There are a couple of things I really like about being primarily a subject librarian, and about having subject librarians easily accessible in a college library. For one thing, it sure helps when those crazy-hard questions come to the desk and you can say something helpful-sounding like “I can get you started with some of the basics, and then you should go see so-and-so for more in-depth help.” Of course, then there are those crazy-hard questions that come to the desk and are in my area, so I can’t pass them off… but we’ll forget about those for the moment.
But one of the things that’s most valuable about this division of labor in an undergraduate environment is that each librarian can concentrate on developing discipline-relevant vocabulary. I’m not talking about vocabulary in the “how to talk to students” sense at the moment, though that’s certainly very important. After all, even “primary source” means something different to each discipline. No, I’m just talking about terms and vocabularies associated with topics of research. When a student of literature comes and talks to me about rhizomatic narratives or the relationship between metaphor and ideology, I have a whole thesaurus in my head that opens to the correct spot and starts coming up with alternate search terms. I know where these things fit into umpteen different literary theorists’ perspectives, I can recognize key works referenced in the titles of scholarly papers. Not only can I employ these terms and names directly by adding them to my search, but I can recognize articles in a result list that might be relevant simply by calling on this mental map of the topic. Then I can open those results and use vocabulary I find there to create new searches.
Since search is fundamentally a character-matching game, with people supplying characters in a row (i.e. words) and computers matching those characters to the characters in its index, lack of vocabulary renders search essentially useless. I don’t know or recognize the terms that are central to, for example, the IMF. So I’m basically stuck with ineffective searches and only limited options for refining my searches. And I can’t help steer students to refine their terms because I have no mental map of this topic beyond “something to do with money, and something that’s international.”
If we don’t have access to mental maps, how do we build our students’ mental maps? And how do we generate search examples that will help them learn?
And how do I develop mental maps of all the research topics my students need help with?