by Roz Tedford (Director for Research and Instruction, Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University)
When you tell people outside of academe that you are an academic librarian you often get responses back like “oh, I’d love to be a librarian, I’d love working with books all day!” or “do students really need libraries anymore? Isn’t everything online?” But within the walls of academe, research librarians today are more engaged than ever in the teaching and research missions of their institutions and while the hats we wear continue to grow, so too does our impact on student success.
Students come to college with varying degrees of research experience behind them. Some come from high schools where there was extensive attention given to the research process while others have never written a true research paper before. Add to the mix a growing international population of students and you bring issues of cultural differences in writing and attribution expectations and English as a second language issues into the mix. So we never quite know what to expect when we start to meet with classes and with individual students about research.
But research librarians at all levels are nothing if not flexible. We should be developing a sense of what level of experience the students have in our classes and what the faculty expect from student research and we adjust our approach accordingly.
To do this, we need tools in our toolkits that we bring out to meet the needs of faculty and their students. From single class meetings to semester-long credit bearing classes, from one-on-one appointments to taking research help directly to students outside of the library building, academic librarians should be eager to meet the students where they are and to become an essential partner for faculty in guiding students through a research paper or project.
Whole-class meetings with students, sometimes referred to as “one-shots” by librarians, can be foundational to the other work we do because we can provide essential information as students are beginning to wrestle with the research project. The content of these sessions are usually negotiated between the faculty and the librarian and range from a quick “here’s who I am and what I can do for you — now come meet with me on your own” to full class-length instruction on searching catalogs, databases, web content. At Wake Forest, we have found several things that can help make these sessions successful:
• Use some of the time at the beginning of class to make sure students know their way around your library’s website (e.g., how to make an appointment, how to find research guides, where your workshops are listed, etc.). Don’t assume they know these things. Making them comfortable with your web presence is as important as making them comfortable with your building.
• Reiterate (multiple times) that you are available for in-person help. Most students are not going to speak up in the class to ask questions about their own topics. But making sure they know that you WANT them to come meet with you (and how they can make those appointments) can ease their minds.
• Don’t try to cover everything. Focus on where the students are in the research timeline and focus on what should be the very NEXT thing they need to be doing. Then encourage them to come see you for help in the rest of the process.
• Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. You will not always get the backing you might want from the faculty member. You may only get 10 minutes. You may only feel like five students in a class of 30 are actually paying attention. One-shots are not the ideal instruction environment even in the best of circumstances, but they can be very useful to many students and faculty. Remember that and do what you can.
In an Era of “Fake News”…
In the past year, librarians have seen an uptick in the number of faculty who want librarians to talk to students about issues surrounding “fake news,” and we should feel uniquely qualified to discuss this topic; whether looking at the peer review process in light of how expertise is developed, or at issues such as the “filter bubble” and echo chambers that lead to distrust of sources that don’t agree with us, librarians should lead students in these kind of discussions. Helping students be selective and critical consumers of information while steering them away from a skepticism toward any information that doesn’t mesh with their personal beliefs is a tricky but important role that academic librarians should embrace.
These conversations are not always easy, but things like Ted Talks, provocative news pieces, and discussions of sites like Snopes can be wonderful ways to get students to see situations in new ways. The key is to find an “in” that you feel comfortable discussing and going from there. If the session is for a class taught by a faculty in an academic discipline — meet with the faculty to find out what they are interested in the students getting from the session and then use the topic of the class to craft a session. The success of these alternative kinds of sessions depends in large part on the library’s role in the campus community.
Classes for Credit
Some academic libraries also offer credit-bearing classes — either required or elective — for students to take. Sometimes they serve as a general education requirement to cover issues of information literacy and other times they support discipline-specific research. It is in these classes that we can tackle the larger issues of information creation, copyright and intellectual property and perhaps most importantly today, fake news and junk science. They can be add-on classes for research seminars or geared to graduate students. What they have in common is a more in-depth engagement with the content and a longer relationship between librarian and student.
