A Guide, or a Crutch?

We’re moving the subject guides on our library website from HTML pages into a wiki, which we hope will make them easier for us to update and customize. It’s been a nice opportunity to freshen the content, weed out the dead links, etc. We plan to encourage faculty across the college to contribute to the subject guides as well as collaborate on custom research guides for their courses.

I’m finding myself with a couple of nagging concerns as I start the conversion project. Are we making it too easy for our students when we create subject or research guides for them? If they start with a subject guide, are they fully learning how to do research–how to find, select and evaluate information? Are we missing an opportunity for information literacy instruction, or even intentionally removing that opportunity? Or, do subject guides help us take advantage of technology to extend our instructional efforts?

Subject guides can definitely be useful to students, especially those in the early years of their college careers who may not be familiar with college-level research. Instructors can encourage students to use the subject guide as a starting point (and require them to incorporate resources beyond those included in the guide). Since students often take courses in disciplines that are entirely new to them, getting a research foothold is a challenge that a subject guide can facilitate.

However, when we give students a subject guide for them to use to start their research, we’re not exposing them to an actual, real-world research situation. It’s true that it’s more difficult to do research on a topic that’s unfamiliar, but throughout their lives our students will likely need to find information about lots of topics with which they have no prior knowledge. It’s much more challenging to start researching from scratch, but it is difficult to develop the ability to create and iterate search strategies when research resources are provided in a subject guide.

Subject guides can also benefit students in courses that, for whatever reason, can’t accommodate library instruction. I prefer the opportunity to incorporate information literacy into a course in the classroom, but surely some subject-specific research assistance is better than none, right? But I also wonder whether instructors who make use of subject or research guides in their classes will be less likely to bring their students for library instruction or collaborate with librarians to incorporate information literacy into their curriculum.

Either way, it will be interesting to see how our subject guides develop once they’re on the wiki. If your library creates collaborative subject or research guides with faculty, what have your experiences been?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

12 thoughts on “A Guide, or a Crutch?”

  1. I have never worked with faculty collaboratively on a guide (other than having them recommend some websites or suggest a particular database) but I don’t think it’s a crutch any more than discussing their research and making suggestions at the reference desk is a crutch. I have had situations where I found after doing a class and creating a guide, a faculty member kept using the old guide but without a session. I actually didn’t mind – except that they were out of date.

    But if they actually feel they don’t need a session, that the guide is more useful than holding class in the library, I’m okay with that. Maybe their students don’t need me so much as they need to know which resources are the most useful places to get started.

  2. Being only a few years out of school myself, I find subject guides are far from being a crutch. As an undergrad I used them extensively, but once I was in a real world research situation it is blatantly apparent that the University guides were not sufficient. I did, however, use the pattern that those guides showed me to do my own research. That pattern of doing research is what was the real value in those subject guides.

    Speaking of wiki’s, have you looked at LibGuides? I have a strong preference to DokuWiki because you can do all kinds of fun stuff with it, but our staff have taken to LibGuides like a duck to water.

  3. I don’t think they are necessarily a crutch if developed correctly. I use them as a supplement to teaching. In IL classes, I will introduce them as a guide for those times when the librarian isn’t available, such as it’s 3:00 a.m. and your paper is due at 8:30 a.m. and you can’t remember what a scholarly journal is (we have a guide for that). Or if they leave the class I’m teaching and need some reinforcement on what was presented. I try to emphasize that they aren’t meant to replace a conversation with the librarian, they are just a tool.

    My one concern about subject guides is that I’m not sure that users always choose the correct guide for what they need. Maybe there is something in how I have described my particular guides that’s confusing. For example, I created a guide on locating peer reviewed journals and received a negative comment on how the guide was worthless because it didn’t teach him/her anything about doing research. Well, it wasn’t supposed to and we (colleagues & I) think it’s pretty clear about what it’s purpose is. :-\ We have other guides that describe the research process that could probably help this person; unfortunately, this person submitted the comment anonymously so I can’t follow up. I’m chalking it up to someone who was obviously frustrated with something–hopefully he or she stopped in or called to clear up the confusion.

  4. From my perspective as a student — not having yet been in this position professionally — it’s actually very hard to learn the top sources in a field. That knowledge is typically spread by acculturation, which definitionally is something freshmen do not have. Other research skills — like organizing your notes & cites, or following up citations, or all the critical consideration you do once you *have* some sources — are, I think, both easier to teach, and not forestalled by the use of subject guides. So I would think of providing this kind of help — not as a crutch — but as recognizing that teaching introductory students basic skills while smoothing the way on the hard stuff may be more effective than expecting them to master all levels of research skills all at once.

