The Library, it’s academic

      12 Comments on The Library, it’s academic

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,

12 thoughts on “The Library, it’s academic

  1. Matt

    For what it’s worth, I use our reference librarian as an academic resource *all the time*. I probably irritate the heck out of the poor guy, but he seems to like me well enough.


  2. Nao

    Matt, I wouldn’t be so sure about the irritation. If your reference librarian is anything like me (another reference librarian), a nice hefty reference question will help sustain him through the actual irritations of his work!

  3. textjunkie

    Mmf–I never used a reference librarian in college; I used reference librarians a good bit my first year or two in grad school, but not since then; the kinds of things I was asking them about a) they showed me how to find and I didn’t need to ask again or b) came online. And I have to admit in the various classes I’ve taught I’ve never pointed the undergrads to a reference librarian for anything, other than the “how to use the library” presentations in their first year. So yeah, I see the reference librarian as something you point freshlings to, to get the hang of things, but after that, you should be able to do it on your own. Certainly when writing a paper I go straight to PubMed, followed by Google follow-up.

    Which probably shows a lack of imagination on my part. Also a lack of enthusiasm for personal interaction; I’d much rather use google or the library website than walk over to the library and find a person. (I’m not even sure I know where the library is at the local university…)

  4. Nao

    The one reason I would recommend at least going back to the library to talk to the librarian every couple of years (or at least sending an email) is that things change. The professor who sends their students to the library with an assignment requiring resources or services that haven’t been available in a decade or more is a constant problem.

    But yes, I would recommend reminding students of any level that they can consult the librarian for help with starting their research (because the flip side of the coin, at least at the public library, is students who want us to do their homework for them). You don’t know that they absorbed the lessons of those introductory sessions. They might have transferred from another institution.

  5. Kendra

    Shameful confession: I don’t think I’ve ever used a reference librarian at any stage in my academic career, nor do I send my students to them. I don’t really even know what reference librarians know or could do for me.

  6. Michael

    Ironically, the best way to find out what reference librarians know and can do for you is to … wait for it … ask a reference librarian! Also the best way, in my experience, to find out the coverage limitations of various electronic databases, to figure out how to obtain a copy of an obscure book or article that your usual suspects don’t have at hand, to sort out what those five incorrect or incomplete references in a key source might have been supposed to be, and to point you to the useful and customary important resources in fields that are not your own.

  7. Nao

    I tried posting a comment a couple of days ago, but it was held for approval. Hey, V, did it get lost in the spam? I”ll try reconstructing it if it’s gone for good.

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      Nao—now I’ve broken the whole comment thing somehow, so if you do reconstruct the comment, can you send it to me via an email you know of, and I will sneak it in here.

      Thanks again,

      1. Vardibidian Post author

        [This is Nao’s comment, which YHB endorses without reservation]

        Kendra –

        Really, Michael says pretty much what I meant to, which is that reference librarians are there to help you (or your students) locate sources of information (references!) that you might not have been able to find for yourself or that you might not have even suspected existed. You are probably in good shape as far as your own field is concerned, but if you are learning about something new, it can be worth asking a reference librarian for help.

        It’s a reference librarian’s job to know about the different kinds of resources that are out there and, if a subject specialist, to know a lot about the particular kinds that are peculiar* to a given field. It’s their job to figure out how to do basic research in a given area on the fly. Many reference librarians collect trivia, know a little bit about a lot of things, and have a tendency to try to answer rhetorical questions by looking things up in the nearest reference work.

        It is particularly important to send students to the library for help, because education in how to do research in elementary and secondary education is extremely spotty**; also, students don’t necessarily absorb their introductory lessons in how to do research and evaluate sources. It’s the academic library’s job, not just to collect books and databases, to provide and help them absorb those lessons in doing research as they make their progress through school. Librarians will not do students’ research for them; they will help students with figuring out what search terms to use and show them how to use databases, the Internet, and the library catalog to best effect. (Many students really don’t have a clue about how to construct effective internet searches and they end up wasting a tremendous amount of time sorting through crap.)

        When I was still working at an academic library, I once had a student come in who asked me if we had a book that listed all the words used in magazines. After what’s called a reference interview, I figured out that he was groping after the idea of an index for journals. Which, of course, we had, but nobody had ever taught him about them, not even such things as the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature (which still had some relevance at the time and should have been shown to him in high school). He had no clue about how to look for what he needed. None. I was impressed that he’d come up with the idea of an index by himself, frankly. Most students are in a better position than that when it comes to doing to doing research–but not necessarily by much.

        Anyway, it might be worth seeing if your academic library has a subject specialist for your area and arranging to talk to them to see what services they provide for faculty and students. If there’s no specialist, then make an appointment to see one of the reference staff.

        *Term chosen advisedly.

        **I am extremely grateful that my high school senior English class was essentially a year-long course in how to do research–not studies, but how to find information other people had compiled or written up–complete with access to a university library system, how to write papers, how to do footnotes and citations, and so on. My experience as a librarian suggests that that sort of class is a rarity.

  8. Vardibidian

    Nao–I’m sorry, it’s gone. I don’t page through the thousands of spam any more, so I didn’t see it. If you can reconstruct it, that would be wonderful.


  9. Nexwill

    I agree with your take on the value of pro-activity. I work in a more corporate envmnorient, where (arguably) it can be more difficult to raise awareness of the value of the library and a librarian’s wide-ranging skills set.Where I work all new starters are invited to a library induction, where they get a personalised introduction to the library and the resources it offers (including myself!). As my role within the organisation also contains knowledge and information management elements I take the opportunity to blend these topics into the induction, thus providing a broader view of the role/skills/value of the librarian-information-knowledge officer. Additionally, I briefly introduce other functions of out team (e.g. records management and archives) so that the inductee has an holistic view of our role within the organisation.Some people may not attend these sessions for one reason or another, but we tend to catch them at another induction session we run for new starters, introducing some of our internal systems and information assets. Though this focuses on a different aspect of our work we again have the opportunity to introduce the other elements to inductees, thus providing the holistic view I mentioned above, but from a different starting point.Being pro-active in this way really pays off, and I think it helps to explode any myths, stereotypes or preconceptions that our colleagues may have about the work we do. The personal contact that we have with new starters also seems to be appreciated, and certainly helps with building relationships across the organisation.


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