Getting administration to support for-credit classes can be tricky. Using accreditation standards is one way to get buy-in; if your institution is up for reaccreditation or if you have a Quality Enhancement Plan or other strategic plan or goals for the institution, having a class that helps meet those goals can be attractive. Another way is to start small — perhaps with one department with honors research seminars — and offer a small half- or one-credit class for elective credit in that department as an add-on for the research seminar. Or start with a graduate program where students are struggling with research as programs with large numbers of non-traditional or older students can be good targets. Someone who has not done research in 20 years might appreciate the opportunity to take an elective class that would guide them through today’s research landscape.
One-on-one meetings between librarian and student where a student asks a specific research question, are perhaps the most important interaction we have but also the most resource-intensive. Whether they need background research to set the stage for their paper or need to find one specific United Nations report on genocide, students get the highest-touch help by meeting with their librarian. Because these interactions are not “one-and-done,” often students return to meet with the same librarian, or will meet with various librarians for various needs.
It is in these meetings that we get to steer students to the kind of resources the faculty expects. We help students vet sources of information, find the needle in the haystack of information (a really, really, really big haystack these days), navigate interlibrary loan for materials outside our collections, and cite that tricky UN report once it has been found.
One of the keys to get students in the door for these sessions is to make it clear that this is your job — you are there to help them do research. Often students feel they are “cheating” or “bothering you” and wherever you interact with them, it is critical that you dispel those myths and make it clear that you are doing your job (hopefully a job you love) by helping students. Asking questions during the session about the assignment, the topic, etc. can help to establish a rapport with the students and help them realize you appreciate the interaction. When students are embarrassed that they need help, it is our job to make them feel welcome and comfortable. Following-up after the sessions can also bring the students back for repeat meetings. If you come across new items that are relevant to the students, just dropping them an email with a link can be critical in keeping communication going.
Librarians often find ourselves in the roles of coach AND cheerleader during these sessions. For a student who has never written a research paper before, their first few attempts can be very stressful. A faculty member may not have a chance for in-depth interactions with all their students. A friendly librarian who can help get a student going down the road to good research can boost confidence and set students on a path for success. While we can count the total number of one-on-one sessions, it is far more difficult to measure this qualitative impact on success.
While the traditional one-on-one sessions are fairly standard at most academic institutions, new ways of finding students who need research help are also being tried. Pop-up or roaming research help, such as setting up a table in residence halls or dining halls during heavy research times, is usually well worth the energy expended. At Wake Forest, we set up a table with an outreach librarian in the lobbies of first-year residence halls over the fall semester. We give out candy and students stop to talk and often even ask reference questions or book a research appointment. This is a low-stakes way to talk to the students where they are and even if all they come away with is a piece of candy and a reminder that librarians are there to help, it’s worth our time. Students begin to see the library as more than just the walls of the building and see librarians as people willing to meet them where they are.
Building Faculty Relationships
As with any relationship, building a rapport with faculty takes time. The more chances you have for interaction, the better. Whether that is in planning your session, providing feedback based on your meetings with students, running into them at a lecture, or simply meeting them for coffee to get their take on how the session went, the more you communicate, the greater the relationship will be.
Communicating back to the faculty as the students come to meet with you will serve several purposes. First, it lets faculty know that their students are taking advantage of the service and makes it more likely they will invite you into their classrooms. Second, it is your chance to provide faculty feedback on assignments. If students are struggling with the assignment, contacting the faculty for clarification can let them know what they need to clarify for everyone and expose some issues they need to fix.
At Wake Forest, as we have begun to work with faculty more often, we have seen them bringing us in to help at new phases of the class. We are often asked for input as they craft assignments and in this era of ‘fake news’ discussions, to develop content around that. The more flexible you are with what you are willing to do, the greater variety of work you will see yourself doing.
Academic librarians are often the touchstones for students throughout the research process, serving roles that range from counselor to detective — from expert to encourager. Throughout it all, our primary goal is to reduce the time students spend on the hunt for good sources in order to maximize the time they can spend on the reading of the sources and the crafting of their arguments. We meet with students in a variety of different environments and assist in a variety of different ways and our hope is that their research projects are the better for it.