Let’s hear it for librarians, the pitbulls of democracy

libraryI don’t like the phrase, ‘library-based research’. It implies that research either takes place in the library or somewhere else. That students can choose between undertaking their own fieldwork or spending time in the library reading the findings of others in books and journal articles. In reality all research is library-based. A research project involving three months studying the mating habits of a little-known dung beetle in the Amazon rain-forest is likely to be preceded by a similar, although probably longer, period in the library seeking to amass what is already known about dung beetles and their mating habits. The phrase also implies that carrying out research in the library simply involves reading the work of others, and cannot therefore lead to the development of something new. This underestimates the way in which new findings, theoretical models and conceptual clarification, can emerge from challenging existing thinking, but also ignores the extent to which libraries are no longer just repositories of already published work (if they ever were), but now provide access to a wide range of  information through advanced search engines, online databases, electronic archives as well as other archival and documentary collections.

All of which is largely a pretext designed to allow me to shoehorn into the blog a further extract from Kristin Luker’s Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences. When conducting research in what she, rather inelegantly, refers to as ‘the age of info-glut’, Luker argues somewhat more eloquently, that librarians are essential guides whom researchers ignore at their peril:

Librarians, along with pediatricians, are among the greatest human beings in the universe. One of my colleagues at Berkeley calls them the “pit bulls of democracy” – as our government increasingly tries to hide things from us, librarians are among the few souls fighting back. They love the thrill of the chase as much or more than you do… If it was stupid thirty years ago to avoid reference librarians, it is downright suicidal now. Information has become a commodity – it is being bartered, sold, and arranged in more ways than anyone except a professional librarian can keep up with. Your job is to analyze information; a librarian’s job is to help you find it in the first place.

Information these days is like Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s entirely in disarray: every little principality mints its own money, passes its own laws, speaks its own language, and has its own rituals. Imagine trying to be a trader selling your wares as you go from town to town, each one under the sway of another prince (or princess) and his/her personally tailored ways of doing business… Only a reference librarian can teach you the tricks of the various systems and direct you to the ones you most need.

I often say, and I am not entirely joking, that you should court your reference librarian as you would court your future (or present) spouse. They are as overloaded as anyone else these days, all the more so being the pitbulls of democracy. So say “thank you” often. Write thank-you notes. Bring them coffee and cookies and chocolates. When they help you a lot, write a letter to the head of the library about how inventive, creative and helpful this person was. Always thank them in the “acknowledgements” section of your book or articles. Behind every good research project written by a salsa-dancing social scientist stands a great librarian, and maybe even a phalanx of them.

Kristin Luker (2008), Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences: research in an age of info-glut, Harvard University Press, pp.85-6

Our very own pitbulls of democracy have just been awarded a customer service award as ‘a beacon of innovation and best practice, and an exemplar of excellent customer service.’ While we should perhaps gloss over the notion that library users are customers, and the guff about ‘the wider corporate University ethos’ this is nevertheless testament to a hard working and innovative library. I am constantly impressed by the extent to which the University library seeks to meet student needs with things like 24 hour opening, workshops and 1 to 1 training, the excellent (and oh so necessary) Harvard referencing guide and app, and the More Books scheme, which allows students at all levels to request new additions to stock. When students contact their Academic Subject Librarian, as they most certainly should, remember to thank them, but perhaps don’t refer to them as a pitbull, or indeed court them like a future spouse. That would be weird.

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