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Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/17737

Title: Making the Invisible Visible: Public Library Reference Service as Epistemic Practice
Authors: Cavanagh, Mary Frances
Advisor: Choo, Chun Wei
Howarth, Lynne C.
Department: Information Studies
Keywords: public libraries
epistemic practice
reference service
case study
Issue Date: 23-Sep-2009
Abstract: Public library services are evolving in response to the changing informational needs and behaviours of the citizens of the knowledge society. Reference statistics are declining and the move to self-service, virtual reference and an increasing use of mediating information and communication technologies calls into question the ongoing role of human, face-to-face information interaction at the public library’s front-line reference “desk”. An ethnographic case study of face-to-face adult reference service was conducted in a large Canadian urban public library. Over 8 months during 2006, a pilot study was conducted, followed by 170 hours of observations at the reference desks in three branch libraries of varying sizes and semi-structured interviews with front-line reference staff, library managers and reference service clients. 480 reference interactions were documented and policy documents were reviewed. An inductive staged process of analytical abstraction, a narrative approach to the interpretations and a critical reflexivity as participant researcher were employed. The main contribution of this study is the articulation of a practice framework for understanding and studying the reference service within the public library as organization. Sharing knowledge, finding meaning and learning are the outcomes of this epistemic practice. A typology of four reference encounters characterized in three dimensions of interpersonal communication; information exchange and mode of practice is detailed. This study challenges previous interpretations of reference services as a transactional, unitized question-answer activity and depicts it in a larger context as an interactional, relational set of activities that altogether characterize an epistemic practice. The three dimensions of structure (library organization), agency (reference staff and clients) and objects (library collections) anchor this conceptual framework – they are interdependent dimensions interacting to illuminate a robust understanding of face-to-face reference service. This study responds to previous research in which the reference process is studied separately from its social practice and its structural-organizational contexts.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/17737
Appears in Collections:Doctoral
Information Program - Doctoral theses

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