ResearchScapes

Discussions on the art and craft of research

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Schedule a Research Consultation to Get Help Finding Sources

The fall semester is well underway at Connecticut College and the reference desk in Shain Library is abuzz with questions and consultations about finding, evaluating, and citing scholarly sources on a wide variety of topics.

What follows is an overview of a recent transaction in which an undergraduate student wanted to find works by two renowned anthropologists. The takeaway is that sometimes when it seems like the library doesn’t have a book you’re looking for, be persistent (e.g. ask us); it could be just a few searches away.

An anthropology student contacted the library by using the Schedule a Research Consultation link on the library website. One can schedule a research consultation using the library mobile app as well, so it’s super easy to schedule an appointment with a librarian.  In her message, the researcher told us about her project and the kinds of sources she was hoping to find:

I would like help finding works by Franz Boas such as his 1907 essay “Anthropology”, or his 1911 book “The Mind of Primitive Man”, or his 1920 essay, “The Methods of Ethnology”. And such works by Lewis Henry Morgan as “Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family” or “Ancient Society” (1877)

We scheduled an appointment and met in person to work on this together. Some of the sources can be found using the library catalog online, but some of them are trickier and require a more advanced search technique.

Here’s a look at how we found them:

Franz Boas’ work called “Anthropology”:

  • Do an Advanced Search in the library catalog

    Screenshot of an Advanced Search in the library catalog.

    Screenshot of an Advanced Search in the library catalog.

  • Search for franz boas in the first search box (case doesn’t matter), and set the drop-down option to search Author Name
  • In the second search box, search for anthropology, and set the drop-down to search Title
  • This search produced 5 results, including one for the book Anthropology and Modern Life, which is what it turned out we wanted

Because we were not sure at first if “anthropology” is the title of a whole book or perhaps just an article or chapter, we started with an advanced search to see how the catalog would handle this information. The advanced search technique helped in this case, because we found what we wanted and quickly.

The next item of interest, The Methods of Ethnology, sounds more like a book title, so we thought we would find it with a basic title search:

  • Do a Basic Search in the library catalog

    Screenshot of a Basic Search in the library catalog.

    Screenshot of a Basic Search in the library catalog.

  • Search for the title (without the initial article, because library catalogs and databases do not search initial articles such as “a” and “the”)
  • Limit the search to within the Title field
  • Unfortunately there are no results for this title, so it is either something we do not have in our library, something that’s contained in another item or classified under another title, or maybe it’s not a book, but a journal article or conference presentation instead

Assuming the work in question is at least part of a book, we can redo the search in WorldCat, the catalog of library catalogs, where we can hope to find out for sure if it is in a book somewhere:

  • Under the Catalog search box on the library website, click on WorldCat

    Screenshot of search results in WorldCat.

    Screenshot of search results in WorldCat.

  • Do a keyword search like this: “Methods of Ethnology” Boaz
  • This search contains a unique phrase (“in quotes”) and a unique name (Boaz); all as keywords
  • We still get a lot of results, but notice the first few. They happen to be titles available at Connecticut College, because the name Connecticut College appears highlighted in green
  • Click on those records to find out more about them
  • When viewing the full record in WorldCat, one can see these various titles contain the chapter we’re after – The Methods of Ethnology / Franz Boas
  • Pick any of the titles that appear to contain the essay of interest, and return to the Connecticut College Library Catalog to find out where the book is located in our library

With the search techniques listed above, we found everything we needed in about 15 minutes. It was all available only a few steps away.

— Andrew Lopez

 

The Search for a Missing National Security Document: A Student-Librarian Collaboration

We met in the Spring 2015 semester. The blog which follows provides an overview of our experience working together as student and librarian on a challenging research assignment. In the first place, it took a lot of work to figure out a focused topic that would be amenable to the assignment. Then we unexpectedly had to do a lot more research than expected to try to track down a Polish national security document that is often referenced in the literature, but nowhere to be found. Included in the blog is a select list of works consulted, as well as the names of some of the individuals and organizations we enlisted for support on this project.

