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18 Point-of-Need Instruction: Teaching at the Reference Desk and in Consultations


Most of the chapters in this text focus on teaching groups of learners in classroom settings. We can also use our instruction skills when working with patrons one on one, such as at the reference desk and in research consultations. Integrating instruction into reference encounters improves patrons’ satisfaction with the service they receive (Dewdney & Ross, 1994; Massey-Burzio, 1998), and it empowers patrons to become independent searchers and users of technology. This chapter introduces approaches to reference services that include instruction, explores how we can capture the teachable moment, and then presents strategies for incorporating instruction in face-to-face and virtual reference.

Approaches to Reference Service

When we approach the reference encounter as an opportunity to offer instruction, one in which we guide patrons through the research process rather than providing them with an answer, we are enabling our patrons to act independently to meet their own needs. This approach aligns with the focus on self-actualization and self-direction of humanist and andragogical theories of learning, and supports critical pedagogy’s emphasis on empowering learners and helping them develop agency. In addition, an instructional approach allows patrons to retain ownership of their question and the answers they are seeking. Elmborg (2002, p. 459) writes, “whenever we answer a student’s question without teaching the student how we answered it or why we answered it as we did, we are essentially taking the question away from the student, thereby creating a dependency in that student that undermines rather than strengthens the learning process.” This philosophy of reference is often compared to the proverb “Give a person a fish, and they will eat for a day; teach them to fish, and they will eat for a lifetime.”

The extent to which we engage in instruction will be influenced by our information setting and our patrons. Tyckoson (2020, p. 13), building on the work of Wyer (1930) and Rothstein (1961), identifies three approaches to reference service:

  • Liberal or Maximum: The reference librarian conducts research for patrons, and instruction is not expected or offered. This approach is most often seen in corporate, medical, and law libraries.
  • Moderate or Middling: The librarian may conduct research for patrons or might guide patrons through conducting their own research. This approach is most often seen in public libraries, where librarians adjust their approach based on the complexity of the question and the needs of the patron.
  • Conservative or Minimum: The librarian primarily instructs patrons in the use of the library and its resources, and patrons are expected to conduct their own research. This approach is common in school and academic libraries.

These approaches are not rigid but comprise a continuum of service; information professionals can move across the continuum as appropriate. However, as noted, different approaches lend themselves to different information settings, aligning with the mission of the library and its role within the larger institution or community. For instance, the role of corporate librarians is usually to increase efficiency of the organization by saving time and money; this is probably best accomplished by executing searches, and synthesizing and delivering results upon request. Corporate librarians might offer workshops and trainings to groups but are less likely to engage in lengthy instructional interactions for each reference request. On the other hand, academic and school libraries support the educational mission of their campuses; thus, helping students learn to navigate and evaluate information sources is a primary role for these libraries. Simply providing students with answers would undermine that educational role. Public librarians will take their cue from the patron, offering instruction but also supplying answers if that is what the patron prefers.

While Tyckoson was addressing how librarians help patrons seeking information, we should recognize that librarians handle a wide variety of inquiries at most reference desks, and the nature of the inquiry will also dictate whether or the extent to which we provide instruction. For example, librarians fielding a question about composing and sending an email or using the technology in a makerspace will likely adopt an instructional approach, regardless of the type of library, while librarians responding to a request for more paper in the printer will probably perform the task themselves.

Identifying and Enabling the Teachable Moment

A teachable moment occurs when an individual “develops a natural curiosity about a topic” or “an event occurs that acts as a catalyst for learning” (Drew, 2020). For example, a child who asks for help finding a book by a favorite author might be naturally curious about how the librarian can find the desired title on the shelf so quickly, presenting an opportunity to explain that fiction is arranged by author name. A student writing a research paper has a natural need to learn about citation, while an adult who asks for help logging in to an email account will likely want to be able to do so again in the future. In both cases, the patron’s immediate need becomes a catalyst for learning, with the reference librarian assuming the role of instructor. Reference encounters are ripe with teachable moments such as these.

