Vendor Provided Instruction Materials?

Last week I spoke at the NFAIS Humanities Roundtable about “Library Research Instruction in the Humanities.” The audience was a mix of vendors, publishers, and librarians, which was a different audience than I’m used to. I was trying to tell the non-librarians in the room, or rather the people who don’t currently work in libraries, what kinds of research instruction librarians do for students in the humanities. On the same panel was someone from ProQuest who then spoke to the librarians about what materials vendors could provide to help with that instruction. Her talk mirrored my points, and I thought it went pretty well.

One thing that surprised her in our discussions (both on the phone and at the Roundtable) was that I don’t attend vendor training on products and almost never use any instruction materials vendors might provide (with the exception being that years ago I did pass out some pretty good material on Refworks when we were first promoting it). I didn’t claim to be the norm, although I might be on my campus. It’s not that there isn’t plenty to learn about various products. It’s just that I’d rather learn it on my own, because that’s how I learn best. When asked what vendors could provide, I said I wanted lots of detailed information available online for me to read, and then I’d go from there. I learn more by tinkering than training.

Also, with some exceptions, in the humanities a database is a database is a database. If you’re mainly concerned with the major subject indexes in the humanities, once you’ve mastered one database you’ve pretty much mastered them all, especially if, as we do, we get most of them from the same vendor. There are some exceptions, such as L’Annee Philologique, but these days the only time I personally use that is when I’m showing it to library school students in my humanities librarianship class, while simultaneously thinking to myself “I wish this were as intuitive as the Ebsco interface.” There are full-text primary source databases that can be tricky as well, such as the Thesaurus Linquae Graecae. Try going to that database and doing an advanced lemma search if you’re not really sure how to go about it and you’ll understand what I mean. But it’s rare that in the humanities I would encounter something of the complexity of a Bloomberg Terminal, where I’d have to know not only a good deal about finance but also about how to manipulate that very specialized interface.

There are apparently a lot of librarians who like to be trained on databases by vendors or other librarians or some combination. That’s a matter of learning style. But what about using the supporting material? The ProQuest trainer talked about all the stuff they provide, which was all new to me. And they do provide a lot of support material, including Libguides boxes that can be imported. I took a look at some of the material, including the Libguides for the Patralogia Latina and the FIAF International Index to Film Periodicals. It seemed like good content to me, but would I use it?

Probably not, at least not as it stands. The question is, with solid content explaining how to use particular resources, why wouldn’t I use it, especially if it was as easy as importing into Libguides? The biggest reason is branding. I don’t object to branding as such, and have no problem recommending the ProQuest Research Library or Ebsco Academic Search Premier. They’re good products. It also makes perfect sense for ProQuest or Ebsco or whomever to want to brand everything in sight. I doubt it matters much to students, but interfaces matter to librarians, and many times I’ve chosen to get the same index through one vendor rather than another because the interface was better. I think I’m on my third vendor with the Philosopher’s Index, for example. If Ebsco provides me with a better search experience than some previous interface did, I want to know that, and I keep it in mind for future decisions.

However, when I’m doing some sort of research instruction, either with a class or individually or through online tutorials, I don’t want to brand the product. I don’t want students thinking about brands, but about tools. I don’t want students to think ProQuest or Ebsco or FirstSearch. I want them to think Digital Dissertations or the ALTA Religion database or WorldCat. I don’t want the “ProQuest Start Here” logo on any of my training materials, because I don’t want students thinking that way. I’m reminded of an ebook rep several years ago who said they were designing the product as one-stop, or at least first-stop shopping for books. We basically said our library had 7 million books and this product had 10,000, so we would never promote the product that way, even it’s a good product.

Which brings up another distinction besides my learning style and my desire to have students think about tools, not brands–the size of the collection and library staff and the librarian-student ratio. We create most of our instructional materials in-house and could probably meet individually with every student on campus if they wanted research help. We don’t have 30,000 students and I don’t have to liaise with 12 academic departments or do 40 instruction sessions a semester. (And I’m grateful for all those things!) That was pretty much true at my first job as well at a liberal arts college, except I did a lot more instruction sessions. Thus, we’re not so overwhelmed that we can’t make our own Libguide content.

In addition, we have a lot of stuff. There are smaller libraries that pretty much rely on one vendor to provide most of their database content, so in some ways it makes sense to rely on the brand as a shortcut. If everything you have is from ProQuest, that ProQuest “Start Here” is accurate. That’s also the approach Summon is taking, and I just got an email offering videos on how librarians have used Summon in instruction sessions. However, while Summon might be “web-scale discovery,” it doesn’t have everything, and except for freshmen I wouldn’t recommend it as the first or only tool to use. We have too many specialized databases and indexes for that. Plus the most important means of scholarly communication in the humanities is still the monograph, so I’d recommend starting with WorldCat anyway.

So those are my reasons for not using vendor-supplied training materials. I prefer to learn on my own, I don’t want to brand the research, I have the time to create my own material, and my library has too many specialized resources to focus on a given vendor. Am I the minority here? Are some of you using that material?

4 thoughts on “Vendor Provided Instruction Materials?

  1. “a database is a database is a database”

    When I’m teaching students about databases, even if we are working with just one, I often talk about importance of flexibility and how to translate what they learn about one database to another. I think this is one of the reasons why I’m not keen on branding either. Research databases change over time and I don’t want students (of faculty or staff) to limit themselves to just one vendor or feel like what they’ve learned about one database can’t help them figure out how to use another when the time comes.

    Great post. Thanks!

  2. I’m the same way. I often focus more on transferable skills as much as any given database.

  3. You are not in the minority, at least not as far as I’ve seen. I hate when students say “I was looking in EBSCOHost” because not only do I not know what they actually searched in, but THEY don’t know and may not be able to find the right database again. Sigh…

    I’ve gotten away from doing database demos. I focus more now on brainstorming keywords and the mechanics of developing good search queries.

  4. I remember students a decade ago saying things like, “I found it on the computer.” I guess the branding makes it a little more specific.

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