Category Archives: LIS Education

(Un)Written Tips for New LIS Students (Or, What I Learned In Grad School)

It’s mid-April and so many things are wrapping up. Most of my class projects have been turned in. I’m calculating the last hours I owe at each graduate assistantship. I just landed my first professional position! And—maybe most excitingly—one of my largest projects, the 2015 Symposium on LIS Education just happened last weekend. I’m finding myself with more free time (thank you, Lord) but also more anxiety about the future of my career.

Why not take a minute to look in the rear view mirror and reflect on the past instead of getting caught up on the “what ifs” of the future? I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again. Because I am the only graduate student voice on ACRLog right now, I feel an obligation to speak to graduate students’ needs and concerns. Thus, I thought I would write a short reflection on what I have learned in graduate school—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Fair warning: my experience in no way represents all LIS students’ experiences. My hope is that this reflection will give those just starting an LIS program or thinking about starting one some information about what it was like and what I might do differently if I had the chance. Hindsight is 20/20 so why shouldn’t we give others the space to learn from our misunderstandings and mistakes?

It’s important to give some context first. I have had what some might call an abnormal LIS graduate student experience. I attended the University of Illinois’ Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) where I focused on instruction and scholarly communication. I finished the program in two years. During the course of my forty credit hours, I took only four online courses. Throughout my time at GSLIS, I held 1-2 graduate assistantships, either in our reference or instruction department. This means that all of my classes were supplemented with practical, tangible experience, including fielding reference questions, performing assessments, instructing workshops, providing internal education, and even attending committee meetings. I was extremely blessed to have these experiences. I was extremely blessed to have the mentorship that these experiences inherently provide. I am a white female in the LIS field and I undoubtedly have privileges others do not. I had support and freedom to uproot my life and move to Illinois and many others do not. It’s important to acknowledge these differences and work to change the structural issues in our current LIS education system to include more diversity, in terms of prior experiences, race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic/ first generation status, and library training.

Below are my tips, in a nutshell. I have to admit that these were influenced by the recent Symposium on LIS Education Keynote (recording forthcoming) by Micah Vandegrift, Brianna Marshall, and Annie Pho entitled “Go Forth- OR- Community is Easy, Change is Difficult”. I’d like to thank them for giving me the courage to share both my successes and my failures.

Don’t underestimate your peers

I can’t overemphasize this enough. I came to GSLIS thinking that I would only really learn from my instructors and my supervisors. While I did end up learning a lot from these people, I learned just as much (if not more) from my peers. These peers—everyone from my colleagues at the information desk to the committee I worked with to plan the symposium—pushed me to think more critically about librarianship as a profession. They challenged me to think in new and complicated ways, through Twitter or weekly coffee breaks. They learned right alongside me, often sharing their newfound knowledge and developing projects with me so that I had some level of fluency in digital humanities or critical pedagogy or some other area I might have never been exposed to. By not only sparking my interest in these topics but also challenging my long-held conceptions about librarianship, they made me a better student, graduate assistant, job candidate, and (I hope) librarian.

Don’t get me wrong. I would advise you to ask your supervisor about their first job. Ask your instructor more about their experience with that topic. But don’t underestimate your peers—near or far. They know what you’re going through. They are trying to digest and grasp all of these new experiences too. Lean on each other. Mentor each other. Complain to each other! But make sure you develop relationships with the students around you. They are the future of this profession and your connection with them will be invaluable.

In short, I think my friend Kyle says it best:

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Push yourself

When I moved to Illinois, I didn’t know a single person in the entire state. I left Ohio for professional and personal reasons and I thought moving two states away would fix most everything. All of that sounds great on paper. But when you arrive, you realize that it’s overwhelming and isolating. The first few months were lonely and, frankly, depressing. But I pushed myself. I pushed myself to meet people. I pushed myself to attend community events and get familiar with GSLIS.

After awhile, I found my footing. Eventually, I was able to push myself in new and exciting ways. I took classes that were outside of my comfort zone. I led more workshops and instructional sessions. I took on a more challenging assistantship. I took an international LIS class and met LIS students from around the world. While all of these decisions mean that I have more experience, I also believe they have made me more thoughtful. I can relate to others’ positions more now. I am more willing to try new things and take risks. Everyone has to follow the path that makes the most sense for them. I would just encourage you to find ways to get outside of your comfort zone while you’re on that path.

