Tag Archives: research

Turning the Research Lens on Ourselves

I’m working on a research project again this year exploring the scholarly habits of undergraduate students at my university. One of the methods we’re using to collect data is a mapping diary. We ask students to record all of their movements through the course of one typical school day–time, location and activity–and draw a map to accompany their time logs. Last year’s responses from students at my own campus were fascinating, and I’m looking forward to interviewing this semester’s students when they finish their logs.

Many of last year’s participants told me that they really enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on what they do and where they go all day. Now that the semester is firmly underway and things are busy as usual, I wonder whether it might be a good idea to do some research on myself. I’ve often wanted to join the Library Day in the Life project in the past, but it always seems to be scheduled for days that I’m either out on vacation or before the semester has begun (that is, not really a typical day for me). Maybe it’s time for me to pick a day (or week, or month) to record my activities?

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there’s not enough time for everything I want to do. Of course that’s true on one level, because no one can do everything, but I also think that we may be less busy than we realize. A post on Prof Hacker over the summer popped into my mind when I was considering this, a review of a book called 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (168 is the number of hours in a week). The review isn’t completely positive, but does highlight the use of time logging to inject a dose of reality into how we perceive that we spend our time.

Judging from my interviews with students last year, this kind of reflection can help with both time management and task prioritization. Though it sounds like more work to add a time log to my to-do list here in the thick of the semester, I think it’s worth a try. And maybe the next time the Library Day in the Life date rolls around I’ll be ready to participate, too.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The semester is drawing to a close at my college and students in the information literacy course that I’m teaching are deep into their work on their final projects. I’m taking a breath before the grading begins and already starting to reflect on the semester: what worked well, what didn’t, what I’ll tweak over the summer and what I can use again in the fall.

One thing has been apparent since my students turned in their annotated bibliographies last month. To put it bluntly: their sources are awesome. Each of them has found solid information on their research topics from a wide variety of sources including scholarly books and articles, conference proceedings, academic websites, specialized reference materials, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and other internet sources. I can honestly say that it was a delightful experience to read their bibliographies.

The students chose topics of interest to them which definitely seems to have helped them embrace the research process. But I think that the main reason they were able to find such excellent sources is time. We had time over the course of the semester to explore where information comes from; how and by whom it’s produced and distributed; how to search for, find, and evaluate it. We also spent time discussing when to use different kinds of information, for example, when it’s appropriate to use a journalistic source and when it’s better to find something scholarly. Like the old joke about Carnegie Hall, this semester my students had time to practice.

I don’t know that I’ve emerged on the other side of this assignment believing that credit-bearing courses are the one and only best way to teach information literacy, but my experiences this semester have certainly been eye-opening. It’s not that taking one course magically creates information literate students — as with English Composition courses and writing, this is just the beginning. But I do feel that the students have built a solid foundation that will serve them well as their information competencies continue to develop over the rest of their time in college and, I hope, throughout their lives.

Realistically, it would be difficult at my college to require an information literacy course of all students; there just aren’t enough available credits in most degree programs. So another thing I’ll be thinking on over the summer is how to port some of the successful strategies I used during the course over to the one-shot sessions that still represent most of the library and information literacy instruction we provide. And I’m hopeful that strategies from both kinds of instruction can continue to evolve and inform each other.

Being A Good Research Partner

Some academic librarians do quite well as solo researchers and writers. Others find they are more productive when they team up with one or more colleagues. Each method has its pros and cons. Going solo you can set your own pace, do things the way you like, and need only to push yourself. It minimizes the compromises and concessions one makes when working with others. But working alone can be, well, lonely. Inviting colleagues to join in a project adds a degree of camaraderie to the project. More brains create more possibilities. Most importantly perhaps, in working with others we can push them and they us to complete the project.

I’ve published and presented using both approaches. At this point in my career I tend to favor collaborating on research with colleagues. Essays or opinion pieces just work better as solo efforts, but I find it more pleasurable to have a partner for a research project. And quite frankly, between work and other responsibilities it can be a challenge to find time for all the activity good research requires – and that’s true for potential partners as well. Working together we can likely complete a project that neither of us could achieve alone. I think that’s particularly true of conference panel presentations where we do our planning and work virtually, and then make it happen live.

