What we mean when we say “research”

glasses in the forest

I’ve been working intensively with the foundational writing curriculum assessment team for the last two years. This is the kind of work I love to do – work with a team to dissect a problem and find a better/different/more suitable solution. Working with this team has been invaluable to me because, as a librarian, I never get to see the long term results of the instruction sessions I conduct and the impact I may or may not have on a final product. In this team I see these things, and not only that but I get to discuss and provide input on the curriculum at large. Working on this project has directly impacted what I do on a daily basis, and I enjoy all of the discussions that arise out of it.

On this round of assessment, we have reached a critical point in the life of our current English 101 course. What is happening in that class is good work, but may not be the same size and shape as the hole it’s meant to fill in the curriculum. One of the ideas that was tossed around this week was to remove the research paper from the course, which in the past has been the final project of the class. The research paper is then proposed to move to a new class called “Research Methods” that does not currently exist.

Through conversation, I finally came to understand that the writing faculty see a class on research methods to be the “finding stuff in the library for the purpose of writing a research paper” class. A real research methods class is not this at all, but rather a “how to conduct effective original research” kind of class, involving the specifics of data collection, organization, and analysis. Research methods, as I’m sure you’re all aware, is usually first encountered at the graduate level. This was my first clue that we’re not all talking about the same thing when we use the word “research.”

The term “research paper” has come to mean a very specific, very unnatural kind of writing. We are taught to follow a strict process, completely divorced of authentic inquiry. Come up with a topic, neither too broad nor too narrow. Get it approved by the powers that be. Find a specific number of resources about that topic. Stop when you’ve reached that number. Write an annotated bibliography and/or an outline. Get it approved. Write a rough draft, attempting to make the resources you’ve found that contain the words in your topic fit into something that may or may not resemble a coherent thought process. Peer review. Final paper due. This is “research.”

The term “research paper” does not describe anything terribly useful about what this final product looks like. Is it a statement of facts resembling nothing so much as an encyclopedia article? Could be. Is it a comparison paper? Maybe. Is it a platform for pushing a personal agenda with limited consideration of other opinions? Often. Is it a persuasive argument? Might could maybe. All of these papers could be written by following the “research paper” process above. Yes, specific direction from faculty could remove some of the less desirable types of papers from consideration as the “final research paper,” but the fact remains that the “final research paper” is not only a distinction of limited usefulness for the purposes of instruction but also a bit of a misnomer. I doubt anyone teaching foundation level writing is asking their students to conduct original research. Instead, they are asking their students to find information to support the claims that they make in the process of writing a persuasive argument or a comparison paper and calling it a “research paper.” When we use the term “research paper” we aren’t describing the end result so much as we’re invoking a particular set of assumptions about what a “research paper” is.

The faculty are telling me that they just don’t have the amount of time they feel is necessary to devote to teaching students to write a good research paper. Everything just gets so overwhelmed at the end of the semester, and with the demands of revisions and backwards instruction on papers that have already been done, they just don’t have the appropriate amount of time to teach students how to “do research.” While I would never turn down the opportunity to be more involved in the critical thinking processes of freshmen, the view from my angle looks very different.

I’ve seen the freshmen research papers. I’ve read the bibliographies. They could be better. They could be a lot worse. All told, they’re about where I would expect a bibliography of a first semester freshmen to be. A few good sources, a few that could be acceptable if they were used and contextualized properly, and a few that obviously only contain the words of their topic and not the substance. The trouble from where I’m seated isn’t “finding it in the library.” It’s the word “research.”

So let’s stop using it. If we remove the word “research” from our discussions of what a final project in a freshmen writing class looks like, we move suddenly and astoundingly beyond the fear that professors and students have of the word and directly to what we want students to be able to do. We aren’t getting hung up any longer on what “doing research” is or isn’t. We’re talking about appropriate analysis of argument. We’re talking about the ability to support a position. We aren’t talking about “research methods” any more.

Obviously, removing the word “research” from our discussions of freshmen writing does not remove the need for finding information to support an informed argument. We aren’t removing the library. We aren’t removing information need. We aren’t removing the steps necessary to resolve that information need. We’re removing hang ups around word usage. We’re removing knee-jerk assumptions. We’re removing a haze of fear and dread.

Can we talk about the library’s role in student writing without using the word “research?” Can we say “looking for conversations” or “finding stuff out?” Can we use the actual definition of the word and talk about “investigating systematically?” Changing the words we use does not change what needs to happen. It may, however, change the way we approach it.