 

The Assignment

 

For an introductory comparative politics course taught by Professor Caroleen Sayej, a 15-page research paper was assigned as a semester-long project. The research paper was to include a clear research question; an engagement with the scholarly literature relevant to one’s topic (the theory) in the form of a literature review; and the use of primary source materials (the data). Those materials could include a wide range of possible sources such as constitutions, speeches, military, trade, or demographic data, or even literacy rates. To be clear, the following discussion is a reflection of the process of finding a topic and primary sources, not of the writing process. While it is true that we collaborated in the process of finding sources, it is also true that Dominic navigated the writing process, as well as the synthesis of the research, entirely on his own.

 

The Research

 

Choosing a topic was a long and constantly changing process that brought student and librarian together early in February. Our first meetings were discussions of ideas for a topic to research and considerations of various book and journal sources to support that research. We started off thinking about political violence and failed states in general, but after consulting some sources, the topic changed to a comparison of US and EU security strategies—still a giant topic.

We corresponded regularly for several weeks exchanging ideas. It seemed that with nearly every email, or every time we met, the topic changed again. It was frustrating. On March 18, we read with interest a front page story from the Sunday New York Times, “Poles Steel for Battle, Fearing Russia Will March on Them Next.” This newspaper article marked a turning point after which the rest of the semester was spent focusing on questions dealing with the article’s main subject: Poland. This evolved into the final research topic: Polish Security and Defense Policy in the Post-Communist Era.

Dominic Lentini, presenting a poster of his research, 6 May 2015.

Dominic Lentini, presenting a poster of his research, 6 May 2015.

As part of this assignment required an examination of primary documents, we discovered that The National Security Strategy of The Republic of Poland (NSSRP), coupled with the annual address given by the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs (MFA), would be appropriate. A review of secondary literature revealed The National Security Strategy was issued periodically over the years after 1989, while the Annual Address was delivered yearly going back almost 100 years, as mandated by Polish law. The years from which the documents were chosen were 1992, 2003, and 2014. Analysis of these documents, we hypothesized, would shed light on the development of Polish security and defense policy in the difficult years of independence after communism.

Initially it seemed like finding the documents would be a trivial task, as the 2014 NSSPR and annual address were accessed in English with a single search on the Internet. That original search could not have been any more deceptive, however. The first obstacle appeared as soon as the two of us began to search for the documents for the 2003 juncture; also referenced in secondary sources. We quickly realized that the remaining documents were not nearly as accessible as they had been for the 2014 juncture.

 

The Impasse

 

This brings us to the most substantial impasse of our experience researching this topic. It is an impasse that continues to trouble us and one that might qualify as impossible research. A copy of the 1992 NSSPR in English, which is cited at least half a dozen times in our review of the scholarly literature, cannot be located. Now, please consider the following list of institutions with which we communicated in an attempt to locate a copy of this document:

 

  • Baltic Defense College (Estonia)
  • Connecticut State Library
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Poland )
  • Ministry of Defense (Poland)
  • National Defence University (Poland)
  • NATO Multimedia Library (Belgium)
  • Polish Embassy in the United States (through which we had success in locating the 2003 NSSRP)
  • Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM)
  • United States Army War College
  • United States Embassy in Poland
  • Warsaw Security Forum (Poland)

 

Additionally we communicated with all of the following individuals:

 

  • Bert Chapman, Govt. Information, Political Science, & Economics Librarian, Purdue University
  • Jackie Granger, Brussels Liaison Officer, European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS)
  • Rick Lyman, Central and Eastern European Bureau Chief, The New York Times
  • Karolina Pomorska, Director of Studies MA European Public Affairs, Department of Politics, Maastricht University
  • Tomek Szlendak, Director of the Institute of Sociology, Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń

 

We were successful in finding what we thought were two copies in Polish, but despite the fact that neither of us reads Polish, it was clear the two documents were different. This called into question their validity, and that aside, we did not have time to work with a translator even if it was the right document. The end of the semester was fast approaching.

 

The Takeaway

 

As a final thought, we’ll share a few points we both want to emphasize. This project would not have existed if it were not for student and librarian collaboration. Our collaboration was brought into being by a class and an assignment that made it necessary. Without classes, assignments, and discussions that have the potential to bring us together, students and librarians, we likely remain strangers. That we met countless times and came to rely not only on each other but also on the cooperation of other individuals and institutions tested our commitment, transforming this one research paper into less the product of one individual working alone than of a network of participants coming together through the research process, creating a sort of community where the was none.

