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									334 College & Research Libraries                                                            July 2001

Applying an Information Problem-
solving Model to Academic Reference
Work: Findings and Implications
Janet R. Cottrell and Michael B. Eisenberg

        The usefulness of the Eisenberg–Berkowitz Information Problem-Solv-
        ing model as a useful categorization for academic reference encounters
        is examined. Major trends in the data include a high proportion of ques-
        tions about location and access of sources, a lack of synthesis or pro-
        duction activities, and a consistent presence of system problems (such
        as hardware problems) that impede the information-seeking process.
        The implications of these trends for the reference process, librarian train-
        ing, and campus organization are discussed.

           he rapid and prolific introduc-            demic reference environment are not al-
           tion of electronic resources               together homogeneous, most patrons are
           poses new challenges for aca-              affiliated with the university in one way
           demic reference desks. To help             or another. However, the variety in ques-
meet these challenges, new ways of look-              tions is almost endless; in response, re-
ing at the reference process may help.                searchers have devised ways to charac-
Traditionally, reference encounters have              terize them. Richard L. Derr categorized
been considered in terms of the type of               questions based on their conceptual pre-
question or the type of patron involved.              supposition:1
Recently, however, the reference encoun-                  • Existence (Does X exist?)
ter has been considered more fully as a                   • Identity (What is X? Who is X?)
process. After reviewing both models,                     • Properties (What are the features
this study examines the usefulness of one             of X?)
specific model in the reference process—                  • Relation (How is X related to Y?)
the Eisenberg–Berkowitz Information                       • Number (How many of X are
Problem-Solving (IPS) model.                          there?)
                                                          • Location (Where is X?)
Characteristics of Reference                              • Time (When is X?)
Questions                                                 • Action (What is X doing?)
Much of the existing literature on char-                  Although this categorization offers an
acterizing reference encounters focuses               illuminating look at types of factual ques-
on categorizing type of patron or type of             tions, it does not apply well to other
question. Although clientele in the aca-              types of questions encountered at an aca-

Janet R. Cottrell is Director of Information Access, Library and Information Services, at Kenyon College;
e-mail: Michael B. Eisenberg is a Director and Professor in the Information School
at the University of Washington; e-mail:

Applying an Information Problem-solving Model to Academic Reference Work 335

 demic reference desk. Richard E. Bopp           tually recorded at reference desks, as well
 described several types of reference ser-       as the type of question or answer. Diane
 vices:2                                         M. Brown analyzed telephone reference
     • Ready reference: Ready reference          questions to characterize them by Dewey
 questions are answered quickly by con-          Decimal subject, answer format, and
 sulting one or two standard tools.              level of complexity as indicated by the
     • Bibliographic verification: Facts         specificity of the sources consulted.4 Tho-
 about publications are used to find or re-      mas Childers, Cynthia Lopata, and Brian
 trieve the publications.                        Stafford studied reference questions
     • Interlibrary loans and document de-       looking for a measure of different levels
 livery: This involves the verification of       of difficulty and indicative measures to
 bibliographic information preparatory to        stand for the concept of difficulty.5
 interlibrary lending.
     • Information and referral services:        Characteristics of the Reference
 These services involve the identification       Process
 of community resources and agencies             Studies such as those mentioned above
 that can respond to a query.                    are interesting from a theoretical and sta-
     • Research questions: Research ques-        tistical point of view, but in the midst of a
 tions reflect broader user needs and are        demanding desk shift, they lose some of
 more complex than ready reference ques-         their appeal. More important, they place
 tions. They require more effort and care-       their emphasis on the question itself; by
 ful review and may take place over time.        doing so, they draw attention away from
     • Selective dissemination of informa-       another important aspect of the reference
 tion: This service involves ongoing noti-       encounter—the process. Particularly in
 fication and keeps researchers abreast of       academic reference work, the process as-
 current developments in their fields.           sumes great importance because it fre-
     • Database searches: This is mediated       quently occurs as part of an undergradu-
 searching, often by appointment, away           ate or graduate student’s educational
 from the desk.                                  experience. In these encounters, it is not
    F. Wilfrid Lancaster and Amy J. Warner       necessarily the patron, the question, or the
 used a somewhat similar scheme to char-         answer that matters; rather, it is the pro-
 acterize reference encounters, categoriz-       cess by which student and librarian solve
 ing information needs by purpose and            an information problem and find infor-
 scope.3 They proposed two types of infor-       mation appropriate to the task at hand.
 mation need: the need to locate and ob-             Every basic reference textbook con-
 tain a copy of a particular document for        tains information on conducting refer-
 which the author or title is known              ence interviews, and many emphasize
 (“known-item need”); and the need to            looking beyond the originally presented
 locate documents that are on a particular       question. Ellen D. Sutton and Leslie E.
 subject or are capable of answering a par-      Holt noted that, in fact, the entire inter-
 ticular question (“document delivery ca-        view process can be seen as problem cen-
 pability”). In addition, they identified        tered rather than question centered.6
 three types of retrospective search: the            The emphasis on process rather than
 need for a single item of factual data          question was the basis for work by Carol
 (ready reference); the need for one or          C. Kuhlthau, who developed a model of
 more documents on a subject (but less           the library search process incorporating
 than the total literature); and the need for    both cognitive and affective aspects.7–9
 a comprehensive search in which as much         Based on her studies of students per-
 of the literature as possible on a subject is   forming library research, Kuhlthau’s
 retrieved during a period of time.              model included six steps:
    Other researchers have focused on the            1. Initiation: Student receives assign-
 complexity or difficulty of questions ac-       ment.
336 College & Research Libraries                                               July 2001

