Ah, Research Season …

This week, our 5th formers will be completing their U.S. History research papers in lieu of a mid-term exam. As they scramble to finish their product—find one last piece of evidence to support a claim, format their manuscript in Chicago Style, insert footnotes, polish their thesis statement—I find myself with the opportunity to look back over these past two months and reflect on the process. While it takes a village to shepherd and support our students through the process, our work moves them toward what is ultimately a uniquely solitary activity, the act of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, one that requires they bring together all of the skills and pieces of information covered over the course of this semester that hopefully will result in one cohesive work.

“It’s only a high school research paper.”
—astute APUSH student

In much the same way my students need to grapple with and master the specific skills research requires of them, it’s also necessary for me to think about how I can help them with that process. As educators of secondary school students, I don’t think many of us are under the illusion that our students are truly finding a research gap and entering into the scholarly conversation in a way that will be acknowledged by the academic community at large. This is in no way discounting the fine work many of our students do in their research/writing, but as one of my APUSH students so bluntly put it when a colleague was diving deep into a citation format, “it’s only a high school research paper.” Yes, yes it is. Somehow looking at it from that perspective has been wonderfully liberating. While my students may not have their work published in peer-reviewed journals (yet!), they do need to be able to read and think deeply and critically about any number of issues throughout their academic career and in their personal life. So, how do we maintain high standards yet keep the paper in its proper perspective and what exactly keeps me up at night thinking about all things research?

Make the Process Visible

Image Credit: University Library System, University of Pittsburgh

The Research Process is one that’s familiar to us all—an iterative process with students moving through the steps on the infographic above until they (finally!) reach the citing, reviewing, and editing finish line. If you’re like me, you probably see at least six or more points when it would be helpful to meet with a class to provide instruction. Depending on a myriad of factors unique to each school, we might have one “boot camp-style” instructional session or we might be fortunate enough to meet on a regular basis with a given class.

Flip the Class

Regardless of how much instructional time we have with students, it’s never enough. Our general research LibGuide establishes a common language for students and faculty and provides a general overview of the research process. With links to available resources and the flexibility to embed these in our PowerSchool LMS, flipping lessons can make the instructional time I do have more productive.

The Class-Specific LibGuide

This year I worked with five sections of U.S. History and two sections of APUSH, all writing a long-form paper. My collaboration with these classes ranged from an average of two-three instructional sessions to a high of ten. While more is always better from my vantage point, I work hard to be flexible and adapt to the needs of each faculty. This means I have to plan well in advance to cover essential skills during my face-to-face instructional time. For each research project I collaborate on, I create a unique guide that serves as a home base for students and supports what I cover in class. These guides have subject-specific curated resources for primary, secondary, and tertiary sources and additional information on writing process skills. This year I’m working on an exciting new project with the AP AB Calculus class on symmetry in nature and their guide supports the exploration of academic as well as online sources. These guides make it possible to curate available resources that help our students develop familiarity with scholarly and trustworthy sources.

U.S. History Guide (left), AP AB Calculus Guide (right)

Embrace the Basics

Although our incoming 3rd and 4th formers take a semester-long New Student Seminar course which covers study and research skills, I find I still need to stress the basics to our 5th and 6th formers. What is a tertiary source and why can you use it for background information but not quote it or include it in the bibliography? How can a book and journal both be secondary sources, but only one is peer-reviewed? How do you use social media in a scholarly paper? How are we to think about an author’s bias/ point-of-view or their authority? I do use handouts that when finished resemble an annotated bibliography and find they help students record basic bibliographic information with space for relevant quotes and why they support their claims. I try to not overestimate their ability to locate and evaluate information and plan lessons that focus on meta-cognition—encouraging them to think about thinking.

NoodleTools

Oh, where would we be without NoodleTools? Even my most reluctant students eventually come to see the benefit of organizing their research on this platform. The inbox feature allows me to have access to all my students’ projects and be able to work side-by-side with them as they add or evaluate sources. While students love the export to NoodleTools feature on most databases, I see great value in thinking about what goes into the creation of a citation: what type of source is it, where was it found, who is the author, what is the title of the journal, when was it published, etc.—all the questions students need to answer as they add sources manually. With the notecard feature, I see a range of requirements from faculty for students to create notecards on NoodleTools, but I find those students who use the notecard feature generally have a much easier time organizing their outline and keeping quotes and paraphrases attributed to the proper source. Whether required by their teacher or not, I encourage all my students to use the notecard and outline features.

Images showing a student’s exemplary use of the notecard feature

Make Personal Connections

One of the best changes to this year’s instruction has been the addition of conferencing thanks to two faculty who required their students meet with me to discuss their papers. To organize this as simply as possible, students signed up “old school” for a time to meet via a clipboard at the front desk. We have other sign-up clipboards, so this made the most sense for the sake of consistency.

Our “old school” sign-up sheet gets the job done!

These reference interviews were an opportunity for me to connect with students on a personal basis, ask questions that encouraged critical thinking and helped them to clarify their topic or thesis. It was also a time to offer them support on anything they requested from finding sources to formatting their manuscript. Asking students how I might help them encourages them to think more critically about where they are in the process and identify what they need to move forward. I see their conversations with me as a way to model how they might enter into the larger research conversation. Another benefit of these one-on-one sessions is for me to be able to share the messiness of the whole process. Whether searching for sources, developing a thesis, or finding that right piece of evidence to support that claim, my experience has been that students generally believe research is our superpower, not something we ever fail at or struggle with. To help them develop their search muscle, we identify basic search terms together and then brainstorm how to expand or limit our search depending on the results. Because I have a large monitor, these one-on-one sessions allow students to easily see and follow along as we work through advanced search strategies – something not easily accomplished with group instruction. Since mid-December, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with over 70 students, many of those repeat visits with no mandate from the teacher. Connecting with students at this level has enriched my experience as their research librarian and I hope it has enriched their research experience, as well.