 

Note About Works Consulted

 

A number of the works we consulted made reference to and/or included links to documents online that we were not always able to retrieve. So-called “link rot” is of course a serious problem with information on the Web. In some cases we were able to use the WayBack Machine from the Internet Archive to recover lost documents.

 

Works Consulted

Primary Sources

Annual Addresses

 

Address by the Minister of Foreign Affairs on the goals of Polish foreign policy in 2014. http://www.msz.gov.pl/en/news/address_by_the_minister_of_foreign_affairs_on_the_goals_of_polish_foreign_policy_in_2014

 

Address by the Minister of Foreign Affairs on the goals of Polish foreign policy in 2013. http://www.mfa.gov.pl/en/news/address_by_the_minister_of_foreign_affairs_on_the_goals_of_polish_foreign_policy_in2013_

 

The Minister of Foreign Affairs on Polish Foreign Policy for 2012. http://www.mfa.gov.pl/en/news/the_minister_of_foreign_affairs_on_polish_foreign_policy_for_2012?printMode=true

 

The Minister of Foreign Affairs on Polish Foreign Policy for 2011. http://www.msz.gov.pl/resource/66a3030d-07b7-4489-ab40-23b28b04df9e:JCR

 

Something from 2010. http://www.msz.gov.pl/resource/9f966390-1ccf-4c6c-80d7-63f6a4f42ff4:JCR

 

Links to annual addresses for the years 2002-2013 (2008 in Polish only) http://www.msz.gov.pl/en/foreign_policy/goals_of_foreign_policy/annual_address_2011/

 

National Security Policies

 

Polish Foreign Policy Priorities, 2012-2016. http://www.msz.gov.pl/resource/d31571cf-d24f-4479-af09-c9a46cc85cf6:JCR

 

National Security Strategy of the Republic of Poland, 2014. http://www.bbn.gov.pl/ftp/dok/NSS_RP.pdf

 

National Security Strategy of the Republic of Poland, 2007. http://www.sfpa.sk/dokumenty/pozvanky/481

 

National Security Strategy of the Republic of Poland, 2003. http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Publications/Detail/?id=156794&lng=en

 

https://web.archive.org/web/20130216140023/http://merln.ndu.edu/whitepapers/Poland-2003.pdf

 

Security Strategy of the Republic of Poland, 2000. http://web.archive.org/web/20020302162940/http://www.msz.gov.pl/english/polzagr/security/index.html

 

Something from 1992. https://www.msz.gov.pl/resource/a2467a85-fabe-4347-9fc6-cedc038e8832:JCR

 

http://www.koziej.pl/files/Strategia_RP_z_92_r.doc

 

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archives. http://www.msz.gov.pl/en/ministry/polish_diplomacy_archive/access_to_documentation/

 

Secondary Sources

 

An asterisk * at the beginning of a citation indicates the source makes reference to the 1992 National Security Strategy of the Republic of Poland even though we were unable to locate that document.

 

Asmus, Ronald D., Thomas S. Szayna, and Barbara A. Kliszewski. “Polish National Security Thinking in a Changing Europe: A Conference Report.” RAND/UCLA Center for Soviet Studies. Santa Monica, CA:

RAND Corp., 1991. Web. 5 May 2015.

This study from 1991 documents the situation in Polish security thinking on the cusp of the establishment of its new policies in 1992 and beyond.

 

*Bieniek, Piotr. Polish Defense Policy in the Context of National Security Strategy. Thesis. Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2006. Web. 5 May 2015.

This is an interesting document, discussing defense policy in the early 1990s, but no reference is made to the key documents of interest from 1992. A link to the National Security Strategy of the Republic of

Poland from 2003 is provided, but it no longer works. More useful are the references to other publications by the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs throughout the 2000s. Unfortunately, all of the URLs given

seem broken.

 

Chappell, L. “Poland In Transition: Implications For A European Security and Defence Policy.” Contemporary Security Policy 31.2 (2010): 225-248.