    2. Selection: Student selects general     focus from the background information
topic area.                                   (Kuhlthau’s stage 4); and the Post-Focus
    3. Exploration: Student explores ma-      stage, where the student gathers specific
terial on general topic.                      information to prove or disprove the the-
    4. Formulation: Student focuses on        sis and presents the findings (Kuhlthau’s
more specific topic.                          stages 5 and 6). Reasoning that explic-
    5. Collection: Student collects materi-   itly labeling these stages would help
als on focused topic.                         identify the actual information need,
    6. Presentation: Student prepares and     Kennedy, Cole, and Carter next deter-
presents finished assignment.                 mined appropriate search strategies for
   Kuhlthau emphasized three main             each stage: high-recall searches for the
findings of major importance to librar-       Pre-Focus stage, high-recall/high-preci-
ians:                                         sion searches for the Semi-Focus stage,
    • Library searching is a process over     and high-precision searches for the Post-
time and not a single event.                  Focus stage. This groundbreaking re-
    • Library searching is a holistic event   search illustrates the utility that informa-
rather than a simple activity.                tion-processing models can have in ref-
    • Library searching commonly ini-         erence work.
tially increases rather than decreases un-
certainty.                                    Eisenberg-Berkowitz Model
    Kuhlthau recognized that her model        Michael B. Eisenberg and Robert E.
had implications for reference practice:      Berkowitz describe a six-stage model of
reference librarians who have become          Information Problem-Solving (IPS).12 At
aware of the stages in the information        its most general level, the IPS model sim-
search process model “listen for an indi-     ply asserts that whenever students are
cation of the stage in the process of the     faced with an information problem (or
user and particularly note when some-         with making any decision that is based
one is ‘in the dip’ [of uncertainty] and      on information), they can use a system-
needs some extra help to formulate a re-      atic, problem-solving process. At its more
search focus.”10                              detailed levels, the model includes six
                                              stages in the information problem-solv-
 Both the head of the reference               ing process, each having two specific
 department and the researcher/               components:
 librarian agreed from the beginning              1. Task Definition
 that because the research relies on              1.1 Define the problem.
 the reference process, it must be                1.2 Identify the information require-
 almost totally unintrusive.                  ments of the problem.
                                                  2. Information-seeking Strategies
   Lynn Kennedy, Charles Cole, and Su-            2.1 Determine the range of possible
san Carter applied Kuhlthau’s model           sources (brainstorm).
specifically to academic reference work,          2.2 Evaluate the different possible
using a simplified version of it to assess    sources to determine priorities.
and explicitly label undergraduates’ in-          3. Location and Access
formation needs as expressed at the ref-          3.1 Locate sources (intellectually and
erence desk and then designing appro-         physically).
priate search strategies for each phase.11        3.2 Find information within sources.
They first reduced Kuhlthau’s model to            4. Use of Information
three stages: the Pre-Focus stage, in             4.1 Engage (read, see, hear) the infor-
which the student selects a topic and lo-     mation in a source.
cates general information (Kuhlthau’s             4.2 Extract relevant information from
stages 1, 2, and 3); the Semi-Focus stage,    a source.
in which the student chooses a specific           5. Synthesis
Applying an Information Problem-solving Model to Academic Reference Work 337

