How Much Preparation?

One of the assignments for the arts & humanities reference course I’m teaching is a research consultation. The assignment is an email question from a student seeking research help while preparing to write a research essay on a given topic in an upper-level undergraduate course. The questions are very closely modeled on actual questions, and in a form that I’ve received multiple times over the years from students. Often enough these would end up as in-person consultations, but for the purpose of the course the students write responses offering research help. 

I can say that so far my students’ work has been for the most part outstanding. There are two rounds of consultations (Literature OR History; Art OR Music). The students write a response to the question and a secondary explanatory response to me, and I’ve found the explanations more useful and insightful for my purposes than the consultations themselves. The literature question involved finding a particular controversial essay from the 1970s a professor had mentioned, with no title or author given, only the context of the question. Everyone who chose the literature question found the controversial essay, and everyone found it by a different route, which was interesting to see.

Today I was struck by a question in one of the explanations sections. The student knew almost nothing about the topic in question and had to spend an hour or so learning more about the topic before the search process could even begin. The question to me was how long do "real" reference librarians spend educating themselves about a topic before they start answering a question. 

My answer was that it depends. I have often spent an hour or more doing preliminary research on a topic for a student consultation if it’s on a subject I know little or nothing about. Given the diverse nature of the topics I see from students, it’s fairly common that I have to do at least some. In fact, this is sometimes the most enjoyable part of my work. Is this common? I’m assuming that reference librarians who deal with advanced research projects in the humanities would often spend time doing this, but I could be wrong.

All depends on the context, I suppose. There are topics I see frequently enough that I’ve done the necessary work before. Often there are topics about which I already know a good deal about just from broad reading over many years. Occasionally there are topics so close to my own intellectual interests that I could probably provide a good working bibliography from memory. This preparation is generally unnecessary with lower-level research projects. For short first-year writing seminar essays, I can usually pick up enough from context to guide the student effectively.

But it seems to me that for advanced research a librarian who knows nothing about the topic itself won’t be very useful. Formulating search terms and approaches to a topic requires knowledge of more than just abstract library research skills. Like good collection development, it requires at least some knowledge of the subject, even if the knowledge is gleaned quickly just before the consultation. Not only does it make it easier to find relevant sources for the topic, but it also allows the librarian to communicate with the student in an intelligent way about the topic. This is related to the arguments in Reading and the Reference Librarian (that I discussed here), which argues that wide and deep reading on a number of relevant subjects makes one a more effective reference librarian. I’m not sure all reference librarians would agree with that, especially the ones that don’t read very much, but I’ve seen the results in my own work. In addition to that reading, I would definitely add the question-driven background research that at least some librarians routinely do before consultations. I think it’s good practice, but I wonder how common it is.

6 thoughts on “How Much Preparation?

  1. I think it is very common, perhaps nearly universal, for librarians to consult reference sources in preparation for answering a question or conducting a reference interview. If we’re not using Google or Amazon to check the spelling of something, we’re glancing at Wikipedia or browsing subject headings in the OPAC to get a sense of the breadth of the subject.
    Deeper reading, I think you are right, seems more rare. If in-depth knowledge is required, the patron usually has it. You say “a librarian who knows nothing about the topic itself won’t be very useful”. Reading about the subject is one way to get that, but working collaboratively with the patron is another.
    For example, I am pretty useless in answering questions about a specific artist’s work if I have no background in art history. It is going to take me a long time to watch enough Sister Wendy to catch up to where the patron already is.
    I’ve come to think of reference as a collaborative process, always. The degree varies, but I find it more satisfying to help people ask questions than to masquerade as a sage answering them.