An important part of teaching at the reference desk is ensuring patrons are open to instruction. Again, our approach to reference will be guided (or even dictated) by our setting. Patrons in a public library are not obligated to learn our systems and processes. If patrons are not interested in instruction, are stressed out, or in a hurry, we might simply provide them with the answers or resources they need. But at the same time, we would not want to miss an opportunity to empower these patrons if they are ready and willing to learn. We must be good listeners, looking for clues that our patrons are open to instruction. Phrases such as “Can you show me how to . . . ?” signal an interest in learning. Body language can also be a clue. Patrons who sit down at the desk or crane their neck to watch our screen as we type are probably open to instruction; patrons who appear stressed probably are not. We can also ask questions to gauge our public library patron’s interest in instruction. For instance, if a patron asks whether we have a certain book, we might respond by saying, “Yes, would you like me to show you how to locate that in our catalog?”

In a school or academic library, the ability to find, use, and evaluate information is probably an educational goal for all students, and instruction should be inherent in our reference transactions. Nevertheless, if patrons are not open to that instruction, they are unlikely to learn from the transaction. Danley (2003) points out that when students are assigned a research topic by their instructor, it can be difficult for them to feel they have ownership over their own research and learning. In these cases, we can address patrons in ways that give them authority over their research. Questions such as “What would you like to learn about this topic?” or brainstorming connections between an assigned topic and the students’ personal interests can encourage patrons to negotiate their own questions and may motivate them to engage with the research process and the instruction the librarian is offering.

We can also enable teachable moments by attending to the affective aspects of our patrons’ research process and providing empathetic guidance. In previous chapters, we learned about the role of emotions in research through the phenomenon of library anxiety (Mellon, 1986) and Kuhlthau’s (1991, 2004) identification of affective aspects of the Information Search Process. For instance, students often experience anxiety and frustration at the beginning of the research process, especially as they try to identify a topic. Negative emotions like anxiety can get in the way of the cognitive processes and critical thinking necessary to learning, and make patrons resistant to instruction. Kuhlthau (2004) advises us to acknowledge and normalize feelings of anxiety and frustration, and assure the student that we can help.

Patrons, in particular adult patrons, may be uncomfortable admitting they do not know how to do something or may feel awkward learning while the librarian watches them. In their list of 10 best practices for teaching at the reference desk, Campbell and Fyfe (2002, p. 27-28) include “make learners comfortable with the fact that they have to learn something” and “make the person comfortable with her ability to learn” as two essential components of successful one-on-one instruction. Carlile (2007, p. 140) also notes the importance of putting patrons at ease and suggests that we use a positive, encouraging tone, and exercise tact and patience as we provide instruction.

We should realize that some patrons might not expect instruction. We can gently invite them into the instruction by narrating our actions as we walk through a search process and asking them questions to engage them in the search. We could even use some of the active learning techniques discussed in Chapter 4, such as asking the student to fill out a K-W-L chart or create a concept map.

Activity 18.1 offers a brief exercise on recognizing and enabling the teachable moment.


Activity 18.1: Recognizing and Enabling the Teachable Moment

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  1. How can we recognize a teachable moment? What might patrons say or do that indicates they are open to instruction?
  2. In what situations might a patron not be open to learning? How can we recognize those situations?
  3. How might we generate interest in instruction with students in a school or academic library?

Setting Instructional Goals for the Reference Interview

Having identified and enabled the teachable moment, we should reflect on our instructional goals. Many researchers have suggested that librarians attend to learning outcomes as they teach at the reference desk (see, for example, Avery & Ward, 2010; Ward, 2011). VanScoy (2019) distinguishes between conceptual knowledge, or one’s understanding of underlying principles, and procedural knowledge, or one’s ability to use appropriate strategies. Understanding that a database contains citations to facilitate access to literature is conceptual knowledge, while using Boolean operators to combine terms reflects procedural knowledge. As we deliver instruction, we can step back to consider the broader conceptual knowledge that is relevant to the patron’s question and introduce those concepts as part of our instruction. By helping patrons develop a more robust mental model of how information is created, organized, and accessed, we empower them to be information literate and self-directed in a way that teaching rote searching skills alone will not (Brandt, 2001).

