Fostering Digital Literacy at the Reference Desk

person typing

Computing and digital literacy initiatives aren’t new in the library — planned programs and educational offerings that support digital citizenship exist in nearly every library in the nation. But digital literacy is developed not only via programs and classes; learning is supported by informal interactions between library staff and patrons. It’s important not to overlook instruction that occurs on a one-to-one basis.

Informal instruction is a concept in education that can be useful in libraries as well. Formal instruction takes place in the classroom, during a scheduled educational program. By contrast, predetermined learning outcomes are not built into informal instruction — from the learner’s point of view, what’s happening isn’t education, but experience: learning by doing.

Libraries are most effective at fostering digital literacy when staff take the same care during casual educational encounters as we do in the classroom. If patrons’ worst fears about their lack of knowledge are confirmed by staff attitudes during at-the-device instructional sessions, this acts as a wall to future teaching interactions, blocks patrons from asking questions, and makes them feel unmotivated to pursue the classes and programs that may be helpful to them.

At every library where I’ve worked since 2008, instructional questions far outweigh reference questions at the public service desks. Most of these instructional queries occur in the realm of computing and web help. In fact, I decided that I wanted to become a librarian because of an experience I had as a circulation supervisor, guiding a patron through the navigation tools for an online job application when the librarian was off-desk. A few weeks later, this patron returned to the library to tell me that he’d gotten a job after filling out a few more web applications on his own. The satisfaction of helping someone learn a skill that they found useful hooked me on public services.

This gentleman may never have attended the library’s computing classes, but he felt comfortable in the one-on-one environment, asking for help with his specific, task-oriented question. In many libraries, this kind of informal instruction comprises the bulk of our direct interactions with patrons. These are some of the practices I’ve developed over the years when providing on-demand computer help at the reference desk, with the ambition that a few of these educational opportunities morph into a-ha moments.

1) Legitimize the question, and begin by indicating a starting point for the process of solving for the x of the patron’s query — even before you’ve reached the computer.

“I’m having trouble. Can you show me how to find some information in JSTOR?”

“Of course! Tell me what you’d like to find and we can use the search tools to look for an article.”

2) Reassure the patron that their lack of knowledge is not unique.

“I feel so dumb for not knowing how to delete emails from my trash folder!”

“No way. I’ve seen this question before. You’re not alone in not knowing how it works.”

3) By default, give the patron the wheel, letting them find, drag, and click while you guide them to the controls they need. Describe areas of a screen with location language (upper right of the screen, at the bottom of the window, etc) and let the learner find the option they need by offering clues to its location and visual representation, e.g., “The button looks like a file folder.” This helps patrons build spatial relationships with the tasks they’re learning — letting them drive builds muscle memory for the task so that next time, it’ll be incrementally easier for them to remember the process.

4) If the patron signals that they’re more comfortable watching you perform the task, narrate your actions. Explain how you’re selecting an object (double-click, right-click, etc), what you’re doing with it…

“I click and hold to ‘drag’, and then let go where I want to ‘drop’,”

…and why.

“This will open up a file we need to download in order to install the update.”

Narration slows the process, which allows the patron to ask questions and absorb the steps they’re seeing unfold — which can go a long way toward helping them feel confident enough to try the task on their own as you remind them of the steps the next time they need assistance with it.

5) Throughout the process, ask the patron whether everything makes sense; recap what you’re doing as you go, and pay attention to the learner’s body language so you don’t move too quickly or past something they don’t understand — frowning, a shaking head, looking at the keyboard rather than the screen, furrowing the brow — each of these is a sign that the patron may not understand something, but isn’t quite sure how to frame a question about it.

6) Before ending the interaction, ask again — “Does this make sense?” — and check in to see if the patron has any additional questions. If it seems like nothing further is needed, congratulate them on a completed task and/or invite further questions in future.

“It looks like you’ve got it! Let me know if you need a refresher some other time, or if you run into anything else you want help with.”

Informal training has the potential to be even more effective than program-based learning because it’s task-based: the learner has a specific goal in mind, which provides an intrinsic motivation to master the skills shared with them. Sometimes patrons feel intimidated by a formal instructional setting — they don’t want to ask “dumb” questions in front of a group; they find that some of what’s covered is either over or under their current knowledge level, so they zone out; they may not see how they can apply the skills in a practical way. With informal interactions, the task is meaningful, so the process becomes almost secondary; patrons barely notice that they’re gradually building skills, in 5-minute increments every few days with librarian coaches at their computer stations. It’s important to make sure that we set the same tone of openness, exploration, and engagement whether we’re teaching a 3-week workshop on web basics, a 1-session class on email etiquette, or a 5-minute tutorial on how to fill out a job application at a public computer station.


Do you have any tips on successful one-on-one instructional interactions? Any challenges you’ve overcome or are facing now? How do you ensure that staff is on the same page when it comes to providing consistent computing help?