A Model of a Research Consultation

In my last post, I discussed research consultations, which seems to be one common interaction in academic libraries that is rarely addressed in library school, at least based on the standard reference textbooks. I examined the two standard texts I’m familiar with–Bopp & Smith’s Reference and Information Services and Katz’s Introduction to Reference Work–and neither addresses the research consultation as such, though Bopp & Smith mention that there are these things called research consultations. The assumption seems to be that the needs of the research consultation are covered under basic reference: conduct a reference interview, assess the information need, address it, etc. Instead, I tend to think of a research consultation as something in between a standard reference transaction and an instruction session.

Though some research consultations focus on specific information needs, most of the ones I have start from a general research topic, usually with the student wanting scholarly books and articles on that topic. Often enough, there’s a gap between the way the student thinks about the topic and the scholarly discussion about it, if indeed there’s any scholarly discussion at all. In that case, the consultation often includes discussion about how to approach a topic based on the research found. Rarely do I encounter a student who has a topic that perfectly conforms to both the research and the controlled vocabulary of an established index. So, considering a student who goes into a consultation with only a topic or even a vague research question, what should that student leave with? That question isn’t addressed in the reference textbooks, and it wasn’t addressed at all in any of the reference courses I took in library school.

In the ideal research consultation, I think students should emerge with a small number of relevant sources and a plan for how to proceed with their research after the consultation. Thus, it is partly about finding an “answer” to a question like “can you help me find sources on X?” However, it’s also a time to provide detailed instruction on how to find more sources like those, and sometimes even on how those sources might be useful depending upon the essay topic.

I’ve given a lot more thought to this since I started teaching in a library school. I wanted to teach reference skills appropriate to academic librarianship. In the arts & humanities librarianship course I’ve been teaching at the University of Illinois, I assume that ready reference in the humanities is dead and focus on research consultations. Dead might be too final a word, but the way reference has traditionally been taught–e.g., sets of ready reference questions and possible reference sources–is much less relevant to the academic library than once it was. For the research consultations, I give fairly well developed research questions based upon actual questions I or others have gotten from students and have my own students write a response in 2 pages or less as if it were an email exchange. There are obviously limitations to the assignment, such as the impossibility of conducting a reference interview, but it’s as close to a real world interaction as I could come up with, and the sort of thing I do on occasion when a face to face meeting won’t work.

In their response, my students are supposed to provide an example of each of the following (if relevant to the topic):

  • Primary sources (archives/ historical documents/ works of literature/ philosophical works, etc.)
  • Secondary sources (including “seed documents”—recent, relevant, scholarly books & articles)
  • Tertiary sources (encyclopedias, bibliographies, etc.)
  • Citations that seem worth chasing
  • Important scholars in the field (if they can be identified)
  • Databases and indexes to search
  • Useful keywords and subject headings/descriptors

Keep in mind this sort of consultation is geared towards the humanities, though I could imagine variations for students who needed help in other fields. Also, not everything on the list is appropriate for every consultation. Nevertheless, students who get to this point should be able to proceed on their own, which should be the ultimate goal of research instruction.

Because I’m curious about what other people do and because I’m always looking for ways to improve the course, I’ll end with questions. Does this seem like an appropriate model for a research consultation? Is it too ambitious? Or does it leave the student with too few documents in hand? Is there something you would do differently in an assignment that could make it mirror an actual consultation more?

11 thoughts on “A Model of a Research Consultation

  1. I’m really glad you wrote about research consultations. The only other person who comes to mind who’s written about this topic is Iris Jastram at Pegasus Librarian. I think you’re correct in noting that traditional library school ways of teaching reference service don’t meet the needs of future librarians who may find themselves doing research consultations.

    I noticed that you recommend that librarians think about categories of sources along the usual lines: primary, secondary, tertiary. I was wondering if you’ve ever considered using the BEAM model that writing instructor Joseph Bizup created. Rather than using categories that try to relate to some essence of what the source is, you instead employ categories that get at how the sources will be used: to provide background, to serve as an exhibit that will be analyzed and interpreted, to offer other arguments about the topic, or to define a method that you will use in your analysis of exhibits. I wrote a bit about this model on my Beating the Bounds blog last year if you’re interested in hearing more about it.

  2. I like the assignment very much; in my experience, students respond well to anything that an instructor can honestly say resembles real-world work situations. The closest analogue I use is in my digital-curation course, where students have to respond to an NSF data-management plan as though they were consulting with the grant applicant.

    The only danger I see — and it may be unavoidable — is the tension between comprehensiveness and real-world-ness of response. I’ve had to tell my digital-curation students that if their response to the DMP is longer than the NSF’s DMP limit of two pages, they have NOT written a good response. I know they want to show off their knowledge for me, but I need to impress upon them that they need to meet their clientele where it is, and infodumps do NOT encourage repeat consultations!

