Ah, end of the semester. A time when panicky students suddenly realize they're actually going to have to go into the library, which is then filled with swarming undergraduates who don't know where they are, what they're doing, or where anything is, and expect you as a reference assistant to basically do their research for them. At this point, reference interviews are so often an exercise in frustration: No, they haven't started anything yet. No, they have no idea where to begin their search. Oh, and did they mention that their paper is due tomorrow?

An example of a reference interaction I had with a student through instant messaging the other night:

Clueless Student: Hi, I need help finding sources for my paper.
Kristi: Great! What's your topic, and what class is it for?
CS: It's for P441.
K: I'm sorry, I don't know what that class is, specifically. Could you tell me a little about it, and about what your paper is supposed to be on?
CS: It's on women in Saudi Arabia.
K: What aspect of that topic are you wanting to research?
CS: I don't know, I guess like women's rights and family relations.
K: Okay, so you're looking for articles that might discuss gender issues and the family in Saudi Arabia.
CS: Yeah, and we're supposed to discuss power distance. Like with Hofstede and everything.
K: I'm sorry, I'm not sure you mean by that, could you explain for me so I can help you in your search?
CS: (Student struggles incoherently to explain and finally sends me to a link. Apparently it has something to do with international business and power distance is one of the criteria used to measure a country)
K: All right, great - have you started any searching on your own for this?
CS: Yes.
K: ...
K: Okay, could you tell me a little bit about what you've tried already?
CS: Well, I went to this one search my teacher suggested, I forget what it's called, and I tried women and power distance and Saudi Arabia and I didn't get any results!
K: You might want to try different search terms then. Let's start out in Academic Search Premier (at which point I proceed to explain how to get to this database and how to do a basic search)
K: Now, it's important to remember that you're probably not going to find articles that match your subject exactly when you've got a fairly narrow topic. You might need to broaden your search and be willing to wade through a lot of information that might turn out to be useful.
CS: No, my professor told us we had to be specific. We can't write a generic paper.
K: Well, your paper doesn't have to be generic - you take what you learn from various articles and apply it to your specific topic. Like, for example, this looks like a great article (on family relations in the Arab world).
CS: No, that won't work. It's not about Saudi Arabia.
K: Well, keep it in mind, it might still be worth a look. How about this one? It discusses women and Islam in Saudi Arabia.
CS: No, that won't work, it doesn't talk about power distance.
(this continues ad nauseum, with the student dismissing every potential article I find)
K: I think you may be limiting yourself too much here. You're really not going to find articles that address every aspect of your topic all in one place. You need to be willing to read articles that look like they have potential for your project.
CS: But my instructor says we have to be specific!
(Again, I attempt to explain how research works, but the student isn't buying.)
K: Well, we're not having much luck with articles. How about we search the catalog for some books that might work for you?
CS: Oh, no, this paper is due in two days and I really don't have time to read any more books.
K: It's not likely you'll have to read the whole book, but you might want to browse a few - you might find a chapter or two that will work for you.
CS: I don't think so. I need short things.
(The conversation continues, with the student and I both getting more and more frustrated. Eventually I advise the student to come into the library for face-to-face help. I have spent an hour with this one student.)

Anyway, that's just one example of some of the crazy reference stuff going on lately. Don't get me wrong - I love helping students, but some of these kids just have no idea what they're doing, and don't even seem to be willing to learn. They just want you to hand them the information they need on a platter, and they don't want to have to read and distill information from a wide variety of sources. They want exactly what their topic calls for, and they want it all in one place. So frustrating.


  1. Anonymous said...

    this makes me want to learn a trade and never set foot in a library again.

    Seth Studer said...
    Should have gone into English. We pay the smart undergrads to write our 30 page papers for us (there's a bonus if they annoy the reference librarians) while we hole up in our apartments together, drink gins and tonic, and sing Christmas carols.

Post a Comment

Newer Post Older Post Home