The Responsive Library

Credit Cut in Imperial Telecommunication by Stéfan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Stéfan 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our library is serving (or possibly not serving) our community. Over the course of the last year and a half, I have learned enough about my library and my community to know that there’s a lot I don’t know. I’m making plans to fill in those gaps. At a college that places emphasis on teaching above research among faculty members, I’m wondering how exactly the library is or is not supporting the faculty’s teaching responsibilities. I’ve come across an article that I just love, partially because it opened a mental door for me, and partially because the tone of the article is just delightful. In response to the overwhelming nature of gathering information at a large institution Linda Rambler (1982) says:

The systematic analysis is left undone. Consequently, library resources are often deployed using a mixture of formulas seasoned with intuition and a dash of political savvy. A responsive library sometimes becomes an added benefit rather than the primary goal.

A responsive library. I love that idea. That’s an idea I can run with.

Rambler, L. K. (1982). Syllabus Study: Key to a Responsive Academic Library. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 8(3), 155.

Link Friday

design on paper

Designing digitally uses a lot more paper than you might expect.

Here are some informative/fun links for your Friday viewing pleasure.

This short blog post on how to read a book in two hours gives lots of practical advice for reading for content. The emphasis on understanding the argument could be useful for teaching undergrads how to get into scholarly reading.

Relatedly, argument mapping could be all kinds of fun and interesting to do in a class.

And speaking of reading, that font is giving me lots of feelings. A good reminder of why design matters.

I always wondered when Americans lost their British accents.

Facebook is hiding things from you, and it makes me wonder how much longer we will feel like a library Facebook page is something we should be doing.

An excellent downloadable To Do List from Char Booth. I typically use quarter sheets of paper as my brain dump of choice. I’m thinking about upgrading to something like this that makes me look a little more organized.

How to politely say no is a lesson we should probably all take. Special shout out to musicians and other creatives who often get asked to work for free.

Crazy beautiful.

This is pretty much how I feel about the tablet market since always, which is why I don’t own one.

What font are you? I’m Courier. Figures.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Design without tears


I heard about Canva in two places in the last week. As I am currently doing the Sunday Librarian thing, I decided to spend some time playing around with it. Above you see a minimally altered example of the kind of thing you can do with Canva. You sign up for a free account and then have the ability to work a number of different options for specific, pre-made sizes or you can customize your own. For each size, there are different templates you can use and alter or you can disregard the templates entirely and put together one of your own using backgrounds and images from Canva. It’s a freemium service. You can access lots of great stuff without paying, but for more involved layouts and images you must pay $1.00 per element for each time you use it. Then you can download or link to the images and they are also saved with your account. There’s the option to share with Twitter and Facebook, bien sur.

I think the strengths in Canva for librarians are probably for infographic-type posters, flyers, and images for presentations. Although I don’t put loads of effort into my everyday Powerpoint presentations, I can see myself leaning heavily on Canva for professional presentations to pull together an eye-catching, memorable talk. Canva could also be great for other non-library things: blog icons, invitations, Christmas cards, and other design-y things that you may want to look great but not have to pay someone else to do for you.

Another great service similar to Canva but for photo editing is PicMonkey. You can do a lot of basic photo editing with it, and it also has options for adding some fun to photos. Behold, the fun I had last Halloween editing myself into a Cherry Pie Vampire:


While I do love me some old school design fun, I’m not one to turn up my nose at these great, fun services to take some of the learning curve out of getting me what I want. I’ll definitely be making use of Canva and PicMonkey in the future.

30 minute citation class

Attribution chart from Austin Kleon's new book Show Your Work.

Attribution chart from Austin Kleon’s new book Show Your Work.

Here’s the outline for the citation class I was having trouble wrapping around my head. It is based on this idea from Iris Jastrom. This little workshop was at the request of a 300-level Canadian Studies class that wanted me to cover MLA and APA citation. I prepped handout packets for small groups to examine in the activity. I used one each of book, journal, and newspaper in order to bring up more questions of what kind of information is valuable to a citation. The class lasted about 25-30 minutes.

Citation has many goals. Avoiding plagiarism is only one of these goals and the least interesting reason to cite. These goals have to do with the fact that writing is inherently communicative, and communication happens primarily within a community of inquiry (a group of people interested in and questioning the same kinds of things).

