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TL v60n3: Guest Commentary
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 60 Number 3



Guest Commentary

 Bibliographic Instruction is Dead!


Mark Ellis
Head, Government Documents/Law/Maps
Charles C. Sherrod Library, East Tennessee State University


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Note from the Editor: Mr. Ellis was Head of Reference at Sherrod Library for 20 years. He recently became the Head of Government Documents/Law/Maps at Sherrod Library.

Perhaps not dead, but it seems to me that now is the time to push Jack back in the box and put him on the shelf with the other old toys. Bibliographic Instruction as we have known it for these many years is gone. Now I realize that many libraries (ours included) are still offering bibliographic instruction sessions and library tours. However, are they truly relevant to the needs of today’s students, and in the world of tighter budgets, are they the best use of time for library staff?

Bibliographic instruction as we think of it began in the late 19th century. As our field emerged as a distinct profession, librarians were called upon to explain to users the complex and often non-standardized tools and practices of research. During the twentieth century, as reference tools and catalogs became more standardized and professors began to teach research methodology themselves, bibliographic instruction appeared to die out. Beginning in the 1950’s, a new era of library instruction began. This has been attributed to the effects of increasing academic specialization, democratization of higher education, and the increasing size and complexity of libraries. All the parties involved recognized the needs and benefits. It made librarians feel more important, and on college campuses more like teaching faculty, it took some tasks off the backs of professors, and it gave students a break in the routine and sometimes a chance to cut or ignore class without consequences. Oh, and some students came away with valuable research skills.
As online catalogs and database searching replaced card catalogs and print indexes, librarians saw an even greater need for teaching users how to find what they needed. Then came the Internet and what was called at the time rather ominously “end-user searching.” Many librarians feared that the searches performed by “non-trained” researchers would be inadequate and superficial. If we were not to do the job ourselves, then we must show library users how to “adequately” use the databases.

We are now moving into a new phase of the so-called information age. Most people no longer view the Internet as a complex research tool requiring special instruction from an “information professional”. Students and other library users can be seen with several devices wirelessly providing information at the same time.  Interface changes and software updates appear more and more frequently. What libraries must do, and what most are doing, is to show their users the unique value of the resources they provide.  As information has become available to users anywhere on many types of devices, the physical library has emerged as a multi-use facility for social interaction as well as a quiet place to study. To make our users aware of our unique value, we cannot expect them to seek us out, or even sit through classes we teach, we must go where they are, show them the great stuff we have, and when necessary encourage them to come to our libraries.

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