p.48-52.
9 See: http://online.northumbria.ac.uk/faculties/art/information_studies/impel/
10 Gaston op. cit. p31
11 See http://www.unn.ac.uk/central/isd/subj/slsubsalph.htm
12 Littlejohn, A. and Higgison, C. (2003). "A Guide for Teachers," (e-Learning Series No.3). LTSN. p.3. URL address: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources.asp?process=full_record§ion=generic&id=323. Accessed 19th May 2004.
Wilson, R. "E-education in the UK," Journal of Digital Information 3(4). URL address: http://jodi.ecs.soton.ac.uk/Articles/v03/i04/Wilson/. Accessed 24th May 2004.
13 "Teaching and Learning Infrastructure in Higher Education: report to the HEFCE by JM Consulting," HEFCE, 2002. p.14.
14 For example, http://www.unn.ac.uk/central/isd/uptodate.htm and http://www.unn.ac.uk/central/isd/subj/research/index.htm
15 Coulson, G,. et al. (2003). "The need for a converged approach to EIS provision? Evidence from the JUBILEE project," Library Review 52(9). p.442.
16 Just one example: Griffiths, J.R. and Brophy, P. (2002). "Student searching behaviour in the JISC Information Environment," Ariadne, 33. URL address: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue33/edner/. Accessed 24th May 2004.
17 Wang, Qiong. (2002). "Information Literacy of University Professors in the Network Environment: a Survey and Analysis," Journal of Library Science in China 28(5). p.70-74.
18 Song, Hui-Lan. (2003). "On education informalization and training for the academic teacher’s information quality," Library Tribune 23(1). p.35-37.
19 Ray, K., et al. (2003). "JUBILEE: JISC User Behaviour in Information Seeking. Draft Report", Case Study Site, 1. p.22.
20 Day, J. and Bartle, C. (1998). "The Internet as an electronic information service: its impact on academic staff in Higher Education," IRISS ’98 Conference Paper. p.3. URL address: http://www.sosig.ac.uk/iriss/papers/paper06.htm. Accessed 25th May 2004.
21 Dong, Xiaoying. (2003). "Searching information and evaluation of Internet: A Chinese academic user survey," International Information & Library Review 35. p.182.
22 ibid. p186.