Interesting study, like Bieniek’s, but similarly its concerns stem from developments after the 2003 policies and more recent activity.

 

*Czulda, Robert, and Robert Los, eds. NATO: Towards the Challenges of a Contemporary WorldWarsaw/Ludz: International Relations Research Institute in Warsaw; Department of Theory of Foreign and Security

Policy, University of Lodz, 2013. Web. 7 May 2015.

On pages 103-104 of this document there is a brief discussion of the transformation of Polish defense policy after the country’s independence in 1989. The Principles of Poland’s Security Policy and its Security

Policy and Defense Strategy of Poland both from 1992 are cited in English with Polish translations and  a URL is given for the document in Polish. It is not clear what the document says or in what capacity it can

be considered reliable. This report also contains numerous other references in English with Polish translations to later policies and good citations for finding them.

 

*Gorska, Joanna A. Dealing with a Juggernaut: Analyzing Poland’s Policy towards Russia, 1989-2009. New York: Lexington Books, 2010.

Arguing that accession to NATO was the primary objective in Polish foreign policy by mid-1992 (73), this book contains a reference to “The Principles of Poland’s Security Policy” and “The Security Policy and

Defense Strategy of the Republic of Poland,” adopted in November 1992 (p. 74-75). Although it does not exactly translate the names of these documents for us, in the notes it does say that for the full text one

should refer to “Założenia Polskiej Polityki Bezpieczeństwa; Polityka Bezpieczenstwa i Strategia Obronna Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej,” Przeglad Rzadowy, no. 12 (1992).

 

*Karkoszka, Andrzej. “Defense reform in Poland, 1989-2000.” Post-Cold War Defense Reform: Lessons Learned In Europe And The United States. Eds. Theodor Winkler and István Gyarmati. Washington, D.C.:

Brassey’s, 2002. 165-188.

With a thorough chronological breakdown of defense reform in Poland, this chapter identifies our “two doctrinal documents” from 1992: “The Basic Premises of the Polish Security Policy,” and “The Security

Policy and Defense Strategy of the Polish Republic” (169), albeit with slightly different syntax. Unfortunately, there are no citations and the chapter does not say where either document can be found.

 

*Koziej, Stanislaw. “Polish Defense Policy’s Evolution.” Trans. Aleksandra Rodzinska-Chojnowska. Poland’s Security Policy 1989-2000. Ed. Roman Kuzniar. Warsaw: Scholar Publishing House, 2001. 403-438.

This seems to be the most comprehensive and authoritative source outlining the context within which Polish policy was formed. Although it identifies “The Defense Doctrine of the Republic of Poland” (21 Feb

1990) as “the first Polish postwar document which defined and publicly proclaimed the fundamental elements of the national defense strategy” (405), it was apparently already outdated at the time of its

inauguration. In a footnote it also refers to a “Secret document” from 1985 which played a similar role. But the real beginning of the new era in Polish security thinking was marked by the acceptance of “two

key documents” from 1992 (411): The Principles of Poland’s Security Policy and The Security and Defense Strategy of the Republic of Poland. See appendix pp. 554-557. Note 16 on page 554 indicates that the

policies were sourced from Przegląd Rządowy, no. 12 (December 1992), pp. 73-81, which the NATO library says is short for Założenia polskiej polityki bezpieczeństwa. Polityka bezpieczeństwa i strategia obronna RP,

[w:] „Przegląd Rządowy”, nr 12/1992, s. 73-81, which we requested from the MFA on 5/5/2015.

 

*Latawski, Paul. “The Transformation of Postcommunist Civil-Military Relations in Poland.” Civil-Military Relations in Postcommunist Europe: Reviewing the Transition. Eds. Timothy Edmunds, Andrew Cottey and

Anthony Forster. New York: Routledge, 2006. 33-49.

This essay situates the “Security Policy and Defense Strategy of the Republic of Poland,” accepted in November 1992, squarely within the development of Poland’s policies in the early 1990s (p. 38-39).  A note

indicates that this policy was published in Wojsko Polskie: Informator ‘95 (Warsaw: Bellona, 1995), which is where we ultimately found our main copy of the security policy and defense strategy (p. 48, note 26).

