Why Children’s Reference Services are Important

Barbara Band, The Emmbrook School and CILIP President

As a school librarian, I deal with questions from students all day long, relating to their information needs. Without me as a connection in the library, several would not be able to find what they were looking for or would go away with something unsuitable. Yet many question the necessity of children’s reference services; a point of contact where professional librarians can direct them to appropriate material and offer advice. After all, in today’s information-rich and technologically saturated environment, they have everything they need online … don’t they? The problem with this presumption is that it assumes children know what they want, where to find it, and when they have found it.

Ignoring the fact that many do not have access to the internet – with 11 million people in the UK being offline, some of these must include households containing children, there are several factors that need to be taken into account before we can dismiss the necessity of children’s reference services.

  • Children are often unaware of their information needs or they know they have to find out something but cannot state this clearly. A professional librarian is the first step in any research process able, through appropriate questioning, to interpret those needs. By being aware of the curriculum and which topics are studied, I can often make an “educated guess” as to what a student is looking for once I have ascertained their year group and subject. Being aware of the information needs of my community enables me to provide a more targeted service.
  • Children are unacquainted with the range of resources available to them; their first and only choice usually being Google or Wikipedia. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with Wikipedia but, as children do not have the information literacy skills needed to assess its entries for accuracy or authority, it may not be the best option for them. This means having a wide range of stock that has been evaluated and is appropriate for their level, and directing them to something more relevant, often an alternative resource to the Internet.
  • As children do not have the proficiency required to evaluate results, inappropriate information is often selected; a student, sent to the library to research the Duke of Wellington, also known as “The Iron Duke”, printed off several pages she had found on a website detailing sailing times and freight information regarding a ship of the same name! They also tend to give up searching if they cannot find something quickly, which is often the case considering the amount of information available today, and this is true for both print and online resources. Librarians are able to help children efficiently find resources.
  • The focus of their information needs is often very specific. If they want a book on clouds, they may be able to find the section containing weather books but, if there is not a book with that keyword in the title, many will assume the library has no relevant information, not connecting general weather books with their topic. Likewise, their search terms may be too broad making locating resources tedious. A librarian will be able to guide children through the arrangement of stock, making finding information easier.
  • Professional librarians can help children to become independent learners through example. Children will often seek help from an adult in a situation and good interactions will build up relationships and trust, ensuring repeat visits. If there is no librarian to ask for help, then their visit to the library may be unsuccessful and they will often not bother returning.

Children’s resource needs are different from adults – in content, language and appropriateness – and it requires the intervention of a trained professional to ensure that children find the resource to match their requirements. That is not to say that many adults would not benefit from such services but it is important to remember that information literate children become information literate adults and, until information literacy skills are an embedded requirement of the curriculum, children’s reference services, both within school and public libraries, remain a necessity.

(Driving Digital Inclusion http://www.cilip.org.uk/sites/default/files/documents/CILIP%20digital%20inclusion%20statement%20Sept%202014.pdf.pdf )

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