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.