     5.1 Organize information from mul-           nents of the Eisenberg–Berkowitz model.
 tiple sources.                                   Consultation with the model’s
     5.2 Present information.                     codeveloper helped clarify questions
     6. Evaluation                                about how to code certain types of en-
     6.1 Judge the product (effectiveness).       counters.14 The remaining descriptions
     6.2 Judge the information problem-           were then coded, and the entire set of 170
 solving process (efficiency).                    encounters was treated as one prelimi-
     Although its stages often occur in the       nary data set.
 order listed, the model allows jumping              The second data set consists of brief
 between stages or looping back to previ-         descriptions of another 123 reference en-
 ous steps as needed.                             counters from the following semester.
     Colloquially called the Big Six because      These encounters were recorded and
 of its six steps, this model has been            coded according to the methodologies
 widely adopted in education circles; the         developed with the first set.
 K–12 information literacy standards for             The second set of data was collected
 many states are based on it. As more and         in an attempt to refine and verify the ear-
 more colleges and universities develop           lier set. However, the constraints oper-
 information literacy competencies, aca-          ating during the first phase were still op-
 demic librarians also are becoming famil-        erating during the second phase, so the
 iar with its potential (see Mary Warner          methodology did not change substan-
 for an example13).                               tially. In addition, some characteristics of
     Considering the Eisenberg–Berkowitz          the reference area (including database as-
 model in the academic reference setting          sortment and printing procedures)
 suggests the following research ques-            changed substantially during the inter-
 tions:                                           val between the two collection periods.
     • Can academic reference encoun-             The data from the two phases were there-
 ters be characterized using the                  fore analyzed and reported separately.
 Eisenberg-Berkowitz IPS model? Do they
 fit gracefully?                                  Constraints on Data Collection
     • Can the IPS model tell anything            Because the data result from reference
 about how to approach the encounters,            encounters in a university library, great
 in terms of both answering the question          care was taken during data collection.
 and helping the client? If so, what impli-       Both the head of the reference department
 cations does this have?                          and the researcher/librarian agreed from
     The remainder of this paper describes        the beginning that because the research
 an attempt to study these questions.             relies on the reference process, it must be
                                                  almost totally unintrusive. In other
 Methods                                          words, the reference process itself must
 Collection and Coding of Data Sets               always take precedence over the needs of
 Two sets of data were collected and used         the researcher. This placed severe con-
 in this study. The first set consists of brief   straints on the research process, especially
 descriptions of 170 reference encounters         during data collection.
 at a midsize state university’s main li-            Constraints on the data collection in-
 brary. The encounters took place during          clude:
 a weekly 2.5- to 3-hour midday, midweek              • cannot elicit certain types of data
 desk shift over the course of one semes-         (patron status, age, affiliation, other de-
 ter. The reference librarian jotted down         mographics; too invasive);
 very brief notes during the shift, then ex-          • cannot have an external observer
 panded them as soon as possible after the        or machine recording the encounters (un-
 shift ended. The first fifty descriptions        ethical to tape without consent; impos-
 were examined to see whether they could          sible to observe session closely without
 be characterized in terms of the compo-          being in the way);
338 College & Research Libraries                                                 July 2001