Why do we cite? Here students brainstorm ideas that I type up on a blank Powerpoint slide for why we cite which can include but are not limited to:
  • to share information
  • to join a scholarly conversation.
  • to reflect the careful work you have put into locating and exploring your sources
  • to help readers understand the context of your argument
  • to help people who may share interests find more information
  • to give credit to the authors and ideas that have inspired your work
  • to illustrate your own learning process
  • to participate in your community of inquiry
There are three interlinked rules that all citation styles strive for:
  • Rule of Least Confusion (get your readers to exactly what you want them to see)
  • Rule of Brevity (Accomplish the first rule as succinctly as possible)
  • Rule of Readability (Think of it like a code.)
EXERCISE: Working in groups, look at these three articles and build your own citation style that fulfills the three rules of citation and that reflects the values of the “community of inquiry” that is your class. Report back what you decided to include, exclude, and why. Questions to consider: What pieces of information does your community value? What pieces of information would you need to find these sources on your own?

Comparing MLA and APA
The pieces you choose to include reflect the things your community considers to be important. These things might be different depending on the kind of material we’re using. Can you tell which of these citations is a book and which is an article? Bonus points if you can tell me which citation style this is. How do you know? MLA is designed specifically for the humanities, such as languages and literature. You notice that the author’s full name is used and the date appears late in the citation. This style considers who wrote it and the title of the article to be the most important pieces of information. This is because most work in the humanities isn’t time sensitive and is focused instead on the people doing the work and their ideas. APA highlights authors and dates. It is used by the sciences where information is very time sensitive.  Consider a book on climate change from the 1970s or a computer instruction manual from the 1980s.

Where do I find help?
This is where I talk about the citation page on the library website, the books on permanent reserve, and the ability of the databases (if you’re looking for articles ) to cite automatically. I always give a caveat about the database citation feature because I regularly find errors in the citations they produce such as titles in caps lock or no spaces after periods. I tell students that the auto cite feature can help them get to a perfect citation but that they will just want to double check that everything looks standard before handing in their papers.

In the sense that the professor was very pleased, the class was quite successful. 30 minutes is a long time to hold attention on citation, and by the time I left class, the students were ready to move on. I think the exploratory activity was a great way to get students to consider a standard of academia that they probably had never examined before. This would probably work even better in a lower level class without such preconceived notions on that is “correct” in citation. I will probably tweak this again the next time I teach citation, but I’m glad to find an approach that satisfies my need to do something more than talk and wave my hands in class. I’d like to incorporate the attribution chart at the top of the post, too. It’s visual and neatly sums up everything.

Marketing in real life

Between the trees by subadei, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  subadei 

In my last post I mentioned that I wanted to read more about the work of librarianship – the on-the-ground, day-to-day, how-do-you-do-that kinds of stuff. If that’s what I want to read, then that’s probably what I should write. So, as a follow up to gaining confidence in marketing, here’s what the campaign to get the word out about OverDrive looks like in my library.

Firstly, I skimmed through portions of Brian Mathew’s book Marketing Today’s Academic Library: A Bold New Approach to Communicating with Students. I’d read it cover-to-cover before, but Chapter 8 Promotional Building Blocks was particularly helpful in identifying the different avenues I might choose for this project. Then, I familiarized myself with OverDrive’s self-produced marketing materials.

I made a list of the different places I wanted my message to appear and then assigned those places to particular weeks in the semester. So, for example:

Week 1

  • The Thinker (our monthly bathroom newsletter.)
  • Bookmarks and Getting Started guides next to circulation
  • Image to library webpage carousel

Week 2

  • Directed emails to campus community
  • Table tents. I used the other side of the table tent to promote another program. Waste not, want not.
  • Library news feed blog. Appears on the library webpage and also on Facebook.

Week 3

  • Facebook

For all of these things, I either directly used the materials provided by OverDrive or slightly modified them while still using the same imagery and language in order to preserve recognition. Having access to OverDrive’s materials made things much less time consuming than it could have been. I did have to design the table tents on my own, which, as with any formatting challenge, took longer than anticipated. I made a simple two-sided, tall triangle out of regular printer paper. Next time, I’ll look into doing a three-sided, round-ish table tent and possibly use cardstock. The ones I made for this are pretty flimsy.

