Photo of University Hall
Creative Research Center

The Lost Conversation — and a Framework for New Ones: A Librarian’s Perspective – By Catherine Baird

Posted in: Guest Essay

Graphic of computer with many icons

[Catherine Baird is the Online and Outreach Services Librarian at Montclair State University’s Harry A. Sprague Library. She has an M.L.I.S. from the University of Western Ontario as well as an M.A. in German from the University of British Columbia. Before joining MSU, Catherine was a Librarian at Ontario’s Sheridan College and at McMaster University. To her current role here, she brings deep knowledge of learning, teaching, technology, communications, and libraries. Her current projects include seeking a better understanding of the information behavior of students and faculty, as well as creating a coordinated approach to information literacy instruction, including online instruction, at Montclair State. ]

As an academic librarian, I’m experienced at the art of the reference interview. In a nutshell, this means I ask a series of questions to ascertain the information needed (i.e., the research question, the intended information use, what the library user already knows and what gaps still exist, and so on.) It’s not a set list of questions; it’s a conversation. Through this conversation, the role I play is one of an intermediary, connecting the student researcher with the needed source, tool or research strategy.

In today’s information-rich world, since student researchers are able, unassisted, to access a multitude of sources, including websites, online texts, and digital media, this conversation is often bypassed. Even the library’s print and online subscription collections can be navigated via a self-service model from the library website or through Google Scholar. In fact, librarians conduct usability studies and examine the user experience of their websites and search tools to try to improve and perfect this self-service portal. It’s only when the student hits a barrier (overwhelmed by too much information, poor quality information, unable to find information, a paywall, a book or journal not available through the library’s collection or subscriptions) that he or she may seek help from a librarian.

So, in today’s information-rich, self-guided world, who is asking the questions that the librarian once posed during a reference interview? Who is guiding and helping the student researcher to construct these questions to identify what they already know and what information they need to seek out? Who is asking the student how they plan to use the information and, depending upon this use, what type of information would make the best evidence?

One of the activities I engage in on a regular basis is the research consultation. This is a one-on-one session, usually with an undergraduate or graduate student, where we work through the student’s assignment or research project. We discuss the questions they have, what they already know, how they know what they already know, where and how we might find (authoritative) information, and of course, search strategies. Time after time, I hear these words from the student as our conversation draws to a close: “I wish I’d known this earlier.”

What I really hear is, “I wish I’d known to ask these questions.”

If you don’t know that you can ask questions, or aren’t sure which questions to ask, you’re going to have a tough time conducting good research.

To some extent, these questions are now being asked in the classroom, under the guidance of the instructor. They are sometimes even driving the progression of the course or course activities (problem-based learning, active learning approaches); and, as a librarian, I too have adopted these strategies and approaches when invited to deliver a guest lecture about research strategies.

Some faculty members and instructors are surprised when the approach I take is not solely focused upon training the students to use a particular research tool, such as a database or the library catalog. This kind of “point-here, click-there” instruction has its place, but only infrequently do I find students making an emotional connection to this lesson.   As crazy as it sounds, learning how to construct a keyword search in a research database limiting your search to fewer than fifty relevant results that appear in peer-reviewed, academic sources, isn’t what it used to be.

In 2015, the Association of College and Research Libraries released the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. It defines “Information Literacy” as “the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.”

I believe that teaching information literacy can offer a solution to many of the problems I hear instructors list when it comes to their students’ research abilities. (i.e., My students don’t know what a journal is. My students don’t know how to do research. My students are citing junk sources. My students are plagiarizing.) Unfortunately, today, information literacy has remained largely a #librarianproblem.

Together with the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (2000), the Framework is having a big impact on the instructional activities of academic librarians. The Framework also presents an opportunity for librarians and faculty to work collaboratively to help our students become better researchers.

The six “frames” or “core ideas” that are expressed in the Framework are:

  • Authority Is Constructed and Contextual
  • Information Creation as a Process
  • Information Has Value
  • Research as Inquiry
  • Scholarship as Conversation
  • Searching as Strategic Exploration

Along with others in my profession, I am working toward motivating and enabling faculty and instructors to infuse their courses with opportunities for students to engage with these six fundamental Framework concepts. Instead of research being something that happens one day in class, or perhaps during a visit to the library, I would like to see an ongoing conversation taking place.   In my ideal construct, I want to see students develop a sense of agency when it comes to doing their own research for coursework (or lifework!), and to be motivated and empowered to ask questions, read, sift, create understanding, make decisions about what to select, listen to and maybe eventually cite and decide what to information to ignore, set aside or disagree with.

Research is a creative process, filled with ups and downs, clarity and confusion, questions and answers, and serendipitous discoveries. Some may argue that it can’t be taught. As someone who has been teaching research for the last ten years of my career, I do agree that it can be taught poorly. But I’ve also experienced great successes.

The kind of truly engaged and sophisticated research I have been writing about here is a process, and it’s not a speedy one, but it’s definitely a conversation worth having.