College Librarians Rethink and Reframe Research
Over the past decade, the research and instruction department has evolved from simply helping with assignments to thinking more broadly about the meaning and practice of research at the college. The Student spoke with six librarians to learn more about this shift and how they approach their work.
The experience is one almost every Amherst student knows: You’ve been assigned a paper to write, but have no idea where to begin. So what do you do?
The college’s research librarians are here to help.
According to the website for Amherst’s research and instruction department, the librarians “teach research skills in the context of specific courses and assignments” by providing “approaches and strategies as well as particular sources and tools.”
Over the past decade, the department’s mission has evolved: Increasingly, the librarians see expanding the meaning of knowledge and research as a key part of their role. To get a sense of the department’s evolving purpose, The Student spoke with the six research and instruction librarians to learn about how they understand their own roles and the service they provide to the community.
Evolution of the Department
Before 2010, the department had just three librarians, who were known as reference librarians. Their role was defined more rigidly than it is today: They were to help students access library resources, provide them with relevant materials, and offer guidance when necessary.
Their job began to broaden, said Head of Research and Instruction Missy Roser ’94, after she took the department’s reins in 2010. One of her key goals was to have librarians take a more active hand in teaching students core research skills, and how they can be applied.
These changes in the department came alongside larger shifts in the college as a whole, “a real time of growth,” Roser said, with the college aiming “to recruit a more diverse student population.” But these changes in the college’s makeup were not always accompanied by the structural changes needed to support an increasingly diverse student body with a wide range of distinct interests and forms of knowledge.
“[The college] expected this really different community to somehow navigate the hidden curriculum and tacit norms of an institution that had historically been built for white men,” said Roser, “something I knew firsthand from my time as a student.”
So the research and instruction department began to imagine and advocate for ways that they could help lead the shift toward supporting and embracing the institution’s increasing diversity. They resolved to support students by uplifting their unique research interests and passions, while also teaching them core research skills.
These new ideas about how to support students matter, research librarians said, because it allows students to be more fully themselves — in their work and at the institution — rather than having to adapt to a cookie-cutter model of what knowledge or research should look like.
The emphasis on teaching that the department began to develop during this time helped address the gap these institutional problems could create if left unaddressed, working to form bridges between class assignments and students’ personal interests and passions, and showing how they can become one and the same when viewed from new perspectives, librarians said.
During this time, the department nearly tripled its number of instruction sessions, which led to the hiring of more full-time research and instruction librarians to meet the growing demand.
The changes weren’t isolated to Amherst, according to Roser. They accompanied broader shifts in the field of librarianship.
For example, the Framework for Information Literacy and Higher Education, which was officially adopted by the Association of College and Research Libraries board in 2016, introduced new core concepts into the field of librarianship. One aspect of the new framework is that it encourages librarians and students to think through how society places different values on information depending on the context and process by which it is created.
Better understanding the process behind that creation — whether it is, for example, the unspoken rules that coworkers in a restaurant develop to help one another in the workplace, or the development of an academic manuscript — can help consumers of that information better understand it.
Today, the librarians’ main values represent this shift. “We have a belief that research extends beyond looking for books, and articles for academic work,” said Sara Smith, the research librarian for Architectural Studies, Art and the History of Art, European Studies, Film and Media Studies, Music, and Theater and Dance. “Research can mean all kinds of things in your life… good research skill connects to many different things that you might care about or be interested in.”
According to Smith, academic research is really a “set of techniques and agreed-on protocols around things that we all do as humans all the time.” The research process could also just be called curiosity about the world around us, or the desire to piece together different aspects of our lives, they said.
For this same reason, Roser said she views one big part of the job as “recognizing the huge diversity in what students are bringing, their interests and their motivations, and trying to go beyond what is on a syllabus page.”
“If we just hand them a syllabus and say that your learning is only what happens in this class on the syllabus, then we’re kind of leaving them to flail when they go off and try to continue that knowledge,” she said.
What It Looks Like in Practice
One of the main ways these theoretical ideas come into practice, many of the librarians said, is by viewing themselves as research partners for students to work with, rather than as instructors or arbiters of knowledge.
“We are often, to some extent, also not knowing things when we’re working with students,” said Kelly Dagan, the department’s user experience strategist. “We accompany and guide when we teach, but I think that there is something meaningful for both the students and for us, of getting to have that experience of learning with each other and practicing what it’s like to learn together, and to research together.”