If you do work with colleagues, and especially if you are leading the project, it’s important to remember there is a difference between service and servitude. Project leaders must strive to create a balance between taking personal responsibility for tasks and delegating responsibilities to others. He or she must avoid dumping work on colleagues that may be thought beneath themselves or that they think is not worth their precious time. I got to thinking about this after reading a faculty member’s blog post in which she complained about a senior research partner who expected her to do all the work. She wrote:

It smacks of servitude, though, when one person tries to get others to do the work: “You’re so organized; can you contact these 200 people and find out X?” or “You’re so good with computers; can you look up this information and get it back to me?” or “I’m so busy right now with some writing; can you do X for me?”

This inappropriate behavior is avoidable whether working on a joint research project or a panel presentation. The best approach is to create an understanding at the start of the project about the roles and responsibilities of each participant. For example, identify who’s going to be responsible for data collection, who will do the literature search, and who will do what writing. As with any team project, get a sense of who is strong in what skill areas and then allow partners to play to their strengths. If someone is less comfortable with writing, he or she can take responsibility in some other area. Sometimes at the beginning of a project the exact nature of the work isn’t quite clear, but there is always plenty of work to do . In that case the leader needs to delegate work with fair and reasonable judgment. And team members must speak up if they feel they are being unfairly burdened with project tasks.

The key to keeping a research project team from disintegrating is to remember that each of us needs to be willing to take on our fair share of the work. We must avoid taking advantage of our colleagues. The team leader must be willing and able to do any task he or she requires of others. When approached this way, all the partners work together in service to each other. Remember that your research colleagues are your partners and not your servants.

Pay Some Attention To The Research

Academic librarianship’s mainstream research journals are looking more like prizefighters in the twilights of their careers. They’ve gone through a long period of trying to stay on their feet while the world is passing them by and have taken a whole lot of hard knocks. As far as attracting readers, it seems like they’re about to go down for the count at any moment. If some blogger isn’t pissing all over the content of research journals by attacking it as boring drivel, then the research literature is being mocked as irrelevant, outdated before it’s printed and nothing more than an excuse for librarians on the tenure track to write about something for which no one cares and that no one will read. Well, if that’s what you think, that’s just a damn shame.

Is every article in every scholarly journal a masterpiece of writing and research? Of course not. Are some research articles repetitious, void of originality or suffering from a case of “you had to do research to tell us something that blatently obvious?” Absolutely. But there are probably dozens of forgettable and downright awful blog posts for every scholarly article that’s published. I say the scholarly literature is still a field of gems worth exploring. Every now and then an article will emerge from the pack that will grab your attention and have you kicking yourself for not coming up with that idea. In other words, you might actually learn something important. I came across two such articles recently.

The first is found in the October 2007 issue of portal: Libraries and the Academy (disclosure – I am on the editorial board) and it’s titled “Portals for Undergraduate Subject Searching: Are They Worth It?” If you are beginning to think that your Facebook profile isn’t really helping you to connect with students – especially in ways that truly matter – like helping them to achieve academic success – then you might need a new approach. Perhaps it’s time you considered strategies for connecting with students in their courses. That’s what students really want, and that’s what the research from this article tells us. The authors relate how they started to create discipline specific portals, which sounds like a good idea, but it didn’t turn out that way. Seems the students really wanted course specific resources. The findings from this well-written piece come just at the right time for my library as we’re exploring ways to better integrate the library resources into the curriculum. If the students prefer course-integrated and assignment specific library resources that’s where we’re headed.

The second is found in the November 2007 issue of College & Research Libraries and it’s titled “Undergraduate Use of Federated Searching: A Survey of Preferences and Perceptions of Value-Added Functionality.” While the title is hardly inviting, a closer look yields some interesting findings. Yes, students prefer federated search systems to individual native mode database systems because the search is easier and saves times – nothing too shocking there. But you might be saying “yeah, but the students are paying for convenience with worse results.” Well, it depends on who is judging the results. This study performed a detailed analysis of the search results, and when both librarians and faculty members analyzed the search results very little difference was found between the quality of the federated and non-federated searches. The faculty, more so than the librarians, found the federated search results to be of reasonably good quality. So if you’ve been putting off looking into federated search for your library because of concerns that it dumbs down searching and produces low quality results, think again. Based on student comments obtained during the study, while federated search was perceived as an improvement it appears that no students are deserting their favorite Internet search engines for federated search.

So if you’ve gotten away from keeping up with the scholarly literature of academic librarianship, keep in mind that your colleagues aren’t just making a bid for tenure (at least the ones on the tenure track) when they write these articles. They are also endeavoring to communicate new ideas and discoveries that serve to advance our knowledge of the resources we use and the communities we serve.