 

Lyman, Rick. “Poles Steel for Battle, Fearing Russia Will March on Them Next.” The New York Times. 14 Mar. 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.

This article marked a turning point in our relationship and Dominic’s conception of his research project.

 

*Marczuk, Karina. “Democratization of Security and Defense Policies of Poland (1990-2010). Revista De Stiinte Politice 36 (2012): 80-93. Political Science Complete. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.

This is a good article with lots of interesting context, and it even mentions both The Guidelines for the Polish Security Policy and The Security Policy and the Defence Strategy of the Republic of Poland from 1992 (note

again the change in syntax; 84), but it does not say where the documents can be found.

 

Michta, Andrew. “Polish Security Policy: Keeping Priorities in Balance.” The Polish Review. Vol. 54. U of Illinois, 2009. 229-241. Web 20 Mar. 2015.

Interesting study, like Chappell and Bieniek’s, but similarly its concerns stem from developments after the 2003 policies and more recent activity.

 

Mutimer, David. “Strategic (Security) Studies.” International Encyclopedia of Political ScienceEd. Bertrand Badie, Dirk Berg-Schlosser, and Leonardo Morlino. Vol. 8. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference, 2011.

2541-2552. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 3 Mar.

Includes the sections “Security Studies” and “What is Security?” which offer a concrete definition of security studies and an overview of its development historically.

 

O’Donnell, Clara. Poland’s U-turn on European Defense: A Missed Opportunity?. Brookings. N.p., 6 Mar. 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.

Interesting study, like Chappell, Michta, and Bieniek’s, but similarly its concerns stem from developments after the 2003 policies and more recent activity.

 

Pomorska, Karolina. “The Impact of Enlargement: Europeanization of Polish Foreign Policy? Tracking Adaptation and Change in The Polish Ministry Of Foreign Affairs.” Hague

Journal Of Diplomacy 2.1 (2007): 25-51. Political Science Complete. Web. 5 May 2015.

There is a lot of good narrative here about the history and development of the Polish foreign policy and the MFA, but there is no substantive discussion of their annual Addresses.

 

Sliwa, Zdzislaw, and Marcin Górnikiewicz. “Security Cooperation Between Poland and The Baltic Region.” Baltic Security & Defence Review 15.2 (2013): 146-82. Political Science

Complete. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.

Interesting contemporary regional assessment, with some useful remarks about the orientation of strategies and policy.

 

*Wojciechowski, Slawomir. “Dilemmas of Polish Military Strategy.” Strategy Research Project. Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army War College, 2008. Web. 13 April 2015.

This document by a Polish Army Colonel says the “first written strategic paper was published [in 1992], called Security Policy and Defense Strategy of the Republic of Poland” (12). But the notes contain no

extra information about this source, except for the date 2 November 1992.

 

–Andrew Lopez and Dominic Lentini

Subject Headings, Part II: Labels Matter

We couldn’t be more pleased to pass along to an update to a previous post, in which we discussed the discomfort (or worse) that could be caused by the subject heading “illegal aliens.”

In that post, we argued that it matters — for inclusion, for access, for fairness, for equality of academic achievement — what we call things, and that referring to undocumented immigrants in subject headings as “illegal aliens” was, in short, deleterious to research (among other things). A group from Dartmouth College had raised the issue with the Library of Congress’s Policy and Standards Division, and the response was, in essence, sorry — that’s the only legally accurate way to refer to such persons.

But apparently that’s not actually the case. The Library of Congress has reversed itself, deciding — or discovering — that it’s really better not to use phrases such as “illegal aliens” that have, according to the LOC’s Executive Summary on the matter, “become pejorative.” The Summary continues: “The heading Illegal aliens will therefore be cancelled and replaced by two headings, Noncitizens and Unauthorized immigration, which may be assigned together to describe resources about people who illegally reside in a country.”

Our congratulations to the Dartmouth folks for raising the issue. The episode is an object lesson on the ways in which libraries, and the language they use to describe things, do not sit apart from politics or, indeed, the kinds of important discourses that are addressed in and out of classes on campus. Rather, the means of accessing research materials are fundamentally entangled with those discussions and debates. Everyone’s research is better when those discussions are aligned with current and, one hopes, less offensive language and labels.