I could have kept going, printing flyers and large posters, etc. but I don’t want to overwhelm the community with the message. Plus, I’ll be promoting other services and programs over the course of the semester and I don’t want to exhaust my allies. I’ve planted the seeds, and I’ll check in regularly with our statistics to see what’s happening. Throughout the semester, I might post book suggestions to our Facebook page, and I’ll make sure to refresh the message for the summer travel season.

The meaning in the pattern


When I was learning to code, I started to recognize a pattern. I’d work and work and get 80% of the way to functional code. Then, I’d run into a problem I couldn’t work my way around. I knew what I needed the code to do. I knew what needed to happen afterwards. I didn’t know how to overcome the obstacle. I’d stew and research. I’d go back over the code and re-read the textbook over and over. Nothing worked. Then, I’d complain to a friend, explain what the problem was and how I couldn’t do fix it, and suddenly, before the friend could make any steps to help, the answer would appear fully formed inside my own head. Telling someone else I had a problem was integral to my ability to solve it myself, even when the other person did absolutely nothing besides listen.

In that vein, thank you for listening to me complain about teaching citation. I have found a solution, or at least an approach I can make my own. The seed comes from Iris Jastram at Pegasus Librarian. Her approach to the goals of citation is one that I use when I teach citation, namely that the least interesting reason to cite is to avoid plagiarism. We talk about this in class, but I love her approach to getting students active with citation, and I will definitely be trying it out.

I read a lot of blogs in order to keep my head in the librarian game, but a relatively small portion of those blogs deal with the work of librarianship rather than the ideas in librarianship. The ideas are incredibly important, but without the everyday work the ideas mean nothing. I want to see more blogs that talk about successes and failures on the ground in libraries. Here are a few that buoy me:

Well, you could teach citation.

I counted it as a major victory last semester that I wasn’t once asked to teach citation. In my experience requests for teaching citation come in conjunction with other instructional goals, and usually in classes with required library instruction. “If I am required to have library instruction, I guess you could teach citation” seems to be the subtext of these requests. I loftily assigned subjective meaning to this lack of requests: No one asked me to teach citation because having seen what I do in class, they now know that I have more to offer than that. Possibly true. Of course, then again, I just got a dedicated request to come and teach MLA and APA (in the same class, no less) without any curriculum imposed required library instruction. So there’s that. Jessica Olin wrote a great post on why she’s still a citation curmudgeon, and I find I fall firmly into that camp.

I’m not exactly sure where the idea that librarians are experts on citation came from. We work with the materials. We may be more helpful than your average academic at determining what the material is, and therefore, what form to use to cite it. But teaching how to properly cite is not the business I want to be in.

For one thing, writing a citation is basically just following a set of directions. Once you’ve determined what type of material it is (a legitimately confusing process at times) all you need to do is fill in the blanks, follow the form. It’s that simple.

Secondly, I am not the one who grades the papers. I should not be making the final determination on whether a bibliography is correct. The professors grade the papers. The professors are the final word on whether or not a bibliography meets requirements, not the librarians. They are the experts in their fields and should be making all judgments on what is professionally appropriate in context.

Thirdly, there are so many free and easy places that can help with citation. We have a dedicated webpage to citation resources on the library website. We have materials on permanent reserve. Our databases cite with the click of a button. There is Easy Bib and Citation Machine, which many of our students come to campus having already used. While it is true that professors may not know about these resources, I think that most citation instruction requests come because the professors themselves don’t want to teach it, not because they feel a librarian is more qualified.

I did not say no to the citation instruction request I received today, but I did make it clear that covering the resources requested would take no more than 10 minutes. I also suggested a few other lesson outlines that might be of use such as how to manage research or how to use research effectively. No go. I truly believe that face time is valuable time with students. This is why I didn’t say no even though I feel my skills are better used elsewhere. I am working to move away from point and click instruction as much as possible and I’m struggling to teach students how to cite follow directions in a way that is not painful for me or for them. You know the kind of lesson I’m talking about. The kind where you stand up in front of the classroom and just show people where to click on a website, talking the whole way. This is just as boring for me as for the students.

I’m in a bind, here. Does anyone have an engaging, active lesson that they use to teach citation?

Market this

You guys, marketing is not something that comes naturally to me. It really doesn’t. We have an OverDrive subscription as part of a consortium purchase that has been very underused because, um, people didn’t know about it, which is probably my fault. It could also be underused for a few other reasons. For instance:

  1. This isn’t a campus of fiction readers.
  2. Kindles, iPads, and other portable reading devices (including smartphones) are fairly rare here.

