From MLA to MLA: Citing at Different Libraries

Alex Harrington has recently moved from her Reference & Instruction Librarian position at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, VA, to take the position of Access Services & Instruction Librarian at Penn State University’s Harrell Health Sciences Library in Hershey, PA.

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Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite library activity: citing your sources!

Citation is woven throughout the Framework. “Information Has Value” reminds us to give credit to others for their original work and addresses other issues of information ownership. “Research as Inquiry” makes sure we know to “follow ethical and legal guidelines in gathering and using information.” “Scholarship as Conversation” starts by telling us to “cite the contributing work of others.” I’ve also used many of the Framework’s bullet points about credibility and authority to explain to students how to read citations in a way that helps them select more appropriate sources. So what I’m saying is, if we’re talking about information literacy with our students, we’re addressing citation in some way.

I joked with colleagues at my former library that I, a self-professed citation nerd, would forget all I knew about MLA and APA style, and have to learn AMA, and join the… well, MLA. What I didn’t realize at the time was that, no, I probably won’t really learn how to cite in AMA from scratch, because we use citation managers here.

It just so happened that, shortly after I started, the former liaison to one of the departments I was inheriting was going to speak to that department about citation management programs. I tagged along, of course. While waiting for the meeting to begin, the former liaison asked me about which citation management programs we typically used at the community college, and I just sort of shrugged: “We didn’t.” The students were taught to cite from scratch, or (more often) use the databases’ built-in citation builders, and double-check them when they copy/paste into Word. I told him that we never had students using citation managers. Then I started to think about why that was.

Part of it simply comes down to a question of volume. Teaching the community college students to set up and use EndNote would take more time and effort than it would be worth for the three to five citations they need in their paper.

The lack of longevity of the need for those citations is another point. The community college students are far less likely to need to keep track of citations of sources on the same or similar topic for a long period of time, whereas medical researchers will likely want to refer back to citations they’ve used before, or keep track of them over the course of months or years. Similarly, the medical researchers may be publishing, and in multiple places, so it would be very time-consuming to rewrite the citations for each style they need, when a citation manager does it in seconds. The community college students likely only need to cite a given source once, in one style, for one class. If they have to switch to another style, they probably won’t be using the same sources they cited in another style. (For example: their history paper in Chicago style and their biology paper in APA usually won’t have any sources in common.)

In my experience, at the community college, it was also important to explain to students why citation is necessary. Many of them seem to think of it as something between unnecessary busy work and torture invented by cruel teachers. So explaining the concepts of “Scholarship as Conversation” and “Information Has Value” in a context that is relevant to their work is needed. At the medical school, that doesn’t need to be addressed in much detail, if at all. Most of the people who are citing things here are trying to get published, and if “correct citation is necessary for publication” is all they know, it’s a good enough reason for them. (If nothing else, the majority of the students at the medical school already have other college degrees, and have been through the citation talk that the community college students are getting.)

I think the other big difference and its reasoning can be compared to math. In elementary school, you learn basic mathematical functions, like subtraction, where they tell you that you can’t take a bigger number from a smaller number. At some point in middle school, you find out that is possible, because negative numbers exist, but you can’t take the square root of them. But in high school, you discover that you can, because imaginary numbers exist. You get the point. I’m seeing citation the same way. My community college students were taught the parts of a citation to make sure they know the fundamentals (like what all the pieces of information are, and how to read some of the common abbreviations), and if they wind up in a more advanced academic situation like med school, they become the students I have now, who know what a citation should look like (so if EndNote spits out something that looks totally wrong, they can identify that).

So I’m curious to hear about your experiences with citation at the different types of academic libraries you’ve worked in. Are your students using citation management programs like EndNote, Mendeley, and Zotero? Are they expected to cite “from scratch”? What is the attitude toward copy/pasting the pre-built citations from databases that provide that tool?

Displays in Academic Libraries

Whenever I’m running low on display ideas, I have my favorite go-to methods for finding ideas and inspiration: Consult Chase’s to find interesting or relevant upcoming holidays or anniversaries! Refer to my (admittedly, somewhat neglected) Pinterest board of ideas I wanted to remember for later! Or, when I’m really at a loss… just Google it (“[month] library displays”). I generally find plenty of good examples that way, but I’ve noticed that a lot of them come from children’s and teen librarians, and public libraries in general.

I worried for a while that this meant I was doing this part of my job wrong… Isn’t there a difference between public and academic displays? Shouldn’t there be?

