Help from the Reference Librarians

Associate Professor and Chair of the Library, Julie Gilbert, answers a few questions students might have about using the library and it’s resources. 

When a student comes asking for help on a research paper, where do you start?

In general, my job is to guide students to the resources they need, provide advice about next steps, troubleshoot issues, and invite students to think critically and reflectively about their research. I always start every conversation with questions. I’ll ask students about their assignment, their research question, issues they’ve had, places they’ve looked, frustrations they’ve encountered, etc.. 

My goal is to help students (and me) figure out where the issues are, and we can go from there. The short answer is that we start with whatever the student needs.

What can students do to make it easier for you to help them?

Contact us! We talk a lot about how to get students to consult with us more. We know we can help make research more efficient for everyone, so while it might seem like it takes more time to visit the library or contact us online, it actually will save time.

When you do have a specific research question or request, it helps us to know as much detail as possible about the assignment or issue you’re having. But don’t worry – we’re trained to help you think out loud, so if you are having trouble articulating your frustrations or needs, we can help you clarify your questions.

What is some general advice that you tend to give students who may be struggling with a research paper? 

Research is a creative process, and one that also involves twists and turns. It’s normal to feel stuck or to struggle with a research question. Leave yourself enough time if you can, and also take advantage of the online resources we have at the library, specifically the many guides and tips you can find under the Research Guides link on the library’s homepage.

Research also requires perseverance and the willingness to ask for help, whether it’s from your professor or one of the reference librarians or a writing center tutor or someone at CARE or a tutor for your department. There are lots of resources on campus to help you!

What’s a common mistake that students make when writing a research paper? 

I see a lot of students going straight to Google or Google Scholar, and then finding scholarly materials that are only available for a hefty fee from the publisher’s website. We can get you those same materials for free. If you’re looking for articles, begin your search on one of the library’s databases. Use the dropdown menu under articles on the home page (and contact us for advice on which ones to use if you’re not sure). 

When you search via the databases, you’re searching most of the same materials on Google, but our databases will either have the full text for free or will link you into our interlibrary loan system, which allows you to request the article (also for free) from another library. Librarians can help you navigate all of these systems, too.

Online sources seem to be more popular now. How often do you recommend using books for research?

I think there’s an assumption that if students come see us, we will only point them to library books. This isn’t true. We help you identify the best types and formats of information for your project, and also how to access those sources. Sometimes that’s books, but other times it isn’t. I’ve had several reference discussions where we don’t talk about resources specific to the library itself due to the nature of the information a student is using (like statistics that are freely available online, but not always easy to find). 

It also depends on the area of study. Some disciplines publish a lot of scholarly materials in books, while other areas are more journal-driven. We work to make sure you find the best sources for the kind of work you’re doing.

It’s also good to remember that a lot of online sources are provided by the library. When you use our databases, you’re using library resources. And we can help you navigate all of that.

Which database do you most recommend to students?

It really depends on the subject. Academic Search Premier is a perennial favorite, in part because the content is so broad. But there are often other databases that are much better suited for specific areas of study. The pages under research guides (linked off the library’s homepage) provide advice, as will contacting any librarian.

Has there ever been a research project that took a surprising turn? 

Hm, good question! My favorite interactions are the ones that take turns, usually where a student sits down to brainstorm a search topic and after a conversation, ends up either clarifying an initial question or stumbling on the research question they actually want to study. Seeing the excitement someone has when they realize, “Oh, this is what I actually want to research,” is so rewarding. 

When can students meet with a librarian for help? 

Students can always get research help in the library. The reference librarians have scheduled desk hours. Sometimes we’re on call. You can also get ahold of us via email or our online request form. Our front desk student workers are also trained to help you with basic research questions and to connect you with a librarian for more complex questions.

Anything else you’d like to add? 

Students might think they’re bothering us by coming to the desk or by sending an email. Working with students, teaching students how to do research well – this is why we’re here. So answering student questions is not something “extra” we do, but forms the core of our work. So please get ahold of us. The other thing I’d add is that you don’t need to have a reference question in order to talk to us. Some of my favorite encounters are brainstorming research strategies with students. This can happen at any time during a research project.