It’s my job to try and figure out if the service is useful to us, so basically, I need to figure out if people will actually use it if they know about it. That means I need a strategy.


I read Marketing Today’s Academic Library: A Bold New Approach to Communicating with Students by Brian Mathews not long after I started working. I found his no-nonsense approach to students to be very refreshing and directly in line with my own experience working with students. I appreciated his tell-it-like-it-is approach to libraries in general, too. No BS here, thank you very much, just solid well-reasoned strategy with fully actionable suggestions.

So when it came time to formulate a marketing strategy, I pulled the book down from my shelf and thumbed through the post-it flags I’d left in there from last time. For this particular project, I found Chapter 8 Promotional Building Blocks to be the most helpful. I already had ideas of where I wanted to spread my message, and this chapter helped me identify a few more. From there it was just a matter of sitting down with a piece of paper and deciding how to roll out the message in an organic way.

Once I got into it and thought about it systematically, it wasn’t nearly as intimidating to design a marketing strategy as I thought it would be. A solid list, a time table, some strategic reminders in Outlook, and the handy marketing and outreach materials from OverDrive and I’m in business.

In other news, I’m thinking about adding a “recommended reading” tab on the blog. I really try to keep a professional book going at all times and spend a bit of time each week chipping away at it. A lot of times, the books aren’t all that great, or a kind of obvious. Usually when I read a great one I blog about it. They are all tagged “recommended reading” but it might be useful to have them all listed somewhere. What do you think?



I bought a Kindle Paperwhite with some of my professional development money. I’ve been waffling for 2 years on whether or not to buy an iPad with the PD money, and it’s just never been the right answer for me. I don’t see the need for an iPad in my life, and should I ever need one for a bit I can simply borrow one from the library. My Kindle, however, I do use fairly regularly, and it was starting to show its wear. I’d heard good things about the Paperwhite, so I ordered it and then sold my old Kindle Keyboard on Craigslist for $50 (which, by the way, is more than it is listed for used on Amazon. High five!)

I really like the Paperwhite, especially since I can choose to turn off the backlight. I mostly use it for low-light situations as a built-in book light, but I believe this is not the intention of the designers. I can tell this because the screen clearly instructs the user to use the high setting for bright light and the low setting for low light. I’m pretty sharp. Anyway, I think that’s backwards, but I’m not on the market for the absolute highest contrast possible in bright light. There is a nice range in the backlight, and you can usually find a sweet spot in any lighting situation where the backlight can create a comfortable reading situation.

The interface has changed quite a bit since my Kindle Keyboard, but things seems to work pretty seamlessly. Creating collections is a bit more confusing but I’m willing to chalk that up to user error. One feature that is hugely improved is the footnote feature. The old models had you jumping great distances through the book to the notes section and getting back to where you were before you read the footnote was a pain. The Paperwhite does footnotes like pop-ups. This works so much better, I can’t even tell you. If the whole page has to reload when you close the footnote, well, it’s still much improved over my previous experience.

The one thing that is unexpectedly less than awesome is the touchscreen turn. I used to be continually trying to turn pages backwards in my Kindle Keyboard with the button on the left-hand side, which was simply a duplicate of the page-forward button on the right. I thought I would really like the fact that on the touchscreen Kindles, you touch the right of the page to move forward and the left side to move back. Generally, I do like this functionality better than the Keyboard. It’s the actual touch screen thing that throws me. The device is almost entirely screen, which means there’s not a lot of safe area for you to touch and hold when you’re using it. Unlike an actual book or non-touchscreen Kindles, you can’t just simply rest your hands or fingers on the part of the page you aren’t reading. Do this and you turn a page. Where do I put my fingers? Where do I rest my thumb when I’m not turning a page? I read very fast, so simply moving my hand in and out of page turning position is not an option. I have my text size set to the smallest possible, but I still turn a page 5+ times a minute. Anyone have advice on optimal Kindle reading position?

I just finished Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel by Susanna Clarke through Overdrive. I have had cause to truly appreciate the new footnote functionality, as this book was chock full of them. I love a good footnote. I’d recommend the book – well written, extremely thoroughly thought-out, engaging. My only complaint is the length. At the end you realize how carefully the book is put together and there are few truly extraneous parts, but it took me more than a month to read it. By the end I was very ready to be done. I’m in the market for something fun, fast, and possibly not that great for me. Ideas?