I wanted this post to be about "the space between the sources," but after writing it I see I’ve meandered. Maybe I’m groggy from overwork this week, which would also explain why I keep looking at the word meander and think how silly it sounds. Still, I’m putting out the notes, because I’m trying to think through the issue to perhaps write something more substantial later. Please forgive the meandering. In fact, you might want to just stop while you’re ahead.
I’ve been encountering more students who seem to be disappointed that when doing research for an essay can’t find secondary sources that already do their work for them. Or, as they put it to me, "I want to write on this topic but can’t find any sources!" So, for example, if a student wants to write an ideological analysis of a cultural object, they want sources that already ideologically analyze that cultural object, or at least one pretty close to it. It’s a version of the improbable source I keep being asked for, and it’s endemic to a certain kind of course, typically those involving some kind of contemporary cultural studies.
Even after discussion, it doesn’t always seem to be clear to the student what sorts of sources might inform their research if no one has written on this exact topic before, and to get them to understand that in many ways it’s a good thing that no one has already written their essay. Perhaps they want an authoritative source to have already done what they’re doing so they know they’re doing it right. But they want to ride on the sources rather than inserting themselves into the space between the sources.
We had a class today where we did some sample searching around a specific painting and modeled the way one can build a topic out of many different pieces: an exibition catalog, a work of history, a study of an art movement, etc., but it still wasn’t apparent to everyone. It comes up enough in the library instruction I do that I’d like to create some kind of guide, but I’m not sure what the best way to present the information. Perhaps some sort of map.
In some ways, this is the appropriate role of the writing instructors, and I know they already address the issue in class, but I meet with enough students who still want me to find them the source that does their work for them that my research sessions sometimes go back and forth between discussing library research and writing strategy.
I’m curious if this happens with other librarians. I do a lot of work with our freshman writing students, and I’ve been teaching freshman writing for longer than I’ve been a librarian. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell when I’m responding as a librarian and when as a writing teacher. (The distinction even blurs for the students sometimes, as I discovered when someone else’s student was asking me for permission write on X topic.)
Based on the many library research guides I’ve looked at over the years, this doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing librarians address much. Though not written by librarians, books such as The Modern Researcher or The Craft of Research address the use of sources somewhat, but most library guides naturally focus strictly on the finding of sources rather than how they’ll be used. This makes sense, as technique and an understanding of the geography of information are necessary and complicated in themselves. Yet it seems natural to think about how the sources will be used or the types of sources one needs before one even knows what to look for.
Type of source might even be the wrong terminology, because I’m not thinking about books, articles, or encyclopedia entries. Perhaps the role of sources is better. What are they doing for the essay, or what do the students need them to do? These seem essential questions when teaching students about research, but they’re more complex questions beyond the "Find Background Information – Search for Books – Search for Articles" approach that is the necessary but perhaps too easy road we’re often forced to take because of time constraints.