I’ve heard a wide variety of opinions on the role of displays in academic libraries, including that they should…

  • …provide leisure or extracurricular reading for students who want a break.
  • …encourage involvement in student clubs, volunteer activities, or civic engagement.
  • …be directly related to coursework through a partnership with teaching faculty.
  • …encourage student success by promoting study skills and time management.
  • …be interactive.
  • …make users say, “I didn’t know the library had that!”
  • …be big and flashy and catch attention; if they go viral, you’re nailing it.
  • …be funny and light-hearted.
  • …be serious and scholarly.
  • …include handouts or other freebies / takeaways.
  • …tie into online research guides on a related topic, with QR codes or posted URLs.
  • …be used as a recruitment tool and encourage enrollment / registration.
  • …consist only of items that can be checked out.
  • …showcase archival or rare items (preferably under glass, lock, and key).
  • …target current students OR potential students OR everyone OR a specific club/group.
  • …be archived online for digital engagement with users who weren’t there in person.
  • …be the result of input or work from users themselves along with the library.

All of these are good suggestions in the right context, and I think a mix of these makes for a better collection of displays. I always like having a few “fun” displays and a few “serious” displays at the same time, to reach a wider audience and to show more of the types of things the library can provide. The only restriction should be fitting a need of your users, but users have a lot of needs, so you have a lot of options.

After being “the display person” for several years, I see displays as a visual place where you can see all of Ranganathan’s laws in play, and have tried to keep these concepts in mind when building displays. Books are for use: let them take a vacation from the shelf and get a little fresh air! Someone might pick them up serendipitously, when they would never have gone looking for them on the shelf. Every person their book: not only should collections reflect the needs and interests of the people, but the displays should too, in a more narrowly focused and temporary way. Every book its person: I find that displays are one way of checking on the interest in a topic or a specific item; if it doesn’t get used on the shelf and it doesn’t get used on display, you may want to reconsider its place in the collection. Save the time of the user: if you’re making timely displays with wide interest, the display may provide the user quicker access to the items they’re looking for. The library is a growing organism: use displays to highlight new items, or showcase interesting library services like 3D printing to remind users of all we have to offer them.

Note that, in the advice above, I didn’t mention anything exclusive to academic libraries, or exclusive of them, either. What that means, to me, is that I can unabashedly borrow ideas from public and children’s library displays, as long as they’re relevant to my library’s users as well. And when something doesn’t work, at least I learned from that idea. (Example: I have always been hesitant to do a “blind date with a book” for an academic library, because I worry that someone might go looking for a specific book that happened to be used in the display, and not be able to find it, whereas the public library (1) is more likely to have multiple copies of fiction titles, and (2) has more of a browsing collection, while we have more of a “searching” collection.)

What kinds of displays have you put up in your academic libraries? What have you had success with, and what did not work out so well? (Bonus points for sharing photos!)

How Vs. Why: A New Way to Look at Incorporating the Framework

This piece started out as my attempt to figure out how to write about the difficulties my community college colleagues and I have encountered when trying to find effective ways to incorporate the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education into our one-shot library instruction sessions. As I sorted out my thoughts on that topic, I saw a different, but related, question we should answer first: what is the balance of “library instruction” versus “information literacy instruction” we can and should achieve in this instruction session?

If I define “library instruction” as “teaching students about how to use the library’s resources and services” (whether that’s a point-and-click demonstration of a database, an explanation of what can be found in a subject-specific research guide, or answering questions about what services are provided at the reference and circulation desks) and “information literacy instruction” as, well, teaching what is found in the Framework (identifying authority, considering information’s value, understanding scholarship as a conversation), then I don’t think I’m making a bold statement by saying: “Library instruction is not the same as information literacy instruction.” To over-generalize a little, “library instruction” is the “how” of research, and “information literacy instruction” is the “why.” This is something we probably all already knew, but I had not thought about it in the context of answering the question of how to incorporate the Framework into my one-shots.

Both “how” and “why” instruction are important, and a student needs both to thrive in their research. If a student doesn’t have the nuts-and-bolts information of how to access a database in the first place, how are they supposed to apply the information literacy concepts that help them choose a high-quality, reliable, scholarly article from that database? On the other hand, if we don’t allot enough time to evaluating one’s sources, the student might just choose the first article that pops up in the database, without critically considering its authority or value. We need to strike a balance between the two, but what is the right balance? There is, obviously, no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. It will vary based on the course, the instructor, the students, the assignment, and the librarian.

The next question, for advanced users, is: can I fit both “how” and “why” into the same activity? For a little further reading, this is the article I was reading when this new question clicked for me. I realized that I do the things that Shawna Thorup describes, such as doing on-the-fly searches for the students’ suggested topics without knowing what the results will be. This squeezes “Searching as Strategic Exploration” into the same activity that used to be just demonstrating the use of a tool. You get a two-for-the-price-of-one experience if you use your demo time to explain why a student might want to use limiters like “peer-reviewed only”: they know how to do it and they also know why they should do it. (Bonus points when they understand if they should do it!)

