Category: Ideas

What Do Librarians Do?

This week I leave for the annual conference of the American Library Association with an expected attendance of more than 25,000 people (yep, there are that many of us, plus the vendors).  At the conference, I will do as faculty do at conferences: attend committee meetings and presentations relevant to my work and interests, meet with vendors, and network and reconnect with my peers.  Sometimes when I tell faculty that I am presenting at a conference or working on research they nod but I imagine they secretly wonder what it is we do as librarians.  So this post is for you!

The fact that there is no typical week in the life of a subject librarian is exactly what I love about my job.  Some weeks are busier than others, and our work and schedules change throughout the semester.  While the responsibilities and expectations of subject librarians may vary by subject and institution, the following reflects many of the activities we are able and expected to engage in at work.  Click on the image below to get a glimpse of one of my weeks last semester.


classesLibrarians in the classroom.  Meeting with classes allows me to offer course-specific library instruction that engages students and faculty in a conversation about information, how it is produced, and how to effectively find, evaluate and use it.  This week reflects my efforts to fully integrate myself into the core History classes required of History majors, thereby contributing to the integration of information literacy instruction throughout the curriculum.

Meetings, meetings, meetings. Subject librarians serve on a variety of library and university-wide committees. Some of us also serve on committees for local, national and international library associations.  As faculty, we have expectations for service.  I currently serve on the Faculty Research Grants Committee, the Library Professional Activities Committee (as Chair), and two national library association committees.  I was also elected as Vice-Chair/Chair Elect of the Library Faculty.

research_consultsReference and research support. We regularly assist students and faculty with research.  This week I provided in-person research consultations for 9 students in four of my five assigned liaison areas, including History, Political Science, Latin American Studies, and Anthropology.  What my calendar from this week does not show are the e-mails I am responding to before and after these appointments.

Resources, resources, resources.  An important part of being a subject librarian is staying abreast of changes to the databases and other electronic resources and systems we use (and there are many); learning about new resources that become available, and evaluating their potential value for the library collection; and finally, evaluating the usage statistics for our current collections.  This work requires attending webinars and trainings related to library products (this week I attended two), meeting with vendors on-site or at library conferences, and collaborating with the other subject librarians, as well as the librarians and staff in Collection Development. I am also currently responsible for a monographs budget of more than $30,000.

Communication.  The time I spend communicating with my liaison departments; offering research consultations and library instruction; and keeping up with and sharing news and developments related to my work, my profession, and that of my liaison departments and the university, is part of the value I add to the library and to the university.

profdevProfessional development and research. Subject librarians at my university are faculty and therefore must be productive in the areas of research and professional development.  What, might you ask, do librarians research?  It really depends on their interests, but generally it contributes to the field of library and information science.  My research directly relates to my practices as a librarian which allows me to continually improve upon my skills and contribute to the profession more broadly.  Some of my research has been published in books (see College Libraries and Student Culture and Mobile Library Services: Best Practices) and other parts of my research have been presented at conferences (see Mapping History: Toward a Curriculum-Integrated Information Literacy Program).  I will next be presenting on new models of support for professional development in libraries at the upcoming Conference for Entrepreneurial Librarians.


Librarians and Magic


Zan Zig performing with rabbit and roses, including hat trick and levitation. 1899. Magic Poster Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In the Spring semester I received many e-mails from students who needed help with research, and several asked of me: “work your magic.”  My first reaction was, “Aw!!! They value what I do.”  Next, I thought, “Magic?! I wish.”  Research can be a complex, mysterious and messy process.  Students may think librarians have magic tricks up their sleeves (well, sometimes we do) but oftentimes helping students takes work and lots of time.  I worry when responding to student e-mails with suggestions that they think I just whipped up some magic answers.  I sometimes have to spend hours of searching to steer students in the right direction, or I have to reach out to my colleagues in the field.  If students think research is magically easy, they may not persist in their own searches when they do not succeed right away.

