Some Context for the Latest P2P Review Column

My latest Peer to Peer Review column in the Library Journal came out today, Information Literacy as an Unnatural State. This is my first effort to pull together ideas I’ve been writing and thinking about information literacy, the persistence of pseudoscience, and cognitive bias for the past year and a half. Possibly there will be some ancient philosophy in there eventually as well (e.g., Stoicism and philosophical Daoism), but I’m not sure yet. What we think of as information literacy, and indeed the entire academic enterprise, is deeply unnatural, and that instead of thinking about IL as a set of competencies, we should think about it some other way. I’m not sure what way yet, but the idea I’m playing around with I’m calling “scholarly habitude,” meaning roughly that the difference between the information literate/ scholarly person isn’t the ability just to do certain things, but a set of habits or frames of mind relative to the world, and that it’s much harder to achieve than reading through a set of competencies might indicate. I’m also not sure yet what specific role librarians would play in developing those habits.

Anyway, the LJ column is a tentative first step to something that might grow larger over time, so if anyone has any questions or criticisms, I’d appreciate them. The more and earlier the better.

Organizing My Research Life [Updated]

[The following is an updated version of this blog post. Since that one gets a couple hundred hits a month, I figure someone somewhere must find it useful, and since I've changed a few things within the last year--especially by using a nifty new syncing feature in Zotero--I thought I'd update.]

This is the latest configuration in my quest to find, store, organize, and access scholarly information in the safest and most efficient way possible. I’ll focus on four productivity tools: the LibX toolbar, DropboxCalibre, and Zotero (the reason for this order will be more obvious below). Plus there’s an addendum on Evernote and Evernote Clearly.

LibX allows libraries to build a customized library application that runs as an extension in Google Chrome or an add-on in Mozilla Firefox. It allows users to do various searches directly from the application. Some of the obvious searches are for a library catalog, WorldCat, Web of Science, or large aggregator databases, but other searches can be set up. For example, as you can see in the image below of the Princeton University Library version, users can search for databases by title or search for ejournals by title. The links can be to whatever you want, and our version has links to the library home page, ILL, reserves, and our reference chat service among other things.

LibX

Once I started using this, I have almost no need to ever go to the library website anymore. (Which is a pity, because we’re releasing a new website this summer. I was on the redesign committee, and we stole every good idea any library had and put them together pretty smoothly as far as I’m concerned.)

Once you find stuff, you have to store it somewhere, and after experimenting with multiple syncing applications I’ve finally settled on Dropbox exclusively. The free storage is 2GB (although with accepted referrals you can get that up to 18GB). I went with the Pro option of 100GB option for $99/year. Right now I use about 30GB on average, but the Pro option allows uploading of unlimited file sizes, so I can transfer video files or large numbers of music files among computers easily. For impecunious grad students (or even impecunious librarians), I might suggest a cheaper option, but it’s worth the $99/year for my peace of mind. Also, I’ve used Dropbox on multiple devices and operating systems and it’s never failed me. Now everything I have is backed up in the cloud and on every computer that I use, so there’s little chance of losing anything.  [For cheaper options, Google Drive offers 25GB for $30/year and SugarSync offers 60GB for $75/year. Or you could set up 32 separate email accounts and send yourself Dropbox referrals to get the 18GB. I realize Google Drive offers 100GB for only $60/year, but I'm doing my best to spread my electronic eggs into as many baskets as possible rather than rely on Google for everything.]

Once you have Dropbox or some other syncing application set up, it’s time to think about managing edocuments. I use Calibre Ebook Management. I call it an edocument manager because it  allows you to import ebub, mobi, PDF, Doc, DocX, Txt, and just about any other text based document. Once documents are imported, you can edit the metadata, tag them by subject, add notes, and even convert them among formats.( Got an epub you want to read on a Kindle? This is the program for you.) Calibre makes it very easy to organize and find documents.

The other nice thing is the way it imports them. Instead of just importing the metadata while still pointing to the original folder where you had the file, Calibre imports the entire file into a folder called by default “Calibre Library.” By going to the Preferences and choosing “Run Welcome Wizard,” you can specify where the folder should be. Here’s what it looks like for me:

Calibre Settings

Notice that I keep my Calibre Library in Dropbox. What that means is that every document I import to Calibre is now synced in the cloud and on every other computer I have Dropbox on. If I’m at work using Calibre on my office desktop, files imported and synced through Dropbox will show up exactly the same on my laptop at home provided I have the Calibre settings the same.

The same thing works for the newest version of Zotero (4.0), released last month. Zotero is a relatively simple and easy to use bibliographic citation manager that imports citations from library catalogs and databases. The citations can then be organized by folder or tagged and searched. It’s very easy to generate bibliographies in multiple formats and to add citations to things you’re writing with the MS Word plugin. It started as a Firefox add-on, but these days I use Zotero Standalone, which has connectors for Chrome, Safari, and Firefox.

It also allows you to attach a link to a file, so that if you have a citation to an article and the article stored on your computer, you can right-click the citation, choose Add Attachment, then Attach Link to File, and the linked article will appear with the citation. Then you can just click within Zotero to open the document. With version 4.0, Zotero has made a big improvement. You can now choose the “base directory” where Zotero links to the attached files. Before, you had to do it in the default directory, or attach the file itself and pay for more storage at Zotero. Not anymore. Since you can choose anywhere as the base directory, I chose my Calibre Library on Dropbox. The preferences look like this:

Zotero settings

Once Zotero is set up like this on computers you use, the attached links to files sync when Zotero syncs, because the underlying Dropbox folder structure synchronizes across devices as well. Obviously, this could be done without using Calibre. Everything could be managed through Zotero alone, and some other Dropbox folder synced instead. But Zotero is most useful for managing citations, whereas I have lots of edocuments that I want to read and manage, but would never want to cite. By separating out the functions and using separate programs, I can get precisely what I need at any given time. Besides, files can be imported to Calibre and edited in bulk, while attaching links to files in Zotero is a slower process.

So that’s what I’m recommending as a great way to keep scholarly citations and documents stored, organized, and accessible for research.

