One of the reference librarians at The Institution What Employs Me was tasked this summer with overhauling the research tutorial for our website. Better her than me.
Anyway, there I was in the session where she went through the new pages, and I was thinking ZOh My Lord this is incredibly intimidating. I mean. Half-a-dozen pages with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, and vocabulary and color coding and examples and counter-examples… it took us an hour to go through it all, and I was exhausted far before the end. And I know all that stuff.
And I started thinking that when I was writing a paper in high school, I could use all the resources. I could cite both of the journal articles that I reasonably had access to, and all four of the books in the library that were remotely on-topic, and even the ready reference to fill out the page. Done! I am so on top of this! A tutorial would have had to show me where the indices sat (on the top of the card catalogue, if I remember correctly) and how to use the microfiche machine and that’s pretty much it.
Even at college, where our library was substantial, doing a research paper involved hunting for half-a-dozen articles and whatever books were on the shelves. I remember the disappointment when I found that—let’s say two of the six articles I found through the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature that were in the library’s collection were not sufficiently on-topic to cite. Oh, I was a crappy researcher, I gotta say, but still, the problem was finding enough stuff to cite.
Now, the skill is wading through the oceans of it. Honing your search expression to give you lakes rather than oceans, and then knowing the landmarks that will keep you close to shore (or perhaps guide you to port? I’m not really digging this metaphor) and finally the ability to skim lightly over the, er, shoals? Ah, hell with it. You know what I mean. It’s easier to find a thousand articles than to find one article.
And it really is intimidating. If intimidating were a staircase, academic library research would be the Escalator to Nowhere. If John Henry saw the mountain of academic resources on steam drills, he would lay down his netbook and cry, Lord Lord, that mountain is so tall, and John Henry is so small, that he would lay down his netbook and cry. And as much as good tutorials and sessions and teachers and librarians can do, they can’t change the basic intimidatingnessosity of it. It’s just an aspect of the thing itself. All you can do is (we hope) convince people that they really can do this intimidating thing despite its intimidosage.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,