Behind the Magic: Librarians and Professors Reveal their Secrets for Successful Research

That title, or something to that effect, is my idea for a series of videos that would include interviews and other content from librarians, archivists, and professors that demystify the research process.  While I do get a kick out of hearing students call what I do “magic”, I want students to understand what goes into the research process, and a lengthy e-mail to them that explains what I do will not suffice.  This idea for a video series first came to me when I started working with students in a Historiography class.  Putting together a historiography can be a complex process and explaining the various methods students can use to find appropriate sources can be difficult to explain.  The same can be true for finding primary sources.  It would be great to collaborate with some History faculty on a series of videos that explain what it takes to do research in this field.  It could include interviews with historians and have them explain what process they went through to conduct their own professional research.  I could also see this working for political science students with finding data.  What I would most want to expose would be the messiness of research – a realistic portrait of what goes into the process (and not just how it should work but how it actually works), from Google, to librarians and other information networks, to library resources and beyond.  The more we talk about and share what we actually do, the better we can help students, and honestly, help each other as professionals.

Research and Puzzles

PuzzleRecently I purchased a 1,000 piece puzzle and began working on it at home.  It has clearly been some time since I worked on a puzzle because I found myself feeling quite inadequate and frustrated at getting it started.  After a few nights of working on it and getting into the groove of puzzle piecing I realized that putting together a puzzle is similar to the research process.  It seems so obvious.  Librarians have been working to create games that are designed to help students understand the research process… but maybe we should just give them a puzzle?  Below are the similarities I observed in my puzzle piecing process.

1. The research process can be frustrating. Don’t fight it.  I often tell students to step away from their research when this happens, and revisit it the next day.  I cannot tell you how many times I have searched with certain keywords/phrases on one day with no success, only to try it again the next day and start to find what I need.  It is magic.  Same thing with puzzles. My first night of working on the puzzle, the pieces just were not fitting… and forcing myself to keep at it was not helping.  When I came back to it the next night with fresh eyes, I somehow saw the pieces differently, and was able to make connections.  As we always remind students, research is a process, it takes time, and that is why we encourage them to give themselves enough time to go through the process.

2. Separate out the edges.  Organization of research materials and ideas will help when you need to bring everything together while also minimizing your frustrations.  After my first night at the puzzle I realized that it would be less overwhelming if I started pulling out the edge pieces and grouped like-colored pieces together.  This allowed me to begin to create the framework for the puzzle.  When I began to hit a wall with one group, I would move on to another group of pieces.  Managing the research pieces will help you feel more in control of the process (even when you are not) and will give you smaller problems to work on when you feel overwhelmed by the whole.


3. Don’t give up!  Too often I meet with students who have abandoned several perfectly good topics because they were not able to find any resources on their own.  It is easy for me to tell students to not give up on puzzles, because the stakes are low.  Research topics are tied to papers, classes, and ultimately grades.  In life and work, we cannot always choose our struggles, so we should learn how to manage them.  I would rather see students working on topics that interest them than simply choosing something that is easy but I know that this is not always an option.  Librarians are a great resource for students that have determined that nothing exists on a given research topic.

4. Remember your goals and track your progress.  When I’m feeling frustrated with the puzzle, I pick up the puzzle box containing the image I am trying to create.  When students are feeling lost or confused, they should review their assignment, assignment expectations, and the topic/research question/hypothesis they set out to explore.  If they have created an outline, they should revisit it to remind themselves where they are in the process.


Solving a puzzle is not the same as researching and writing a paper but it certainly can teach us how to better and more efficiently manage the process.  Working on a puzzle teaches patience and requires you to balance focusing on small pieces while also stepping back to think about the big picture.

What if we assigned students to work on massive puzzles throughout the semester, as they are also working on research projects?  Would it have an impact on students?  Would they see the correlations?  Would seeing the correlations help them through the research process?  Are there other academic activities (such as group work) that the puzzle metaphor could relate to?