  2. You make some good points, Caleb, though I think there’s a big difference between swotting up a topic prior to a research consultation and “masquerading as a sage.” I’m definitely talking about complex questions rather than the average reference question. All consultations are negotiations helping the patron ask the right questions, but there are certainly questions that are more easily answered or projects that are aided by librarians with at least a minimum knowledge of the topic at hand. There’s also the notion of saving the time of the reader, and if it takes me an hour of research to even understand the context of the question, then that hour spent asking the patron about the topic would be a waste of patron time.
    So perhaps I should revise the line that the librarian won’t be much use. A good reference librarian might eventually be able to figure out though extensive questioning enough to understand what’s going on, and this is necessary at a reference service point. But if there’s time to prepare, then preparation will spend less of the patron’s time.
    Also, there’s a difference between questions and projects, and I’m talking more about research projects. Any decent reference librarian should be able to answer factual queries or do literature searches on topics they don’t know much about, even in whole fields they don’t know much about. Guiding an advanced student starting a research project (at Princeton those would be the Junior Papers and Senior Theses all the students have to write) is a different story. Even at the freshman level this can be different, depending on the topic. I’ve had many consultations in which I’ve spent as much time discussing the approach to the topic as I have finding resources on that topic, and the more I know about those topics the easier it is.

  3. “But it seems to me that for advanced research a librarian who knows nothing about the topic itself won’t be very useful.” Most of us are generalists in our academic library and our faculty, doing their advanced research, come to us for assistance all the time.
    After 30 years in the field I think an inquiring mind, a desire to help and knowing one’s resources can outweigh specialized knowledge. Library work is people work, first and foremost. Some of the least effective librarians I’ve worked with had master’s in their area of expertise and, in one instance, a Ph.D. They may have had more “knowledge” but they were ineffective because they could not work well with the people who came into the library.

  4. Ellen, I agree with you, but I think having an “inquiring mind” is part of the process of knowing something about a topic. My own inquiring mind is why I bother to research things in the first place. There are topics I don’t even touch, such as engineering, because I don’t even know enough to make sense of them sometimes. As a humanities reference librarian, I feel comfortable tackling most topics, but it’s precisely because I’ve read so much in humanities fields and also worked with so many students over the years.
    Your second point is also good, but a dichotomy I can address. Knowledge alone means nothing. I agree. People skills alone might be better, but also are inadequate. After 30 years in the field with an inquiring mind, I suspect you know quite a bit about all sorts of topics, plus know your resources, PLUS you can work with people to understand their research needs. I think you do know a lot about a lot of topics, which helps you in your work.

  5. Now I’m thinking of a different question: Do you think you’re equally effective as a reference librarian both for topics you know about and topics about which you know nothing (and I mean really nothing, as in not even knowing about the academic field the topic comes from?
    I know my answer. I’m much more effective in the humanities than in other broad fields, especially the sciences or engineering. And in the humanities fields in which I have more knowledge, I’m even more effective because I can understand the topic and its context, its place in the intellectual universe.
    And if the answer is that you’re more effective on subjects you know well rather than subjects about which you know nothing–and I’m talking about for research projects, not factual queries–IF that’s the case, then that would lend support to my speculations here.
    On the other hand, maybe I’m the flawed librarian, and everyone else is equally good at all fields and can pick up enough in conversation with patrons to be very effective in providing help for research projects.

  6. We have a pretty coherent method of working with people’s subject areas. Since every reference librarian/subject liaison has departments that they work with, these librarians can be called on if a reference question is in their field. If that subject specialist is not available, the reference librarian on duty will get the user started (usually by conducting the all-too-important reference interview). Frequently, this interview is used to help the student or faculty navigate the resource and the resources platform. After getting them started, the subject liaison’s information is provided to the user, in case they need a follow up reference consultation.
    So how does someone like me (an Arts and Humanities Librarian) field a question in neuroscience? During our monthly reference meetings, each libriarian “demos” a database in their field. They illustrate the best way to use the instrument, the questions you will be asked about the database, and whether the database has full-text, citation exportation, or any other valuable features. Subject guides and list of databases grouped by subject are also availabe for quick reference. Therefore, when I have a question out of my league, I can at least get the user started…and not let them feel like their going to have to start with nothing.

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