Take your own stance/ Push your teachers, mentors, and colleagues

You’re going to have a lot of different people tell you a lot of different things. Everyone has a different opinion on everything, from teaching methods to the best tools to use for a specific project. Moreover, many people—even within our small library world—take different high-level stances on things like theory and ethics. These people are people you look up to. They have been in the field for decades and they have professional experiences you won’t have for a long time. Take their wisdom seriously and let it shape and challenge you.

At the same time, hold your own! You have a voice! You are becoming a professional and an expert. They can learn from your experience too. I know it’s challenging and even scary to take a different stance then someone you look up to, but our profession will never grow if you don’t.

A quick note: I have to again emphasize that I have privileges that others do not. I am in no way advocating that this is feasible for everyone. We have bills we have to pay and sometimes challenging someone—especially if they have some level of authority over you—is not feasible. In short, if you have the privilege and space to challenge some of the issues in our profession, think about doing so, especially if they affect people that can’t have a voice.

Know your value

This is especially true in the job search. You’ll hear that jobs are difficult to land and they are. But you have worked really, really hard to be where you’re at. Recognize how incredibly intelligent, talented, and unique you are. I know that the job market is tight and you really just need to get your foot in the door. But remember why you came to library school in the first place—to do interesting, rewarding work. Think less about what kind of job you want and more about what kind of work you want to do. If a position doesn’t seem to give you space to do that work, seriously think about whether it’s right for you. This is all to say that if you believe you are a great library professional, others will often start to believe you are too. Don’t feel like you have to work somewhere were the work is mediocre, the pay is unfair, and the leadership isn’t active (often all in a region where you won’t be happy). You have to be realistic but  you should also realize that you are the best advocate you have.

Reflect

All of the things you’re learning are new and exciting. You’re reading new topics and scholars in your courses, you are developing new relationships, and you might even be teaching or programming or doing some other exciting activity for the first time. It all happens so quickly. You will blink and forget those first experiences. In some ways, this is great. You get to improve without ruminating on some the stumbling blocks you had to get over.

At the same time, you risk being able to tangibly see how far you’ve come. Take some time, either weekly, monthly, or even once a semester, and think about all of the skills you have learned and all of the connections you have made. Often writing, discussing, or critiquing something we have done allows us to digest it. We gain new insights and are better able to identify successes and failures, all of which make us better practitioners the next time we do something.

Start healthy practices now

I hope that this doesn’t sound preachy but this is so important! Grad school is a stressful time—financially and emotionally. If you work and attend classes, you have little to no free time. I get all of that. I have lived it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t set boundaries. At some point, you and your needs have to come first. If you don’t set boundaries now, it will be even more difficult to suddenly start setting them when you start your professional life.

I know you’d really like to be part of that new project. Or you think it might not be that big of a deal to take on one more hourly project. Maybe you think you can pick up the slack for your group for an assignment. Habits are hard to break! Think critically about how you like to work. Do you lead? Do you let someone else lead? Are you a perfectionist? Think critically about how you communicate. Do you say what you think directly? Are you sometimes passive aggressive? It might sound silly but take note of all of these now. The better you know yourself, the better you can advocate for yourself and your time. The more transparent you can be with yourself (and with others), the more successful and healthy your life will be.

My advice is simple. Be intentional and realistic about how much time you have. SAY NO! You never want to be in a position where you really care about something you volunteered for but you can’t actually do what you said you would. Put your needs first. Realize that you have an identity outside of your professional interests and that’s okay. You are an entire person—with a family, hobbies, and interests. Embrace that now and set boundaries when you can so you can enjoy all of the aspects of your life, personal and professional.

Embrace rejection

Last fall, my proposal for a large international conference was rejected. Many of my friends were attending and I felt foolish for not getting in. When asked about it, I glossed over it like it wasn’t a big deal. The truth is that talking about it more would have helped me grow. I would have been able to think about the quality of my proposal sooner and more effectively. Moreover, this wasn’t a career changer! I can still submit an improved proposal to another conference. I can take their feedback and use it constructively to challenge myself. (Also, sometimes there are just a lot of awesome proposals and the planning committee can only pick so many. Now that I have gone through this process myself, I realize how difficult choosing really is!).

