Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a conversation with faculty in the library and in other academic departments about undergraduate research assignments. We discussed some of the stumbling blocks that our students seem to face, especially as they search for sources for their papers. It’s hard for us to put ourselves back into the novice mindset that our students have, particularly in their first and second year at college, in which they’re not (yet) familiar with the disciplines. We don’t want them to use Wikipedia or other encyclopedias (which may become increasingly scarce?) as research sources, though for background information they’re great. But many students are just not ready to tackle the scholarly research articles that they’ll find when they search JSTOR or even Academic Search Complete.
More and more often I’m convinced that our beginning undergraduates need to use books for their research assignments. Books can bridge that gap between very general and very scholarly that is difficult to find in a journal article. They often cover a broad subject in smaller chunks (i.e., chapters), and can provide a good model for narrowing a topic into one that’s manageable for a short research assignments. Books can also help students exercise the muscles that they need for better internet and database searching as they mine chapter titles and the index for keywords. I’ve begun to push books much more vocally in my instruction sessions for these very reasons.
However, books come with stumbling blocks, too. Ideally students could search our library catalog and find the books they need for their assignments right on our shelves. We have a collection that serves our students’ needs well, I think, especially in the degree programs. But we are a physically small library, and it’s difficult for us to build a book collection to serve the general needs students have in English Composition I courses, for example. While some of those sections focus on New York City or Brooklyn in their reading and research, in other sections students can choose their own topic, or the faculty member picks a topic of interest which may change from semester to semester. It’s difficult to keep up with these changing topics and, though all of those classes come to the library for an instruction session, we often don’t know which topics students select unless they stop by the Reference Desk to ask for help with their research.
My college is part of a university in which all of the libraries circulate books in common, as do many academic and public library systems. Students (and faculty/staff) can have books delivered between the colleges in just a few days, and we encourage students to take advantage of this service when they’re hunting for sources on their research topics. But sometimes students aren’t doing their research far enough in advance to accommodate the time required to have a book delivered, and, while they can also visit the other colleges’ libraries in libraries in person, they may not have the time for that, either.
What about ebooks? Ebooks can help bridge the just-in-time gap, though they are not without their own issues: subscriptions to ebook packages that may shift the titles available over time, confusing requirements for reading or downloading on mobile devices, variable rules about what can or cannot be printed, etc. And while all of the ebooks we offer in our library can be read on a desktop computer, of course we can’t always accommodate all students who want to use a computer in the library.
So I’m left wondering: how can we get more (and more relevant) books into the hands of our beginning students? And, barring that, are there other resources that cover that middle ground between the general knowledge of encyclopedic sources and the specific, often too advanced, scholarly research of journal articles?