Addendum on Evernote and Evernote Clearly

I’ve also been using the note-syncing application Evernote a lot, although I haven’t come up with any uses that are especially focused on research. You could use it for notes and quotes about sources you’re reading, but that wouldn’t be my first choice. (I use MS Word for that, and put every quote and note I have about a given source organized by title. Then I turn the title into a Heading and use the Document Map feature to easily navigate between sources.)  I’ve been experimenting using it in student research consultations, where I will put the source we searched, a suggested search strategy, and maybe a citation or two, and then use the sharing feature to email the note to the student. While not scholarly, the feature that allows you to add check boxes to lists sure improved by grocery shopping. Mostly I use it to clip articles from the Internet that I want to save to read later.

Once I go read the article, I use another Evernote application called Evernote Clearly which really has to be seen to be believed. If you do a lot of online reading as I do, you should give this application a try. It’s a browser extension that reformats an online article into a pleasant, clutter-free reading experience. Plus, for a lot of articles that span multiple pages, it will reformat them all into the same page. Really, try it. Install the browser button, then navigate to this article on being an Evernote power user. Click the Clearly button and watch all the annoying clutter disappear. Your online reading experience will never be the same again.

Unlikely Conversations and Improbable Sources

Recently I’ve been getting some requests for what I have called The Improbable Source.  An improbable source is some source students hope to find that is exactly on the topic of their research essay, especially when that topic is somewhat obscure. The example I used then that still stands out as the top of this category is “scholarly books and articles on email as a form of civic friendship.” You can double check the philosophical literature if you like, or you can take my word for it that nobody has ever published a scholarly book or article on this topic. When I first identified the existence of the improbable source, I suggested that the problem “is that they want sources that already do their work for them.” To some extent, that’s true. Almost always, the improbable source students desire is one that already supports the exact thesis they hope to argue. If they found the source, then they’d have to change their thesis. However, I now think the problem is larger than that. It’s not just about a hunt for improbable sources, but also about a hunt for unlikely conversations.

“Scholarly conversation” is a phrase that librarians and writing instructors often use. It’s an apt metaphor for what scholars do, and most scholarly work is in a conversation of some sort with previous scholarship, whether arguing with it, building upon it, or whatever. There’s nothing controversial about either that claim or the use of the phrase itself as far as I can tell. However, it’s very difficult to teach a first-year student who has never participated in such a conversation or engaged in any actual research to understand what’s going on.

I’ve worked with students who are looking for scholarly conversations on topics that are highly unlikely to be conversed upon by scholars. We can stick with the “email as civic friendship” topic. It’s not just the source that’s improbable. It’s the entire conversation that’s unlikely to exist. And if there weren’t a conversation, there wouldn’t be the improbable source, because the scholarly sources often respond to previous research. Students have been taught that scholarly conversations exist. They are perhaps engaged in class readings that demonstrate a scholarly conversation in action. Then they pick a topic and go out to find the conversation that likely doesn’t exist.

So that’s what is happening. But why is it happening? There could be many reasons, but I suspect the main reason is the backwards approach to research the students are taking. Instead of reading around broadly in an area of scholarship and looking for the conversations that emerge, students are choosing and even narrowing topics at random and then trying to find the scholarly conversation. Librarians have strategies for helping students find the conversations, but they only work if the original topic is pretty broad. Students might make the leap into a conversation about email as civic friendship because they’ve read an article on civic friendship and need to write about a form of communication as civic friendship, but that’s obviously a scholarly conversation that didn’t emerge from anything scholarship they’d actually been reading. Another approach is students having to relate some event or thing to two different scholarly disciplines. That can be a very fruitful assignment, but students sometimes have problems figuring out exactly what they should be researching in the disciplines, because it’s usually not the thing or event itself. Thus, their initial searches aren’t emerging from the scholarly conversations within a discipline. They’re hoping to find that conversation based on what they think is interesting about the thing or event, and sometimes it just doesn’t exist.

Anyway, I think those are reasons why, but even if not there’s still the question of what to do about it. The first response I usually offer is one of assurance, because often enough the student has tried to find the improbable source or the unlikely conversation and failed. That’s when I practice reference as therapy, and assure students they’re not finding it because it likely doesn’t exist.

Then, we analyze, which etymologically means to break something down into its elements. Email and civic friendship has two elements, both of which could be researched separately. However, that topic is really what writing instructors call a “lens essay,” which means the student should be examining email through the lens of a theory of civic friendship. Thus, really the topic is email and whether or not it fits the criteria for civic friendship. But other topics that combine two or three areas together are ripe for analysis and research on the separate areas, but even then it might be hard to figure out specifically what to look for sources on without having read a lot. and that’s the students’ job, not mine. Comparing disciplinary approaches to something can work as well, but again it’s usually something that requires more reading by the student than searching with the librarian.

That’s where my final advice comes. Sometimes even as I’m meeting with students I realize they don’t really need me at all. They don’t need to find more sources; they just need to start reading and figuring things out from there, and the only thing I’m good for is to tell them that. So maybe I was right before and the hunt for improbable sources and unlikely conversations is motivated by the hope that someone out there has done all their reading, analysis, and synthesis for them, because that, not library research, is the hardest part of writing a research essay.

 

Bad Google Scholar Results

I’ve seen lots of criticism of Google Books, but I find Google Scholar to be more frustrating. Google Scholar tends to be something of a last resort for me. It’s where I go when I’ve tried everything else and hope that the keyword searching will pull up something with at least some relevance that might have been missed in standard indexes. Usually I’m disappointed. For example, I was looking for scholarly information around a controversy within the International Churches of Christ, specifically regarding a controversial letter criticizing the organization and the aftermath. Here’s the Google Scholar search.

There are eight results, only half of which might count as scholarly. The book about God and karate could be considered scholarly. Another is a 4-page article from Leaven: the Journal of Campus Ministry, which I wouldn’t consider scholarly in the way that, say, the Journal of Religion is scholarly, and it has no references, but it’s sort of scholarly. Another is a link to a PDF of “Discipling Sisters” at the University of Georgia’s institutional repository, which wasn’t working at the time. By searching their OPAC and following links, I discovered it was a 2007 dissertation. Finally, success! Except that the only mention of the guy I was looking for uses a Wikipedia article as the source of information. Failure! The only other link that is at all scholarly is to a master’s thesis in the digital commons at McMaster University. That’s scholarly, but a master’s thesis is pretty low down the food chain for scholarly secondary resources. On the other hand, no Wikipedia articles are cited. One actual book, one questionable article, and two theses. Half the search results were sort of relevant.

