Discussions on the art and craft of research

Month: February 2016


One of the principal arguments that we present-day librarians make about ourselves is that in an age of massive and pervasive information overload, we are able to help library users cut through the dross and find what they truly need. We often discuss this in terms of time — specifically, reducing the time that patrons spend in finding useful sources. (In fact, “save the time of the user” is one of the five laws of library science, developed by S.R. Ranganathan, that all librarians learn.)

We also, with good reason, talk about quality — librarians’ ability to act as a filter for patrons who are confronted with millions of Web search results, along with anyone’s ability to publish anything, regardless of credibility. Every day, we help students develop search strategies and ask the right questions, and we provide platforms (database pages, catalogs, research guides) that attempt to direct them to high-quality information.

But as I listened recently to an NPR report by Manoush Zomorodi entitled “Get a Grip on Your Information Overload,” another significant framework for talking about our role in mitigating information overload occurred to me: that of stress, and the effects of information overload on the body and brain. One of the key points raised by the report is that overload causes physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia and eye twitches, but even so, it’s nearly impossible to stop consuming information. The report also quotes a neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin, who argues that so much information makes it difficult to discern what’s important, and that so much decision-making about all this information simply wears people down.

Although the report is talking mostly about everyday interactions with information and media, and not specifically about academic research, the implications for the latter seem clear. Students today are confronted with far more options for finding information than they had been in the past. And indeed, every librarian has stories of students who come to the desk clearly stressed — not just because they’ve had trouble finding things that relate to their research, but because they’ve done Web searches and then had no idea how to sift through the millions of results that turned up. We’ve also all seen the face of relief when students do a search in an academic database and suddenly are dealing with only dozens of options instead of thousands or millions — and that, lo and behold, many of these options are actually viable.

Particularly with the focus today on student physical and mental well-being, we perhaps ought to focus more attention on how librarians and their various strategies might contribute to this well-being. How much, one wonders, could it alleviate stress to discover that there are well-marked paths for finding information on an academic topic, not to mention people whose task is specifically to help them navigate these paths? It’s not just about being nice and friendly, although all our librarians here very much are. It’s also about reducing the need for so much processing of information, all the time. It’s about taking students to the heart of the matter, and teaching them how to get there — separating the signal from the noise, and feeling happier about being able to do it.

— Fred Folmer

Connecticut College Prize for Undergraduate Library Research

Connecticut College Libraries is pleased to announce the launch of an annual award dedicated to recognizing excellence in the undergraduate research process. While it is becoming more common today for academic libraries to offer an annual research award, a preliminary review of Oberlin Group library websites indicates that Connecticut College Libraries would be only the 11th of our 80 peer institutions to offer such a prize.


Lib Prize at Tufts

A poster display of recent winners of the library prize at Tisch Library, Tufts University

Why aren’t there more prizes at Oberlin Group libraries? This may be because it is a more common practice among research universities – our own efforts at creating the Connecticut College Prize for Undergraduate Library Research were based on previous work undertaken at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Temple University. Other recent prizes of note could include those at Brown University or Tufts University, or the one established this year at University of Toronto Libraries. If there is a dearth of library research awards at smaller colleges, could it have something to do with the hands-on approach to academic work undertaken at these institutions? What if it stems from a sense of ambivalence about the role of library research in the digital age?


Questions like these have called our attention to the potential benefits of offering an annual award. The Connecticut College Prize for Undergraduate Library Research would play an important role among other awards offered at the College, because it focuses on the research process more than on the final product, and because it is open to all currently enrolled undergraduate students who have done research in some form for a credit course. When we looked at other awards at the College, we noticed that a good number are focused within departments or applicable only to a certain type of student doing a specific kind of work.


Sociology of the wild - foraging

A foraging tour of wild foods in the Connecticut College Arboretum

The research in question for the library prize can be a traditional paper, but it could also be some other form of work for a class, including (but not limited to) a video, a presentation, or an artistic project. It is not hard to imagine the brush strokes of a painting being informed by creative or painstaking research. However, work created for honors projects is ineligible for this prize. For more information about the honors award, see The Oakes and Louise Ames Prize.


By offering an annual prize, the library aims to foster appreciation for outstanding student research at Connecticut College. Citations and research statements for all winners and finalists will appear in the Digital Commons – Connecticut College’s Institutional Repository. Along the way, we hope this new form of recognition will help demystify the importance of libraries for student research. This includes encouraging the use of library resources and collections, as well as enhancing the development of library research techniques.


The library’s commitment to scholarship will be reiterated formally each year by recognizing student work that demonstrates rigorous, innovative, and/or unique approaches to engaging with library collections and resources.

Subject Headings: Promise and Peril

One of libraries’ most important tasks — in the past, present and, presumably, future — is to help users save time in finding similar materials on a given topic. And whether library users realize it or not, subject headings remain one of the principal ways that libraries perform this key function.