Rethinking Your Digital Presence

In one of my favorite chapters from Robert Fulghum’s book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things, a kid from his neighborhood has hidden so well in a game of hide-and-seek that he’s still under Fulgham’s window long after the other kids have been found and are just about ready to give up on him. Fulgham, in his wisdom, leans out the window and yells, “GET FOUND, KID!” Sage advice.

This year, in my position as research librarian at the John Gray Park ’28 Library at Kent School, I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of helping students find the information they need and what contributes to a successful learning experience. How we organize and provide access to our resources can make the difference between our students developing into independent learners and those who constantly need us to navigate the process for them. There is a fine line between an appropriate amount of struggle that leads to a successful learning experience and an overwhelming amount that can frustrate and ultimately hinder the learning process. There probably isn’t a quick and easy solution to this challenge, but I do know our resources shouldn’t be hidden so well our students give up trying to find them. Seems like someone needs to yell, “GET FOUND, KID!” to our digital resources.

The Library Brand

I was fortunate to be able to attend this year’s AISL Conference in Boston, which meant I got to visit a number of other school libraries – something I love to do, but rarely have the time because I’m, well, working in a school library. Even though each library we visited was unique, they all could be identified by what I think of as the “library brand.” The library brand’s superpowers can be credited with creating a sense of place and helping users find what they need. As librarians, we’re pretty adept at marketing that brand. We post our hours so everyone knows when we’re open. Our circulation desks are staffed with friendly librarians. Book groups, displays, reviews, and booktalks are just a few of the ways we encourage reading. We offer a variety of seating ranging from traditional library tables to comfy chairs with ottomans, and group study rooms if we’re fortunate enough to have the space. Letting our community know what’s available just makes good sense. We want to be found—and it works!

Milton Academy (left), Nobles (center), Beaver Country Day (right) – AISL 2019

At Kent, our library has a steady flow of students throughout the day and into the evening. Our circulation spikes when we send emails about new additions to our collection. Our group study rooms are at full capacity during evening study hall. Close to 100 students participated in our most recent Poetry Month event, which we advertised with posters, emails, and on Instagram and Twitter. Getting found is a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Reordering of Ranganathan’s Five Laws

Regardless of how many hours we’re open, our doors eventually have to close. I recently re-read “Reordering Ranganathan: Shifting User Behaviours, Shifting Priorities” by Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Ph.D. and Ixchel M. Faniel, Ph.D. Although the article was published in 2015, I still find it relevant in the way they have reinterpreted Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science for the digital age. Connaway and Faniel’s take on the Five Laws are user-focused yet also incorporate a systems approach to resource delivery. In place of solely addressing how to get a book into the hands of the individual user, their chart incorporates access to digital as well as print resources for each of the original concepts by recommending you analyze your community needs, know your users well enough to understand how they access information, create or use platforms to curate resources, and finally, make sure those resources get found by the users.

My main takeaway from this article? The library is still a growing organism and if you want all of your resources to be discoverable and accessible, in other words, to “get found,” you’ll need a digital presence that is as well-defined and user-friendly as your physical space.

Source: Connaway, Lynn Silipigni, and Ixchel M. Faniel. “Reordering of Ranganathan’s Five Laws.” OCLC Research, OCLC, 2015, Chart.

Your Website: A Portal to Your Digital Resources

If your library is like ours, you subscribe to a significant number of databases and digital resources to support scholarly inquiry and prepare your students for the rigor of college-level research. Regardless of the type of resources you offer, whether it’s eBooks, streaming videos, databases, or a content management system like LibGuides, your students, faculty and staff can’t use those resources if they can’t readily find them, or worse, don’t even know they exist. How many of us, at one time or another, have lamented our database usage statistics come renewal time and wonder what can be done to increase their use and justify their expense? Return on investment is always on our minds this time of year. Check out David Wee’s March 24th post, “on databases that spark joy (and some that don’t) …” and see how he’s trying to make sure his library’s get found – his ideas might help as you evaluate your own databases.

Your Web Presence

Today, your library’s presence on the web is as important as its physical one, and if you’re like most librarians, it’s probably up to you to design and promote it in much the same way you promote and market your physical space. You see when your library is being used, books checked out, research support accepted. It’s more difficult to tell if you’re hitting the mark with digital resources. Are the members of your community aware of the library resources available to them 24/7 from their home or dorm room? If a faculty needs an article to support a lesson, does she know where to find your databases? If a student needs a book for class tomorrow, does he know how to find your OPAC and place the book on hold? Same for citing sources for a paper due first period. Will your students know where to find your citation guide?

If you want to make sure your digital resources are found, it’s important to focus on access and get the design of your website right. You don’t want your resources hidden behind a myriad of clicks and language only another librarian would understand (I’m looking at you discoverable and accessible). Much like the players in that game of hide-and-seek who scatter when they hide, databases and electronic resources are “hidden” across the internet on their own sites, so users need us to create a portal through which those resources can be found.

So Where Do You Start?

Whether you currently have a library website you’re happy with, are looking to update your site to increase its usability, or are starting from scratch, the steps to design a user-friendly site follow the same process. In my next blog post, I’ll walk through the five steps to follow when creating or updating a library website or portal keeping usability and user experience (UX) foremost in your planning and implementation.