Law Student Engagement at the Reference Desk


Photo by Prateek Katyal from Pexels

This month, our law librarians are deep in the throes of mandatory scholarly writing consultations. We meet with students who are preparing original comments or case notes as part of their Scholarly Writing course, and help them develop articles suitable for academic publication. Our goal is to guide them through the process of creating their research plans.

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of preemption checks, database tutorials, catalog surfing, and critical reading. My meetings typically last anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour. While some of the students have a thoroughly curated research log and a clear vision for their article, many others face difficulty with narrowing down their topic and developing a strong thesis. As their law librarian, however, it’s not our job to judge their progress. It’s our duty to meet them where they’re at and help them go from there.

During these sessions, I have noticed that it can be challenging to keep students engaged while showcasing and demonstrating online sources, in particular. We do have a second monitor that shows patrons what we’re doing on the computer while talking to them. This is still a very detached method of teaching, especially for hands-on learners. Since many take notes during reference encounters, they may also miss certain links I’m clicking on, or even the URL itself.

There is much talk on using technology to engage with students, but what about when technology itself is a hindrance to engagement? Many students and librarians alike tire of staring at screens all day, and it’s almost absurd to believe that we can actually retain information through this means alone.

To combat this, I thought about the Reference and User Services Association’s Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers, which we’ll just call “RUSA Guidelines” for short. The RUSA Guidelines cover both in-person and remote reference transactions, and offer guidance on everything from maintaining visibility to following up with patrons after providing assistance. When it comes to in-person interactions, the RUSA Guidelines advise demonstrating clear interest in the patron’s question by maintaining eye contact, offering verbal and non-verbal confirmations, and actually facing the patron during the interaction.

While it’s common sense to do “little things” like make eye contact with our patrons, we may get so swept up in showing off our online resources that we forget to directly engage during the reference encounter. Here are some tips I’ve discovered during research consultations that may be helpful to other reference librarians:

  1. Encourage the patron to use their own laptop at the reference desk. I’ve found that asking them to follow along both on the library’s second monitor and on their own laptop increases their level of engagement. Students can run their own searches and “play” with resources while following along with my overview on the second monitor.
  2. Come out from “behind” the computer. Periodically breaking away from the computer to physically face the patron and ask them how they’re doing has worked wonders. If I am showing them multiple online resources, I take a break in between each one to check in with the patron. It also helps to take field trips into our print collection to look for relevant books, or to show them how to use older equipment like microfiche readers. (Yes, we millennials think things like microfiche are very, very cool.)
  3. Demonstrate, don’t explicate. This is actually from Robert Greene’s book The 48 Laws of Power, but it definitely works for law librarians too! Instead of explaining how to use a resource during a limited reference interaction, it may be more engaging to work through an example and run a search that is directly relevant to their task at hand. This also instills a sense of motivation and urgency, while providing the patron with meaningful interaction. Extra points for finding material they can actually use in their final product.
  4. Give the patron an immediate “task” during the reference interaction. Ask them how they would rate a resource so far. Go check out a book you both found in the catalog together. Place an ILL request for a book not in your library’s collection. Grab the Bluebook and work together to cite an obscure or difficult source you both found. These activities inspire students to actually do something with their newfound knowledge. It also develops trust in the reference office.
  5. Inject fun and humor into the reference encounter. More than likely, your patron may not be having fun when they come to see you. That’s okay – get to know them, ask them how their day is going, and offer an empathetic ear. Try to match their energy; if it’s low, work subtly to bring it back up. Many of us have been through law school or worked though a complex legal issue before, and we know it’s not exactly a walk in the park. Law libraries, in theory and practice, should offer a support system for its patrons. Once patrons know they can depend on us for help and encouragement, they’ll keep coming back for more!

About alynnmatthews

Librarian and communications nerd with a B.A. in journalism from Hampton University, J.D. from University of Miami Law, and M.S.L.I.S. from Catholic University of America.
This entry was posted in Customer Service, employment & reference librarians, Patron Services, Reference Services, student engagement and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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