The other links are not. Two are links to the same article from two different websites, spirtualpornograpy.com and reveal.org, both of which are anti-ICOC websites, so there’s some obvious bias and article is definitely not scholarly. There’s another link to a lecture housed at douglasjacoby.com, which is a Christian ministry site. How did they end up there? The only thing I can think of is that they’re all in PDF format. Does Google assume that anyone who can save a document to the web in PDF format is a scholar? Finally, there is a link to a Christianity Today article, only it’s to a Russian website instead of to the Christianity Today. Not scholarly, and possibly bootleg. Three non-scholarly websites and a bootleg news article. Half the results weren’t remotely relevant.

A broader search for ICOC alone brings more results, and with more results, there is a larger number of actual scholarly sources. However, buried in those results are numerous questionable sources, like PDFs from icocinvestigation.org, whose subtitle is “exposing the International Churches of Christ.” At least their bias is obvious. There’s also gospelpreaching.com, willofthelord.com (both linking to the same non-scholarly article), starringjesus.com (which doesn’t exist anymore), and regainnetwork.org, whose “mission is to outreach, unite and support those touched or adversely affected by the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi Movement.” These might all be great websites, but there’s nothing remotely scholarly about them.

It’s like Google Scholar is deliberately putting in non- or quasischolarly material just to make us have to evaluate the information more. Instead of filtering out the nonscholarly stuff littering the Internet, which is what I thought Google Scholar was supposed to do, it clutters up the results with dubious sources based on a questionable search algorithm. The best I can figure is that if a source on the Internet is in Google Books, is in PDF format, or has any citations, Scholar seems to consider it scholarly.

On the other hand, it’s a good exercise to discuss Scholar with students who want a quick fix when searching for scholarly sources. Do a search and start evaluating the source with even the most cursory criteria for scholarship and it’s pretty easy to show what is and what is not scholarly and why. That’s typically necessary when searching the open web, but it’s the sort of thing I wish one didn’t have to do with something like Google Scholar. There are no royal roads to research.

Organizing My Research Life

[Here is an updated version of this post.]

I often write about things I don’t like or think are hyped (at least in regards to library usefulness). My instinctive antipathy to the library equivalent of what someone recently termed the “breathless bullshit industry,” and the sheer amount of that breathless bullshit, means that I’m more often in critique mode than celebration mode. On the other hand, there are products and services more or less directly related to library research that I like, that I use, and that I heartily recommend to any faculty or students who might be interested. I’ve even started what I hope will be an annual presentation to faculty and students in my liaison areas about such research tools for scholars. The best way to know what tools are good and useful is to use them, so I’m going to discuss what tools I use and why to organize my research life. I definitely recommend you try them if you haven’t.

First is the LibX Toolbar. (Here’s a link to a description of the Princeton version if you’re unfamiliar with it). It’s a toolbar that can be adapted to search your library’s various databases and provide quick links to important resources. If your library doesn’t have one, build one. If it has one, use it and promote it. The PUL LibX toolbar is now my main portal to library resources, and all the feedback I’ve gotten on it is positive. It’s available for Firefox, Chrome, and IE. I’d created a library toolbar a few years before LibX came along, but LibX is so good I immediately abandoned it. It’s the best library search tool I’ve found, and with it I find I rarely need to go to the library website at all.

Once I’ve found books and articles through the LibX toolbar, it’s time to put them in a citation management system. Far and away my favorite citation organization program is Zotero. The library subscribes to Refworks, so I have to maintain some facility with that, and Mendeley has its charms. But Zotero is so easy to set up and use, especially as a Firefox plugin, that I see no reason to use another program. The Word plugin works well, too. Lately, I’ve been using the group libraries part as well, both at work for sharing citations and in the LIS class I teach for an assignment. And unlike Refworks, I don’t have to be signed onto the campus network or put in a special code. If I’m browsing the web and want to grab a citation, one click is usually enough. I’ve used the standalone version with Google Chrome, but there are some things it doesn’t do as well as the Firefox plugin.

Besides organizing citations, the most important thing is for me to have access to everything I’m writing and every digital document I might want to read from any computer with an Internet connection. I also never want to lose a document. For my writing, I put everything in Dropbox, because of the several programs I’ve tried (including Sugarsync, Google Drive, ADrive, Asus Webstorage, CX Storage, and Live Mesh) it’s the most reliable for syncing across computers and operating systems. I use it on two Windows 7 laptops, an iMac, two Android devices, and very occasionally a Linux netbook and it’s never let me down. I also rely significantly on Sugarsync, but the Magic Briefcase doesn’t want to sync reliably with the Mac, or knowing Apple, the Mac doesn’t want to sync reliably with Sugarsync.

Everything goes into Dropbox, but for live writing projects I do further backup. For the book, I had all my writings and readings in a Dropbox folder, but I also used Sugarsync to backup the Dropbox folder. Unlike Dropbox or Google Drive, Sugarsync will allow you to not only create a sync folder (the Magic Briefcase), but backup any other folder on your hard drive to the cloud. Thus, for an important folder, I’ve got a copy on in the Dropbox folder on my hard drive, which is synced with any computer I use in addition to the cloud, plus I have the same folder synced to the cloud with Sugarsync. Only in the event of some global catastrophe would my work be lost, and by that time I probably wouldn’t have time to worry about it. A lot of people use Google Docs exclusively for their writing, and they have to rely completely on Google, or go through bothersome exports. I use either MS Word (which is much more robust than Google Docs anyway) or Scrivener, which means the files I create in a synced drive can be accessed without an Internet connection on my regular computers or with one from anywhere. (If I didn’t get MS Office free from my university, I’d use Open Office the same way, which is also more robust than Google Docs.)