    • cannot take extensive notes during            • relaying information about the
the encounters or between encounters            task to the librarian.
(too intrusive during encounter; no time           1.2 Identify information requirements
between encounters);                            of problem.
    • cannot have a checklist visible to           Realizing specific types of information
the patron (too intrusive/disruptive to         required for a project. Behaviors specific
patron).                                        to the academic reference environment
   The compromise was that the re-              might include:
searcher/librarian carried a small pad              • discussing assignment or task in
and jotted down a few keywords during           terms of:
or right after encounter. Often the re-             —number of sources needed;
searcher/librarian would do this any-               —type of sources needed (book, jour-
way (for example, to jot down search            nal articles, scholarly, popular, etc.);
terms while working on a search with a              —type of information needed (focus,
patron), so this activity was considered        level of detail, information not needed).
part of the ordinary reference process.            2. Information-seeking Strategies
   Clearly, this meant that the re-                2.1 Determine range of sources.
searcher/librarian must reconstruct the            Brainstorming possible sources of in-
encounters from memory, using the brief         formation to meet the requirements. Be-
notes jotted down during the encounter.         haviors specific to the academic reference
The goal was to do this as soon as pos-         environment might include:
sible after the end of the shift; occasion-         • discussion about what has been
ally, this was not possible and some time       tried already;
elapsed between the encounter and the               • discussion about likely fields (hu-
summarization.                                  manities, social sciences, etc.—starting
   One additional requirement was al-           points on main menu);
ways enforced on data collection: must              • discussion about likely indexes to use;
record all encounters during the shift, not         • discussion about likely keywords;
just the memorable ones. This require-              • discussion about potentially use-
ment is essential to compiling a fully rep-     ful print sources;
resentative data set, even though it de-            • discussion of appropriate sources
mands a strong commitment on the part           (print, Web, etc.).
of the librarian and may limit the num-            2.2 Evaluate possible sources to deter-
ber of data collectors in a full-blown study.   mine priorities.
                                                   Deciding which of sources are likely
Clarification of Coding                         to be most useful. In the academic refer-
Guidelines were needed to promote con-          ence environment, this stage is often
sistent coding of the encounters. The fol-      rolled in with 2.1; specific behaviors
lowing list, developed as a preliminary         might include:
coding aid, includes brief definitions of           • picking which database to try first;
each component from Eisenberg and                   • looking through a list of citations
Berkowitz, then identifies behaviors spe-       to select useful items.
cific to the academic reference setting.15         3. Location and Access
   1. Task Definition                              3.1 Locate sources intellectually and
   1.1 Define problem.                          physically.
   Determining what is required for an             Finding sources of information, in-
assignment, outlining tasks, determining        cluding specific books, articles, full-text
order. Behaviors specific to the academic       sources, etc. In the academic reference
reference environment might include:            setting, this might include:
    • consulting the assignment;                    • questions about location of specific
    • focusing/clarifying the topic (of         call numbers, reference books, special
paper, etc.);                                   collections, etc.;
Applying an Information Problem-solving Model to Academic Reference Work 339

    • ILL (suggesting ILL, accepting ILL         • printing full-text sources;
 requests for processing).                       • printing Web sites.
    3.2 Find information within sources.         5. Synthesis
    Behaviors specific to the academic ref-      5.1 Organize information from mul-
 erence environment might include:            tiple sources.
    • using the index or table of contents       Integrating information from a range
 in print sources;                            of sources. In an academic reference en-
    • skimming full-text sources online;      vironment, this might include:
    • skimming print sources.                    • discussion of how information
    4. Use of Information                     from different sources will be used;
    4.1 Engage.                                  • writing a bibliography after com-
    Using a source to gain information.       paring formats from more than one style
 Behaviors specific to the academic refer-    guide.
 ence environment might include:                 5.2 Present information.
    • reading full text or Web page              Creating a product such as a paper,
 online;                                      presentation, illustration, final project,
    • reading print source (atlas, fact       etc. This stage is seldom observed in the
 book, reference book, etc.);                 academic reference setting.
    • obtaining nondirectional facts             6. Evaluation
 from reference librarian.                       6.1 Judge the product (effectiveness).
    4.2 Extract                                  Determining whether the information
    Taking notes or recording information     need has actually been met effectively, as
 from a source. In an academic reference      determined by the final product or
 environment, this might include:             project. This step is seldom observed in
    • taking notes from full-text or print    the academic reference setting because
 sources;                                     the product has not yet been created.

