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A Librarian Reads the News

Publications and Presentations

In my classroom...

Changing my approach

I went to a bunch of sessions at ACRL having to do with creating a welcoming space for all patrons, and a couple things stood out to me that are prompting me to change my everyday practice, particularly at the reference desk. The session reported preliminary findings of a qualitative research study of students of color and their experience with libraries and librarians prior to coming to college (conference paper here).

Over the years I’ve unconsciously developed a practice that, if I sat down and thought about it, I would say balances my twin goals of appearing welcoming while also not making patrons feel like I’m surveilling them. I know, for example, that it creeps me out when I’m buying groceries or whatever and the check-out person comments on my purchases, or especially if they mention remembering what I purchased last week. So at work I keep track of how people like me to interact with them, but I don’t notice or remember what they’re studying or checking out or looking at unless they open that conversational door themselves. Sometimes I joke that one of my superpowers is being able to help people with the copier without actually seeing what they’re copying.

And I realized while I was sitting in this session that I’ve adopted a similar practice when it comes to acknowledging people when they walk past me at the desk. If they make eye contact in a way that seems to invite interaction, I’ll smile and greet them. If they don’t, I assume they don’t want overt interaction for whatever reason, so I let them proceed on their way without interruption. Again, I didn’t shape this habit consciously — it just developed over time in response to my cumulative experiences on both sides of a service desk.

This approach comes from a genuine desire to put people at ease on their own terms, but the conference session made me realize that I’ve created another of those situations where good intentions can seriously backfire. There was a theme in the responses from the students of color that “the librarian smiled and greeted the white kid in front of me, but didn’t smile and greet me.” Thinking back to my own practice, I realized that of course if someone is unsure if they belong in the library they won’t initiate interaction with me. Duh. They’ll have their neutral face on, or possibly even a “don’t notice me too much” face on, and in response I’ll put my neutral face on. But here I’ll be valiantly “engaging with people on their own terms,” and they’ll be experiencing me disapproving of their presence in the library.

Clearly I’ve got to adjust my practice — a practice I didn’t even fully know I had until confronted with this mismatch in experiences. And of course there are ways to make people feel welcome without making them feel surveilled. Of course there are ways to be engage proactively without forcing similar engagement from the other person. So now my project is to make this new way of being as habitual as my old way of being was.

The Interstitial Curriculum

It occurred to me recently that we in higher education talk about the curriculum and the co-curriculum, and there are departments and offices and structures involved in making those parallel structures work (hopefully) to the benefit of our students. But there’s another curriculum at play as well — a curriculum that is every bit as fundamental to our institutional learning outcomes as the formal curriculum but that isn’t “owned” by any department and isn’t administered in any systematic way across the institution. I’ve started thinking of this as the “interstitial curriculum.”

The interstitial curriculum is where students learn the intellectual habits and skills that cut across curricular and co-curricular lines. It doesn’t have a home in the formal curriculum, and it can’t happen exclusively in the co-curriculum, either. Instead, it lives in the multiple and cumulative experiences that individual students have as they live out their college experiences through, among, and between the intertwinings of the curriculum and the co-curriculum. Depending on the institution, these are probably things like writing (never something that any single department can teach fully), metacognition, project management, time management, interpersonal “soft” skills, and yes, information literacy.

These are things that might even be named in mission statements or in institutional and departmental learning objectives, or that tons of faculty say are critical … but there’s often no course or formal home for them in the institutional structures that ensure other learning objectives. Everyone relies on students building these intellectual muscles by working with someone else somewhere else in the institution. They may not be sure who or where or when this work happens or should happen, but they really hope that does happen because otherwise their own goals for students in their courses or majors can’t happen, or can’t happen well.

In my own work, I live in the tension between the deeply rewarding, mission-critical work that I get to do with students every day, and the dismissal of some who assume that the work I want to do with their students has surely already been done by someone else at some other time — probably in their first year seminar. I live in a liminal space, where literally dozens of departments on campus list learning outcomes directly related to information literacy, the campus mission and learning goals invoke information literacy, and yet no department has a formal plan to ensure that their students get intentional, scaffolded practice with the intellectual habits of information literacy. And I’m not saying that this is a bad place to be! There are many good reasons at play in this state of affairs. But it does mean that my entire existence feels similar to the work of the fascia in the human body: necessary, often invisible, existing between the better-known structures of the body, not well understood, but instrumental in encouraging and even allowing the intellectual work of the disciplines. I live in the spaces between.

It’s a very, very interesting space to inhabit. Not easy, but interesting.

Wrestling with Reference

In the last few weeks I’ve been part of several conversations with other librarians about reference services. And now that I’m at an academic librarian conference (Hello ACRL!), I’m having even more of these conversations. Some people talk about moving away from the reference desk model entirely, others are conflicted, or shifting the service in various ways. All have very good reasons for making the decisions they’re making.

Like so many things in life, though, I find that there are a lot of unstated assumptions and values at play in these conversations. This morning I attended a great talk about navigating change, and one of the biggest assertions in that presentation was that we have to unpack the words we use when we state our values because our working definitions and the behaviors associated with those working definitions can vary significantly. People may think they’re talking about the same thing because they both say “Openness” or “Respect,” but they’re actually not. And if people think that there are gaps between their experience of your stated values and your working, behavioral definitions of those values, that’s when trust erodes.