Failure is hard, especially when you care as deeply about the profession as many people do. But see it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and reflect. Embrace it, stand back up, and try again!

Be kind to yourself

I’m not sure if I’m qualified to write about this because I’m not the best at it. It’s a goal I’m working toward. Be patient with yourself. Remember that learning and growth takes time. Remember that you can’t do it all. You can, however, acknowledge your successes and be proud of how far you’ve come. You deserve it.

More Resources Worth Exploring:

Brianna Marshall, Professionalism and Self- Presentation

Brianna Marshall, We Need to Share our Rejections

Jennifer Guiliano, Time, Money, and the Academy

Gennie Gebhart, Five Mistakes I Made in My First Quarter of Library School

Amanda Hope Davis, A Librarian’s Approach to Self-Care

Lix McGlynn, On Overcommitting

Brianna Marshall, Library School Life Lessons

Robin Camille, Hello from New York! My new job, how I got here, and the value of my MLIS

Students Taking Back the Conversation: The 2015 LIS Symposium on Education

I wouldn’t normally use this space to discuss or promote upcoming professional development opportunities. However, as an LIS graduate student contributing to a national platform like ACRLog, I feel compelled to share LIS students’ current concerns and activities, especially if they affect the rest of the professional body.

LIS students have been discussing placement, pay inequality, a lack of diversity in the profession, and gaps in LIS school curriculum and pre-professional opportunities through informal means for at least the last decade. These conversations have taken place in white papers, blog posts, and even in ALA or ACRL newsletters. They range from new librarians calling for more transparent program and placement statistics to recent graduates expressing their bleak job search and why they regret going to library school to minority librarians expressing the difficulties they face during the transition to their first professional position. They are, unfortunately, often cries of outrage or despair from one practitioner’s personal experience within the field, sometimes corroborated with statistics or other sources that prove that the individual’s issue is part of a larger trend within librarianship. A quick Google search brings up titles like these:

(If you’re trying to better understand the issues recent graduates are facing, looking at the comments is very enlightening.)

Regardless of format or venue, all of these discussions are relevant and fundamental to any change taking place. Nevertheless, we often see these conversations become stagnant and fruitless. LIS colleagues might chime in with a few comments but that is usually the extent of the impact. Or worse, a commenter will suggest that complaints about LIS education and placement are unwarranted and that new graduates need to be more autonomous and creative, completely disregarding the structural issues at play and shutting down any change the conversation could have influenced.

To make matters more complicated, the LIS practitioners that care about these issues often have little or no voice in our profession because of their status. The minority LIS student or recent graduate that feels uncomfortable and undervalued in their position often has no means of revolutionizing the issue. The unemployed (or underemployed) LIS graduate can’t necessarily rely on their alma mater or even ALA for support and most of the time their only option for voicing their frustrations is to warn current LIS students about the challenges the job market presents. Even current LIS students have little to no voice in curriculum or administrative decisions (for a great example of this at Illinois, see one of my colleague’s recent posts through Hack Library School). As a result, it’s relatively easy to find LIS blog posts that are primarily a vehicle for voicing frustrations, often because there is no other avenue for tangible action.

Thus, it has become clear to many that a more formalized, holistic movement needs to happen in order to see any real change. Moreover, it is apparent that this change should be student-led and collaborative. Students and recent graduates are, of course, stakeholders for all of these issues and should have some authority on how they should be resolved. Borrowing from (and reframing) one of the basic tenants of second wave feminism, we have to believe that the personal is political. Library students’ experience doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The personal experience of being unemployed, undervalued, and underpaid, in addition to having a lack of access to pre-professional opportunities or coursework on an important topic or in an instructional mode that meshes with your learning style is part of a trend. Our experiences are often more than our own personal endeavors. They also help us realize when institutional change needs to happen and they help inform what exactly needs to be revolutionized.

For these reasons, a group of LIS students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has created the 2015 Symposium on LIS Education. The symposium is completely free to registrants and will take place on April 10 & 11 at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Champaign, Illinois. The event will have a virtual component for those that would like to participate but are unable to make it to GSLIS.

