The not-so-sciencey part of “Undergraduate Science Librarian”

Crucibles
Not this kind of crucible, courtesy of Flickr user Andy.Schultz

I work at a predominantly undergraduate institution where all the librarians have to be generalists at least part of the time.  As a result, some of the instruction I do falls outside of the sciences, and some of my additional projects aren’t directly related to the departments I serve.

For example, this week I will be teaching a one-shot session for a first year writing seminar.  The overall topic for this seminar is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. A couple of weeks ago I taught a session to some local high school students who were looking for information on contemporary poets.

Back in library school, I took a class on “reference sources in the humanities”.  While the actual reference sources covered haven’t been especially useful to me, the insights into the research culture of the humanities was very helpful.  Did you know that books are much more important to scholarship in the humanities than they are in the sciences?

While I get nervous when students come to the reference desk looking for poetry information in the same way some of my colleagues probably get nervous when a student comes to the desk looking for NMR spectra, I have the skills to help most of them find the resources they need.

And when they have in-depth, senior-thesis, primary-sources-in-history types of questions, we have a well established research consultation service at my library so that I can refer them to one of my amazingly capable colleagues for the help they need.

My own personal “Chemistry Week”

Chemoluminescence
The image "Chemoluminescence" is courtesy of Flickr user "everyone's idle"
The official, American Chemical Society “Chemistry Week” was last week, October 18-24th.  Lots of exciting events took place in lots of wonderful locations.

But this week, October 26-30, is my own personal Chemistry Week.  This week, I will teach 4 two hour information literacy sessions to organic chemistry students, provide the lesson plan and all in-class content for three additional sections of organic chemistry, and teach a session on evaluating resources and expanding your literature search to senior seminar students.

I recently gave a presentation about what types of things we talk about at the various levels.  I enjoy teaching theses sessions, and I believe they are useful to the students.

This year I’m trying to focus on assessment – are the students actually learning what we want them to learn?  Do they already know it before our session?  Do they think the sessions are useful?

Each student in the organic lab is completing a brief follow up survey, so we can get a sense of how useful the session is and whether the students actually learned what we wanted to teach them.  For this follow up survey we are asking a few questions about learning outcomes, plus a couple of attitudinal questions.

In the upper level seminar, students are filling out a brief survey about their previous research experiences, to give me a sense of their comfort level with certain resources (Scopus or SciFinder) and to allow them the opportunity to ask any research questions prior to our session (I’m not anticipating that they will have many).  While students are normally not very good at assessing their own weaknesses, this will give us some information about student attitudes toward research.

I’m excited about seeing the result – hopefully they will allow the chemistry faculty and I to continue to improve the way we teach about the chemical literature and literature searching.

Information Literacy in Upper Level Undergraduate Biology

One of our library classrooms
One of our library classrooms

Over the next couple of weeks, I will be teaching information literacy sessions in three different senior-level undergraduate Biology seminar classes.  Although the topics differ, the content that I discuss is fairly similar.

Finding (and understanding) a topic

I don’t discuss this in every class, but in a class where students have (mostly) free range to select a topic, I try to give them some resources that will help them narrow the field.

I point them to relevant science news sites and blogs.  ResearchBlogging.org is one of my favorites because it leads the students directly back to the primary literature.  I discuss the merits of browsing a journal’s table of contents, and provide them with links to appropriate journals for their field.  This is all normally done with an in class exercise that gets them to look at some of these resources.  Hopefully they may come away with a topic idea.

Do students appreciate this guidance?  I’m not sure.

Review of primary vs. review articles

Most of the faculty I speak with say that their Senior-level students already know the difference between a review article and a primary research article.  I find that some students can tell them apart, but the majority can’t identify a review article when they see it.  Some students have had information literacy sessions in sophomore and junior level classes where I discuss this in detail (throwing in science news and blogs too) but I don’t see all of our Biology majors, so it is kind of hit-or-miss.

As a result, I normally spend the first 10 minutes of a 50 minute session reviewing the difference between these article types.

I ask students to examine two different articles and for each I ask them:

  • How is the article organized?
  • Whose research and experiments are the authors writing about?  Their own? Or the research of others?

This isn’t rocket science, and at the senior level, these questions are fairly easy to answer for these students.  They just may not have been asked to look at these before.

After we identify the review and primary research articles, we talk about how each of them can be useful.

  • Can you use either for this particular assignment?
  • If you can’t use a review article for this assignment, how can it still be useful to you?

Finding appropriate articles

This section is normally the main reason why the faculty member contacted me in the first place.  I normally focus on a few basic principles:

  • Choosing an appropriate resource for the topic you are searching
  • Selecting appropriate language and terms to use for your search
  • Understanding the nature of citations and how tracking them forward or backward in time can help you find additional information.

Students sometimes have topics already chosen, sometimes they don’t.  The session will involve some hands on time searching an appropriate resource (often Scopus).

And of course, we talk about how to get their hands on the actual full text of an article.

What I don’t spend time on

It may be controversial, but I don’t spend time teaching Boolean logic, unless I have more than one session with the students (and even then I don’t call it by name).

I don’t get into specifics about citing sources unless we have more than one session, although I will recommend the use of Zotero or another citation manager.

I haven’t really talked much about open access, open science or other emerging forces in scientific communication.  I do want to find time to work open access into the conversation in the future – perhaps in the bit about how to get the full text.

Is any of this similar or different than what other librarians talk about in upper level biology classes?

My problem with the Chemical Abstracts Service

I don’t have a problem with their product, just their support.

Chemical Abstracts Service is the force behind SciFinder, the best database for chemical information available. It is an outstanding resource for chemists, with some of the best indexing available.

CAS recently conducted a survey, asking the “key contacts” from each library to rate the quality of the training materials they provide and their support for training chemists on SciFinder.  While they have some high quality training materials, their support for teaching undergraduates how to use SciFinder is awful.

Because they limit user access to their product (we pay for 3 simultaneous users), we have to request special “training” logins for our information literacy sessions in the chemistry department.  While this is a pain, this isn’t a big problem.  The problem is that they limit the number of training seats they will grant us, and communication poorly about how many training seats might be accessible.

We have a well developed information literacy program at my library, and the limitations on training seats mean that we have to ration the instruction we give on this incredible database.  If students aren’t exposed to this database in a hands-on session, they will turn to more easily available resources (such as Google) to find their information.

I think it would make good business sense for CAS to be more open with the number of training seats they grant.  Here’s why:  if chemistry students are thoroughly convinced at the undergraduate level that SciFinder is their best source for information, they will want access to it in graduate school and in the workplace, putting pressure on more institutions and corporations to purchase access.

My recommendation:  don’t limit the number of training log-ins available to an institution and your product will see more use outside of the classroom.