Then, the reading. I could just dump all my digital readings into Dropbox as well, but that’s not a particularly good way to organize hundreds of files. For a while I tried Mendeley, which I liked, but it only works with PDFs. Eventually I settled on Calibre, which handles PDF, mobi, and epub formats among others and also allows for conversion among them. Got a PDF or epub you want to convert to mobi to read on your Kindle? Or to epub to read on something besides the slow-loading Kindle app (I use Aldiko on Android)? Calibre’s great for that. There are even plugins available that let you do interesting things with DRM, but I won’t talk about that. Unlike Mendeley, when you import a file into Calibre, it doesn’t just add the metadata and point to the original folder. Calibre instead imports the file into a separate Calibre folder, which I then back up with Sugarsync. Like Mendeley, it lets you alter the metadata and add tags. Most of my hardcore reading and writing is done on one laptop, but if I want access to those files from another computer, I can just log into Sugarsync, download them, and even import them into Calibre on that computer. And, as with writing, for current vital readings on a given project, I usually add them to Dropbox as well for easy syncing, knowing that I have a well organized and searchable version in Calibre.

So that’s it. Armed with the LibX toolbar, Zotero, Calibre, Dropbox, and Sugarsync, I can pretty much guarantee that finding library materials, organizing citations, organizing readings, and backing up everything is easier than ever. If you want to describe alternate strategies that work well for you, please do.

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?

Neutrality and Research Help

I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog post AL Direct linked to on Dealing with Politicized Reference Questions from the relatively new blog Letters to a Young Librarian. (I hadn’t heard of the blog before, but after a quick skim of the back posts added it to my reader.) The post proposes ways to handle questions where students are “looking for sources to support a position for which there is a lack of academic support.” The advice is practical, and I’m not discounting it. It’s not necessarily what I would do myself, but reference is an art, not a science. However, a couple of statements in the post have been nagging at me since I first read them, possibly because, as happens often enough, they sound like solid librarian orthodoxy and I completely disagree with them. Let’s take them in turn.

“As a librarian, however, I do not have the luxury of telling a patron that their topic isn’t going to work. I’m there to provide objective information access….”

That does indeed sound like the orthodox librarian policy. For “objective,” I substitute the perhaps more common term “neutral.” The librarian should be neutral in providing information. After all, according to Article II of the Library Bill of Rights, “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” Librarians aren’t supposed to take sides in a debate when helping readers find information, or refuse to help find information on topics they disagree with. I agree with this, but I don’t think it means I can’t tell students their topic won’t work. I’ve told numerous students over the years their topics won’t work. If there’s no evidence supporting their thesis (or in my case usually no scholarly debate about their odd topic at all) that I can find after the most rigorous searching, then the thesis won’t work. Research essays should insert themselves into a scholarly debate at some level, and if there isn’t a scholarly debate, then there’s no essay. If there’s no scholarly debate as well as no reasoning or evidence behind a thesis, students don’t have to abandon the topic completely, but they will have to adjust their thesis so they can defend it in a scholarly research essay that demands at least a modicum of reasoning and evidence. I don’t mind telling them that because I don’t think it’s my job with students to provide objective access to information as such. It’s my job to teach them how to do academic research.

In practical terms, I might turn this into a series of question: What prompted you to want to write on this topicn? Did you read something supporting it? Hear about it somewhere? What evidence have you gathered so far? What reasons do you have for holding this position? All those questions get at the core of the problem in a constructive way. I want to know how they got to the point they’re at now, where they’re coming to the librarian asking for a few sources to support a position they arrived at without any support at all, because I want to know where they’ve gone wrong in the research process and begin there. If students are asking for sources to support an argument they want to make but don’t already have some evidence for, something has gone wrong with the research process. It’s broken. That’s not the way research works, and it’s part of my job to make that clear to students.

Which leads me to the second statement: “this post focuses on how to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument.”

Again, this seems like something librarians should be willing to do, but it’s not. It is never my job to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument. Not helping guide students to scholarly sources to support their arguments doesn’t mean I abandon my neutrality or my duty to aid their research. It’s just that my job is to educate them as well as guide them. The post was about politicized questions, and thus the desired objectivity was implied to be about the political position of the student’s claim. But one can be neutral about politics without being neutral about process. It doesn’t matter what claim the student wants to make an argument for–whether it’s about global warming or the symbolic meaning of tea cozies in contemporary Lithuanian poetry–scholars don’t pick a claim and then go find sources to support it. They research a general topic and go where the argument leads them, or at least they should. Hence some of my earlier questions. What led you to want to make that particular claim? If you pulled a thesis out of nowhere, then you need to back up and read more about the topic before you can possibly write a research essay.

Research (in the humanities at least, which usually includes the type of first-year writing course research essay I think is being addressed) is a recursive process. Find a general topic of interest. Read some general sources. Formulate a research question or hypothesis based on that reading. Read some more specific sources to answer the question or test the hypothesis. Narrow your topic to a thesis based on your interpretation of the available sources, then argue that thesis using whatever evidence you have to defend it and critiquing evidence for the other side. Without doing the preliminary reading on a topic, students have no reason to assume the thesis they want to argue has any merit whatsoever. Furthermore, one can’t make a good argument, especially on a “politicized” topic, without understanding both one’s own position and the opposite position. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with a student’s thesis. The thesis itself is irrelevant. It’s about process, not substance.

Let’s consider a hypothetical topic, global warming. It could be anything, but I’ll stick with a politicized topic since I don’t know anything about tea cozy symbolism in Lithuanian poetry. Possible research questions might include: Is the earth really warming? If it is warming, is human action contributing to that warming? If the earth is warming, what will be the consequences? Will the consequences be dire? If the dire consequences predicted are based on models, how sound are the models?  If human action is contributing to that warming, to what extent? If the earth is warming, and if human action could slow or stop this warming, and if that would be a good thing, what are the economic costs now and in the future of that action? All of these are legitimate research questions to begin an essay with, and all leave plenty of room for various political interpretations. But a student in question might say to a librarian, “I want five scholarly sources for my research essay that prove global warming doesn’t exist.” (If they said they wanted five sources that proved global warming did exist, I wouldn’t address that directly, either.) Regardless of the initial approach, the response should be the same. “I can help you find numerous, recent, peer-reviewed scholarly sources on various aspects of your topic. You should then read them, evaluate their arguments, and position your own claims in relation to them.”

It doesn’t matter what the end result is, and over the years as a writing teacher and librarian I’ve guided students through the research of theses I found reprehensible. Nevertheless, it’s not important what students argue; it just matters how they argue it. It’s similar to the process of peer-review. Peer-reviewed scholarly sources can sometimes radically disagree on significant topics, but it only matters for our purposes that they meet a standard of argumentative or methodological rigor. The same should go for student research essays, and we shouldn’t feel bad about saying so when appropriate.