The symposium has similar goals to the innovative #critlib unconference to be held in Portland in March. We believe that experience informs real solutions and the theory and praxis needed to create them. We’d like to call on students to lead the change in LIS education and educational policy. Additionally, we hope that the symposium will provide a safe space to address these controversial issues in a collaborative and productive way.

Potential topics for proposals could include, but are not limited to:

  • Diversity
  • Advising and mentoring
  • Gaps in LIS curriculum: critical theory, technical competencies
  • Administrative transparency
  • Information ethics
  • Reflections on online education
  • Pre-professional experience and opportunities
  • Costs and funding
  • Required courses
  • Career placement
  • Dual degrees and specializations

If you are a current LIS student, recent graduate, or scholar of LIS education or diversity in LIS, we would be ecstatic to have you participate. One of the main objectives of the symposium is to simply have a centralized space to look at LIS education more critically. But it is also worth noting that a larger goal of the symposium is to facilitate the creation of a deliverable. While it isn’t clear what form the deliverable will take, we know it will be important to have a summative document or declaration from participants that informs LIS schools and ALA of what was discussed and how students are addressing these issues. We hope that this will only be the first conversation/ step in this imperative discussion for the future of librarianship.

*The ideas here are my own and do not formally represent the Symposium on LIS Education’s Planning Committee. Conversely, I can’t take credit for thinking of this innovative event. I’d like to thank Madison Sullivan for asking me to help bring her idea to life and for rounding up a group of dedicated and passionate LIS students to work with on the planning committee.

What We’ve Always Done? User Experience and the Library

Editor’s Note: We welcome Sarah Crissinger to the ACRLog blog team. Sarah is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, completing her second year as a GSLIS student. She holds assistantships in the Reference, Research, and Scholarly Services (RRSS) and Office of Information Literacy and Instruction departments within UIUC’s library system. Her research interests include serving underrepresented populations, new forms of scholarly communication and measuring impact, and user experience in academic libraries. Sarah hopes to provide the ACRLog with a LIS graduate student’s (and current job seeker’s!) perspective.

As a second-year LIS graduate student quickly approaching the job market, I decided that this fall was an opportune time to add more practical experience to my resume. What better way to accomplish this than a practicum? I also found myself hoping to use the practicum as a space to push my boundaries and comfort zone. I have years of experience doing reference and instruction in different settings, but I have never thought of myself as particularly technical person. Thus, I approached a connection I had at a local web design and technology solution business, Pixo, about the prospect of completing the one hundred hour project within their User Experience (UX) department. I was thrilled when they agreed.

At the same time, some level of anxiety often overshadowed my excitement. I worried that not being fluent in programming languages or not being an experienced graphic designer would inhibit my ability to make the best product for the user. While this might be true in some situations, I have learned that UX is much more intuitive and approachable than we—as librarians—might think.

As I finished my practicum, I was asked to write a short reflection on what I learned from my supervisors, what surprised me, what was most challenging, etc. Here’s a snippet of that response:

I think the thing that surprised me the most was how well equipped I was to do this practicum. I came in being nervous about only having a humanities/ classic library science background. I told myself that I didn’t have the technical skills to do such complicated tasks.

But in essence, Pixo’s UX team relies on critical thinking and organization significantly more than advanced technical skills. Many of the tasks I completed and learned about—using analytics, creating personas, card sorting, making changes based on feedback, thinking strategically, communicating with clients—relied more heavily on my ability to think analytically and have empathy for the user. Yet these tasks still informed technical and programming decisions in important and significant ways. One of the greatest accomplishments of my practicum is that I now think of user experience as being much less intimidating.

I’d like to reflect more closely on UX in the context of the library. In doing so, I’d also like to make somewhat of a provocative claim: the library, as an institution, has always inherently done UX. Now I know what your reaction is. You’re thinking, “but, Sarah, look at all of the unintuitive library websites we have” and “what about the 40 hand-written signs that my library uses which hinder patrons instead of helping them?!” Those are perfectly legitimate responses. But I think that we have to dig a little deeper to truly understand them.