This connected in my connection-seeking brain with all the librarian conversations where people decide what kind of librarian you are based on your stance on staffing models for reference desks. Are you That Kind of Librarian who wants to staff the desk “just in case” there are questions, or are you That Kind Of Librarian who “doesn’t value reference?” Whole identities can be decided in a moment on this one issue.

But here’s the thing, if we start to unpack what we actually mean when we talk about “the desk” — just like we use the reference interview to unpack patron needs — I think it uncovers a much more fundamental set of values. These values may or may not be served by a reference service at any given institution, but where a reference desk is not the option, these values still need to be enacted by some other service model somehow.

So here are three of the things that have bubbled to the surface during these conversations I’ve been having in the last few weeks. None of these were true 100% of the time at desks, of course, and none of them will be true 100% of the time in any model. But they are values that I think are key to building and sustaining a research/reference service.

Visible Demonstration of Function (Especially Interest)

Even if patrons aren’t actively seeking out the service or actively learning about support options, they should be able to see you being kind and welcoming and helpful and engaged and excited about other patrons’ information needs. Maybe your patrons will walk past you a million times on the way to and from the printers, or the bathrooms, or whatever, but they become passively aware of the service and its function. And they become passively aware that librarians love the act of information seeking, love the hunt, love the puzzle, and love more than anything else the opportunity to engage with people who are curious or confused and who will have their lives made easier by access to some information or a more nuanced ability to evaluate and use what they have found.

We’re nerds at heart, and pathologically helpful, and we find our reason for existing in the ability to both help people and geek out at the same time. But our “brand” on campus is often much blander than this – much more tied to the mechanics of access. And the only way to help people see that we’re good for more than “My professor said I needed 3 peer reviewed articles…” is for people to see that we’re broadly interested in information seeking and use, information-based rhetoric, and information structures. Without this, we run the real risk of having ever fewer questions, and then cutting services back further, and then having fewer questions… in a vicious cycle to oblivion. And all this not because we’re no longer relevant or whatever, but because people can’t see what we actually do and care about.

Low Barriers to Use

Barriers come in all shapes and sizes, of course, and different people find different things to be barriers. This is one reason to have multiple methods of getting and receiving help.

At least one of these methods should allow people to somewhat randomly get drop-in help without doing a lot of information seeking to find out how to get help or to formally schedule things. Predictable drop-in hours and locations (physical or virtual) that are well matched with people’s existing habits help tremendously with this. So does shared language and modes of engagement that match existing cultures and contexts.

For the librarians: Access to a broad cross-section of questions – especially “basic” questions

We know better what’s working and what’s not, what instruction worked and what didn’t, what tools work and what tools are confusing, etc, by being exposed to as many questions as possible from as broad a cross-section of a community as possible. The questions from just the people who know you already or just the people who specialize in the same things you do are good and important and useful, but more than that is even better.

In a lot of ways, the “easy” questions are more telling than the complex ones if your goal is to keep tabs on what your population finds easy or hard. These “basic” questions may be accommodated by a variety of service models, but they are decidedly not unimportant questions. If anything, they may be the most important questions — the questions that tell us valuable things about tools or services that we haven’t set up right. It’s not the patron’s fault for asking the “wrong” questions — The User Is Not Broken. It’s on us to make it so that, wherever possible, “easy” things are easy for our users, too. Or if we make the decision to opt for a set-up that isn’t strictly the easiest option, we should have well-considered reasons for this choice. In academic libraries, for example, there are times when the better solution is one that helps our students learn things even if it means an extra click or two. But these decisions should be weighed carefully, and monitoring the tenor of these most basic questions is one way of figuring out if you’ve struck the right balance for your context.


These are some of the things that I think lurk beneath the surface for people who “value the desk.” And for people who have moved away from the desk, these are some of things that they have to recreate in their new service models.

What else is lurking? What else do we value in a reference service, no matter that service’s model? What are effective modes of enacting those values so that they are apparent and transparent to our communities? Let’s build an actually articulated definition, and then test our services against that definition.

Tracking down known (or known-ish) documents — some strategies

A faculty member asked if I could come to his class and teach him and his students to track down documents that they see referenced in their research. Some things they’re seeing are well cited, some things are just alluded to, and some things are decently well cited but they can’t find the text. What strategies and techniques do I use? Where do I look? Basically, what do I do every time he emails me and says “I’m looking for this publication but can’t find it” or “This person mentioned that there’s a study on x, how do I track that down.”

My initial thoughts were “This’ll be fun!” and also “I do this every day but I have no idea how to explain it in a coherent way.” It’s just something I do, and it’s never exactly the same twice in a row. But I decided to distill some of the strategies that I use most often, and then give the students a check-list of potential tools and strategies for their research area.

