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Interpreting Skill Development in Academic Library Reference Work

An Application of the Dreyfus Model

Subject Library Science.


This research project is concerned with finding a language to describe skill development among personnel who provide reference service in academic libraries. It is generally assumed that these individuals progress from novice to expert as their skills develop over time through experience. Description of skill level is crucial information used in hiring, performance appraisal, and the development of career ladders. Descriptions of skill currently in use consist of one-dimensional lists of tasks and behaviors or sets of workplace competencies with no mechanism for qualifying level of skill across a career span. This dissertation research investigated and applied the Dreyfus model of adult skill acquisition to reference workers. The Dreyfus model is a situated, experiential model rather than a trait or talent model, allowing the holistic exploration of skill change as a contextualized and social phenomenon. Three general aspects of skill change were investigated: the movement from reliance on abstract principles to the use of concrete experience to guide action; the growth in discerning relevant aspects of situations; and the shift from detached observer to involved performer. Interview narratives of 17 academic reference librarians and two reference assistants were analyzed. Results suggest that the Dreyfus model is applicable to reference skill development with some differences. Skill at four levels was demonstrated: beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. Observed skill criteria in the narratives showed that Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) Professional Competencies for Reference and User Services Librarians are indicative of a mixture of skill levels rather than expert skill per se. A reorganization of the Competencies is suggested in which skill levels are more accurately represented.