Interview with the 2022 winner of the Isadore Gilbert Mudge Award sponsored by EBSCO, Melissa Wong conducted by Chris LeBeau, past Chair of RUSA’s Achievement Awards and Grants Committee
The Isadore Gilbert Mudge Award sponsored by EBSCO is RUSA’s highest award. Among the criteria for the award are contributions to reference librarianship, authorship of significant books and articles in the field of reference, or inspirational teaching.
Melissa Wong has demonstrated all of the criteria. Melissa Wong attended library school at the University of Illinois and began her professional career at the University of Southern California (USC), holding a number of different administrative positions. One position required that she commute to the Wrigley Marine Science Center Library on Catalina Island by helicopter or boat. Within six years she moved to Marymount College Library (Rancho Palos Verdes, CA) as director. This interview takes up Melissa’s work following her time at Marymount. She talks about her interest in the area of information literacy instruction and her approach to teaching Reference at the University of Illinois, School of Information Sciences. Melissa appears on the University of Illinois’ “List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by their Students.”
Chris LeBeau: Congratulations Melissa on winning the Isadore Gilbert Mudge Award sponsored by EBSCO for 2022.
Melissa Wong: Thank you.
Chris LeBeau: Over the course of your career you turned to focus on information literacy instruction and instructional design. Some librarians face classrooms of students with expressions that say, “I dare you to teach me something,” but you seem drawn to teaching.
Melissa Wong: In library school, I had a job as a graduate assistant working for Beth Woodard who is very well known for her work in information literacy and instruction, and a former Mudge winner. She and Mary Jane Petrowski started a course on instruction and that shifted my interest to instruction. Then, as a librarian at USC I had a chance to teach a couple of credit courses, including a course in their freshmen seminar program, and I really enjoyed that sustained contact with students. A friend suggested I contact the iSchool at the University of Illinois which was always looking for good online instructors. Linda Smith [now Professor Emerita, University of Illinois] hired me and I started working the next semester as an adjunct.
Chris LeBeau: What is your favorite course to teach?
Melissa Wong: I love them all! My current favorite is a course on elearning that I created about 5 years ago. I could see elearning was becoming more prominent in libraries, and we needed to offer students the opportunity to dig into that practice. That skillset would serve them well in the job market. We do a lot with technology. Students don’t have to master the technology; they just play with it as part of the course. We also discuss the research on elearning and how it can guide us. And that’s super fun.
Chris LeBeau: Since you teach Reference, and this award comes from RUSA, tell us what your approach is to teaching Reference today in the age of Google?
Melissa Wong: I love teaching Reference, because it is at the heart of what we do in libraries. It is all about connecting patrons with information. The way we do that changes, but it is still foundational to the library’s mission. I think a lot of reference librarians got into the field because they love the hunt for obscure information, but that isn’t so critical anymore because we aren’t looking for obscure little facts. Information is at our fingertips. I have an article forthcoming in Library Trends* about how we teach Reference. It’s a festschrift for Linda Smith. The way I approach it now, I spend half the course teaching sources and searching, and then we spend time on search strategies to get beyond superficial searches, learning how to use limiters and advanced searching to extract things that are harder to find. We do a lot of comparisons between free and subscription sources. It is not always just a matter of whether the answer is right or wrong, it is about the depth of information. We talk a lot about what makes for a good answer—beyond what is accurate, reliable, or current – we look at relevance and perspective. I try to show students more advanced search strategies like citation tracking. We analyze discovery search and systems. It is about building strong search skills.
Chris LeBeau: Reference courses used to include things like the types of dictionaries and encyclopedias, for example. It sounds like you’ve moved on.
Melissa Wong: We do a little of it, and students learn the instances when an encyclopedia is enough versus a more in-depth scholarly journal article.
Chris LeBeau: So, it is putting each type of source into some context.
Melissa Wong: Right, and the other half is more the interpersonal part. We talk about the reference interview; we talk about how our patrons look for information, and how we work with patrons to understand their information needs, and whether we want to integrate some instruction into that reference encounter. We look at issues like ethics in reference, equity and inclusion. Are our reference services culturally relevant? Are we offering the kinds of information and services patrons are looking for? The sources and the kinds of searching we do have changed, but the idea of reference as connecting patrons to information hasn’t.
Chris LeBeau: And of course, we work more and more with diverse populations that come to us with different skills and understanding.
Melissa Wong: And we need to have the cultural humility to be able to communicate with patrons from different backgrounds, to recognize what groups might be going underserved. We need to develop strategies to improve outreach in order to better serve these groups. That is the heart of what reference is these days.
Chris LeBeau: Half a dozen years ago, there was a lot of criticism of elearning when there were not so many online programs. I think we have gotten over that hump, although the pandemic and kids in K-12 certainly suffered with elearning. How would you address critics of elearning today?
Melissa Wong: The pandemic is not a good litmus test for elearning. So many teachers were forced into elearning overnight. Teachers weren’t even sure what model they were using. Few schools, especially at the K-12 level, had the robust support system you would want to see in place. Everyone was just trying to get by. You can look at the face-to-face classroom and find brilliant teaching happening, and you can find mediocre teaching. In the online environment you can definitely find mediocre teaching, but there are so many examples of phenomenal instruction happening. We have to get beyond the perception that all you can do is lecture at students. You have to find ways to engage students, to have meaningful activities and discussion. It’s totally possible. It requires training and time to learn how to teach online, and it requires a robust support system like we have at the University of Illinois.
Chris LeBeau: Thank you for your time today, and again, congratulations.
Melissa Wong: Thank you.
To find Melissa Wong’s forthcoming article on teaching reference, see * Library Trends 71 (2), “Linda C. Smith Festschrift ” edited by Clara Chu and Jaya Raju and co-guest edited by Anita Coleman and Martha Kyrillidou. It will be published sometime in 2023.