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Understanding the culture of the disciplines

November 11, 2010
Books

Books! Image courtesy of Flickr user babblingdweeb

A brief story: When I was in library school, I took a course called “Reference Sources in the Humanities”.  I figured that perhaps I ought to learn a bit about the humanities since my last English class was in High School.  While most of the class was largely useless (even my colleague the arts librarian doesn’t really use the art encyclopedias we talked about), the first couple of weeks were very useful.  It was there that I learned that scholars in the humanities primarily use books in their research, rather than journal articles.

Books!  Who knew?

Having ‘grown up’ in the scholarly culture of the sciences (geology specifically), I assumed that most scholars relied on journal articles as their primary form of scholarly communication.

I have limited knowledge of how scholars in the humanities do their research, combined with a limited knowledge of the types of resources they use.  My non-science colleagues on the other hand, have a very limited knowledge of the scientific literature and types of resources scientists used.  A ‘primary source’ in history takes a very different form than a ‘primary source’ in chemistry, even thought the basic idea is the same.

Understanding these scholarly cultures is a very important part of being a good academic librarian.  It isn’t just about knowing the publishers and the databases, you have to understand how scholars in the disciplines use these resources and the types of materials they are using and expecting to find.

Why isn’t this something that is focused on more in library school?  Most of us learn this on-the-job.  At the moment, I’m trying to figure out the subtleties of the science disciplines I work with, but I’ve only found a few good resources to help me out.  How do the needs of the physicists differ from the molecular biologists?  And what on earth are they doing over in the computer science department?

The new emphasis on “Scholarly Communication” services in libraries has expanded the number of resources available to help librarians figure this stuff out.

Some relevant reading:

Importantly, the librarians are talking to faculty here at Geneseo.  Our goal over the next year is to sit down with most of our faculty to talk about their research and publication needs.  One of our primary goals is to investigate how the needs of our faculty at a small, mostly undergraduate university differ from the needs of scholars at larger research universities.  How are our scholars similar?  What are they doing differently?

After we all complete our chats, I am hoping that we will spend some time talking to each other about what we learned.  Knowing more about the culture of the disciplines will allow us to target our resources and services better, and make us better librarians.

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8 Comments
  1. Jess permalink

    I really enjoy reading your blog, especially this post. I am a newer science librarian who supports 9 very different academic departments. I really enjoy what I do but constantly try to figure out how to be a better librarian. I’d be interested to see the results of the chart it you are able to share them. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Jess. I think this may be more of an issue for those of us at smaller institutions that serve a wider variety of departments. Folks at research universities may(?) have an easier time learning about the one department they serve, while we have to learn about 6 or 9(!) different areas (and their sub-fields).

  2. My Information Literacy Instruction professor brought this up a few weeks back – she assigned an article she wrote as optional reading. (Citation = Simmons, M. (2005). Librarians as Disciplinary Discourse Mediators: Using Genre Theory to Move Toward Critical Information Literacy. portal: Libraries & the Academy, 5(3), 297-311.)
    In it she talks about how librarians are uniquely positioned to help introduce undergraduates in particular to the information and publishing culture of disciplines. I think it’s a very valid point.
    I’m not sure how library schools would teach it though, other than in classes such as “Reference Sources in the Humanities”?

    • Thanks for the reference – I’ll be looking that up!

      I actually think that a course like “Reference Sources in the Humanities” would be an excellent spot to teach this material – there just needs to be more of it (and perhaps a different course title). Instead of spending 12 weeks on reference materials and 2 weeks on disciplinary culture, why not split the class and spend half of the semester on each?

  3. Carolyn permalink

    Bonnie, I’d love to hear on update on this topic. Did you and your colleagues have any eye opening moments when talking with faculty that you’d be able to share?

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