PDA and the Research Library

I didn’t attend the panel about “Is Selection Dead? The Rise of Collection Management and the Twilight of Selection” at ALA Midwinter, but fortunately my head of collection development did and pointed me to the recent summary at Against the Grain (he provided “Response #2). The panel discussed the role of patron-driven acquisition (PDA) in academic libraries, with at least two of the panelists, from the Universities of Utah and Arizona, advocating a greater role for PDA in libraries. One said, “This isn’t to say that all libraries should immediately stop building traditional collections, only that we should be willing to rethink the universal appropriateness of such collecting, and willing to experiment (even aggressively) with new models.” If I understood correctly, and I may not have, the person at Utah is experimenting aggressively enough to have gotten rid of several subject specialists and relied increasingly on PDA.  That’s aggressive, indeed.

Before even addressing the collection issues, we should note the importance of subject specialists in reference and instruction. One assumption seems to be that if libraries adopt more PDA that subject specialists aren’t necessary. We don’t
need experts to choose appropriate material, because the only expert is
the current patron. For most libraries, the days of musty bibliographers
sitting in back offices selecting books is long gone. Subject
specialists don’t just develop and manage collections; they also teach
people how to use them and provide help for the difficult and high level
research questions. Maybe there just wouldn’t be much high level
research skills to teach anymore. Knowing how to search Google would be
just as good as actually knowing something about a scholarly field.
Reference as Yahoo Answers.

I have no problem at all with selective PDA, and think it would be a great way to explore possible gaps in a collection, but what would happen if it were taken to its logical, if also absurd, conclusion. Here i want to consider what would be the most aggressive form of PDA, and argue that it would ultimately eliminate any claim for a library to be a research library. To do this, I need to explain what I mean by the most aggressive form of PDA, which I will call Radical PDA (RPDA). I’ll also need to explain what I think research libraries are.

RPDA would eliminate all librarian input into the library collection. Approval plans and librarian-driven firm orders would disappear. Nothing would be purchased or licensed that hadn’t been directly and immediately wanted by a patron who was currently associated with the university in question. The entire library budget would go to support RPDA. There would have to be some form of rationing or allocation so that the collecting would continue year round. Perhaps the money could be allocated by week or by month, and when that money was gone, collection would stop until the next week or month. It would have to be rigged so that all the money wasn’t spent in the first couple of months or so. Subject specialists might be gone, but libraries still need people to deal with acquisitions and licensing and such, and you can’t just leave those people with nothing to do from October to July, unless you wanted to make them temp workers, which I suppose would the cheaper way to approach this. A university library could try this experiment to see what it’s effect would be.

I have a hypothesis, which could be confirmed or refuted by about 20 years of such a practice. That seems long enough to see the results, and research libraries have to think about the long term. If a library starts the experiment, I’ll probably still be working and can write about the results on whatever long-form writing platform exists in 20 years. A library using RPDA as its collection model would have an esoteric collection to say the least. Instead of any systematic collection in any area, let’s call them seas of information about a given subject, it would have streams and rivulets disconnected from each other, and connected only to a research project someone happened to have been working on in the past. It would be as if the library purchased only what was contained in the bibliographies to the articles and books that people happened to be working on. It would be eclectic beyond even that, though. Imagine a library collection driven by what 18-22 year olds are interested in. I don’t really know what they’re interested in, but I know it’s not usually scholarly research. The library would probably have a lot of books about sports. A lot of money would be wasted on material of little value, because patrons have no interest in spending money wisely. They just want stuff. It probably wouldn’t have much of a reference collection. A lot of useful and used databases and indexes wouldn’t be purchased, because people wouldn’t know they exist. They are usually tools librarians use to help people.

This would be okay, say the proponents of PDA, because a given collection doesn’t matter. Anything that we don’t have, we can just buy or borrow when it’s requested, after someone discovers its existence through Google or Amazon or Wikipedia. It’s true that, assuming it has the budget, a library can buy books and other materials, and a great deal is readily available, but will it always be? It’s refreshing to see the faith of some librarians in the future easy accessibility of material being published now. There are all sorts of scholarly books now that are hard to come by, and are available to some libraries because some other libraries purchased them. There’s also all the primary materials libraries collect that won’t be available in the future. Research libraries collect for the future, not just the present. The
assumption that everything will be online and accessible is a shaky one
to build your future on, but it’s the assumption of RPDA. Don’t get it
now, because we can’t afford it. But we can always get it later. What if we can’t? Research libraries also have to consider other parts of the world, where the digital present is nonexistent and the digital future not so rosy. Imagine how useless an area studies collection would be after 20 years if it was patron-driven.

No problem, right? There’s always ILL! After 20 years of this, the library collection would be such a hodgepodge that systematic research would be impossible. Scholars wanting older material that hadn’t been purchased because 20 years before nobody happened to be researching that topic will begin turning to ILL in droves, assuming that with DRM ILL is even still possible. But would they be allowed to? What if other libraries started noticing that the RPDA library was borrowing extensively, but not loaning much, that it was free riding on the more systematic collections of libraries that were formerly its peers? They might stop loaning to that library. If enough libraries adopted RPDA, the collections would be so eclectic that ILL would be useless anyway. The PDA agenda seems also to be driven by something called webscale
discovery, but such discovery in scholarship is only possible because so
many libraries build research collections. You can’t discover what was
never collected.

Research libraries as a group attempt to collect as much as possible of the human record in every format possible. No single research library, no matter how wealthy, can afford to buy everything, but the hope is that with some cooperation and some luck, the system as a whole will provide scholars with the support they need. Even scholars at colleges and non-research  universities benefit from this endeavor because of the robust system of ILL that most academic libraries participate in, and the archives available both in the library and online. The goal of a research university is the creation and discovery of new knowledge. That goal has trickled down into the faculty of small colleges around the country that can’t possibly support it, but that’s okay because they can depend on research libraries for help. Small colleges aren’t free riders because they’re not pretending to be research universities and they still build coherent collections for their users, and research libraries help because research is an international exercise with every library playing its smaller or larger part.