    You seem to be coming down on the comprehensiveness side of the equation; what, if anything, do you say about patrons’ tolerance for infodumps, and finessing the sheer tonnage of information a good librarian can offer?

  3. Thanks for the interesting post. I do a lot of research consultations, though at my library (a large, urban, public university), we encourage students to ask at the reference desk first because often the librarian on the desk can answer the question, even if it requires some subject expertise, and this saves a lot of time for we very busy librarians. We just don’t have the luxury of offering one-on-one consultations with everyone who’d want one.

    So typically by the time I’m hearing from students, they have a specific need, and, since I am the history liaison and work with a lot of history students at the upper-level undergrad and graduate levels, this need is often primary sources. Most history students who find their way to my email or office are proficient at finding articles (except for not understanding that JSTOR typically doesn’t have current content), but struggle with finding primary sources. So I share with them appropriate strategies for their topics.

    I also encourage upper level students to start earlier with tertiary sources, especially good, focused subject encyclopedias. Those don’t just get them references to articles, but often tell them who the key players and issues are. Students aren’t experts, but tertiary sources give them expert info right from the start. This also helps with the common problem of students narrowing in on a topic based on a few scholarly articles before doing enough background research or determining if there are adequate primary sources available (an actual quote from a senior history major: “I’m all done with my paper; I just need to find some primary sources.” And of course his topic was something like 12th century Turkish military bands.).

    Another strategy to finding those key, foundational articles is to use citation counts, via Web of Science or (my preference) Google Scholar. I love that Google Scholar gives you the most cited stuff first. It’s pretty easy to see at a glance what they key works are on any given topic.

    Tertiary sources also work when students don’t have a solid idea for a research topic, as browsing relevant subject encyclopedias can be an excellent strategy for developing a research question.

    So, for your students, I might encourage them to start with an encyclopedia (print or electronic is fine, as long as it’s subject-focused) to find keywords, scholars, and the most influential articles, and then take the next steps you’ve mentioned above. I think it’s taken me a while as a relatively new librarian to appreciate how useful tertiary sources can be–electronic databases make it so easy to skip right past them, which is great in the short one but not always great for our research.

    And, finally, I’m not sure how you’d incorporate this into your assignment or teaching, but something that many good librarians do is use what we learn in teaching and research consultations to improve the information we provide students. For example, in working with graduate students in Conflict Resolution, another one of my liaison areas, I found that many were having the same problems: 1) not knowing which database was appropriate for their topic, and 2) making the mistake of using the phrase “conflict resolution” as a search term. Now, in my teaching and in my new subject guide, I emphasize that in this interdisciplinary field, you have to figure out what disciplines to consult for your specific topic, and you have to figure out how they talk about conflict resolution (ie mediation, communication).

  4. Wow, a lot to respond to.

    Stephen, for the LIS assignment, I don’t use anything like the BEAM model, and in practice I sometimes do and sometimes don’t. It depends on what I can tell about the sources students and I might find. That model is great for writing teachers, and when I teach writing I definitely talk about the different ways sources can be used, and if possible in consultations as well. I tend to stick with the vocabulary offered by the Princeton Writing Program, so I might suggest whether a source provides evidence for a position, or a set of keyterms, or a lens through which to view other sources, or a possible counter-argument. Students here should know that language. If I can tell what the sources are about, I definitely talk about that with the students in a research consultation, but it’s not always possible from reading a title or abstract how it might be used. However, I talk about the possibilities. Because of the unusual topics I sometimes work with where there isn’t much research, I’ll also frequently talk about reading a work on a somewhat similar topic specifically to steal the method or approach. I think this is where my years of teaching writing blend into my librarianship, and for the better. The primary/ secondary/ tertiary is very traditional, I know, but I haven’t worked out how to make an LIS assignment that captures the full flavor of a real consultation with the give and take that involves.

    Dorothea, I definitely talk about the problems with infodumps, and have in fact graded students down considerably for not following the guidelines. (My first year I got a 17-page long “email”.) The length restriction is 2 pages, 12 pt font, 1″ margins. If they can’t get it into that space, then the grade suffers. That means that they have to choose judiciously when responding, and then won’t necessarily include examples of everything. (There’s a History or Literature consultation and an Art or Music consultation, so the guidelines don’t always work equally well.) The goal is to give the students a small number of solid sources and a path to finding more, not to give them a complete bibliography. I’ve also noticed students like assignments with real world applications, and in addition to this, I have them make a LibGuide (made possible because the kind folks at LibGuide gave me a domain for my class).

