An Ode to Librarians: Wizards of Research in the 21st Century

Now that I’ve passed my prelims and moved on to prospectus and dissertation writing, I’m hoping to post more here on the blog. Today I want to talk about research and often over looked resources. At just about every university I’ve been at, we’ve had a subject area specialist for history. Usually they’re shared with another department or two, but they’re always willing to chat and help with research questions. Over the last two years I’ve developed a pretty good relationship with mine.

When I first got to Purdue, I met with him to get a feel for the lay of the land. I wanted to know how ILL worked here, what special privileges we had as a Big 10 and CIC university, and other question about our various holdings and database access. It was really enlightening and helped me transition to Purdue from my previous institution.

Since then, I’ve tried to meet with him at least once whenever I am doing a new research project. Sure, by now I should have a strong command of how to research and what resources are out there. But I still go and meet with our history librarian because he knows more. It’s his job to stay up-to-date on our new databases, to know about some of the new books, etc. He’s helped me find where they Readers Guide to Periodical Literature has been hidden, and to know the difference between the historical one and the current one. He’s also helped me learn the best ways to do ILL requests to keep the folks in that department happy. I really think history librarians are underutilized resources by graduate students. Over the past few semesters I’ve shared the names and instructions on how to use several different databases with colleagues that our librarian taught me.

Part of the reason why I think it’s important to meet with librarians when doing research is because of the rapidly changing nature of academic libraries. Our university has had at least two different catalogs and user interfaces since I’ve been here, and they’re always reorganizing and adding different databases. Talking with my librarian has helped me discover the best ways to search for things at my own library as well as to discover new databases. He’s also ordered books for me that our library doesn’t have but should. Just today he told me about a new book written by Samuel J. Redman about how to do historical research in the archives. I’ve done archival research before, but Redman’s book (more of a pamphlet) introduces new ideas about as photographing and scanning sources and discusses the best practices. It’s nice to know such a resources is out there and that my librarian is both acquiring them and sharing the news about them.

Another hidden resource that I didn’t discover until talking with the history librarian is the subject guides created by the librarians often in conjunction with professors. At my library the subject guidelines can be difficult to find because they are buried deep within our ever-changing library website. But once you find them you uncover dozens of guides that are tailored to certain topics and types of research. For example, we have specific subject guides on American Indian legal research, Presidential Libraries and Records, as well as ten history course specific guides. These guides are great starting places and often provide links to the most useful books and databases related to those topics.

On the surface this all seems like basic information that we all know and have been taught (or should have been taught) in various methodology courses, but as new sources and resources emerge is nice to have a someone who can help you navigate them. It’s nice to be reminded of databases you’ve forgotten and to be taught wizard-like search techniques that capitalize on the categorization of metadata what we’re not always familiar with. So the next time you’re starting a research project or looking for more sources and new ways to find them, it’s definitely worth giving your library subject specialist a visit. This is especially true if you do legal research.

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