One of the complaints PDA enthusiasts have about research libraries is that not enough of the books are used. Libraries buy books that are never used, and they get dusty, and then we have to take care of them forever, etc. They think the way to make sure every book is used is only to buy books of immediate use. That’s probably true, though it would also lead to the buying of a lot of books that might be used only once, books that before might have been borrowed through ILL. I’m assuming this is mostly an economic argument, as in, a library just can’t afford to collect systematically anymore, so it’s gambling on desperate measures. Sometimes I wonder if the argument would be there even if the money was, too. One speaker argued, “Thirty years ago it was easy to justify buying a book just in case someone might want it in the future — but what is our justification for doing so now?  The purpose of a collection is not to be a wonderful collection; the purpose of a collection is to meet the information needs of library users.” I would agree completely with that last bit, but I’d interpret it differently. Who are the users of a research library? Only the people currently on campus? What about scholars at nearby colleges who depend on public research libraries, but who won’t have the benefit of any PDA? Or scholars at other universities whose library also didn’t collect systematically and now has enormous gaps? What about users of the future? Shouldn’t they have a say? Can we poll the newborn to make sure we can guarantee that their scholarly needs 40 years hence will be met?

I might disagree that one purpose of a collection isn’t to be a wonderful collection. That’s exactly what it should be, and the more of them we have the better chance of covering everything. All the “just in time, not just in case” reasoning is fine if you’re not trying to support a research university. The complaint might then be that libraries just shouldn’t be buying stuff that will get little or no use, period. It’s more a moral complaint against “useless” research, similar to the claims addressed in this CHE article (subscription required). The author responds to those who think there should be less scholarly publishing because so much of the scholarship is bad, or useless, or never used. Only the good stuff should be published, and for librarians with this mindset, only the good stuff should be purchased. The problem presented by the author is that one can’t always tell the good stuff from the bad without time passing. We might measure the impact of journal articles a decade after their publication and see that 90% of them were never cited, but at the time of publication nobody would have been able to say which 90% of them would go into scholarly oblivion and which 10% would be the most cited. In the humanities, the time scale would have to be increased significantly. How much history has been lost because it seemed too ephemeral at the time for libraries to collect? How many authors have come into style that can be studied now only because some research libraries in the past had the foresight to collect for the future?

We have to save as much as we can now, because we don’t know what will be of interest in half a century or more and we can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to acquire it then. That’s why research libraries have traditionally done what must be anathema to the PDAcolytes, collect to strength. Research libraries collect to strength not because scholars who currently happen to be using one library will use that collection, but because research is an international endeavor all research libraries participate in, and the hope, often fulfilled, is that someone, somewhere, someday, will want to use it. Libraries that don’t participate in this communal effort are no longer research libraries.  It’s one thing to say, we just can’t afford to be a research library anymore, but another if anyone wants to make a virtue of this necessity. I know some readers might be thinking that this is easy for me to say, working for a relatively well funded private university library. However, I don’t think like this because I work at Princeton; I work at Princeton because I think like this. I also know how much scholars at all universities, including my own, benefit from having a network of research libraries that think of the future and not just the immediate present. Without those libraries, the future of research would be bleak indeed.

The Library and the Research Essay

I’ve been wanting to write about the Citation Project, a recent study about first-year research essays that found, in the words of Inside Higher Education, “research papers written in first-year composition courses at 15 colleges … simply copy chunks of text from the sources they cite without truly grasping the underlying argument, quality or context.” Barbara Fister responded already to this in not one, but two posts arguing that the first year research paper should be abandoned. That bothered me, because lately every time I want to write about something, I find that Barbara has already written about it and said more or less what I would have said, but better. I’m not sure that the research paper should be abandoned unless unlikely reforms come about, but maybe we should change our expectations of what it’s supposed to do. It seems to me there’s two components to this argument. The first is to determine what we mean by research, because that’s a shifty term in academia. The second is to ask what research has to do with the first-year research essay. If the goal of the first year research essay assignment is to teach students how to understand, evaluate, and integrate sources into their writing, then it might be a good idea to remove the library research component from the traditional assignment.

Let’s begin with some definitions of research from the OED:

2.  a. Systematic investigation or inquiry aimed at contributing to knowledge of a theory, topic, etc., by careful consideration, observation, or study of a subject. In later use also: original critical or scientific investigation carried out under the auspices of an academic or other institution.

 b. Investigation undertaken in order to obtain material for a book, article, thesis, etc.; an instance of this. 

c. The product of systematic investigation, presented in written (esp. published) form.

2a is the definition of research that most fits for the sciences and social sciences. In this sense, research involves investigating some object or set of objects–stars, rocks, mice, humans–asking questions, conducting experiments, forming and testing hypotheses, etc. Then, the results of this research are reported, which gives us definition 2c. In Wayne Booth et al.’s The Craft of Research, we get a similar definition. For them, research is gathering information to answer a question that solves a problem, and the solution to that problem is to be reported in written form.

The humanities work a little differently. In an article about humanities research practices, Rebecca Green* (quoting Stephen Stoan**), notes that a book or article in the sciences “reports the results of one’s research,” but in the humanities it “is the results of one’s research.” There is no separate research that one writes up afterwards. There may be an object of study, but the way in which it is studied differs from the sciences. Consider an essay on Hamlet. It might contain an analysis of the text and an interpretation of the meaning of the play, but literary scholars rarely study Hamlet the way a biologist would study a mouse. In the humanities, the product of research is part of the process of research, and without the written form there would be nothing at all. Something like definition 2b is a step in this process, but it’s not the entirety of the research. A scientific experiment can theoretically be replicated, but an interpretation of Hamlet can only be repeated.

This leaves us with disparate definitions even for the work of the professionals, those professors employed by colleges and universities and expected to do “research.” Biologists, economists, historians, literary scholars, and philosophers are all supposedly doing “research,” but the processes and results couldn’t be more different. Research, in the broadest sense, could just mean “whatever those professors in research universities do,” whether it’s studying planets or interpreting poems. Research can be broadened to include analysis, argument, and interpretation, three of the key features of work in the humanities. Some people make the more dubious distinction between “research” and “opinion,” as in everything that doesn’t involve some study of objects in a distanced and quantitative way is mere opinion. I’ve encountered this strange attitude many times in librarianship. Recently an article I wrote that is clearly an example of applied ethics was called an “opinion” article, as if there’s no difference between opinion on the one hand and analysis and argument on the other. While I interpret this as an ignorance scholarly genres, the more generous interpretation would be that I write for librarians but outside conventional library science genres.  Regardless of my inadequacies as an LIS researcher, it should be clear that we have different working definitions of research that depend upon the discipline of the researcher. The key requirement for them all is that they supposedly make some new contribution to knowledge, no matter how small.