    Joan, here we probably do most of our significant research consultations in our offices, often with students from the departments we liaise with, but we’re fortunate to have the resources for that. Still, I would take similar approaches on a desk, and have responded to students with similar emails depending on the situation. I also recommend tertiary sources for finding appropriate vocabulary and background on a topic, which can help save both the librarian and student a lot of time. For every subject in the class, I have examples of specialized encyclopedias listed for students to examine. I also talk about the benefits of Google Scholar, especially since Web of Science is so mediocre for the humanities. Your last point is very good, though how to include that in an assignment is tricky. Experience definitely helps, and the more you know about your topic the easier it is to guide students. Sometimes this comes from previous consultations, or perhaps from the background research done for consultations if there’s any time beforehand.

    Anyway, lots of stuff to think about as I prepare for the spring.

  5. The bulk of my reference and research interactions are office appointments. Here’s the short version for industry research:

    1. ID the industry (usually the industry your proposed business will operate in)
    2. Seek general industry info. (Business Source Complete is a good place to start)
    3. ID trade organizations and publications via Google (a good portion of this information is free and on the web)
    4. ID any legal or regulatory issues in the industry
    5. ID any other industry trends
    6. Examine top companies/competitors
    7. Recommended publications from article databases: Trade publications, market research reports, company profiles, general articles (non-scholarly)
    8. A sense of the industry history is good but this needs to be balanced against currency. As one professor said to me: “I need this information yesterday!”
    9. Citation help (I do this for almost all my consultations)

    Company research has as many–if not more!–steps and there is some overlap.

    I agree with the earlier commentor who said that many MLS programs do not prepare librarians for in-depth consultations. Decently trained student workers or staff can handle basic reference questions. A research consultation that lasts 30 minutes or more is another beast entirely!

  6. Thanks, Brad. That’s a great model for a type of research consultation that I never do, but that I’m sure library schools don’t prepare for either.

  7. The bulk of my interaction with students is during one-on-one consultations, primarily with upper-division undergrads and grad students in the social sciences. On many occasions, I’ve observed that discussions of research sources or strategies have actually been secondary to what I think of as “information/research therapy”. Sometimes the most useful thing I can do is listen, REALLY listen. Many of these students aren’t getting the face time with their instructors that they might like (I’m at a large research university with many large classes), and their girl/boyfriends have long since tired of hearing about their projects. But I am truly interested in their topics, questions, exploration, and by providing a caring, unbiased, but informed sounding board, students can often sort their thoughts out and make progress towards their next steps. That’s not to say that I don’t also provide suggestions for sources and strategies, but there are situations where I could seriously derail a student’s process by jumping in with “let’s search here”.

  8. I graduated from library school a little more than a year ago and now work with Information Literacy and Reference services. I really like the exercise you’ve outlined. I took a general reference class and even an instruction class, which focused primarily on different theories, history, and pedagogical practices. In the process of learning so much, and usually being asked to write comprehensive essays or papers, it’s really important to make sure that students understand the real world application of all the knowledge they are acquiring.

    So, this isn’t really anything new to what you are writing, but I will add another voice to the chorus that like real world situations. Do you think there is a way to collaborate with your Humanities (or other) department and have your students actually take a shot at a research consultation?

  9. Emily, your comment was really timely for me. After a consultation I had a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about blogging on the research consultation as therapy. There have definitely been times where I listen to the student and ask questions, and the end result isn’t always library research. Sometimes, I end up telling them not to bother with the library for the moment and to work out the ideas they discussed with me instead.

    And Chris, I’m definitely not writing anything new. In fact, I was trying to articulate what I think might be common practice and talked with a lot of librarians as I was creating the assignment. I expect there are hundreds of librarians who do some variation on this consultation depending on the circumstances. Usually, there’s just not much discussion of them. Since I had to articulate this for my assignment, and since I hadn’t seen much about the nitty gritty of consultations in library schools, I thought I’d post it in case anyone was interested.

    Unfortunately, it’s not possible to have the students engage in actual research consultations. I work in New Jersey, and most of the students live in various parts of Illinois. We come together virtually once a week, and in person once a semester, and I just don’t know how the logistics could be worked out. That’s why I try to make it as realistic as possible. For the weekly sessions, I often do use recent questions I’ve gotten from students and give my students an opportunity to work on them.

  10. This post touches upon a really important but surprisingly neglected subject, whether in library school or library literature. So thank you for starting the conversation! I would add 2 comments:
    1) there are very few “standard reference transactions” any more. At my library, we treat them as teaching/learning moments. We do the same for research consultations. In fact, the main difference between a reference transaction, a research consultation and an instruction session is the length.
    2) Because they are longer than reference interviews research consultations allow me to focus on the evaluation of resources. As we all know, students have difficulty identifying relevant sources in their search results, and tend to pick a few “that look promising” from their first attempt at searching. It does not work with all students, but I try to point out that it is important to take the time to evaluate the sources they found, and if necessary to refine or modify their search accordingly. This can turn into a fairly complex task since the relevance of a source can only be measured against the topic and questions raised by the student in her paper.

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