Librarians: Ultimate Inter-Disciplinarians

We’ve been having a lot of students coming in recently working on a really challenging literature review assignment for their junior year Core classes (interdisciplinary common curriculum). They often need 20-40 sources about some technology related to globalization in human rights. This task often seems overwhelming to the students who come for help. But I have started using a really effective method to help students focus and get them to start structuring and planning their paper.

image via Richard Scott 33 on Flickr

I’ve begun using mind-mapping as a tool at the reference desk to get students to break their topic down into different pieces and begin seeing the connections between ideas from across disciplines. Once students actually see their topic broken down on a piece of paper it begins to take shape for them and they begin to feel a lot less overwhelmed. 20 or more sources doesn’t seem as daunting when they are about  various aspects of the same topic.

Making connections is one of the things librarians do best. We’re the ultimate inter-disciplinarians. I admire people who have deep, rich subject knowledge and are experts in their fields, but I could never concentrate on just one thing like logical positivism or Emerson. The reason I got into librarianship is because I’m interested in a lot of different things. I read about and explore a variety of subjects from psychology and philosophy, to business and education, to science, space and dinosaurs. I got into librarianship because I’m curious, and want to further the cause of human curiosity.

We see, and help others see, connections that they might miss due to tunnel vision or simply being too immersed in the problem. If their topic is social media we might ask about the cultural or marketing impacts. If their topic is women and human rights we might bring up the recent example of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan. If their interested in biomedical technology we might mention nanobots or bring up possible ethical issues.

The silos of different disciplines continue to increasingly break down to solve 21st century problems that can’t be solved with a single way of thinking. In this environment, librarians will be well positioned to help people make these important connections between science and anthropology, between psychology and economics, not to mention previously unexplored connections between information problems and solutions. The world isn’t separated along clear fault lines, it’s richly interconnected. And being able to make those connections are skills that we can provide and help teach our students, so they can go out and solve the big problems.


NELA Conference Presentation

Last week at the NELA conference I was part of a panel presentation at NELA with Heidi Steiner from Norwich University and Michelle McCaffery from St. Michael’s College. My section was the first one about using social media for outreach in reference. The panel was a lot of fun and Heidi stole the show at the end with her really fun and quirky presentation style. Overall, NELA was a great conference and I am looking forward to next year.


Get Students To Commit

I have been attending and presenting at some local conferences like NELIG and the VLA College and Special Libraries Section conference. One idea that kept popping up was the idea of getting students to commit whether in the classroom or in their research.

Let me explain by way of several examples. A couple librarians from St. Michael’s College talked about a scheduling software called Acuity. They use this software to schedule research consultations with a librarian. On their library website a student clicks on a link that says “schedule a research appointment.” They are then taken to a form where they can choose a time and librarian that fits into their schedule. By filling out this form the student commits to a block of time with a reference librarian.

The opposite of this is a student who comes to the desk in between class or last minute and say they need some sources to finish their project. By not committing to taking time to research the result is haphazard and is perhaps not as successful. On the other hand, the St. Mike’s librarians said that they found the scheduled appointments to be some of the best sessions for both themselves and students. Students who commit to a block of time are able to explore their topic in depth as well as areas that they can pursue further.

The same is true for commitment in the classroom. In our information literacy sessions with first-semester first-years at Champlain College, we have them respond to poll questions using Poll Everywhere. Instead of asking them a question and wanting one or two of them to respond vocally to us, we have every one of them respond using their mobile phones. This makes them think about the choice and pick an option. After that, we ask them why they chose what they did. Because every one of them has picked something it is easier for them to explain a choice rather than make a choice in front of other people. This commitment makes them more willing to be engaged in the discussion.

It’s not always possible, but I’ve found that if you can find a way to make students commit, either at the desk or in the classroom, the results are often much better. Have you seen other examples of this?