— Fred Folmer

Postcards from New London

In the past few months, we’ve added a new collection to the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections & Archives’ growing portfolio of digital exhibitions: a collection of postcard images of various New London landmarks, buildings, monuments, parks and neighborhoods, primarily from the first few decades of the 20th century. The physical postcards had been donated in 1980 by Muriel Castle, a 1939 graduate of the College. The images on display include the Coast Guard Academy, New London’s historic Hempsted Houses, Fort Trumbull, numerous churches, area lighthouses and notable buildings such as the Mohican Hotel and the Crocker House. The collection can be viewed here; there’s also an article about it on the Lear Center’s Tumblr site (at lindalearcenter.tumblr.com).

New London Harbor LightBank Street

It’s probably a fairly safe bet that quite a few more people will access the postcards now that they’ve been digitized, although I hasten to add the disclaimer that what’s currently available is only a portion of the entire collection. That in itself is a key reason to continue digitizing, cataloging and promoting collections such as this one.

Second CongregationalJohn Winthrop Statue

Further, as I learned through this process, postcards are a multifaceted treasure trove of historical and sociocultural information. In addition to what’s kind of obvious about them — historical photographs of particular times and places in New London — the postcards display clues about dress, transportation, architecture, religion and government. Because we’ve digitized and included the reverse sides of the postcards (i.e., where people wrote messages), the cards can also give us insight into how people communicated with each other during the time period, and about the places to which people wrote and traveled. And again, because the images are digitized and freely available, this information is now theoretically available to anyone, not just those who are able to come to Connecticut College and visit with our archivists.

It’s also notable that the exhibition is an example of librarians’ — or, really, anyone’s — ability to create a collection, and thus to contribute content to the pool of resources for scholarly comment and knowledge creation. As the field called “digital humanities” expands, what’s becoming clear is that traditional roles are changing as publishing tools become more and more digital — and accessible. This development raises a lot of issues for research — such as how these “objects” can be cataloged, collected and found — that we’ll be sure to address in future posts.

But perhaps discussions of the wider research significance of digital collections ought for the moment to take a back seat to appreciation of the rich possibilities of a particular collection. In these postcards, we discovered quite a range of topics worthy of research and study — and many interesting, beautiful images that can simply be enjoyed. We hope the collection will serve both ends.

— Fred Folmer

Overloaded?

One of the principal arguments that we present-day librarians make about ourselves is that in an age of massive and pervasive information overload, we are able to help library users cut through the dross and find what they truly need. We often discuss this in terms of time — specifically, reducing the time that patrons spend in finding useful sources. (In fact, “save the time of the user” is one of the five laws of library science, developed by S.R. Ranganathan, that all librarians learn.)

We also, with good reason, talk about quality — librarians’ ability to act as a filter for patrons who are confronted with millions of Web search results, along with anyone’s ability to publish anything, regardless of credibility. Every day, we help students develop search strategies and ask the right questions, and we provide platforms (database pages, catalogs, research guides) that attempt to direct them to high-quality information.

But as I listened recently to an NPR report by Manoush Zomorodi entitled “Get a Grip on Your Information Overload,” another significant framework for talking about our role in mitigating information overload occurred to me: that of stress, and the effects of information overload on the body and brain. One of the key points raised by the report is that overload causes physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia and eye twitches, but even so, it’s nearly impossible to stop consuming information. The report also quotes a neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin, who argues that so much information makes it difficult to discern what’s important, and that so much decision-making about all this information simply wears people down.

Although the report is talking mostly about everyday interactions with information and media, and not specifically about academic research, the implications for the latter seem clear. Students today are confronted with far more options for finding information than they had been in the past. And indeed, every librarian has stories of students who come to the desk clearly stressed — not just because they’ve had trouble finding things that relate to their research, but because they’ve done Web searches and then had no idea how to sift through the millions of results that turned up. We’ve also all seen the face of relief when students do a search in an academic database and suddenly are dealing with only dozens of options instead of thousands or millions — and that, lo and behold, many of these options are actually viable.