    (Note, by this logic, that I would expect research guides to become less common in higher-level courses, where it is, in fact, time for students to know something about the intellectual geography of their fields.)

  5. We have just rolled out a project (like other libraries) to dynamically create a guide for all courses on our campus–mostly connecting our existing subject guides with course designators and adding reserves. Additional customization based on course/assignment is also possible.

    You can see them on them (under Course Support) on http://www.lib.umn.edu/

    I think the instructional possibilities of these pages tips them toward “guide” and away from “crutch”. For example, I have used our campus’s class capture software (Camtasia Relay) to record an in-class instruction session and then embedded it in the course guide. I also often include search strategy examples, and other tips to use the resources that I link to on these guides.

    It will be interesting to see how this system is used.

  6. The challenge is usually to get students to use the subject guides at all! Sometimes I think we just create subject guides for ourselves and fellow librarians. A colleague did a very interesting usability study of our subject guides that showed how frustrating they were for our students. A major problem is beyond our control- students hate the interfaces of most of our databases, and go to Google to avoid them.

    As far as giving them ‘real world’ experience- remember that in the real world, they won’t have 200+ databases to choose from. For the great majority of students, they will only use databases while in school. I think it’s essential we figure out a way to ‘guide’ our users to our resources. We use LibGuides very successfully for course-integrated instruction, but I’m still not content with how to design a subject guide that meets students’ needs and experiences.

  7. Maura– are you trying to get at the give a fish/teach to fish problem? I’m always wrestling with the right way to handle this. You don’t want to give them all the information on a silver platter, because that doesn’t teach them how to find information on their own.

    The way I’ve been trying to handle it in my subject guides is to to split the pages in half. The top half explains an information finding method; the bottom half gives a sampling but not exhaustive list of some resources that I found using the above method. The implication is, ok now you do it. Here’s an example of what I’m trying to do:
    URL: http://libguides.tcnj.edu/lit499

  8. Thanks for all of these comments — I’m so glad to hear I’m not the only one pondering subject guides over the summer.

    Marc, you’re right that it’s the giving/teaching issue I’ve been wrestling with. And Candace, you also hit on one of my concerns — that students may not even use the guides. Thanks (to everyone) for sharing so many great suggestions about ways to create/use both subject and course guides.

    And Brett and Andromeda, thanks for offering the student perspective. I’m old enough that I *didn’t* use subject guides when I was in college (and they would have been paper handouts if I had).

  9. Subject guides are heavily used at my library (based on web stats), and I incorporate them into my teaching. I almost always show the student the relevant subject guide so that they can refer to it later, after class (online handout, in a way). My goal here is not to teach them just the one or two databases they need for that assignment, but also to get them thinking of the subject guide as a resource.

    I also can’t reach every student. I want students to think critically about information, but I’d rather they get the resources they need, when they need them (especially if they need them at 2am, when I definitely not available!).

    I also use subject guides all the time myself, when I’m at the reference desk or looking into an area where I lack expertise. The business subject guide, for example, has saved me from having to refer students to our over-tapped business librarian.

    Also, given the increasing interdisciplinarity of the academe, subject guides can be a very helpful tool for faculty who know one area very well but area looking outside of their home discipline.

    The bigger question seems to be about the role of librarians. Are we gatekeepers? I like to think of us as making information easier to access, and subject guides can do that very well.

    Finally, on a more basic note, I like how some people are using subject guides as instructional tools. Here’s a great example of a librarian teaching Zotero through a LibGuide: http://research.library.gsu.edu/content.php?pid=24410&sid=175894

  10. Another reason to create guides – jp kind of points to this – is that a lot of students want to be as independent as possible. Guides are a way they can discover expert advice without having to ask for it.

    And I second the motion about learning from guides – they are really helpful, especially for those areas that aren’t one’s strengths.

  11. Both great points, thanks! I had completely forgotten about my own use — I use our guides all the time, too, esp. for health sciences questions (an area that’s not my strength).

  12. “It’s much more challenging to start researching from scratch…”

    But that’s what Google is for most of them – that’s where they start their research. Most won’t have access to our databases once they graduate, but if we can expose those gems to our users through subject guides, instruction, etc., when they are students, perhaps they’ll think “library” or “librarian” when they do real-life, post-graduating research. Perhaps they’ll come back to us…or to our counterparts at their local public library.

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