Building Community through Inclusive Research Guides  

Editor’s Note: Please join us in welcoming Nery Alcivar-Estrella, Reference and Instruction Librarian at California State University, Northridge, as a new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger for the 2023-2024 year here at ACRLog.

As a first year Academic Librarian, I have become immersed in a project at Cal State University, Northridge (CSUN) with Lisa Cheby, the Education Librarian, and Yi Ding, the Online Instruction Coordinator & Director of Affordable Learning Solutions. We have embarked on a CSU-wide effort inspired by the LibGuides Open Review Discussion Sessions also known as the LORDS Project, which was originally created by Cal Poly. My team and I use rubrics and frameworks from the CSU Wide Toolkit provided by the LORDS team at Cal Poly. Our own version, entitled Engaging Diverse Voices through Research & Resources, will help students research the perspectives of marginalized communities. It will provide students with jumping-off points like search strategies, databases, theoretical and methodological frameworks, community resources as well as reading recommendations to help them diversify their research. Students researching one or more forms of oppression, whether that’s sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, religious persecution, or linguistic discrimination would benefit greatly from using our LibGuide. The tabs located on the right side of the LibGuide have been organized by communities or identities that have been systemically excluded by academic institutions.

As a community of librarians and scholars, we must challenge traditional research practices and encourage critical reflection, particularly as it relates to referencing methods. Typically, academic librarians work with professors and instructors, who require students to cite scholarly or peer reviewed journal articles. Subsequently, many academic librarians have established a conventional way of approaching information literacy and research instruction. However, we must not oversee the importance of recognizing and uplifting different forms of authority. Because of institutionalized discrimination and systemic oppression within predominantly White, research-intensive institutions, publishing processes must be critically examined. As noted in the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, “Experts understand the need to determine the validity of the information created by different authorities and to acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations.” In this way, academic librarians may help students identify not only traditional authorities like peer-reviewed journal articles, but also alternative sources of information like blogs or podcasts. Our LibGuide, Engaging Diverse Voices through Research & Resources, will raise awareness about inclusive academic processes and citational justice.

In our LibGuide, Lisa Cheby will cover the section about citational justice and she will discuss its current role in research and scholarship. She asks, “How are we decentering, decolonizing, diversifying research practices?” With these questions in mind, we developed our LibGuide with the intention of fostering and supporting campus-wide discussions about inclusive research practices. We hope that our suggested readings and tools about citational justice will encourage educators and students from various disciplines to implement this practice into their own scholarship. Citational justice involves a critical awareness about who we are citing and why. Rather than just locating bibliographic information, citational justice involves a commitment to diverse perspectives and schools of thought. This includes questioning our own biases, learning about the identities of cited scholars, and embracing marginalized voices into our scholarly conversations.

As I begin my career as a Reference & Instruction Librarian, I have come to recognize the importance of digital learning objects. Since more students are becoming distant or hybrid learners, it is critical to provide various points of access, which includes online resources centered on inclusive research practices. Although our CSUN LibGuide will not be officially published until spring 2024, I will share our work-in-progress. Please feel free to explore our work and consider implementing a similar research guide at your own college or university. 

Not as simple as “click-by-click”

One of the projects I inherited as emerging technologies librarian is managing our library’s collection of “help guides.” The online learning objects in this collection are designed to provide asynchronous guidance to students when completing research-related tasks. Over the last few months, my focus has been on updating existing guides to reflect website and database interface changes, as well ensuring compliance with federal accessibility standards. With those updates nearly complete, the next order of business is to work with our committee of research and instruction librarians to create new content. The most requested guide at the top of our list? How to use the library’s discovery service rolled out during the Fall 2012 semester.

Like many other libraries, we hope the discovery service will allow users to find more materials across the library’s collections and beyond. Previously, our library’s website featured a “Books” search box to search the catalog, as well as an “Articles” search box to search one of our interdisciplinary databases. To ease the transition to the discovery system, we opted to keep the “Books” and “Articles” search boxes, in addition to adding the “one search box to rule them all”; however, these format search boxes now search the discovery tool using the appropriate document type tag. Without going into the nitty gritty details, this method has created certain “quirks” in the system that can lead sub-optimal search results.

This back-story leads to my current question about creating instructional guides for our discovery system – how do we design screencasts to demonstrate simple searches by format?

So far, this has boiled down to two options:

  1. Address the way students are most likely to interact with our system. We know users are drawn to cues with high information scent to help them find what they need; if I’m looking for a book, I’m more likely to be drawn to anything explicitly labeled “Books.” We also know students “satisfice” when completing research tasks, and many are unfortunately unlikely to care if their searches do not retrieve all possible results. Additionally, whatever we put front-and-center on our homepage is, I think, a decision we need to support within our instructional objects.
  2. Provide instruction demonstrating the way the discovery system was designed to be used. If we know our system is set up in a less-than-optimal way, it’s better to steer students away from the more tempting path. In this case, searching the discovery system as a whole and demonstrating how to use the “Format” limiters to find a specific types of materials. While this option requires ignoring the additional search options on our website, it will also allow us to eventually phase out the “Books” and “Articles” search boxes on the website without significant updates to our screencasts.

While debating these options with my colleagues, it’s been interesting to consider how this decision reflects the complexities of creating  standalone digital learning objects. The challenge is that these materials are often designed without necessarily knowing how, when, or why they will be used; our job is to create objects that meet students at a variety of point-of-need moments. Given that objects like screencasts should be kept short and to-the-point, it’s also difficult to add context that explains why the viewer should complete activities as-shown. And library instruction are not usually designed to make our students “mini-librarians.” Our advanced training and interest in information systems means it is our job to be the experts, but our students to not necessarily need to obtain this same level of knowledge to be successful information consumers and creators.

Does this mean we also engage in a bit of “satisficing” to create instructional guides that are “good enough” but not, perhaps, what we know to be “best?” Or do we provide just enough context to help students follow us as we guide them click-by-click from point A to point B, while lacking the complete “big picture” required to understand why this is the best path? Do either of these options fulfill our goals toward helping students develop their own critical information skills?

No instruction interaction is ever perfect. In person or online, synchronous or asynchronous, we’re always making compromises to balance idealism with reality. And in the case of creating and managing a large collection of online learning objects, it’s been interesting to have conversations which demonstrate why good digital learning objects are not synonymous with “click-by-click” instructions. How do we extend what we know about good pedagogy to create better online learning guides?