Analysis and Evaluation


Reference work was what drew me to librarianship to begin with. Though my interests would change over the course of study at Pratt, certain core issues remained. The role of interlocutor in the research process is essential, since the business of answering one's own questions often ends (or doesn't end) in frustration at cumbersome technologies or inarticulate search strategies. Consulting with a librarian can speed up a process that otherwise might turn out to be a major ordeal. But beyond this, as technology develops, the process of 'searching' becomes less important than the moment of 'finding.'

Early on, I had expected to write this project based on my exhibit work with eText. One of the key points we strove to make in the exhibition was another shift, akin to the one mentioned above: that from 'parsing' to 'access' in digital scholarship. Once upon a time, technology allowed for powerful analysis of texts. Projects like the Index Thomisticus used IBM's complex automated system of computation to produce a massive concordance to the work. Since then, computational tools have evolved in their use. Simply having an electronic version of St Thomas Aquinas's work is sufficient for finding a particular passage. Instead of providing people with new modes of engaging scholarly works, they merely provide access to them. Librarians today must find ways of help people engage a body of research--learning what the limits of a particular scholarship are, and helping people ask questions that take them across those borders to find answers--through instruction in the library.

Butler Reference Services in the History and Humanities Division of Columbia University Libraries have developed an outreach program that tangles with the above issues. Various librarians in this division have designed course-related instructional units that address the information needs of its students while encouraging critical practices of information literacy. These two combine to reinforce good habits in asking good questions and finding answers for them. The greatest opposition to major progress in implementing their outreach program comes from the institution. These constraints are not unlike those highlighted by Eland: traditional primacy of faculty in teaching their classes, the relative status of library staff in supporting the university curriculum, and the political and economic difficulties of negotiating class time within each department (104-105). The aim of my project was to survey the present extent of outreach at Butler, share some observations I had, and entertain a short discussion of how these observations fit in with contemporary trends in instructional librarianship.


There are five major areas of instruction in the view of my site supervisor:
  • Graduate School of the Arts and Sciences, course-specific isntruction
  • Digital Humanities Center (DHC) and 'G4000' course
  • History Lab
  • Traditional reference interviews, research consultations
  • Undergraduate Writing Program (UWP)

I interviewed a different member of the reference service for each of these areas. So you get a better sense of what I wanted to know, here is my 'battery of questions':
  • the origins of the classes (where did the idea come from? who approached whom about it? what did it look like then? how did you get involved?)
  • the students (how are they asked to prepare in advance? have you seen students getting 'smarter' from year to year--are they better prepared? more technically competent? differences between undergraduates and graduates? Is there anything specific about Columbia students that affects instructional design?)
  • the faculty (how are they asked to prepare their students? what material do faculty provide ahead of time?)
  • evolution (more in terms of your approach to the material --e.g., spotting common research difficulties--not in terms of resources--e.g., a new database that allows you to automate this or customize that)

The responses I received varied in their adherence to the basic structure. Those who responded via email gave more direct answers. Others were able to meet for conversation, and my notes largely substituted for the questions outlined above. Had I made this project my aim from the outset of the internship, I imagine I could have developed the discussion further. Summaries of my inquiry follow, organized by area of outreach and including suggestions for development.

Graduate School of the Arts and Sciences (GSAS), course-specific instruction

Butler reference offers sessions particular to classes in the Graduate School of the Arts and Sciences (GSAS). I liken these courses to an interactive subject guide, where students learn the resources available in a particular discipline, whether it be 'theater' or 'film'. The idea of these sessions originated with the instructing librarian, and coordinated with faculty. Core needs in humanities scholarship are addressed for graduates as well as undergraduates, but grad students are still rely heavily on primary sources--a play or a script, for example--and use those for solo research that is usually highly specific. Faculty have helped to coordinate with the library in these cases, offering part or even all of a class session. They prepare students by asking them to think about what they might need the library for. Additionally, the timing is such that a 'moment of need' is present (for example, a topic has already been decided, but students still need help formulating a thesis or are pursuing a particular project) and in this way, the sessions are better integrated with coursework.