A few months ago, I attended a SELFIN virtual conference entitled “User Experience: Seeing the Library Through the User’s Eyes”. The conference went well beyond library website design by tackling issues of library space and organization, service points, and content considerations. I hope to borrow a few salient examples from this unique (and in many ways, groundbreaking) conference to illustrate a few of my points.

Even though we might not (and many would argue should not) think of the library as a business, we need to recognize that our patrons go through many touchpoints in their quest for information from the library. Every interaction we have with a patron matters. And I’m not just referring to interactions at the reference desk or other service points. Our library’s interactions with patrons often happen through our website, library entrance, stacks, instructional sessions, terminals, and other equipment—even if we aren’t present. All of these interactions count because they impact the patron’s overall experience. Many UX experts have started mapping users’ journeys through a business or organization. Check out this insightful journey map Aaron Schmidt made specifically for libraries:

crissinger1

I think that librarians are constantly considering the user, especially within public service departments like reference and instruction. It’s just what we do. But I think that it’s rare for us to think of the user’s entire experience in this holistic way. Moreover, we have a difficult time going back in time to relate to our patrons more authentically. Even as a graduate student, it is challenging for me to remember what was confusing or daunting about the library at my undergraduate institution. By not recognizing that what might be easy for us isn’t easy for our patrons, we do them a great disservice. That’s why Schmidt (and many other UXers) constantly remind us that we are not our users.

An example might help solidify this claim. In Schmidt’s presentation on UX in libraries he told a story about a very confusing library website, filled with jargon that only the librarians could understand. When faced with feedback about the difficulties that this created for patrons, the library implemented a glossary for patrons to better understand the jargon and thus more effectively use the site. This is counterproductive! As librarians we often want to give our patrons all of the information we can. As an educational institution, we want them to leave with a lot more knowhow than they came with. We might even believe that patrons have a similar interest and dedication to the library as our own. To make it more complicated, as academic librarians we often deal with patrons at all different skill and interest levels. We have to create products, applications, spaces, instructional sessions, and reference interactions that appeal to tenured faculty and undergraduate freshmen as well as everyone in between. That’s no small feat!

But if we are going to move forward with wholeheartedly incorporating UX techniques into the library setting and making the library more effective for the user—regardless of what they means for us—then we have to acknowledge that users inherently have different goals, motivations, time constraints, work habits, and stressors than we do. For better or worse, it’s the reality that we live with.

So we have established that we are not our patrons. How do we really get to know them then? That gets precisely to my point. In many ways, we are already trying! Librarians are doing great work to make evidence-based decisions that rely on the user’s perspective. Library research often utilizes interviews and focus groups. Ethnographers like Andrew Asher and Donna Lanclos have taken that research to the next level by studying users in even more detail (for another great example of ethnography used  in libraries, see Andy Priestner’s recent presentation). As vendors and consortiums create new discovery systems and OPACs, usability testing and other UX tools are being utilized. A conference I recently attended, the Indiana Online Users Group (or IOLUG), featured two librarians from Northwestern that did extensive usability testing on the LibGuides 2.0 interface before making documentation to guide consistent layout and information architecture across their library. At my institution, UIUC, we recently implemented a new library gateway. The web team made content decisions based on user stories, which act as less fully formed personas that convey users’ informational needs to developers and stakeholders. The list goes on and on. Some academic libraries are studying users in order to provide more accessible service points, liked a single-service point for reference and circulation. Others are asking users directly what works and what doesn’t work for them in chat reference transactions.

While I believe that libraries are already practicing some great UX techniques, I think that we have a lot to learn from the UX community. Kathryn Whitenton also presented at the SELFIN conference. She had this graphic to share:

crissinger2

It’s obvious that libraries are currently implementing many of the more basic UX techniques. But there’s so much more we could be incorporating. Many library websites have no clear information architecture and even have pages that only exist within the CMS but can’t be discovered by using the navigation. They could benefit from a content inventory. We don’t think of library service as being competitive yet we could still definitely learn from similar library’s strengths, whether we do it through conferences or simply exploring their website. We could implement user feedback to make small changes to a service or website and then utilize analytics to determine the outcome.

More simply, we should incorporate usability testing in every facet of our service. (If you can’t tell, it’s probably my favorite technique in the UX suite of tools). Usability testing relies on the statistic that 5 users can find 80% of the problems on a website. What a great thing for libraries! By simply following five users through your stacks (service point, website, etc.) as they complete a task, you can find up to 80% of the challenges they face.