My Top 8 Strategies

1) Find out as soon as you can what kind of document you’re looking for.
Books and book-like-things (things that are formally published, generally all at once as a single entity) are findable in different ways than dissertations or periodicals or essays or websites or reports, etc. Different places collect information about different kinds of documents, they have different metadata associated with them, and basically if you can’t figure out this part the rest of it will be much, much harder.

2) Assume that key parts of the information you have about the document are wrong. A major early strategy is to find the best and most complete citation possible.
People misspell other people’s names all the time, or get the title wrong, or remember the wrong publication year. Similarly, scholars change their names all the time, or things get reprinted in various ways, sometimes with varying titles. Don’t even get me started on transliterations from non-Roman alphabets. (People are less likely to get the place of publication or publisher wrong because those are things you have to look up on the spot as you’re writing a citation, and they tend to have more standardized ways of being written down.) I can’t over-emphasize how useful it is to reframe your search from “I want to find this document” to “I want to find accurate publication information about this document.”

3) Use creative, “fuzzy” searching and browsing.
Pick out a few words that seem the least likely to be wrong and the most likely to be unique. Maybe choose the author’s last name (first names sometimes get truncated or left off entirely) and a key term or two from the title or topic. Maybe see if you can find everything by a particular author (maybe that author’s CV), or find everything on a topic published in a particular year by a particular publisher. Boolean operators, truncation, and nested search terms are more important in these searches than in a lot of other searching. For example, you can OR together alternate spellings or translations. Basically, figure out ways to give yourself a manageable list (tens, maybe hundreds, but not thousands) of things that could reasonably contain your thing, and then read through that list.

4) No single search tool works every time, and each tool has its strengths and weaknesses, so use multiple tools.
Google is amazing at free-text searching, and it’s HUGE, and it can do things like match up synonyms for you, or correct for spelling variations. It’s not great at letting you work with structured metadata or telling you what you actually have access to from your institution. Meanwhile, library systems don’t contain as many records (sometimes a pro, sometimes a con) and they aren’t as flexible about interpreting search terms, but they’re great at pulling together publications by discipline and/or providing access to structured metadata. And each library tool has its own advantage and disadvantage. So most of the time you’ll end up using multiple tools to track down an obscure document.

5) Always start out with the hope that you’ll find the thing in the most obvious place, but don’t get discouraged if it’s not there after all. (Or the second place, or the third… this is an iterative process)
Sometimes I second-guess myself and think “This thing is so obscure, I should start with a specialized search in a specialized place” only to find out that it would have come up immediately in a basic search of my library’s discovery tool. That said, some things only reveal themselves when you’ve worked your way through dozens of places and picked up bit of information along the way.

6) Tracking down a document is a team sport — ask your team mates and your librarian for help and ideas.
I do this every day, and I have a whole masters degree in exactly this, and I ask my colleagues for help and ideas all the time.

7) If you can’t find the thing, or can’t find it in English, or whatever
Can you find something like it that would help you accomplish your goals? Can you adjust your goals to mesh with the information you can access? Or can you use the non-English version somehow given what you know about the standard structures of most scholarship? Maybe you can find something you can use that cited the thing you can’t get/use and that built on that first thing in useful ways? In a pinch, if no other options are available, is secondary citation an option?

8) Remember to think about whether the document is actually the best document for your needs.
It’s a heady moment when you finally track down that obscure conference paper that you saw referenced as THE source for an idea in someone else’s paper. But is it actually THE source? Or is it just the source that that other scholar knew about? Don’t cite it just because you found it.

Key tools

  • For Everything
    • Google (keeping in mind its search operators – and remember you’re looking for information about the thing as much as the thing itself)
    • Wikipedia (especially for alternate spellings, related terms, citations)
    • Internet Archive (kind of like google books, but a different set of digitized things, and not just books, from institutions as well as from individual people)
    • LC Authorities (for alternate spellings/names for particular authors)
    • Any other tool that lets you search through the full text of scholarship in your area (JSTOR, Project Muse, etc), so that you can find other scholars mentioning the thing you’re looking for.
  • For Books and Book-like-things
    • Your library’s catalog
    • Google Books (especially for finding citations in scholarly works, or finding essays or reprints within compilations)
    • WorldCat (especially for searching by publisher or publisher location, or for any books or book-like-things — it’s not great at non-roman letters, though. If things get really hairy the old FirstSearch interface allows some ultra-advanced options that are helpful)
    • HathiTrust (added thanks to comments!) — especially for scans of out-of-copyright things, including really really old cool stuff.
    • The national library of whatever country seems most relevant
    • Publisher websites, researcher websites/CVs, academic department websites, etc
  • For things published in periodicals
    • Your library’s journal browse list
    • Disciplinary research databases from relevant disciplines
    • Google Scholar (especially for broad, fuzzy searching, or for cited reference searching)
    • Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory (especially to find out where a periodical gets indexed for searching/browsing) – requires subscription
  • For dissertations
  • For reports and conference papers and the like
    • Mostly Google, some disciplinary repositories or research databases… Often these aren’t actually publicly available, and when they are they can be difficult to track down.

For the topic these students were exploring, I put these tools into this long checklist of possibilities.

What about you?

Most of you are librarians — what are your go-to strategies for tracking down the documents your researchers are looking for?