Yesterday, Kevin wrote a very well-reasoned post expressing his skepticism about LibGuides. I am less skeptical and more hopeful–when I think about research guides, I think:
Research guides, LibGuides, pathfinders, or whatever you want to call them, have fascinated me for while now–my master’s paper addressed questions about how people use research guides. Like Kevin, when I started library school, I had never used or even heard of a research guide, but librarians did indeed spend a lot of time creating them. So, why the disconnect between effort and usage/awareness? And should librarians make subject guides at all?
One problem, like so many of the things we do in academic librarianship, is a question of marketing. If we’re going to spend all this time creating elaborate or even just well-thought-out guides, then we need to make sure people know about them. At my institution, there’s been a concerted effort to let faculty know about our subject guides and that we can create guides specifically for their course as part of our information literacy program. The universal response has been: “These are so great, I had no idea you did this.” We’ve had more faculty ask to have guides added to their LMS sites, and have pointed their students to our research guides. But the faculty promotion piece is critical: creating a guide in a marketing vacuum will lead to no usage and then, yes, you’ve wasted your time.
I suspect that one reason that faculty and students are so excited is because library websites are notoriously hard to navigate. LibGuides and their like provide an end-run around the complexity of our difficult websites, which in many cases, librarians have little or no control over. It points them exactly to the resources their students will need, without having to sort through the full site and remembering how to navigate to their desired resource, three or four levels down. Challenging library websites are a major issue, and one that needs to be addressed, but in the meantime, research guides provide a reasonable and controllable way to direct our users to resources.
Some of our guides get significant traffic, which is true at many institutions. Our business guide consistently has more than 1,000 views a month, because it has been well-promoted, and finding business information is notoriously challenging. These guides are also incredibly helpful to other librarians who are not subject specialists in a given area; as Kevin mentioned, I also consult my colleague’s guides frequently. They are also a place for procedural knowledge to live on the library website; there’s no other place where I can look up how to access book reviews (for example), just a list of databases that may include them.
In the same vein, research guides can be a place to model the research process that students can consult multiple times; this is how I tend to structure my course guides (example) for first-year seminars now. Does it create an artificial linearity in the research process? Sure, but so do our instruction sessions; you can stress the iterative process of research both in the guide and in person. I often use my guides in tandem with teaching, showing students where they can go to review while I’m showing them in class. Guides for first-year courses can also be recycled in meaningful ways–you can easily adjust a section on evaluation to another class’s content, minimizing the amount of time needed to create each individual guide. One problem with these guides is that we are reinventing the wheel so often; it seems obvious that we should be sharing these guides inter- and intra-institutionally, but yet we aren’t. I’m not sure why we aren’t doing this, but this seems like a worthwhile project to take on.
LibGuides and their like, then, are important tools for continuing library instruction into the digital space. They just need to be created and promoted in consultation with other stakeholders, like faculty, to actually get used.