Academic Librarians Should Be Sensitive to Language and Cultural Barriers When Providing Reference Service to International Students

Lorie Andrea Kloda


A review of:

Curry, Ann and Deborah Copeman. “Reference Service to International Students: A Field Stimulation Research Study.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 31.5 (Sep. 2005): 409-20.

Objective – To evaluate the quality of reference service provided to non-native, English-speaking international students in academic libraries.

Design – Field stimulation (unobtrusive testing).

Setting – Eleven college and university libraries in the lower mainland of British Columbia, Canada, in the fall of 2003.

Subjects – Library staff offering reference service at one of the participating libraries.

Methods – The study utilized field stimulation, whereby an individual, or “proxy,” posed as a library user and initiated a reference encounter with library staff at each institution. In each case the proxy asked the same question to the library staff member. After the interaction was completed the proxy recorded all observed behaviours. Data were collected using a checklist of actions; a narrative record written by the proxy; and several evaluative questions. Each library was visited by the same proxy on two separate occasions for a total of 22 visits, of which 20 instances resulted in usable data. The narrative recordings of the reference encounters were analyzed using an open coding process.

Main results – In 75% of the cases, the proxy was “‘satisfied” or “very satisfied” with help received from the library staff member and was “likely to” or “definitely would return to the staff member” in the future. The reference encounters lasted between a few minutes to half an hour in length, with most lasting between 5 and 15 minutes. Encounters that were brief (less than 5 minutes) resulted in an evaluation of “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” and “not likely to” or “definitely would not return.” Encounters where the library staff member extended an invitation to the proxy to return in the future were all rated with “high satisfaction” and “willingness to return.” The following reference service actions were observed in at least half of the encounters:
• Asked questions for clarification (20)
• Avoided overwhelming the user with information (19)
• Provided instruction on how to use information sources (18)
• Explained what he / she was doing at every stage (17)
• Demonstrated awareness of language barriers and modified his / her behaviour accordingly (16)
• Had a respectful attitude toward the user and her question (16)
• Looked approachable (15)
• Used library jargon (12)

The remaining reference service actions from the checklist were observed in less than half the encounters:
• Accompanied the user to information sources (9)
• Invited the user to return if she needed more help (6)
• Asked the user if she had found what she needed (4)
• Referred the user to someone else (2)

The data collected from the narrative recordings of the reference encounters resulted in the identification of 17 themes. Most of these themes corresponded with the literature reviewed as important qualities for positive reference interactions. Nine of these themes were found to correlate with the proxy’s positive evaluation of the reference encounter: approachability, awareness of language barriers, asking questions, rephrasing, explanation, library jargon, instruction, early termination of interview, patience, and follow up.

Conclusion – This preliminary study documents the actions of reference staff in academic libraries when answering a question from an international student. The researchers found a relationship between some library staff behaviours and the user’s level of satisfaction and likelihood to return to the staff member in the future. The research suggests that reference staff pay special attention to the needs of non-native English speakers in order to provide a positive reference encounter.

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