How does this relate to whatever it is students are supposed to be doing for the first-year research essay that so many of them are assigned? I suggest not much. The most applicable of the definitions offered above is 2b, investigation to obtain material for an article. Rarely, as far as I know, do first-year students writing a research essay for a composition class do research in the scientific sense, that is, actually study first hand the object of investigation. They don’t use labs, and seldom conduct surveys or do field work or anything that might count as original research in the sciences or social sciences. Occasionally they do, but this is atypical. Thus, most of the “research” they do involves gathering material about a subject through library searches, Internet searches, footnote chasing, professor recommendations and the like.  For the most part, the best chance of writing a research essay they have is following a humanities model where their analysis, interpretation, and argument are themselves part of the product of research. Otherwise, given the time constraints and the limited knowledge of their subject, most essays would be merely reporting the research of others. If indeed students are merely cutting and pasting from sources without understanding what they’re reading, then maybe that’s what most students are doing anyway. 

If we think of the research essay as a report of the results of research, then our typical approach to research and the research essay is disconnected from the method of a lot of the essays themselves. Librarians are most helpful at the gathering sources stage of research, and it’s easy to treat that as the research, and the essay as reporting the results of that research. However, the gathering of sources is research only in the broadest sense; it’s not research at all in the sense understood in the sciences, and only the first and easiest step in the sense understood in the humanities, and, because most writing instructors are trained in the humanities, of most research essays assigned to first-year students. Typically, for the research essay, students are supposed to write using sources and have a thesis and an argument. They need not only to find and evaluate their sources, but integrate them into an essay and also have something original to say about them. They have to make an arguable claim about some topic using their sources in some way, and they have a lot of trouble.

So when students are writing that first research essay, they’re trying to learn severa
l skills simultaneously, crammed into a few weeks’ time. They must learn to find appropriate sources, understand and evaluate them, and integrate them into a coherent essay making an arguable claim that is related to but not supplied by the sources themselves, and they typically have 3-4 weeks to do this about topics they likely never encountered before, and almost certainly have never studied in any academic way.  And they have to do all this while undertaking no research in the scientific sense, and without the broad and deep contextual knowledge necessary for scholars in the humanities. Considering all this, it’s no wonder the average research essay is mediocre by scholarly standards, and why so many students gravitate to the same lame topics, and use the Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center instead of a regular index, as discussed by these librarians. It’s also no wonder that so many of them apparently don’t understand what they’re reading very well.

On top of this, consider who teaches most writing courses and how: graduate students who are and should be concerned with their own studies and dissertations or adjuncts teaching several courses a semester for relatively low pay and no benefits. This is because at a large number of universities writing instruction isn’t taken seriously. It’s easy to tell this about the institution you work for. If your institution has brand new graduate students from various disciplines with a week’s training teaching first year writing courses on their own, then that institution doesn’t take writing instruction seriously. Everyone pays lip service to how important writing is and how much students need to learn how, but when a large university with an inadequate budget is shepherding thousands of students through first year writing courses, then quality and care start to suffer. Writing is often taught under near factory conditions, and when an overworked grad student or adjunct is facing a stack of forty or fifty or a hundred student research papers, how could anyone really expect the best possible instruction and feedback.

Given this reality, it might seem like I’m making a case against assigning research essays to first year students. After all, they’re not really writing research essays, but merely “research” essays at best. The gathering of sources is fitful and minimal; there’s no mastery of any subject or contribution to knowledge; often enough there’s little in the way of originality or good argument. So what’s the point? The point is, they have to start somewhere, even if the result is merely a replica of a research essay. That is, unless things change. But things aren’t going to change.

If  there is to be reform, I do agree with Barbara in a sense. I see a case for eliminating the research paper in the sense librarians understand it. The Citation Project isn’t about library research. It’s about writing from sources. Maybe it would be better if the library research part were removed completely from first year composition classes. One problem with using the research essay to teach about evaluating them and writing from sources is that it’s usually the one essay where the instructor hasn’t read all of the sources. You can’t evaluate how well students have understood and integrated sources into their essays without having some familiarity with the sources themselves. Writing instructors could eliminate the library research portion of the research essay, give students 15-20 sources about a given topic with which the instructors are intimately familiar, and then tell the students to use at least a set number of those sources to write an argumentative essay. Except for the source gathering part of the paper, this would include all of the higher order “information literacy” skills, and would allow instructors to better evaluate the use and understanding of sources.

By  separating the source-gathering from those first research essays, and not expecting freshmen to learn how to use libraries and find sources when they’re still not able to write academic essays using sources, instructors would have more time to help students evaluate the sources they do have. That separation could mean separate courses in library research or more focus on helping upper-level students. That support would be best working systematically with all the students in a department to teach them research skills in a discipline. It could also mean creating separate Information Literacy Across the Curriculum programs (though that wouldn’t be my name of choice!), perhaps aligned at later stages with Writing Across the Curriculum programs.  Neither type of program seems to have achieved wide and lasting success, and I’m skeptical about ever getting widespread support in higher education for either type of initiative, but that would indeed be better than what most students get now. Or there could be a two semester writing sequence like some places have, with any library involvement coming in the second semester.

Even creating a mediocre first research essay in the way commonly assigned requires learning the basics of a lot of skills. Finding a topic, understanding that interesting topics are necessarily contested topics, navigating a library, rudimentary database and Internet searching, crafting a thesis, dealing with arguments and counterarguments, all the while learning enough about a new topic in a short time. Having steered a few hundred students through this process over the years, it’s not surprising at all that they don’t read and understand and integrate their sources perfectly. It’s a wonder to me how many manage to come out with ten reasonably coherent pages that have some relation to their thesis. And yet, they have to start somewhere. Scholars don’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. Maybe it’s too much. Maybe first year writing courses should focus on writing and evaluating sources, and postpone library research instruction until students have more mastery of academic writing.

