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Maintaining Research Guides, the Never Ending Struggle

I spent a good part of today trying to wrap my brain around a new subject area so that I could a) figure out which resources might be important for the assignment, b) figure out if we had access to those resources, c) figure out what to substitute for the stuff we didn’t have, d) create an online research guide for that assignment, and ultimately e) stand up in front of that class on Wednesday and say coherent and useful things rather than idiotic and generally boring things.

As I was experimenting with new sources and concocting tips for the students who will soon be using them, copying and pasting relevant chunks from other guides, and then deleting about a third of the information after realizing I’d needed it to wrap my head around the project, but my students probably didn’t need it… as my guide emerged little by little throughout the day, I mused on the changing role these guides are having in my professional life, and on their convoluted lifespan.

Before going further, a word of explanation. At our library we have three kinds of guides: subject guides, course guides, and general guides. General guides are those things that aren’t specific to a discipline at all (like “Using the Library from Off Campus“). Subject guides serve as portals for research within a major, and there’s at least one for every major on campus. Each liaison maintains the subject guides for his or her liaison departments, and we each have the option to create a course guide for any course we think needs one.

Recently, I’ve begun rethinking my guides. It started last year when I changed almost all of them over from being organized around types of sources (finding articles, finding books, etc.) to being organized around topics or tasks (finding primary sources, finding social/historical context, finding authoritative scores etc.). Now this year, I’m using the subject guides more and more while I’m at the reference desk, both to organize my own thoughts about a new topic and, more importantly, to model this behavior for students. After all, it’s probably much more useful to send students the extra click through a subject guide than to force them to sink or swim in a list of 200 or more research databases! This also keeps me honest, because I actually use the guides all the time, so their faults scream out at me until I finally get time to remedy them.

And in my life, I do my most careful thinking when creating course guides. These grow out of a specific research task and force me to really come to grips with the research challenges inherent to that task. Then, at the end of each term, I retire the term’s course guides but copy and paste the best bits into the subject guide for the appropriate major. Next term, as I create new guides, some chunks can be copied straight out of the subject guide, but there’s always something new, or some sections that just aren’t appropriate for the larger guide, so those get built from scratch almost every time.

And so this circular evolution of course guide to subject guide and back again keeps me writing and updating guides pretty much every week of the year.

p.s. For the curious, today I was working on a guide to Medieval and Renaissance Music (link will be live through March 2008, after which point it’ll be archived offline).