First, a crash course for the uninitiated: subject headings are labels that provide a descriptive category for a given resource, whether that resource is a book, article, film, archival document or pair of socks. These labels can in turn be used to find similar books (articles, films, socks, etc.) because they now have a common language that’s been used to describe them; instead of some people looking for “cars” and others looking for “automobiles,” everybody’s now looking for “motor vehicles.”

What’s more, now that we’re in the digital age, items that are cataloged with the same subject heading are now just a click away; in this respect, they’re the obvious forerunner to Twitter hashtags. In a best-case scenario, a user can find an item that has a given subject heading — say, “psychoanalysis in literature” — click on it, and then find more items cataloged with that same heading, just as they can on Twitter, or on many blogs. I teach this technique to students in library workshops all the time, and once they know about it, their lives are never the same. (I exaggerate, but only somewhat.)

But just like all labels, subject headings can also have their pitfalls. I found this out recently in a stark way when I was teaching a workshop for a Film Studies course, and using the film Frozen River as an example. The film is a treasure trove of potential research topics, touching on rural economic hardship, single mothers, Native American tribal issues and immigrant border crossings. And so to demonstrate how to find an item on the topic of undocumented immigrants, I spotted an item in the catalog that seemed to relate very closely to this topic. I clicked on it to find the item’s subject headings and discovered that there is indeed a subject heading that relates very pointedly and directly to the issue at hand.

The problem? That subject heading is “illegal aliens.”

And so here, then, is a librarian’s Scylla and Charybdis: one the one hand, we have a label that can help users find more materials on the same topic — something that, at least in theory, helps promote access to materials, which is always the librarian’s watchword. On the other, the label in question uses language that many find to be problematic at best, and downright insulting at worst — and therefore may inhibit the very access the label was trying to provide.

Because as handy as they are, labels can oversimplify, and labels can limit. They can make it harder for diverse groups of people to feel welcome, to feel like they truly belong — the last thing that libraries and librarians want. What of the student whose friends or relatives include undocumented immigrants? What of students who are undocumented themselves? I can imagine they’d be very wary of using a library whose catalog appeared to call them “illegal aliens.” And who could blame them?

Simply put, it matters what we call things, and the library profession needs to make sure its descriptions promote, and do not discourage, access. Incoming students this year read Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi, which provides solid evidence that negative labels contribute to a “stereotype threat” that keeps persons from achieving all that they might. It doesn’t take a huge imaginative leap to think that persons confronted by a description of themselves as “illegal” might be susceptible to this form of subtle discrimination. This potentially harms such persons’ education — their very ability to take advantage of the resources that a college can provide.

But at the same time, we can’t really do without labels, and so the library profession — which, truth be told, often does do a good job of advocating for equality of access to materials — really needs to do everything it can to make sure those labels do not give insult. Because subject headings that are used locally have to be in line with national and international networks, it requires approval by committee at the national level to change them. In 2014, a student group from Dartmouth College brought a proposal to change the label before the Library of Congress’s cataloging committee (check this link); unfortunately, it was not approved on grounds that we might call “legalese”; “illegal aliens,” in the view of the committee, was the sole truly precise legal description of such persons. (In response, a fellow librarian tweeted that the decision was “an embarrassment to our profession,” and really, I couldn’t agree more.)

So let this be a lesson to all those using subject headings — which, unequivocally, I encourage all researchers to do. They’re incredibly useful, but as with any other human-created, socially constructed entity, they’re imperfect. They can greatly narrow searches, winnowing down to only those items that are truly about a topic at hand. They’re also the specific products of a social milieu, and as such, they reflect the mores and sensibilities of a particular place and time. Because of this, they’re changeable, even if that is difficult and slower than many of us would like. So take full advantage of subject headings, and let us know if you need help doing that. Equally as important, let us know if you find a subject heading that you think could use some revision. Chances are that we’ll agree.

—Fred Folmer

Research Librarian? What’s that?

Most people know reference and research librarians to be friendly and useful, which, hopefully, we always are. But our actual role still confuses people. What do we do, and why do we do it?

There is no question that one well-known aspect of our work is that we find things. Thomas Mann, who retired this past January from the Library of Congress after 33 years, actually started his adult life as a private detective. This is not surprising. We can be dogged, and fascinated about hidden answers can be.

We can move in and out of most academic disciplines. Some of us have advanced academic degrees, but not all. We understand the differences in discipline areas and therefore what constitutes research and research materials in each. We have a lot of experience in understanding faculty expectations of their students’ research projects and abilities.

We also understand the “rules” of research, but seek ways to teach people how to break those rules when it is appropriate. True research is not just a craft, it is an art. Because of that, there is often no one right way of doing it. We see research questions as puzzles, puzzles that often require not only the finding of facts, but the fitting and refitting of those facts together. Like individual Legos, facts have little meaning on their own. Only when they are fit together do they result in something worth seeing. And then they can be refit, which results in something entirely different.

We are endlessly curious about what we do not know, and have little ego about we do know. Do we like people? Yes, but what we love about people is how they think and learn.

We are indeed research investigators, we are teachers, we are finders. Let us help you.

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