I know that none of this is revolutionary, but for me at least, it is a new way of looking at an old question, and I hope that it might help you approach that question in a new way in the new year.

My “Step-Library”: A Joint-Use Library Experience

Do any of you have step-families? I do, and I recently realized how relevant that experience is to working at a joint-use library.

Starting out, there may be concerns on both sides about merging, just like with step-families. There may be assumptions and stereotypes to overcome: step-families get a bad rap (see: evil step-sisters; red-headed step-child), and different library systems can have opinions about how other types of libraries work, and not always positive ones. You’ll have to share resources and space, (whether that’s collections and meeting rooms or toys and bedrooms). You might worry about not seeing eye-to-eye on everything (study room policies or bedtimes). The trepidation is normal, but everyone should work together to overcome it and find similarities, and how the differences benefit everyone.

Opening a joint-use library is a lot like moving in with a step-family. You wind up with two of a lot of things: bedrooms, neighborhoods, pets, etc. Our “step-libraries” have two of a lot of things, too. We’ve been open for five years, and here are a few things we’ve learned about the things we have two of:

Institutional Priorities

On paper, the differing institutional priorities are probably the most obvious difference between the public library and the community college library. You can pull up the organizational charts and see where staffing is strongest for a hint at what the priorities are: the public library has a large number of programmers, and positions with the word “youth” in their job description, whereas the college library has reference and instruction librarians, and a focus on people who cover the computer labs. There are areas with overlap, though: we have a combined welcome desk, where staff from both institutions perform circulation duties, for example.

When I refer to institutional priorities, I also mean that the two organizations define success by different metrics. The public library records data on program attendance and library card issuance, whereas the college is more interested in library instruction attendance and reference statistics. The college has a reference statistics form that must be filled out every time a question is answered at a service point, every day of the year. The public library has selected weeks where surveys are made available and when data about services is collected at service points. During those weeks, while completing both forms, one can easily see the differences between the priorities and “big picture” interests of the two organizations.

The priorities of the two libraries overlap and support one another, though; that was the point of sharing a joint-use library in the first place. Both are focused on “life-long learning,” with the public library placing heavier emphasis on the years before K-12 schooling, and the college library focusing more on the years after.

Organizational Relationships

If you go back to the organizational charts of each library, you can also see how people are arranged: what departments exist, which people are responsible for which tasks, and what kinds of hierarchies there are (who reports to whom).

We all realized, however, that the realities of the workplace are less clear than an organizational chart makes it look on paper. Some general rules apply that are obvious to both groups: managers set schedules and approve time, for example. But changes to how any given employee’s time is structured, or how new tasks are assigned, might complicate matters for one library system more than the other would guess.

Another, stickier problem arises when complaints or conflicts arise between employees from each library system. Mediation procedures may differ between the systems, and the supervisors of each party don’t report to the same administrator (or even the same Human Resources department). A great deal of careful communication and compromise are required.

The good news about this is, in most cases, the problems can be solved by just asking questions and learning about the structures that make up each system, not just in the building, but in the bigger picture. The college employees learn about the other branches of the public library, the public library employees learn about the other campuses of the college, and everyone has a better understanding of the broader range of parties involved. We were fortunate to have, for a while, several employees who worked two jobs in our building: part-time for the college and part-time for the public library. They were very valuable resources for understanding the inner workings of both sides at the same time. (This also helped minimize the us/them rhetoric among the staff, which is another thing you get in both step-families and joint-use libraries.)

Once that understanding is achieved, we realize that we also have a bigger and broader pool of skills and knowledge, with all these liaisons and working relationships we’ve created. One great example is a public library employee who is incredible at creating huge, gorgeous displays, and has used her talents all over the building.

Workplace Cultures

All of the other little differences I can think of between the two libraries fall under this catch-all “workplace culture” category. There are a lot of little day-to-day things that we have picked up on a little bit at a time. The public library has a dress code, and the college does not. The public library tends to schedule people for separate one-hour shifts at the service points, while the college prefers to give people multi-hour blocks in the same place. We’ve had to sort out the details of how to celebrate birthdays (and baby showers and going-away parties and holidays), who cleans the refrigerators and when, how to cover the service points during one side or the other’s staff meetings, whether public and college items can (or should) be used on the other’s displays, and so many other little details that have come up over the years.

One of the big ones, from day one, was hours and closures. Long story short, we follow the college’s holiday and weather closure decisions, so we might be open when other public libraries aren’t, and vice versa. This has many far-reaching implications, but one that I find interesting is how the staff members react to weather predictions. A public library employee knows they may be required to work at a different branch that doesn’t close if the college (and therefore our library) closes for snow, but a college employee would just be excited at the prospect of having a day off.