Next semester, shorter sessions of 20-30mins apiece will deal with research in special topics within a field of study. In this way, it seems, the classes are likely to draw more attention from students, since they'll have the opportunity to witness examples in study that appeal to their academic interests more directly.

Digital Humanities Center (DHC) and 'G4000' course

The Digital Humanities Center at Columbia Libraries is one division of a three-part lab that uses technology to support various curricula at the University. (The other two such divisions are the Digital Social Science Center at Lehman Library and the Digital Science Center at the new Science Library.) The DHC exists at Butler Library as an extension of reference services to provide the facilities for textual manipulation, scanning, and imaging (through Photoshop and the like). There have been three thrusts to instructional design in the DHC. The first has been accredited classes, which have been endorsed by faculty. The second has been day-long, pre-dissertation workshops funded by a Mellon grant. And the third has been orientation programs. My conversation with the librarian here was historical, since these represent the earliest efforts at programmatic outreach, dating to 1990. Before long, the conversation steered away from specific course offerings and alit instead on larger institutional issues with outreach. Instead of dealing with specific curriculum, I'll sketch a few of the major undercurrents in outreach at Columbia.

Overall, there seem to be a few consistent themes throughout. The classes that flourished have had the direct support of faculty. One of the accredited class mentioned earlier sank and one swam, based on just this sort of interest. Another example is the political difficulties in getting at students in some parts of the university; attempts at sending large emails to students at Columbia College often run aground at the administrative level. Programs have suffered as the result of poor coordination with libraries across the University. Students had been required to schedule consultations, but many of these students were in graduate study at SIPA or the School of Social Work, and ended up at Lehman for much of their work. Lastly, the way in which students identify with their information needs has a big effect on who turns out for workshops. Older students at the School of General Studies, for example, seem to take advantage of these outreach opportunities more than younger students in the College, who tend to believe they don't need to learn what librarians have to teach (or just don't know it yet).

The librarian I interviewed felt the most successful enterprise thus far has been the History Lab class. Having multiple sessions that are fully integrated within a department don't simply allow the space for moment of need to arise, but establish the very circumstances required to create such a moment. The larger, more practical point here was that it has been endorsed by the department. One of the thorniest issues is how to entice faculty to cede significant amounts of class time in order to ensure students will attend. From this view, outreach seems impaired without departmental endorsement. The other option is to allow technology to establish the moment of need and take the helm from there. An example of this might be using a citation software workshop to showcase a bibliography of resources that might get people thinking a little more critically about where they go for information.

History Lab

The History Lab has been an ongoing project for five or six years now. Originally, the librarian had been approached by a faculty member in the history department, and over the last three years it has been fully integrated into a class on Historical Theories and Methods, a junior requirement for any history major interested in pursuing a senior thesis. Courses were worth two or three credits and offered for six to eight weeks (not a full semester). Both librarians and faculty participate in the class, specialist librarians offering workshops on various topics like secondary sources or oral history and faculty giving lectures and holding discussion at the outset and at the conclusion of the workshop. Students in the class are a self-selecting group, since a thesis is not required for history majors. Over time, the librarian has observed that students have adapted well to the course, growing more comfortable with its structure and confident in what they've learned.

As mentioned before, faculty are actively involved in delivering course content, providing meaningful context to the theory of course itself. As an example, one faculty lecture addressed the moment in historical writing when the difference between primary and secondary sources became realized. This gave the students a framework for better understanding the workshops on primary and secondary sources.

As part of the coursework, students are required to compile a bibliography of relevant sources and a description of their research process. This has provided librarians with a valuable means of assessing the effectiveness of the presentations given. Since this kind of reflection is ongoing throughout the course, it also provides a way for librarians to offer extra assistance if it seems someone has gone astray.

Traditional reference interviews, research consultations

Instructional design may seem scant in a reference interview or a research consultation in comparison with other areas of reference work discussed here. It may be said that those who actively seek a consultation with a librarian are usually at some particular moment of need already. What's left is to determine the nature of that need and how to seize the opportunity to introduce the stdent to resources that he might not have considered. Depending on the initial correspondence, a librarian might develop a 'checklist' of resources, referring to subject guides for inspiration. Then, as the consultation begins, they can get a better sense of whether someone has looked at 'American History and Life', for instance, before they give up on a particular line of inquiry. I've gathered that the students are usually well-prepared for consultations, but resources and points of access are in a continual state of flux, which can complicate matters for more information-literate students who are aware of their own needs.