Particularly with the focus today on student physical and mental well-being, we perhaps ought to focus more attention on how librarians and their various strategies might contribute to this well-being. How much, one wonders, could it alleviate stress to discover that there are well-marked paths for finding information on an academic topic, not to mention people whose task is specifically to help them navigate these paths? It’s not just about being nice and friendly, although all our librarians here very much are. It’s also about reducing the need for so much processing of information, all the time. It’s about taking students to the heart of the matter, and teaching them how to get there — separating the signal from the noise, and feeling happier about being able to do it.

— Fred Folmer

Connecticut College Prize for Undergraduate Library Research

Connecticut College Libraries is pleased to announce the launch of an annual award dedicated to recognizing excellence in the undergraduate research process. While it is becoming more common today for academic libraries to offer an annual research award, a preliminary review of Oberlin Group library websites indicates that Connecticut College Libraries would be only the 11th of our 80 peer institutions to offer such a prize.

 

Lib Prize at Tufts

A poster display of recent winners of the library prize at Tisch Library, Tufts University

Why aren’t there more prizes at Oberlin Group libraries? This may be because it is a more common practice among research universities – our own efforts at creating the Connecticut College Prize for Undergraduate Library Research were based on previous work undertaken at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Temple University. Other recent prizes of note could include those at Brown University or Tufts University, or the one established this year at University of Toronto Libraries. If there is a dearth of library research awards at smaller colleges, could it have something to do with the hands-on approach to academic work undertaken at these institutions? What if it stems from a sense of ambivalence about the role of library research in the digital age?

 

Questions like these have called our attention to the potential benefits of offering an annual award. The Connecticut College Prize for Undergraduate Library Research would play an important role among other awards offered at the College, because it focuses on the research process more than on the final product, and because it is open to all currently enrolled undergraduate students who have done research in some form for a credit course. When we looked at other awards at the College, we noticed that a good number are focused within departments or applicable only to a certain type of student doing a specific kind of work.

 

Sociology of the wild - foraging

A foraging tour of wild foods in the Connecticut College Arboretum

The research in question for the library prize can be a traditional paper, but it could also be some other form of work for a class, including (but not limited to) a video, a presentation, or an artistic project. It is not hard to imagine the brush strokes of a painting being informed by creative or painstaking research. However, work created for honors projects is ineligible for this prize. For more information about the honors award, see The Oakes and Louise Ames Prize.

 

By offering an annual prize, the library aims to foster appreciation for outstanding student research at Connecticut College. Citations and research statements for all winners and finalists will appear in the Digital Commons – Connecticut College’s Institutional Repository. Along the way, we hope this new form of recognition will help demystify the importance of libraries for student research. This includes encouraging the use of library resources and collections, as well as enhancing the development of library research techniques.

 

The library’s commitment to scholarship will be reiterated formally each year by recognizing student work that demonstrates rigorous, innovative, and/or unique approaches to engaging with library collections and resources.

Subject Headings: Promise and Peril

One of libraries’ most important tasks — in the past, present and, presumably, future — is to help users save time in finding similar materials on a given topic. And whether library users realize it or not, subject headings remain one of the principal ways that libraries perform this key function.

First, a crash course for the uninitiated: subject headings are labels that provide a descriptive category for a given resource, whether that resource is a book, article, film, archival document or pair of socks. These labels can in turn be used to find similar books (articles, films, socks, etc.) because they now have a common language that’s been used to describe them; instead of some people looking for “cars” and others looking for “automobiles,” everybody’s now looking for “motor vehicles.”

What’s more, now that we’re in the digital age, items that are cataloged with the same subject heading are now just a click away; in this respect, they’re the obvious forerunner to Twitter hashtags. In a best-case scenario, a user can find an item that has a given subject heading — say, “psychoanalysis in literature” — click on it, and then find more items cataloged with that same heading, just as they can on Twitter, or on many blogs. I teach this technique to students in library workshops all the time, and once they know about it, their lives are never the same. (I exaggerate, but only somewhat.)