Another of the big ones is something we still work on: the definition of customer service. Our public library staff strive more to find a final answer for a patron, while our college librarians are more focused on showing a student a resource and teaching them how to use it on their own, to avoid accidentally doing the student’s coursework for them. We have spent a great deal of time and effort training everyone to do things both ways, and to discern when each approach is appropriate. In my opinion, it has made all of us better at our jobs, because we have learned a lot about the diverse needs of our patron population and how to meet them in a variety of ways.

Your “Step-Libraries”

You don’t need to work at a joint-use library for these concepts to apply. I know of many college libraries who report to multiple deans, or have combined library and IT departments, or even just have multiple campus libraries that need to work together to avoid becoming silos. Anywhere you have multiple parties at the same level working together to provide services to your patrons, these concepts are relevant and important.

One of Today’s Lucky Ten Thousand

If you aren’t familiar with the webcomic XKCD, go take a look now. I have been a huge fan for years, and find his comics relevant to many areas of life. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this one:

XKCD, “Ten Thousand,” https://xkcd.com/1053/

As a reference librarian, I get a lot of the same questions day in and day out. (I know that a lot of you can relate.) How do I find a book on my topic? How does the printing system work? Can you help me connect my laptop to the Wi-Fi here? Where is the bathroom? How does citation work? It happens in the classroom, too. How do I narrow these results down to scholarly journals only? What do I do if it says “no full text available”? Can I put a book on hold from off campus?

I’m going to take a moment to clarify that today, I’m not talking about the questions like, “I wasn’t paying attention; can you show us how you got to that page again?” I’m also not talking about the same person showing up every single day to ask for help logging into their online homework system but they don’t remember their own username and password, or where they wrote that information down when you helped them yesterday. I’m only talking about the questions that we answer over and over for different people every day, week, semester, and year.

Sometimes, I used to get frustrated or annoyed by having to answer, “Where is the classroom?” twenty times in a row for each individual student attending library instruction that hour, or showing different students how to find books over and over on the same three argument paper topics all week. And I see the same thing happen to my colleagues, especially during this time of semester, when midterms are gearing up and every other student we see is working on one of a handful of similar assignments.

But then I remembered this XKCD comic, and it reminded me of a few things.

One: We are here to teach people the things they don’t already know. If students already knew how to find resources or write citations or even where the classroom is, what would they need me for at the reference desk?

Two: Everyone has to learn a thing before they know it. That sounds really obvious, doesn’t it? To dismissively think, “You’re in college, you should know this!” is to do your students a disservice.* It reminds me of all the times I’ve said I haven’t seen a particular movie, and someone reacts with an overly dramatic gasp and, “But you’re in your thirties! How have you never seen The Godfather?” It makes me feel guilty, like I’ve avoided that movie on purpose, instead of just not being shown the movie or being prompted to go find it and sit down and watch it. I know it exists (like a student knows the library exists), and I’m aware of several of the more famous scenes (like a student knows that libraries can help students with research); I just haven’t watched it myself (like a student who hasn’t used library resources or asked a question at the reference desk). A better reaction, in my opinion, is, “You haven’t seen The Godfather? I highly recommend it. Here, borrow my copy, or let’s watch it together this weekend.” Or, in our case, “You haven’t used the databases? They’re really great, and I think they make it easier to find what you’re looking for than using Google Scholar. Here, let me show you where to find them and how they work.”

And that’s the attitude I try to conjure up in myself three times per semester: week one, midterms, and finals. Because the student standing in front of me needs to find a journal article and does not yet know about the wonders of EBSCOhost, and they are one of today’s lucky ten thousand.

*Side note: At some point, yes, you have to be able to say, “Didn’t you ever have to write a paper before this point in your education?” But if they haven’t, it’s not exactly their fault. I do not present this as an excuse for learned helplessness or not doing the work. We just need to remember that we don’t necessarily know a student’s background or experience when they first approach the reference desk. My college has a lot of non-traditional returning students who may not have done this kind of work in a long time (and during the intervening years, the majority of the process has changed), a lot of students from underprivileged schools (who may have been focused on different priorities from citation and evaluating sources), and a lot of students who are not high academic achievers, and just want to fulfill degree requirements so they can learn a trade, so their English paper is not the high priority it is to some other students, who may want to transfer to a four-year university and major in literature. This “one of today’s lucky ten thousand” concept does rely heavily on giving each student the benefit of the doubt, and not being discouraged by the ones who do ask the “I didn’t listen to what you just said; can you repeat it verbatim?” questions.