VanScoy (2019, p. 176) argues that just as librarians are refocusing classroom instruction to emphasize conceptual knowledge, we should be intentional about teaching conceptual knowledge within the reference interview. VanScoy’s work echoes Elmborg’s (2002) call to develop a pedagogy of reference that articulates our goals for this type of instruction.

Strategies for the Reference Desk

We can use a number of strategies to integrate instruction into the reference encounter:

  • Think Aloud: As we assist a patron, we can explain our actions and decisions with comments like, “If we walk over to our collection of biographies, we can browse by last name” or “I’m going to search PubMed because it is the primary database for health science literature and will link us to numerous freely available articles.” Think aloud is one of the easiest instructional strategies to integrate into the reference interview and supports the best practice of involving the patron in the search process (Ross et al., 2009, pp. 112-114).
  • Questioning: As we search, we can ask patrons questions that invite them into the search process. A question such as “Do any of these results look helpful?” allows the patron to retain control of the question while also modeling the importance of assessing search results for relevancy. As we pose questions, we can support the development of conceptual knowledge. For example, the question “Would you like to find a book or articles about your topic?” assumes the patron understands the type of information that can be found in each source. A question that also includes a brief explanation ensures the patron understands why the librarian is offering this choice. Our explanation could sound something like this: “We could look for books or magazine articles on your topic. A book will provide an in-depth discussion of your topic, but magazine articles will have more current information and be quicker to read. What would be most helpful at this time?”
  • Demonstration: As in a face-to-face class, we can explain each step of a search process while the patron observes. We should ensure the patron can see the screen by turning the monitor to the patron and narrate each step clearly. Our demonstration will be more effective if we also go slowly and pause to check in and review as necessary (Campbell & Fyfe, 2002).
  • Guiding: In guiding, we invite patrons to sit at the computer and conduct the search while we stand to the side and offer coaching. Ross et al. (2009, p. 117) note that not only are patrons more likely to remember what they learned, it “becomes immediately clear where the user is running into trouble.” As we coach patrons, we should respect their personal space and, if possible, be at eye level so that we are not looming over them (Campbell & Fyfe, 2002; Ross et al., 2009, p. 117).

We should keep in mind that approaches that engage the patron in active learning will be more effective. For example, if we demonstrate a search while the patron watches, the patron may nod as we go through each step but not remember the process later; if we have patrons sit at the computer to conduct the search with our guidance, they are more likely to remember what they learned and be able to conduct future searches independently.

Scaffolding is also very applicable to the reference encounter. We should determine what the patron already knows and offer small steps toward new skills. For example, after helping a student create a citation for a book, we can point out that other types of citations follow a similar format and walk the student through using a style guide. Librarians also can scaffold by relating new information or skills to something that is familiar to the patron. As with classroom instruction, metaphors can be very helpful. We could compare citations to addressing a letter; just as providing the correct address will help a letter reach its intended recipient, a correct citation helps the reader locate source material.

Throughout the process, we should keep our instruction concise and relevant to the user’s immediate needs (Avery, 2008). If patrons are undertaking complex research, we can break the process into steps, help them get started on the first step, and invite them to return for more instruction when they are ready for the next step. We should also leave users in control of how much instruction they receive and be prepared to exit the transaction gracefully (Campbell & Fyfe, 2002; Ross et al., 2009, p. 118).

Activity 18.2 provides an opportunity to practice integrating instructional strategies into a reference encounter.


Activity 18.2: Create a Skit

Work with a group of peers to create a skit that demonstrates how a librarian can use instructional strategies as part of the reference interview.

