Monday, February 04, 2008

Article Note: On research guides as instruction tools

Citation for the article:

Brazzeal, Bradley. "Research Guides as Library Instruction Tools." Reference Services Review 34.3 (2006): 358-367.

Read via Emerald.

This article looks at research guides, also known as pathfinders, in the context of information literacy and instruction guidelines. It caught my eye a while back, but as we redesign our library's website and look at streamlining subject guides, I got an incentive to finally read the piece. In terms of the two types of guides mentioned in the article, we are probably more interested in subject-based guides (the other type being class-specific), but a mix is possible.

Brazzeal looks at the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards and draws on principles of instruction from the La Guardia and Oka book Becoming a Library Teacher to see how well the research guides function as instruction tools. The sampling in Brazzeal's study comes from "subject-level forestry research guides found online at the web sites of academic libraries in the USA and Canada" (360).

So, what did the author find?

  • Guides contain the usual common elements: lists of databases, reference books (print), and free websites. What varied was the degree in which the guides' authors attempted to interact with users. For instance, providing a librarian's contact information prominently. In this example, providing the contact is important because
    • "this may be especially useful for distance education students, who may rarely step inside the physical library and meet librarians face to face, but it has also shown that on-campus users who know the name of a library staff member tend to seek assistance more than users who do not (Durrance, 1986)" (qtd. in 361). This is certainly a concept I have seen validated many times in my experience as an instruction librarian. Getting to know your students and having them know your name and that you are available makes a difference.
  • Providing reference sources meets Outcome 1c of Standard 1. This is the one that says, "explores general information sources to increase familiarity with the topic."
  • We are reminded that we can't just stick to one format. Brazzeal writes,
    • "the absence of print resources in a research guide could reinforce students' assumptions that everything is available online, but in the forestry guides examined, only 65 percent listed any print resources, and exactly half of those listed print indexes" (363).
    • On indexes, a lot of the basic ones have gone online, becoming searchable and more current in the process. But there are still some print indexes that are necessary, often in very specialized fields (whether this is a comment on those fields needing to "get with the program," so to speak, I leave to others to ponder.).
    • As for other print resources, like encyclopedias and handbooks, I always try to include them, even if a lot of librarians would rather do without. As I tell my students, a good reference book will you a topic overview, some vocabulary and terms, and a list of additional sources. Plus, it will work even when the Internet goes down (and it will go down. It is not a matter of if, but a matter of when.).
  • Not much promotion of Interlibrary Loan. "Few of the guides had interlibrary loan links inside the guide" (363).
  • More guides need to provide better guidance on search strategy and coming up with good search terms. This is significant because, as Brazzeal puts it, "providing researchers with access to a database is no guarantee that they will be able to search it" (364). This is part of the reason that in my guides I make it a point to put something about keywords and some suggested subject headings.
  • A reminder: "Research guides are not a substitute for the personal instruction received at the reference desk or library instruction sessions, but they are one avenue of teaching users how to use library resources and services effectively" (366).
Overall, the article provides a good set of ideas to make better subject guides. It shows that guides can incorporate the standards and work as good instruction tools.

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