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Equitable Reference and Instruction During COVID-19

August 31, 2020

As we return to the library in one form or another, many of us are bracing ourselves for a full academic year of working while also watching and/or teaching our children, caring for extended family members, or otherwise just trying to survive during a pandemic.

But, for all our struggles, we must keep in mind that our students are dealing with the same problems, if not more. This is especially true for students who already struggle to find success in higher education, particularly students from underrepresented groups and first-generation students. Now, more than ever, we as librarians need to make our reference interactions and instruction sessions as equitable as possible to eliminate as many barriers to education and information literacy competency as we can. While this type of evaluation of our services should be an ongoing process, there are some simple, easy ways we as librarians can improve our instruction and reference services: 

  • Avoid library jargon. Even students that have experience with libraries may struggle to understand all the technical terms we use on a regular basis. This is especially true for international students and students without much experience with libraries and can be exacerbated if students are viewing the session through weak internet connections. Sharing or linking to a “glossary” of library terminology, ideally in multiple languages, can be helpful for all students to best understand the resources available to them through the library.
  • Allow students to use their lived experiences in class assignments and activities. Students from underrepresented populations, especially first-generation students, can feel out-of-touch with higher education, often because they do not see people like them, or with their experiences, represented in class assignments. While librarians may not have a say in all of the assignments of the classes for which we provide instruction, for those assignments that we do it can be tremendously valuable to provide students to pick topics that are important to them and representative of their life experience. Even if librarians have no control over the assignments, in the classroom we can develop activities that follow an asset-based approach which can allow students to use their lived experiences as a way to deepen their information literacy knowledge and skills.
  • Engage in reference best practices of friendliness and a level of caring and empathy for the student and their questions. We know library anxiety is a real problem and may be amplified during this pandemic. Therefore, it is crucial that we work hard to create a connection with the student, respect their questions and viewpoints, and remain positive throughout the whole interaction. Keep the student engaged in the reference interaction by verbally walking them through the steps you are taking to locate an answer. These steps will help the student feel valued and involved in the interaction.

While small steps such as these will not eliminate all of the barriers students face when pursuing a college education, they may help alleviate some of the additional anxiety caused by this pandemic and can serve as a starting point for further examination into the creation of more equitable and just services in academic libraries.

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