                                  FIGURE 1
             Percentage of Encounters In Which IPS Stage or System
                         Problem Was Observed (Set 1)

                             IPS stages 1.1 à 6.2 plus System
340 College & Research Libraries                                                 July 2001

                                  FIGURE 2
            Percentage of Encounters in Which Each IPS Main Stage
                             Was Observed (Set 1)

              TD            ISS        L&A           IU           S             E

   6.2 Judge the IPS process (efficiency).     Results
   Determining how well the information        For each of the two data sets, the stages
problem-solving process worked. In the aca-    observed in each encounter were tallied,
demic reference setting, this might include:   along with any system problems. Results
   • periodically evaluating whether           were compiled for the number of en-
useful hits are being found;                   counters in which each of the twelve IPS
   • periodically evaluating whether           substages (and system problems) were
correct database is being used;                observed and for the total number of
   • reference librarian asking patron         stages observed in each encounter. The
whether useful information is being            data sets from the first and second phases
found.                                         are presented separately.
   One additional coding category was
developed to deal with problems en-            Phase One Data Set
countered during reference that were           Frequency of IPS Stages
outside the scope of the IPS process.          Figure 1 shows the percentage of encoun-
These problems, tentatively labeled “Sys-      ters in the first data set (a total of 170 en-
tem problems” were often (though not           counters) in which each of the model’s
always) hardware problems. They were           twelve substages were observed. The
not stages in the information process but,     percentage of encounters in which sys-
rather, directly impeded the IPS process,      tem problems were observed is noted at
often by preventing access to an infor-        the far right of figure 1.
mation source.                                    Despite the coding guidelines, there
   Each encounter was evaluated for any        were still some instances in which the
indication of any of the twelve IPS sub-       coder was unsure how to classify an ob-
components plus any indication of sys-         servation. Often this uncertainty had to
tem problems. Any given encounter could        do with which substage the observation
exhibit any number of the possible cod-        reflected within the six major steps; in
ing components.                                other words, the coder might recognize
Applying an Information Problem-solving Model to Academic Reference Work 341

 an observation as task definition but be        information from diverse fields of study
 unsure whether to code it as 1.1 or 1.2.        in their final product.
 Because the uncertainty was at the sub-             As figure 3 shows, more than half the
 stage level and not the main stage level,       reference encounters in the first phase
 the data were then collapsed across sub-        included just one of the twelve informa-
 stages. Figure 2 illustrates the percent-       tion problem-solving subcomponents.
 age of encounters in which each IPS main        Most of these single-stage encounters in-
 stage was observed, regardless of sub-          volved location and access: 44 percent of
 stage coding.                                   all encounters included only stage 3.1 ac-
    In both figures 1 and 2, the most no-        tivities.
 table features are the high frequency of            In some encounters (the “zero” cat-
 location and access observations (step 3        egory in figure 3), no IPS components
 in the model), and the low number of            were observed. These cases represent en-
 synthesis observations (step 5 in the           counters in which only system problems
 model).                                         (outside the IPS process) were observed.
    Nearly 90 percent of all encounters in-
 cluded location and access, primarily           System Problems
 characterized by physically or intellec-        As indicated in figure 1, about 16 per-
 tually locating sources (3.1); in fact, 44      cent of the encounters in the first phase
 percent of all encounters included only         included system problems, defined dur-
 stage 3.1 activities. Generally, the stage      ing the coding as problems encountered
 3.1 activities included either giving di-       during reference that were outside the
 rections for locating call numbers in the       scope of the IPS process, often (though
 stacks, departments of the library, and so      not always) hardware problems. System
 on (physical location) or helping patrons       problems were not steps in the IPS pro-
 find likely sources of information by us-       cess; instead, they impeded the IPS pro-
 ing indexes, databases, and so on (intel-       cess, typically by preventing access to
 lectual location).                              an information source or extraction of
    Even the two cases in which synthe-          information from a source. Examples of
 sis was observed were not clear-cut: they       system problems include microcom-
 represent encounters in which students          puter “freeze-ups,” server crashes,
 discussed how they planned to combine           printer malfunctions, access problems

                                   FIGURE 3
                      Number of Stages per Encounter (Set 1)

            Zero    One    Two    Three   Four     Five   Six    Seven   Eight   Nine
342 College & Research Libraries                                               July 2001