Undergraduate Writing Program (UWP)

Again, the Undergraduate Writing Program (UWP) director approached the librarian about ways to use the library more effectively for the UWP assignments. This was back in 2004, when the UWP was still relatively new. It took some time for the course to evolve, and throughout that time, there had been a dialogue about integrating library use instruction with the course assignments and specific 'seed texts' central to the program's curriculum. The students in the program, as the title suggests, are all undergraduates, but some are from Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, which make them 'college age' and others are from the School of General Studies, which is for older, non-traditional undergraduates. The age difference is slightly relevant, and though undergraduates haven't necessarily gotten 'smarter' with library resources over time, those fresh out of high school are a little more savvy to where to look for resources than those coming from a whole career, on average.

The 'faculty' in the UWP comprises graduate students in English or Comparative Literature from the GSAS who are preparing for their Master's degree. They have a clear curriculum to follow, with a prescribed list of readings. On the one hand, this means that they have enough spelled out for them to prepare the class for the library session. On the other hand, since they don't design the class, they might not have a sense of how to position their students to get the most out of the library session. I've also been told that graduate students often have as much to learn about using the library as their undergraduate students, which may make it difficult for them to be helpful to the instructing librarian (i.e., anticipating resources, etc.).

Overall, integrating library instruction with the UWP has been counted a success. Undergraduates are getting exposure to library resources and a library staff that is very friendly and willing to help with whatever research needs students develop. The UWP is satisfied because a very specific curriculum gets the support and reinforcement of the library, making happier campers out of the students.

Critical Analysis

There are those who would claim that ‘reference’ to describe one subdivision in the field of librarianship is an antiquated term. From my observations and study, I beg to differ. In fact, reference librarianship has experienced a revolution, but taken in a very literal sense. Reference once described the act of directing a patron toward information. Today, against the backdrop of a library (digital or physical) reference (virtual or in-person) describes instead the act of contextualizing research. In other words, the service has changed in order to educate not directly, but indirectly--applying principles of information literacy to help someone navigate the overwhelming an increasingly overwhelming information.

One of the points I tried to drive home to the classes I taught at Columbia only distantly related to using electronic resources or searching digitized books: that knowing how to ask the right questions at the outset of a research project could go a long way towards a successful research project. Taking time to rephrase a search string or rework the conception of a topic from the top down is nothing to be afraid of. Indeed, it may involve a lot of experimentation, paying close attention to the results of inquiry before moving on to a more advanced step or giving up hope entirely on a line of inquiry.

Unfortunately, the classes I taught may have planted the seeds for many students, but I cannot believe that these classes bore the full impact they might have, had their instructors better prepared them to understand the rightful place of the library in the institution. Time and again at the reference desk, students appear quite receptive to learning new techniques they might have learned in their UWP introduction. No one ever mentioned these sessions or gave the suggestion that a research technique taught there rang a bell. Per Wilder:

Librarians should use their expertise to deepen students' understanding of the disciplines they study. More specifically, librarians should use their intimate knowledge of the collections they manage and the writing process as practiced in the disciplines to teach apprentice readers and writers.

This is exactly why integrating bibliographic instruction with coursework is so essential. Students are much likelier to brush off a litany of resources if there’s nothing about these things to hold their interest. In the first year of college, they have not yet been exposed to enough to use their imaginations. Google and Wikipedia are ample substitutes that are easy to use, quick to respond, and entertaining enough to make the experience of using them as resources worthwhile. The rich field of resources at a librarian’s command does nothing for someone who can’t know yet what the limits of scholarship are on a given topic. The aim of these instructional sessions, therefore, should be first to acquaint them with those limits. To forget this in favor of a broad acquaintanceship with library resources is to elide a crucial step in the educational experience of a student: giving him a reason to care. It is not enough that he be shown the portal, but it misses the point to wantonly proceed without guidance.