  1. Select a simple reference scenario, such as finding country information in The World Factbook or locating a book in the online catalog.
  2. Write a script for the patron and librarian. In assisting the patron, the librarian should teach the patron the needed research or technology skills.
  3. As a class, take turns acting out the skits. After each skit, discuss what the librarian did well and any suggestions for improvement.

Instructional Strategies for Virtual Reference

Librarians might assume that patrons utilizing virtual reference services are only interested in quick, direct answers to their queries. However, patrons utilize virtual reference for many reasons; they may be unable to visit the library in person or may prefer the anonymity of virtual reference. In some cases, patrons may be in the library building but reluctant to pack up their belongings in order to visit the reference desk in person. Research on virtual reference shows that patrons are open to instruction. In many cases, patrons ask for instruction explicitly with questions like, “How do I . . . ?” and “Can you show me how . . . ?” (Desai & Graves, 2008, p. 246). And even when patrons do not ask for instruction directly, they are receptive when it is offered (Graves & Desai, 2006; Desai & Graves, 2008, pp. 252-53). Ellis (2004) argues that instruction is a natural fit for the more egalitarian environment of virtual reference. She writes, “remote users, either via digital reference or via online instruction, have a high degree of self-efficacy, thus are receptive to learning what is necessary to resolve their information needs” (Ellis, 2004, p. 106).

Many of the strategies used for instruction in face-to-face reference can be adapted for virtual reference, including giving brief, written explanations as we recommend sources and strategies; asking questions that engage patrons in the search process; chunking up information into smaller segments; narrating the steps we are taking to locate information or solve the patron’s problem; and guiding patrons through search steps while they conduct the search themselves. Devlin et al. (2008) suggest approaching the transaction as a collaborative conversation, such as by asking patrons to suggest alternative search terms and working together to build search strategies. We should also check in with patrons frequently and confirm that they are receiving the information they need. If we are using chat software that supports co-browsing, we can provide a live demonstration of a search and even ask patrons to follow along on their own computer. If co-browsing is not an option, we can push links to instructional videos that demonstrate the search process.

As with in-person reference encounters, we should attend to the patron’s affective state when conducting virtual reference. Oakleaf and VanScoy (2010) recommend we show enthusiasm for patron requests, and acknowledge and compliment the work they have done prior to initiating a virtual reference encounter. Hunter et al. (2019, p. 147) recommend that we provide supportive, positive feedback throughout the transaction, suggesting “praise when the student gets the right answer, connecting over shared experiences, and bolstering their research confidence when they understand important ideas or find valuable resources.”

Hunter et al. (2019) note that when patrons initiate a virtual reference encounter, they may be uncertain who is responding to their query and may expect a straightforward transaction similar to contacting customer service. Hunter et al. echo Devlin et al. (2008) in recommending that librarians gently persist in offering instruction, and suggest a number of strategies we can use to enable the teachable moment in virtual reference. These strategies including asking patrons if they have time for instruction; using phrases like “Let’s walk through this together” to signal that instruction will be offered; and pushing screenshots, videos, and other learning objects, especially when patrons are short on time (Hunter et al., 2019, p. 145-147).

We should also be aware that conducting a good reference interview will support effective instruction (Hunter et al., 2019; VanScoy, 2019). VanScoy’s findings indicate that librarians tend to focus on the patron’s stated information need, rather than uncovering the challenges or gaps in knowledge that led patrons to ask for help. She suggests that a more robust understanding of the patron’s goals and knowledge gaps can open up opportunities for instruction focused on conceptual knowledge. As we work with patrons, we should ask open-ended questions, demonstrate active listening, and convey interest (for more on effective reference interviews, see Ross, 2009; Saunders, 2020).

Activity 18.3 provides practice integrating instruction into virtual reference.


Activity 18.3: Adapting Instructional Strategies to Virtual Reference

Revisit the script you created in Activity 18.2, and imagine that you have been asked the same question while staffing your library’s chat-based reference service.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  1. Which of the instructional strategies used in your script would work in chat reference?
  2. Could you adapt some of your other instructional strategies, and if so, how?
  3. What technologies would be helpful in providing this instruction?