                                 FIGURE 4
    Percentage of Encounters in Which IPS Stage or a System Problem Was
                               Observed (set 2)

on databases requiring university ID             The data then were collapsed across
(bar code access), slow or no response        substages in case of any uncertainty at
from remote databases, and so on. En-         the substage level. Figure 5 shows the
counters in which a badly designed user       percentage of encounters in which each
interface impeded the IPS process also        IPS main stage was observed, regardless
were designated system problems. In           of substage coding.
one case, for example, even the printed          In figures 4 and 5, as in figures 1 and 2,
instructions for using a specific database    the greatest number of observations are in
provided no clue on how to print the          the location and access stage of the model,
full-text findings.                           and the least number of observations are
   When the system problem clearly im-        in the synthesis stage. Nearly 80 percent
peded a specific step in the IPS process,     of the encounters in this data set include
both the system problem and the specific      location and access activities, primarily the
IPS stage were coded. For example, the        physical or intellectual location of sources
case just described (badly designed in-       (3.1). In fact, 46 percent of all encounters
terface) was coded as involving a system      included only stage 3.1 activities of physi-
problem during information extraction         cal or intellectual location.
                                              Number of Stages per Encounter
Phase Two Data Set                            As figure 6 indicates, over 60 percent of
Frequency of IPS Stages                       the reference encounters included just one
Figure 4 shows the percentage of encoun-      of the twelve IPS components. Most of
ters (out of the total of 123 in the second   these (46% of the total set) involved only
data set) in which each of the model’s        stage 3.1 location and access activities.
twelve substages were observed. The
percentage of encounters in which sys-        System Problems
tem problems were observed is noted at        As figure 4 indicates, about 15 percent of
the far right of the graph.                   the encounters in the second data set in-
Applying an Information Problem-solving Model to Academic Reference Work 343

                                   FIGURE 5
        Percentage of Encounters in Which IPS Main Stage Was Observed

              TD           ISS          L&A         IU            S            E

 cluded system problems. Because the           in the IPS process, both the system prob-
 printing process changed substantially        lem and the specific IPS stage were
 between phases one and two, fewer             coded. However, if the IPS stage was not
 printing problems occurred. Many of the       clear or relevant (e.g., registering for
 system problems in this data set con-         courses), only the system problem was
 cerned IPS-related activities that a patron   recorded.
 might reasonably expect to accomplish
 in the workstation area, which were ei-       Discussion
 ther not available at all or impeded by       General Findings
 lack of a clear interface and instructions.   The constraints on data collection did af-
 For example, several system problems          fect the research process. Without the use
 concerned using campus e-mail software        of an external recorder, detailed notes,
 (which is unavailable on these worksta-       or checklists during the actual reference
                                               encounter, the description of each en-
  Librarians can use the model to              counter was necessarily brief. Even
  ascertain where the student is in the        though these brief descriptions were an-
  research process, advise accordingly,        notated and coded as soon as possible
  and verify that all relevant steps are       afterward, inevitable delays and incom-
  covered.                                     plete memories affected the quality of the
                                               data. Thus, it would be a mistake to
 tions) or registering online for credit       overinterpret the current data.
 courses (which is available but may be           Despite the data collection and cod-
 blocked by passwords, locks, or other         ing challenges, the encounters did seem
 features of the system that may require       to fit gracefully into the model. Three
 intervention by other offices such as the     trends stand out: (1) location and access
 registrar or accounting).                     activities were observed in many en-
    As in phase one, when the system           counters; (2) synthesis activities were ob-
 problem clearly impeded a specific step       served in very few encounters; and (3)
344 College & Research Libraries                                                 July 2001

in many encounters, only one stage of           information problems) but directly im-
the model was observed. These trends            peded it by preventing access to an in-
are consistent across both data sets.           formation source or extraction of infor-
   These trends are also consistent with        mation from a source.
what might be expected intuitively.
Many of the reference encounters in-            Implications
cluded questions about location and ac-         Although the results of categorizing aca-
cess, and about half the encounters were        demic reference events into the IPS
“one-shot” questions that concerned             model may be unsurprising, they still can
only one step of the IPS process, prima-        provide insight into the academic refer-
rily location and access. These findings        ence process and how best to prepare li-
will not surprise many reference librar-        brarians to meet it.
ians, who already feel they spend much             The Eisenberg–Berkowitz IPS model
of their time giving location directions.       also provides a useful checklist as refer-
   The lack of stage 5 synthesis activities     ence librarians address specific patron
also is not surprising because the work-        requests. Librarians can use the model
stations in the reference area do not sup-      to ascertain where the student is in the
port application software such as word          research process, advise accordingly, and
processing, database management,                verify that all relevant steps are covered.
spreadsheet, or graphics packages. As           This is particularly useful for novice ref-
Eisenberg and Doug Johnson pointed              erence librarians who may feel over-
out, students often use such tools dur-         whelmed by the collection itself and the
ing synthesis; without the presence of the      vast range of questions confronting
appropriate tools, the stage is unlikely        them: it provides an easily accessible
to be observed.16                               “handle” or entry point.
   Librarians in wired academic librar-            Using the IPS model also can prompt
ies will not be startled to hear that           librarians to think about their own natu-
slightly under 20 percent of the questions      ral tendencies in approaching reference
revealed “system problems,” problems            work. If the researcher’s experiences are
that were outside the scope of the IPS          any indication, using the model to ana-
process (usually hardware problems, not         lyze reference encounters may raise

