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An Introduction
August 18, 2009 - 9:08pm

I write, not from the dead, but from the depths, that murky blob marked library on your campus map, that innocent but somehow chilling link on your institution’s home page, that awkward corner of uncertainty in your otherwise confident professional psyche. Nothing else inside higher ed both unites and repels in quite the same way: everyone seeks information — which is simply the recorded experience and advice of our forebears — yet everyone trembles when they venture beyond the few narrow paths they already know. The campus library is the Great Grimpen Mire of academe. I know it well in all its slippery dimensions and hope to save you frustration as you create new knowledge through your research and transmit the best of old knowledge to your students.

Teaching faculty have immense persuasive power; we librarians do not. What we do have are sweeping views of what scholars are up to, a grasp of how researchers do their business and what evidence ensues, and a knack for identifying and locating that evidence. By and large faculty and academic librarians respect one another’s expertise and collaborate happily. But where and how do our apprentices—either undergraduates or graduate students — learn the process and logic of source seeking? That is the question that haunts me and inspires this blog.

The nexus of knowledge transmission, of teaching, is the assignment, the place where faculty intent becomes student incentive. One thing I hope to do in this blog is to suggest ways to invigorate library research assignments that don’t seem to be working. For that, I solicit examples that include:

  • the wording of your assignment, exercise, take-home exam, or other task that requires students to identify information
  • a brief description of the ideal student performance, including what online or print resources you expect students to use
  • an equally brief description of why you are dissatisfied with the results and what you think may be the cause
  • any strictures you have about fixes I may suggest, for instance, regarding the amount of class time involved

You can, if you wish, send me your entire syllabus as an attachment, calling my attention to the section you are concerned about. In fact, doing so would be extremely helpful for context. Write me at and be sure to say whether I may use your name, course title, and/or institution if I address your assignment in my blog. Unless I am inundated with submissions, I will reply via e-mail to everyone who writes.

In addition to analyzing assignments, I will use this forum for other matters, such as general musings on what it means to be an information seeker in today’s world; consideration of library research concepts and tools that deserve more attention in the curriculum; responses to some of the Frequently UNasked Questions researchers, especially novices, have about how academic libraries function or about how one discovers “what’s out there”; and occasional exhortations.

A bit about my experience: my background and comfort zone are in the humanities and more qualitative social sciences, but I consider myself a generalist, meaning I’ll tackle any question that comes my way, apprise the researcher of the types of resources available, mention specific tactics to try or tools to explore, and offer to show how those tools work. Then I will refer the person to a colleague, a local faculty member, a scholar elsewhere, a special collection, government agency, organization, Web site—to whomever or whatever may further their inquiry. Especially when I advise students, I consider it my obligation to explain (briefly) why I recommend a particular approach and to suggest how they can judge the sources they discover. Of the three traditional tribes of reference librarians—pointers, fetchers, and teachers — I belong to the third.

This blog begins at a time when I am seriously challenged by my own work predicament, to be the acting subject specialist for a discipline in which I have no formal training: political science. For the next few months I will fill that role as my institution searches for an expert librarian in that field. My duties, typical for such a gig, will involve liaison with the Politics Department faculty, students, and staff; collection development; conducting small group instruction sessions, primarily for juniors, on the essential reference works and resources in the field; and numerous individual research consultations by appointment. I expect to be stimulated, perhaps overwhelmed. But mostly expect to learn a lot from another view of the Great Grimpen Mire, and I look forward to sharing both my missteps and my insights.

Mary George has been a reference librarian for almost four decades, working at two research universities, one public in the Midwest (Michigan) and one private in the East (Princeton). At both, her interactions have been more-or-less equally split between undergraduates and more advanced researchers. Most weeks of the academic year she spends several hours at a service desk, answers dozens of e-mail queries, conducts classes in the library to go over tools for finding—and principles for evaluating—sources, and confers with individuals at all levels by appointment. She has survived various middle management and acting positions in recent years in specialties ranging from the visual arts to interlibrary loan to music and now political science. She has an M.A. in English and is ABD in library and information studies. She has been an adjunct faculty member at three library schools, taught a freshman writing seminar at Princeton, and is the author ofThe Elements of Library Research: What Every Student Needs to Know,published in 2008 by Princeton University Press.


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