*Green, Rebecca, “Locating Sources in Humanities Scholarship: The Efficacy of following Bibliographic References.” The Library Quarterly 70: 2 (2000): 201-229. 204.

**Stoan, Stephen K. “Research and Information Retrieval among Academic Researchers: Implications for Library Instruction.” Library Trends 39 (Winter 1991): 238-58.

Timing of the Research Question

There’s a good article in the latest portal that should be interesting to any librarians who provide research instruction for first-year writing students:

Nutefall, Jennifer E. and Phyllis Mentzell Ryder. “The Timing of the Research Question: First-Year Writing Faculty and Instruction Librarians’ Differing Perspectives.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 10 (4), October 2010: 437-449. [Librarians with access to Project Muse can click through.]

The literature review alone is an excellent quick overview of what some librarians and writing instructors have written about the research question. The study itself was of librarians and writing instructors at George Washington University. At GWU, the writing courses are topic-based and capped at 15 students (which is similar to the model at Princeton).  The authors compared the attitudes of librarians and writing instructors toward the research question. Librarians and faculty agreed that good research questions should be complex, worth answering, and interesting to the student. But they disagreed on the timing of the research question. Librarians tended to want students to have clearly formulated questions early in the process, while faculty tended to think that focused research questions come late in the process after a lot of exploratory reading has been done.

The authors speculate that this divide might be caused by the different research methods of librarians and writing faculty.

the research projects the librarians described are more focused on particular audience needs. For example, they investigate and share better pedagogical techniques for library instruction with other librarians. For the most part, librarians seemed to prefer a more structured research process in their own work and prefer to teach a more methodical approach to research to first-year students. For faculty in the UWP, the majority of their projects study how people and cultures exchange knowledge. When faculty describe their own research process it is similar to those documented in other studies as typical for “expert” researchers.Their methods rely on prior knowledge and celebrate serendipitous encounters. (445-46)

The implicit claim that librarians aren’t “expert” researchers would certainly explain a large portion of the library literature. Based on the library literature I’ve read, librarians aren’t typically expert researchers in the sense that they rely on prior knowledge and celebrate serendipitous encounters. There’s a whole sub-genre of library literature that requires knowledge of nothing more than how to send out an online survey and how to report results. 

There’s definitely a disciplinary distinction in play. Even the best of the library literature tends to work under social science models, where research questions are often formulated more specifically than in the humanities, especially compared to literary and cultural studies in which a disproportionate number of writing faculty are trained. However, I suspect that disciplinarity is only part of the disjunction. The differing functions of the librarians and faculty, or at least how many view those functions, could account for some of it. Having taught a few hundred writing students of my own, and provided library research assistance in some form or other for more students than I can remember, this is the distinction that makes the most sense for me.

Librarians want early, clearly formulated research questions, preferably with good keywords, because it’s at that point that librarians can be most useful, or at least when many librarians feel most useful. Often enough, librarians are helping students find information on topics the librarians know even less about than the students if the students have done any preliminary reading at all. And the help often provided will be with some sort of literature search in one of the library databases. Those librarians need focused topics so they’ll know which databases to search, which keywords to use, and which results to examine in more detail when they find some. It’s the level at which a well-trained reference librarian with an adequate collection of resources can help just about any researcher. The great thing about the methods librarians use is that they work, almost all the time. The difficulty comes when they don’t work because researchers aren’t clear and specific enough in their goals.

For writing instructors, on the hand, “research” in the sense of finding concrete sources about a given topic isn’t the most important thing, because their function is quite different. Whereas librarians often enough get students with at least some focus, writing instructors usually begin with the chaos that is most student writing in the early stages of a first-year writing class. It’s the function of the writing instructor to teach students to form this chaos, to shape it, discipline it, focus it, and just when the students have mastered one skill, it’s time for the writing instructor to push them further into the unknown with the research essay assignment. A writing class is always in some stage of managed chaos, and the writing instructor is always helping students find their way. It’s not that librarians are afraid of the chaos. It’s just that there’s not as much for them to do. Focus can also come through the writing process, so that students with only a vague idea of what they want to argue develop their best ideas only after they start writing. One of the librarians studied likes students to envision their entire project, what they want to do, the types of sources they’ll need, etc. Librarian nirvana. The problem is, this isn’t how beginning researchers work, and it’s not really how a lot of experienced researchers in the humanities work. The actual library searching portion of most student research essays is a small part of what they’re learning to do, and not the most important part.

The authors of the study suggest that librarians and writing faculty should work closely together and be clear about their expectations and when research is appropriate. I agree completely. But another possibility is for librarians who feel comfortable enough to step out of their usual function of helping students find information only after they know what they want. At my library, this is more typically done with advanced undergraduates. Often enough, research consultations fluctuate between what I typically think of as a library research consultation and what I typically think of as a writing consultation session. The line between those two is easy to cross, if it exists at all. When I was in library school, I worked both at the information desk in the main library and as a writing consultant in the writing clinic on campus, and it was interesting how frequently what I did for students was the same. That’s because the writing and research process are inextricably intertwined, but the organization of universities means that the two functions are split between the library and some other department.

I’ve met with many students where I helped them figure out what they were really trying to research. We might discuss possible topic options and limitations, or how books and articles can be used to develop and narrow ideas, or how some strategies will work better than others, or how they can use sources as models and not just support, or how they can link disparate strands of research to develop a question, or how various sources might function in their essays. These are all research issues and also the sort of thing covered in writing courses. I’ve had numerous students ask me what I thought about their topic, or whether they should change it. Through in-depth interviews held during lunch with at least three other librarians here, I confirmed that the practice isn’t just confined to me. Librarians do this sort of thing all the time, even if they don’t realize it.

As Nutefall and Ryder imply, we should be aware of our disciplinary boundaries and blindnesses when working with writing students and instructors. But if we’re not already, we should also be willing to to do more with students than just help them search for topics they’ve already narrowed down. The research process is far more than searching, which is easy for us to forget sometimes since we often see just that part when working with students. We should be comfortable working with the chaos of the vague topic and the inchoate research question, because we often have a lot to offer students throughout the research process.