                                 FIGURE 6
       Percentage of Encounters with Number of Stages Covered (Set 2)

          Zero    One    Two    Three    Four     Five     Six   Seven   Eight    Nine
Applying an Information Problem-solving Model to Academic Reference Work 345

 awareness of which stages come natu-            as many are, this is a good reason to do
 rally and which ones may need more at-          so: to create one place on campus where
 tention, not necessarily in specific en-        students can work through all the infor-
 counters but, rather, in general.               mation problem-solving steps including
     Awareness of the IPS model can help         brainstorming, locating, using, evaluat-
 librarians keep the reference process on        ing, and synthesizing information. In-
 track. For example, when a system or            stead of a reference area that focuses only
 hardware problem impedes a patron, the          on database searches, schools who wish
 natural tendency is to try to solve it.         to emphasize all aspects of information
 Sometimes, however, it is useful (indeed        literacy may choose to create an infor-
 necessary) to step back and look at the         mation commons that includes tools to
 problem in IPS terms. For example, if a         create printed or electronic information
 printer is malfunctioning, the patron can-      products.
 not extract information (step 4.2). If the          Such a facility would need to be
 printer cannot be fixed quickly, the real       staffed by people who are familiar with
 solution from the patron’s point of view        all the IPS steps and can support not just
 is not to fuss with the printer but, rather,    database searches, but also other aspects
 to redirect the output to a working             of product synthesis, including applica-
 printer or, if that is not possible, to reen-   tions software, multimedia production,
 ter the search on a properly functioning        and effective writing. This may mean
 workstation and print the results there.        pulling together services that ordinarily
 Analyzing the problem in IPS terms              may reside in different locations such as
 helps refocus the effort onto the patron’s      the library reference area, the writing
 actual need.                                    center, the computer center, and so on.17
     One unanticipated implication of this           Administrative arguments for com-
 research applies to an aspect of campus         bining libraries, computing centers, or
 planning. As colleges and universities          other campus services often are based on
 begin to accept information problem-            budgetary or logistical considerations:
 solving models such as the Eisenberg–           consolidation saves money and space. In
 Berkowitz model, they are taking a closer       practice, however, these savings may be
 look at how to promote core information         difficult to realize. The current study, al-
 competencies on their campuses. But the         though preliminary, indicates that there
 current research indicates that one of the      may be a stronger rationale for collabo-
 areas normally thought to promote these         ration or consolidation, a rationale based
 competencies—the library—is, in fact,           on providing better services to students.
 not providing resources for major stages
 of the model: the stages having to do           Future Research
 with creation and evaluation of the prod-       The findings of this study suggest sev-
 uct.                                            eral promising avenues for future re-
     Synthesis and product evaluation will       search. One obvious follow-up would be
 not occur in the library reference work-        to compare these findings with those of
 station area until “synthesis tools” (word      other academic environments, including
 processing, spreadsheet, database,              different kinds of schools.
 graphics, or citation management soft-             Moreover, these findings could be en-
 ware, laser quality printers, and so on)        hanced by combining the observational
 are available there in addition to the more     techniques used here with interviews or
 typical library databases. Adding tools         other substantive discussion. Follow-up
 such as these to the reference area toolbox     interviews with patrons would provide
 is controversial because they add greatly       qualitative data allowing a more in-
 to the support burden.                          depth understanding of their perceptions
     However, if schools are going to com-       of the reference encounters. For example,
 bine their library and computing center,        it would be particularly interesting to de-
346 College & Research Libraries                                                     July 2001