To learn together means understanding and working with each student’s specific expertise. “I think, as a research librarian, I’ve gotten much better at listening to stories for … the points that energy is located in,” said Smith. “If somebody’s telling me about the thing they want to research, I listen for the parts of the story they’re telling me, [where they] sound really excited, or really full.”
“[Imagine that] you came [to get help], and you have this general idea of, ‘I’m going to research the history of recording devices,’” Smith continued. “But then I find that when you’re talking about the invention of pocket devices, you start to talk faster, or you start to have more thoughts or more questions that are coming up. Instead of saying ‘OK, well let’s look at this and this and this,’ I say, ‘Well, let’s start with talking about pocket recording devices.’”
The research librarians have a distinctive role on campus that necessitates thinking about “research as community,” said Roser. It also means spending a lot of the time on the job learning about how students learn, how their classes work, and what their interests entail.
Alana Kumbier, the research librarian for Black Studies, Classics, History, and Philosophy, said that one of their favorite parts of the job is co-teaching the Black studies 300 course, “Research in Black Studies.”
“It’s valuable to just watch for students, how they as researchers are able to take what we’re doing and what they’re learning and put that into practice,” they said. “I get to see students who practice something like concept mapping early in the semester, [and] find out, ‘How did that work later on? Did that practice still resonate? Is it something that students who come back the next year to talk to the incoming class share about?’”
Research librarians also play a role in helping students examine new perspectives in their work. Stephanie Capsuto, the research librarian for Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Environmental Studies, Geology, Mathematics and Statistics, Neuroscience, and Physics and Astronomy, spoke about the importance of looking at research in “a full, whole picture.”
“When you think about ‘old Amherst,’ or when you think of a higher education institution, you think of an economics professor who only studies economics and has theories and all this stuff,” she said. “I feel like our department has been a big advocate for interdisciplinary thinking and research and moving out of the traditional ‘I’m only looking at this one thing.’”
This could, for example, mean asking a student researching climate change to also consider the financial impact natural disasters have on people living in the area, she explained.
Realizing their new set of values, the librarians said, requires reworking traditional academic concepts. As an example, Smith referenced citation, an academic practice that is often framed as key to “being a responsible scholar, where you show that you read things, that you didn’t plagiarize, that you’re following the conventions.”
While this is important, viewing citation as just a convention runs the risk of reducing it to a “good guy/bad guy logic,” Smith said. Instead, they look at citations as “a space of expressing appreciation, and giving credit to those who have influenced you and the ways you think.”
“I always think of a bibliography as a place to say ‘this is my community of thinkers and makers,’” Smith said. This could mean citing a conversation you had five years ago with your grandmother in the bibliography, they added, because that conversation influenced the way you thought about the paper.
Ordering citations by importance and framing them in this way is “a really useful exercise to remember that this isn’t just something you’re doing for school so you can get the A, but it’s your life,” Smith noted.
“Just as much as you can reflect on the sources you’re drawing on as actual real people who live or did live,” they said. “Who are you now connected to through your thinking and through your work?”
Many of the librarians also emphasized the importance in continually evaluating the department’s constantly changing role at Amherst. One key part of this, said Blake Doherty, the research librarian for French, German, Latinx & Latin American Studies, Spanish, and Sexuality, Women’s, & Gender Studies, and department outreach, is communicating about what the department is here to help with.
“One of the things that I have come to see about Amherst is [that] students often either don’t know about the resources that are available to them to get support, or maybe don’t feel very comfortable utilizing those resources,” she said. “I think that the research and instruction department has a role in helping to build awareness for the variety of ways that students can get support at the college.”
Research librarians said that a big part of their department’s role in creating broader change at Amherst is tied to their job’s emphasis on listening and uplifting. “Part of what we do is not set the tone, but we try to read the room,” said Smith. “What is it that we could do to be more supportive of what people are caring about or trying to be successful in now? What do we see people needing?”
Reading the room, when it comes to the research and instruction department, can lead to many changes, but ultimately it centers around understanding what students care about.
Achieving this understanding requires a concerted effort on the part of the librarians. “It’s about listening to and collaborating with the people and communities using the services, resources, and spaces you’re providing,” Dagan said, “so that you’re meeting their needs and the ways they work.”