Notes on Sources and Library Instruction

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.

10 thoughts on “Notes on Sources and Library Instruction

  1. I do see this quest for a validating source fairly frequently, though I rarely feel that students are motivated by laziness. Freshmen rarely understand that the scholarly works they read for class are examples of the essays they’ve been assigned, though, so they don’t realize that when their professors say to find sources that “support” and “refute” their arguments, the professors don’t actually mean “duplicate” or “directly contradict” that argument.
    In my classes, we often look together at one of the course readings (stolen from eReserves or something) and map out the kinds of evidence that scholar has brought to bear on the question at hand. I point out very explicitly that students can model their own kinds of sources after the kinds of sources in these published essays. Does the scholar call on political scientists, demographic statistics, and philosophers when reading Conrad? Well, so can you! (This segment of the class also provides a great excuse to teach students how to follow up on citations, which we’ve studied and found that only about half of incoming freshmen can do well, even at a highly selective institution.)

  2. I come across this all of the time and it’s one of the main issues that I address in instruction. However, I typically frame it as a “finding” issue: search for material on your topic, but if you don’t find anything here’s how to deal with it (break down the component parts and search for material on the parts, then build it back up). This does get into how to write a paper territory, but it’s so bound up with how to approach searching (and such a ubiquitous problem) that I feel I have to cover it.

  3. I don’t think it’s laziness, either. At the very worst a lack of imagination, but I think more frequently just a lack of training. For freshman, it’s also just a sign of not having read much academic writing yet, so not understand the way writers can use sources in various ways.

  4. One big problem here (and one beyond our control) is assigning freshman to use scholarly articles as their research foundation. Scholarly articles are, by nature, pretty narrow. But then students are asked to write more broadly on a topic. We’re asking students to immerse themselves in the scholarship written by folks who have studied in the field for five, ten, maybe twenty years. Of course it’s going to be difficult. And no wonder it’s so confusing.
    One solution I do is to tell students that scholars spend years trying to find the gap in research. I tell them there’s been nothing written on topic XY, so they have to find articles on X and articles on Y and synthesize them. I spin this as them being very lucky to have found this gap.
    But some of this does go back to assignment design–why are we (and by “we” I mean universities) asking freshman to read in-depth scholarship when high quality popular sources would often be much more appropriate>

  5. I agree with the idea of slowly introducing them to scholarly sources. These types of sources can be intimidating for a freshman with little experience. I find that too often a student will simply change topics if he doesn’t find enough of the type of information he expects to find.

  6. Wayne, Thanks for the very useful notion of “inserting themselves into the space between the sources” Not only is this, I think, a useful approach for freshmen, but it becomes essential when approaching graduate work. I think the key, as several other comments have already observed, is getting the student to understand what the scholarly writers have done in their use of the the sources and not only how they may emulate that use, but find ideas for postulating the existence of similar sources that support or refute their own thesis (that is providing they have one, or even a notion of one).

  7. I was explaining the “improbable source” issue to my wife last night, after a shift at the reference desk where one of my questions was requesting exactly that. It’s something I know I don’t address adequately in my instruction sessions, but it was also something difficult for me to articulate (in fact, if I had remembered the term “improbable source” from your post on that, it would have made the explanation much easier!).
    I think Joan’s point is also extremely cogent: the assignments themselves need to take into account the issues of inexperience with library sources, the fact that the students cannot be assumed to be experts instantly, and that broader, more general sources will need to be consulted to frame the issue at all.

  8. I agree completely about the assignments. I’m assuming it differs by instructor. Most often I’m asked for the improbable source by freshmen working on research essays for the writing program. Their instructors usually have high standards, but the ones I talk to (including myself) know that the finished product will usually be but an approximation of a scholarly article. We all know it’s an exercise, though I’m sometimes surprised by how good the essays can be.
    I’ve started making sure the instructors I work with in courses that lend themselves to this type of question know what’s going on so that they can emphasize for the students what kinds of sources they’re likely to find and what they should be trying to do for these types of essays. So far it’s helped. The problem for me is forgetting that the Have topic-search topic-find sources model works very well for some areas but not so much for others, and remembering to communicate that and explicitly discuss alternate strategies for building arguments.

  9. I have been thinking about this lately, too–turning the quest for the “improbable source” into a better understanding of research and writing. I’m making a little headway in my approach, but not enough yet. Another problem I have as a humanities librarian, is helping people when they are looking for the improbable source for a natural sciences or social sciences assignment. I’m less confident in helping them triangulate.
    As for Wayne’s question about books that address this topic, I was discussing this with our writing center director last year, and he suggested Rewriting: How to Do Things With Texts by Joseph Harris. I found it to be a fairly useful book.

  10. A telling choice of books, Steve. I was trying to think of books about research that had library components. There are lots of books in rhetoric or writing studies that address issues like this, but I’m curious if thinking about source-use issues is common among librarians. It sounds like we’re all dealing with the improbable source one way or another, so I suppose it is, but it’s not something that shows up in guides to library research. Those who work with novice researchers working on research essays would probably benefit from more exposure to rhetoric and writing studies.

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