The Library, it's academic
25 August 2011, 2:32 PM
So the following bit popped out at me from What Students Don’t Know, an otherwise not terribly useful article by Steve Kolowich on Inside Higher Ed:
Several recent studies by the nonprofit Ithaka S+R have highlighted the disjunct between how professors view the library and how the library views itself: library directors see the library as serving primarily a teaching function; professors see it above all as a purchasing agent.
I don’t know if that is really Mr. Kolowich’s phrasing or if it came from Ithaka S+R. Whoever worded it that way, it seems like (a) everybody who works in an academic library would agree that it’s true, and (2) it’s really obviously a problem, right? And what seems to be the case is that students who go to their instructors for assistance (which is, of course, the correct thing to do) are often not being told that the reference librarians are an excellent instructional resource, because the instructors don’t think of the reference librarians as excellent instructional resources, but as purchasing agents. And that’s a problem, too, right?
The students who go on to a career in academia, though, are probably the ones who are most likely to really use the reference librarians as undergraduate instructors/helpers. That is, the people who get the assignment, go to do research in the library, and rather than just doing the minimum possible, have the experience of going to a librarian and being directed to some cool resource that wasn’t obvious. I could be wrong about that, of course—I wasn’t that undergraduate, and I am not a librarian, so I am going by observation rather than participation. But I suspect that most college instructors had some good undergraduate experience with a reference librarian.
I don’t really know about doctoral students, librarians and dissertations. I certainly don’t know about them in the sciences. Even within the humanities, I don’t know that there really is any useful generalization. I mean, presumably, that’s what those Ithaka people are trying to find out, and probably before I blog about it I should read those reports, but that’s not how blogs work, is it? Anyway. At some point, as the budding academic specializes, the reference librarian stops being much use—the problem is not finding new material but sifting through the material already gathered, and of course adding the material the readers require. The ILL librarian, that’s useful stuff, but the reference librarian? I suspect in the last year of the dissertating, certainly the last six months, possibly the last three years, doctoral students at most are just chatting with the reference librarians as familiar faces.
And what I am seeing, once the Ph.D. becomes a prof, is that they don’t ask the reference librarians for research help at all. Technical help using the databases, sure—but even then, a fairly narrow idea of technical help that doesn’t include, for instance, tips on advanced search techniques and the special crankiness of the Boolean operators on a particular site. No, it’s get me in to the top-line site, make my password work, link to the journal, and let me research.
That sounds like I am disparaging the profs, which isn’t quite right. Any prof is certainly going to be a specialist in some field and know the details of the field so intimately that a librarian won’t be able to help. Also, the specialist in, oh, Chaucer studies will know all about the Chaucer books and articles coming out from her colleagues, in more detail than the reference librarian could possibly keep up with. That’s going to be true, I suspect, even at a specialist library, where the law librarians will still have to cover all of the stuff coming out or potentially coming out, and the instructors’ specialties will remain a small section of the library’s business. And, of course, these college or graduate instructors are themselves the ones who were instructed in research by the reference librarians I posited above, as well as by the whole doctoral experience. They know how to do research. They don’t need help.
But… by the same token that these instructors are specialists in their fields, the reference librarians are specialists in library reference. No instructor in the university knows the databases as well as the reference librarians, or the ways the citations sometimes fail to surface in one way but come back in a different way. Nobody knows the resources of the library better than the librarians, and those resources aren’t always obvious, or in the library.
I guess what I’m wondering is this: When a college professor is doing research on her topic—a new conference paper or article, or revising that book chapter—how likely is he to go to the reference librarian and say I have come up with x, y and z, but can you look and see if there’s something good I’m missing?
I’m also wondering if it would, in fact, be a good use of time. The librarian would probably come up with a lot of duplicate stuff, and would probably come up with a lot of bad or irrelevant stuff, but… I don’t know.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,