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?