UX is simply about making intuitive, satisfying, and useful experiences. It’s a natural fit in the library community and I can’t wait to see it grow within our profession.

This post is only possible because of the support, mentoring, and leadership of Cate Kompare and Melinda Miller. Thanks for being such inspiring practicum supervisors!

What I Gained With My MLIS

As my Facebook and Instagram feeds are flooded with graduation photos, it’s time to reflect on my education, now that I graduated with my MLIS almost exactly a year ago.  In the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the MLIS curricula, and for good reason.  Education is expensive and job outlooks are bleak; it makes sense that we need to re-evaluate this investment.  I’ve been critical of our degree myself.  But as I’ve read many posts questioning the value of our degree, I’ve tried to take stock of the 2 years I spent in school and consider how some of my more theoretical courses have made me a better librarian.

I am a strong believer that students need to be realistic about what to expect from a graduate degree.  Only getting practical, task-based skills is not the point of our education.  I agree that our classes should offer meaningful, thoughtful assignments we can include in our portfolios and should be testaments to our employable skills, but they should primarily give us the necessary conceptual tools to be innovative, creative professionals.  In other words, theory matters; having a strong foundation in theory is one of the things that separates librarians from other library staff.  Now that I’m a year out of my education, and a year into my professional career, I’ve reflected on some of the more theoretical courses I took in school and how they’ve helped my career so far.

Digital Media Collections: this class was, probably, intended for students who wanted to go on to do video or multimedia curatorial work.  In this course, we explored the idea that collection design is a form of argument, expression, and experience.  We learned how to figure out a purpose and audience for a collection; how to best select, organize, and describe items in a collection; issues of copyright, fair use, and creative commons licenses; and how to best present our digital media collections.  The final project was building our own video collection on a certain topic. Though I have never worked with digital media collection building, or even print collection building, this class gave me the skills to:

  • thoughtfully consider how to best organize and present resources in instructional Lib Guides;

  • determine who my potential audience(s) is/are when developing instructional workshops;

  • plan library resources and services in ways that are commensurate with open access and/or fair use principles;
  • articulate some assumptions database and search engines make when organizing and structuring results, which helps me aid students on the reference desk.

Classification Theory: this class was intended for theory nerds like me (I can only assume).  In this course, we explored different classification systems and investigated how classification can be a political act.  The final project was a critical paper.  Though I am a self-professed theory buff, the knowledge gained from this class has been instrumental in my contributions to developing an information literacy curriculum in my university.  Among other skills, this course has helped me:

  • articulate the differences in classification and retrieval systems.  I use this articulation to help students better understand why they get the search results they get and when they should look to the open web or databases;

  • implement a critical pedagogy in my instruction; this class helped me to understand how some students can feel marginalized by traditional search engines and classification systems.

Social Media for Information Professionals: potentially the most wishy-washy course on the schedule that semester, I took this course because it fit the best with my courseload (honesty, right?)  In the class, we read McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Massage” and other mass media theorists, particularly as they relate to the concept of “value added”.  The final projects were a presentation on how an information organization would use a social media site of our choice (I chose Pinterest) and a critical paper.  As a librarian, I’ve used the theory to:

  • co-develop a social media plan for our library’s marketing and outreach activities;

  • think critically about if, how, and when we should adopt particular social media for the library to have the most impact on our mission

Undoubtedly, some of our programs need to do a better job of knowing what it wants to be.  Some schools are more professional in nature, and do a great job of offering quality “core librarian” courses, like reference, instruction, cataloging, and archiving.  Students who work full-time, or have children, or would otherwise not be able to gain much practical out-of-the-classroom experience are some types of students who would be a good fit for these programs.  At the same time, there is a lot of professional experience to be gained from more theoretical or non-traditional library school courses.  As is often the case, we don’t always know what we’ve gained until we’ve needed it.

Have any of the classes you took in grad school been surprisingly useful in your career?  With the benefit of hindsight, what do you wish you had or hadn’t taken?  Leave a comment or tweet your thoughts to me @beccakatharine.

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!