But just like all labels, subject headings can also have their pitfalls. I found this out recently in a stark way when I was teaching a workshop for a Film Studies course, and using the film Frozen River as an example. The film is a treasure trove of potential research topics, touching on rural economic hardship, single mothers, Native American tribal issues and immigrant border crossings. And so to demonstrate how to find an item on the topic of undocumented immigrants, I spotted an item in the catalog that seemed to relate very closely to this topic. I clicked on it to find the item’s subject headings and discovered that there is indeed a subject heading that relates very pointedly and directly to the issue at hand.

The problem? That subject heading is “illegal aliens.”

And so here, then, is a librarian’s Scylla and Charybdis: one the one hand, we have a label that can help users find more materials on the same topic — something that, at least in theory, helps promote access to materials, which is always the librarian’s watchword. On the other, the label in question uses language that many find to be problematic at best, and downright insulting at worst — and therefore may inhibit the very access the label was trying to provide.

Because as handy as they are, labels can oversimplify, and labels can limit. They can make it harder for diverse groups of people to feel welcome, to feel like they truly belong — the last thing that libraries and librarians want. What of the student whose friends or relatives include undocumented immigrants? What of students who are undocumented themselves? I can imagine they’d be very wary of using a library whose catalog appeared to call them “illegal aliens.” And who could blame them?

Simply put, it matters what we call things, and the library profession needs to make sure its descriptions promote, and do not discourage, access. Incoming students this year read Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi, which provides solid evidence that negative labels contribute to a “stereotype threat” that keeps persons from achieving all that they might. It doesn’t take a huge imaginative leap to think that persons confronted by a description of themselves as “illegal” might be susceptible to this form of subtle discrimination. This potentially harms such persons’ education — their very ability to take advantage of the resources that a college can provide.

But at the same time, we can’t really do without labels, and so the library profession — which, truth be told, often does do a good job of advocating for equality of access to materials — really needs to do everything it can to make sure those labels do not give insult. Because subject headings that are used locally have to be in line with national and international networks, it requires approval by committee at the national level to change them. In 2014, a student group from Dartmouth College brought a proposal to change the label before the Library of Congress’s cataloging committee (check this link); unfortunately, it was not approved on grounds that we might call “legalese”; “illegal aliens,” in the view of the committee, was the sole truly precise legal description of such persons. (In response, a fellow librarian tweeted that the decision was “an embarrassment to our profession,” and really, I couldn’t agree more.)

So let this be a lesson to all those using subject headings — which, unequivocally, I encourage all researchers to do. They’re incredibly useful, but as with any other human-created, socially constructed entity, they’re imperfect. They can greatly narrow searches, winnowing down to only those items that are truly about a topic at hand. They’re also the specific products of a social milieu, and as such, they reflect the mores and sensibilities of a particular place and time. Because of this, they’re changeable, even if that is difficult and slower than many of us would like. So take full advantage of subject headings, and let us know if you need help doing that. Equally as important, let us know if you find a subject heading that you think could use some revision. Chances are that we’ll agree.

—Fred Folmer

Research Librarian? What’s that?

Most people know reference and research librarians to be friendly and useful, which, hopefully, we always are. But our actual role still confuses people. What do we do, and why do we do it?

There is no question that one well-known aspect of our work is that we find things. Thomas Mann, who retired this past January from the Library of Congress after 33 years, actually started his adult life as a private detective. This is not surprising. We can be dogged, and fascinated about hidden answers can be.

We can move in and out of most academic disciplines. Some of us have advanced academic degrees, but not all. We understand the differences in discipline areas and therefore what constitutes research and research materials in each. We have a lot of experience in understanding faculty expectations of their students’ research projects and abilities.

We also understand the “rules” of research, but seek ways to teach people how to break those rules when it is appropriate. True research is not just a craft, it is an art. Because of that, there is often no one right way of doing it. We see research questions as puzzles, puzzles that often require not only the finding of facts, but the fitting and refitting of those facts together. Like individual Legos, facts have little meaning on their own. Only when they are fit together do they result in something worth seeing. And then they can be refit, which results in something entirely different.

We are endlessly curious about what we do not know, and have little ego about we do know. Do we like people? Yes, but what we love about people is how they think and learn.

We are indeed research investigators, we are teachers, we are finders. Let us help you.

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