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Great Expectations
September 13, 2009 - 8:48pm

Within hours of my introductory post, I received a request from a reader who described herself as an adjunct at two institutions, a university and a community college. I gathered from her message that in both places she teaches composition courses that include a research paper. She is clearly dismayed by her colleagues’ traditionalist approach to that task (what I call the state–your–thesis–make–an–outline–annotate–your–sources–write–a–draft regimen) and by students’ uncritical rush to the Web for all things.

Her request was for two sets of guidelines — she called them Ten Commandments — Dos and Don’ts to help writing faculty reach a common understanding about the research part of the research paper. Just as cogent academic essays require complex thinking and skill sets, so does the process of discovering appropriate sources on which to build an argument. In other words, my correspondent wants my thoughts on the concepts students should master and the habits they should eschew in today’s electronic world.

Instead, I would like to offer just one list of precepts, all in a positive vein but doing Moses one better. Whereas the Children of Israel were never admonished to critique their own behavior — Just read the tablets and follow the rules, already! — the children of the 21st century must learn to search thoughtfully and judge sources wisely lest they too wander for decades in a metaphysical desert or accept mirages as reality.

Here then is my Hendecalogue, with a twist. These are matters that I, as a college librarian, would like undergraduates to know (or at least know about) before I encounter them:

1. Knowledge, information, and opinion: what they are and how they relate. When, how, by whom, and in what form are ideas and facts communicated, preserved, and made accessible.

2. Research is the process of planned inquiry, not haphazard gathering. Focus will change as research proceeds, as will confidence and excitement.

3. How to ask fruitful questions throughout the research process and speculate about likely means to answer them, including extra-library sources (e.g., experts) and methodologies (e.g., survey techniques).

4. Primary and secondary sources: an understanding of their nature, distinction, variety, and use in all fields.

5. Types of fact, finding, and hybrid reference tools: characteristics of each type and familiarity with specific titles from actual use.

6. The logic of discovery: a basic strategy for identifying and locating pertinent sources, with a notion of how to modify it.

7. Catalog fundamentals: information on cards and its purpose, the role of subject headings and classification; how to determine subject headings; common filing rules; how catalogs, indexes, and bibliographies differ; some exposure to book, fiche, and online catalogs.

8. Databases: concept and experience retrieving citations or data; fluency in Boolean logic.

9. What resources, services, policies, and procedures to expect in any library. The variety of physical formats: how they are acquired and stored. Procedures for locating periodical or newspaper articles and for finding books and government documents. How to examine a book critically and browse creatively. Some library jargon — e.g., “serial,” “subject heading,” “classification,” “union list.”

10. The importance of accurate citations and a research log. How to describe sources in standard note and bibliography style and, conversely, how to translate citations from notes and bibliographies into catalog entries.

11. Principles of selecting and evaluating sources: the effects of history, context, and viewpoint on the authority of reference tools and sources. The relationship of library research to critical thinking and of both to good writing.

Before you light up the IHE server with your comments about my grip on technology in #7, terminology in #9, or adolescent psychology, I have a confession to make: This list first appeared, verbatim, exactly twenty-one years ago.* At the time I was co-editor of a journal, since defunct, devoted to what educators now call information literacy, a phrase I find irritatingly affected and woefully inadequate. We needed a short, instant item for a blank page in the issue, so I did a brain dump, based on about a decade and a half of experience helping students grapple with library research projects. My notions fit the bill, and that filler hit a nerve. Interestingly, the majority of responses I received came from high school librarians who were then, and are still, concerned about the preparation of their own students for college-level research. More power to them.

How would I revise my commandments today? Or would I smash my tablets in frustration and need to start over? Actually, I would not add, delete, or rearrange anything, but would just update the details—and downgrade my expectations. Big time. I now know better than to think undergraduates, regardless of their year, will already be fluent with all eleven desiderata. The sanguine yet sensible part of my psyche tells me to relax and concentrate on working with faculty to instill these ideas into every syllabus and conversation about research.

Is that mission impossible, do you think? Will my wishes ever come true?

Questions? Send them here.

*Mary W. George, “What Do College Librarians Want Freshman to Know? My Wish List,” Research Strategies: A Journal of Library Concepts and Instruction 6, no. 4 (Fall 1988): 189.


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