termine whether the patrons were aware            process. In schools where computing
of going through a series of stages dur-          support is separate from library support,
ing their work.                                   computing help desks probably field
   In schools with active information lit-        many questions related to the synthesis
eracy programs, the techniques de-                stage, as students rely on application
scribed here could be used as part of a           software to produce papers, slides, and
pre- and posttest to help assess the effec-       so on, just as campus writing centers may
tiveness of the programs. Conversely, in-         focus on task definition, synthesis, and
terview techniques could be used to de-           evaluation as they help students tackle
termine whether patrons already had               major writing assignments. In schools
had any information literacy instruction.         where computing and library support
   Finally, given the implications for            have been combined, the research tech-
campus planning discussed above, com-             niques described here may help evalu-
parable data from different service points        ate the effectiveness of the combined ser-
on the same campus would provide in-              vice points in addressing the full spec-
sight into whether and how students re-           trum of information problem-solving
quest and receive aid throughout the IPS          tasks.

     1. Richard L. Derr, “Questions: Definitions, Structure, and Classification,” RQ 24 (winter
1984): 186–190.
     2. Richard E. Bopp, “History and Varieties of Reference Services,” in Reference and Informa-
tion Services: An Introduction, ed. Richard E. Bopp and Linda C. Smith (Englewood CO: Librar-
ies Unlimited, Inc., 1995).
     3. F. Wilfrid Lancaster and Amy J. Warner, “Some Basics of Information Retrieval,” chap.
1 in Information Retrieval Today (Arlington, VA: Information Resources Pr., 1993).
     4. Diane M. Brown, “Telephone Reference Questions: A Characterization by Subject, An-
swer Format, and Level of Complexity,” RQ 24 (spring 1985): 290–303.
     5. Thomas Childers, Cynthia Lopata, and Brian Stafford, “Measuring the Difficulty of Ref-
erence Questions,” RQ 31 (winter 1991): 237–43.
     6. Ellen D. Sutton and Leslie E. Holt, “The Reference Interview,” in Reference and Informa-
tion Services: An introduction, ed. Richard E. Bopp and Linda C. Smith (Englewood CO.: Librar-
ies Unlimited, Inc., 1995).
     7. Carol Collier Kuhlthau, “Developing a Model of the Library Search Process: Cognitive
and Affective Aspects,” RQ 28 (winter 1988): 232–42.
     8. ———, Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Services (Norwood,
N.J.: Ablex, 1993).
     9. ———, “Impact of the Information Search Process Model on Library Services,” RQ 34
(fall 1994): 21–26.
    10. Ibid., 23.
    11. Lynn Kennedy, Charles Cole, and Susan Carter, “Connecting Online Search Strategies
and Information Needs: A User-centered, Focus-labeling Approach,” RQ 36 (summer 1997):
562–68, and “The Optimization of Online Searches through the Labeling of a Dynamic, Situa-
tion-dependent Information Need: The Reference Interview and Online Searching for Under-
graduates Doing a Social-Science Assignment,” Information Processing and Management 32 (Nov.
1996): 709–17.
    12. Michael B. Eisenberg and Robert E. Berkowitz, Information Problem-solving: The Big Six
Skills Approach to Library & Information Skills Instruction (Greenwich, CT.: Ablex, 1990).
    13. Mary Warner, “Western Carolina University’s Model of Integrating Information Lit-
eracy: Partnering the First-Year Composition Instructor, Students, and a Personal Librarian,”
paper presented at the annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Com-
munication, Chicago, Apr. 1–4, 1998.
    14. Eisenberg, personal communication, Apr. 20, 1998.
    15. Eisenberg and Berkowitz, Information Problem-solving.
    16. Michael B. Eisenberg and Doug Johnson, Computer Skills for Information Problem-solving:
Learning and Teaching Technology in Context (Syracuse, N.Y.: ERIC Clearinghouse on Informa-
tion and Technology, 1996). ERIC ED 392463.
Applying an Information Problem-solving Model to Academic Reference Work 347
    17. For a more extensive discussion of integrating research and technology support in li-
 braries, see Chris Ferguson, “‘Shaking the Conceptual Foundations,’ Too: Integrating Research
 and Technology Support for the Next Generation of Information Service,” College & Research
 Libraries 61 (July 2000): 300–311.

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