Searching the Library Website and Beyond: A Graduate Student Perspective

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Julia Skinner, a first year Information Studies doctoral student at Florida State University. She blogs at Julia’s Library Research.

I just finished my MLS, and one of the issues raised frequently both in and out of the classroom was how to get college students and researchers to use the library website. Academic librarians I’ve talked with have spent hefty amounts of time (and money) designing sites that meet the self-described needs of patrons, but still find most of the searches that guide students to library resources to be coming from Google. I decided to take a look at my own search habits to get a sense of how, from the graduate student perspective, these tools might be employed, and hopefully generate some discussion about searching on the library website and beyond.

Like many other people, I usually do a quick Google search on my topic early on in the research process. This isn’t necessarily to track down every resource I would be using, but it does give me a general sense of what’s out there on my topic beyond the realm of scholarly materials. Since my own work relies heavily on the journal articles, scholarly monographs, primary sources, and other reliable sources, I feel like seeing what people have said outside the ivory tower can be a good way to give myself some perspective about how my topic is thought of and applied elsewhere. Most of the time, like for my research on Iowa libraries during WWI, there’s not much. But sometimes this search helps me find something useful (for example, in my recent work writing chapters for an encyclopedia on immigration, I was able to find information about nonprofits serving the immigrant community and some news stories.)

Obviously, the university library is still my go-to source. Journal articles, ebooks, not to mention circulating and special collections, are all where the meat and potatoes of my bibliography can be found. I love that many libraries are putting these collections online and purchasing more digital subscriptions (especially in the winter when I have a serious sinus infection and am locked in my house trying to work!) Sometimes, I find these resources through Google Scholar, but most of the time, it’s through searches within the library’s resources. This is especially true for journal articles, which I’ve found Google hasn’t really nailed yet when it comes to bringing desired results from a simple keyword search (I know, it’s a lot to ask, and hence why I love the library site!)

One tool I use heavily is Google Books. Not everything is on there, and most of the things that are have a limited availability (i.e. a preview where only some pages are available) but I have saved countless hours by doing a keyword search in GBooks to get a sense of what’s out there that mentions or is relevant to my topic, but maybe isn’t something I would have grabbed while browsing the shelves. I can then go track down the physical book for a more thorough read, or if I am able to access all the information I need from the preview I can just use it as a digital resource. Some other useful documents are in full view as well: many public domain items, including some ALA documents, can be found there.

Of course I don’t just use Google Books and assume that’s all there is. I also track down public domain titles on sites like Open Library and Project Gutenberg, and approach them in the same way. It’s a great way to get that one tidbit that really pulls an article together, and I usually find that some of those works don’t overlap with the offerings I find in the databases the library subscribes to. I will sometimes use different search engines, search a variety of fields, do Boolean search, etc. all of which helps me extract more little nuggets of information from the vast world of material related to any given topic. Even though I’m an avid Googler, I use library resources just as frequently. I remember speaking with a student a few years ago who could not find anything on her topic through a keyword search, and assumed there was nothing out there on that topic. I was amazed that she hadn’t even considered the university library’s website or physical collections before throwing in the towel! It makes me wonder how many students feel this way, and how we as LIS professionals and instructors can help effectively remove those blinders.

One thing I think will be interesting in the coming years (and which is a great thing to get input about from academic librarians!) is learning more about search habits among undergraduates. I’ll be TAing for our MLIS program this semester, so I’ll be working with students who are my age, getting the degree I just recently obtained, who are tech savvy and knowledgeable about search. What happens when I TA for an undergraduate course? Is sharing my search strategies helpful for papers that only require a handful of sources, and don’t require you to look at a topic from every imaginable angle? I argue that teaching search as something done in as many outlets as possible has the potential to make students better researchers, BUT only if that goes hand in hand with instruction on critically evaluating resources.

Without that, one runs the risk of putting students in information overload or having students work with sources that are irrelevant/untrustworthy. I’m a big fan of helping students recognize that the knowledge they have and the ideas they create are valuable, and it makes me wonder if building on their current search habits in such a way that encourages them to speak about the value of those sources, the flaws in their arguments, etc. will help promote that. I remember having a few (but not many) undergrad courses that encouraged me to draw upon my own knowledge and experience for papers, and to critically analyze works rather than just write papers filled with other peoples arguments followed by I agree/disagree. I feel like teaching is moving more in the direction of critical analysis, and I’m excited to see the role that librarians and library websites play!

About Maura Smale

Coordinator of Information Literacy and Library Instruction, New York City College of Technology, City University of New York

6 thoughts on “Searching the Library Website and Beyond: A Graduate Student Perspective

  1. I’m always curious about other people’s research practices and habits, so thanks so much for sharing yours! It’s interesting to read not only what resources others are using, but how they are using them.

  2. Thanks Veronica–I’m glad it was helpful! I’m interested to know how closely my experiences align with my fellow students also. It seems like I’m quicker to use Google than some folks, maybe because they’re concerned about finding credible sources (which I definitely understand!)

  3. I’m working at an academic library, so search habits are big. We teach first year students how to use our databases, but of course the majority just go back to Google. Admittedly, I use Google as well, but I know to use databases for more scholarly writing. We have LibGuides on our website, which seem to work rather well. While it’s not holding their hands and helping them find what they’re looking for, it’s a step in the right direction. :)

  4. Post-library education, I look back on my undergrad search habits and cringe. Not only did I not know how to search, I didn’t know how to search for a proper search tool, and that includes the service of a librarian. A resource that provided such a break-down, be it an informal course or a handout, would have been an invaluable resource. I envy the leg-up your undergrads will have!

  5. Agreed, Britt. I was not a competent searcher as an undergrad either! Lauren also makes a good point about the value of LibGuides–they’re especially helpful when I need to find something in a different field and am clueless about what’s out there. And there’s no substitute for scholarly journal databases: so many of the things I need are there! I’m glad that more work that’s appropriate for scholarly work is appearing on the open web though, particularly for my colleagues who don’t have access to the same resources I do!

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