Instruction librarians often find themselves working with patrons at reference desks and through consultations, and these interactions can be excellent opportunities to provide instruction. In fact, the immediate information need of a reference question and the one-on-one nature of the interaction mean we can personalize the instruction and highlight its direct relevance to the patron. Helping patrons learn at the reference desk empowers them to begin meeting their own information needs.

The key takeaways from this chapter include:

  • The extent to which we offer instruction as part of our reference work will vary. School and academic librarians will emphasize instruction in the majority of transactions, while corporate librarians rarely will. Public librarians will be guided by their patrons’ needs and openness to instruction.
  • We should be aware of the appropriate level of instruction for our setting and be attuned to our patrons so as not to miss opportunities to offer instruction.
  • We have a number of strategies at our disposal to integrate instruction at the reference desk, including narrating our process, asking questions to invite patrons to engage, demonstrating tasks and processes, and offering guidance while patrons engage in a task or process on their own.
  • During virtual reference transactions, we can provide brief, written explanations of our process, use screen-share applications to demonstrate tasks and processes, and ask questions to invite the patron to engage in the process.
  • Regardless of modality, we should remember the affective aspects of research, acknowledge and normalize any frustrations or fears our patrons may have, and use positive, encouraging language to support their progress.

Suggested Readings

Bruce, S. (2020, February 5). Teaching with care: A relational approach to individual research consultations. In the Library with the Lead Pipe.

Bruce addresses another form of one-on-one instruction, the research consultation. She uses the frameworks of Care Ethics, Relational-Cultural Theory, and Critical Race Theory to uncover the power dynamics in consultations and suggest strategies librarians can use to build relationships and support learning.

Campbell, S., & Fyfe, D. (2002). Teaching at the computer: Best practices for one-on-one instruction in reference. Feliciter, 48(1), 26-28.

Campbell and Fyfe provide 10 tips for successful one-on-one instruction. Each tip is accompanied by a concise explanation and sample scripts librarians can use while working with patrons.

Danley, E. (2003, March/April). The public children’s librarian as educator. Public Libraries, 42(2), 98-101.

Danley provides a brief explanation of constructivism and scaffolding, and discusses their relevance to the work of children’s librarians. She offers numerous concrete strategies for teaching young patrons within the reference encounter.

Elmborg, J. K. (2002). Teaching at the desk: Toward a reference pedagogy. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 2, 455-64.

Elmborg argues for the development of a pedagogy of reference that emphasizes the integration of teaching and reference work. He draws on constructivist and social constructivist learning theories to show how reference creates teachable moments that librarians can use as powerful learning opportunities.

Hunter, J., Kannegiser, S., Kiebler, J., & Meky, D. (2019). Chat reference: Evaluating customer service and IL instruction. Reference Services Review, 47(2), 134-150.

In this research study, the authors review chat reference transcripts for evidence of instruction. They use their findings to explore how librarians can enable the teachable moment and recommend effective practices for teaching in virtual reference.

Oakleaf, M., & VanScoy, A. (2010). Instructional strategies for digital reference: Methods to facilitate student learning. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 49(4), 380-90.

Oakleaf and VanScoy outline eight strategies for integrating instruction into virtual reference, linking each strategy to theories of learning to show how they support metacognition and active learning.

Pattee, A. S. (2008). What do you know? Applying the K-W-L method to the reference transaction with children. Children & Libraries, 6(1), 30-39.

Pattee briefly reviews how children’s developmental stages affect the ways they engage in information seeking. She then shows how librarians can use the K-W-L method to integrate instruction into reference work with children.

VanScoy, A. (2019). Conceptual and procedural knowledge: A framework for analyzing point-of-need information literacy instruction. Communications in Information Literacy, 13(2), 164–183.

