Whenever Lauren and I have lunch we end up with wonderful and grand schemes for rethinking the library. I always leave with 100 ideas and many things to do. Our first task was to blog about the discussion and see where we overlap in thinking. And the first grand idea up is reference and the research process.
We’ve been talking about this idea since ALA NOLA and it stems from both concerns Lauren has about reference and from my experience with embedded librarianship. I’ve been obsessed with the idea of embedded librarianship for a year or so now because I see it as the future of reference.
Now to clarify, embedded librarianship does not mean just becoming a member of online courses. I see embedded librarianship as deep integration into a class or a discipline or any institution separate from the library. It could be online, but being in a class online doesn’t equal embedded librarianship. It is the activity that you do and the role that you develop that constitutes embeddedness.
Embeddedness implies a deeper level of understanding of the content of the institution in which we are embedded. Yes, we will be the librarian, but the librarian also needs to have a deeper knowledge of what actually goes on within that institution and potentially some subject expertise.
Now there is a huge debate about whether you need training in an area to support a department, and if we are supporting groups in the traditional liaison model, then I don’t think you need subject expertise. As Lauren says you can learn to be good at answering any question. My friend and colleague Jenny Dale is the perfect example. She support English (her background) and Kinesiology (decidedly not her background) and she is fab at both. Steve Cramer is also an amazing business librarian with a Medievalist’s background. But, he has become masterful in his area by teaching himself the content to some degree.
Subject expertise (or willingness to study the area) helps quite a bit, especially if we are trying to integrate our work more into the actual research process of our students and faculty. Here’s why I think this. I support Political Science, which is my background. Many of the questions I get are simple database searches, but a growing number of those database questions have been interspersed with questions like this:
- “What does decentralization mean?”
- “What is the Responsibility to Protect?”
- “Do my variables sound remotely on target?”
- “What are operational definitions?” (which spawned a post on the death of reference)
Now, anyone at the reference desk could eventually answer those questions using subject dictionaries, but honestly most of the time those reference resources give incredibly vague definitions or definitions that refer to components of an idea and not the idea as it is used in their specific class. You could refer them back to their professors, but typically students ask these questions in the moment of actual need (or avoid their professors for various reasons).
For deep embedded librarianship subject expertise, and some kind of passion for the field, is critical. How does this relate to rethinking reference? Well, while I think embedded librarianship is the future, it would be unrealistic to expect everyone to have this level of expertise in our cash-strapped libraries. And of course working the desk is entirely different. But what if our training for the desk revolved more around thinking in terms of disciplinary areas and less in terms of tools?
At UNCG we have classes in Social Science or Humanities information sources, but those tend to be focused on the tools and databases of those disciplines. They are less focused on the commonalities of research within those larger areas. What I want to know is how research is actually done within the field? What are the key things that matter? What is the research lifecycle? And most importantly, when does the library figure in?
For our reference intern training starting last fall the intern coordinators (myself, Amy Harris, and Jenny Dale) instituted this approach in our first training sessions. We taught three sessions that were non-department or tools specific: science research, humanities research, and social science research. I only have the slides for social science, but you can get a picture of what we were trying to do. I should mention this is a work in progress, so suggestions are welcome!
Some of the session considers tools, but the tools are contextualized within the research process. Our goal is to give these students the basic vocabulary of these larger areas so that they can better see how a field works. For example, what is secondary data analysis and why does that matter to the social sciences? This would then encourage a student to think beyond the typical article databases when some numeric information might be more appropriate for a question. I think approaching training this way would help with Lauren’s issue of supporting interdisciplinary departments where you have researchers working in both the social sciences and the humanities.
To wrap this up, I see two big areas for future investment in reference. One is using those people who are subject experts and who feel comfortable in a field more strategically in embedded relationships. Two is revamping our training at the reference desk to encompass more thinking about the discipline’s approach and less about the tools. Both ideas are more about the process of research than the specific question being asked, but in our environment of declining reference questions shouldn’t we be more concerned about getting into that process?
Up next, what is the library of the future?