In this research study based on chat reference transcripts, VanScoy shows that librarians are more likely to teach procedural knowledge than conceptual knowledge. She shows that conceptual knowledge is the basis of meaningful learning and argues that librarians should be more intentional about integrating the teaching of conceptual knowledge in the reference encounter.


Avery, S. (2008). When opportunity knocks: Opening the door through teachable moments. The Reference Librarian, 49(2), 109-118.

Avery, S., & Ward, D. (2010). Reference is my classroom: Setting instructional goals for academic library reference services. Internet Reference Services Quarterly, 15(1), 35–51.

Brandt, D. S. (2001). Reference, mental models and teaching technology. In D. Su (Ed.), Evolution in reference and information services: The impact of the internet (pp. 37-47). Haworth Information Press.

Campbell, S., & Fyfe, D. (2002). Teaching at the computer: Best practices for one-on-one instruction in reference. Feliciter, 48(1), 26-28.

Carlile, H. (2007). The implications of library anxiety for academic reference services: A review of the literature. Australian Academic and Research Libraries, 38(2), 129-47.

Danley, E. (2003, March/April). The public children’s librarian as educator. Public Libraries, 42(2), 98-101.

Desai, C. M., & Graves, S. J. (2008). Cyberspace or face-to-face: The teachable moment and changing reference mediums. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 47(3), 242-254.

Devlin, F., Currie, L., & Stratton, J. (2008). Successful approaches to teaching through chat. New Library World, 109(5/6), 223–234.

Dewdney, P., & Ross, C. S. (1994). Flying a light aircraft: Reference service evaluation from a user’s viewpoint. RQ, 34, 217-230.

Drew, C. (2020). What is a teachable moment? – 31 examples. Helpful Professor.

Ellis, L. A. (2004). Approaches to teaching through digital reference. Reference Services Review, 32(2), 103-119.

Elmborg, J. K. (2002). Teaching at the desk: Toward a reference pedagogy. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 2(3), 455-364.

Graves, S. J., & Desai, C. M. (2006). Instruction via chat reference: Does co-browse help? Reference Services Review, 34(3), 340-357.

Hunter, J., Kannegiser, S., Kiebler, J., & Meky, D. (2019). Chat reference: Evaluating customer service and IL instruction. Reference Services Review, 47(2), 134-150.

Kuhlthau, C. C. (1991). Inside the search process: Information seeking from the user’s perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42, 361-371.

Kuhlthau, C. C. (2004). Seeking meaning: A process approach to library and information services (2nd ed.). Libraries Unlimited.

Massey-Burzio, V. (1998). From the other side of the reference desk: A focus group study. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 24, 208-215.

Mellon, C. (1986). Library anxiety: A grounded theory and its development. College & Research Libraries, 47, 160-65.

Oakleaf, M., & VanScoy, A. (2010). Instructional strategies for digital reference: Methods to facilitate student learning. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 49(4), 380-390.

Ross, C. S., Nilsen, K., & Radford, M. L. (2009). Conducting the reference interview: A how-to-do-it manual for librarians (2nd ed.). Neal-Schuman Publishers.

Rothstein, S. (1961). Reference service: The new dimension in librarianship. College & Research Libraries, 22, 11–18.

Saunders, L. (2020). The reference interview. In M. Wong & L. Saunders (Eds.), Reference & Information Services: An Introduction. 6th ed. (pp. 50-69). Libraries Unlimited.

Tyckoson, D. (2020). History and functions of reference service. In M. Wong & L. Saunders (Eds.), Reference & information services: An introduction (6th ed., pp. 3-26). Libraries Unlimited.

VanScoy, A. (2019). Conceptual and procedural knowledge: A framework for analyzing point-of-need information literacy instruction. Communications in Information Literacy, 13(2), 164–183.

Ward, D. (2011). Expanding the reference vocabulary: A methodology for applying Bloom’s taxonomy to increase instruction in the reference interview. Reference Services Review, 39(1), 167–180.

Wyer, J. I. (1930). Reference work: A textbook for students of library work and librarians. American Library Association.





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