[Library lessons] Choosing a topic


We have a section of our Smart Student Library Guide that is devoted to choosing a topic.  There are some examples there to get you started on thinking about how to narrow your topic.

The guide is really helpful, but I also want to throw in my two cents here.

Does this sound familiar?  You are told that your paper has to be on a certain topic (usually the topic of your course).  You could write a book about it, it’s so big.  But instead of trying to narrow down your topic, you go look for an article.  If you can find an article, you could build your paper around that, and – voila! – your topic will magically be narrowed in the process.

I wish.

I have written too many papers to know this will happen.  Your professors have written and read too many papers to know this will happen.  You really have to narrow down your topic a bit in advance, or your research time is going to be wasted, and you’re going to have a hard time writing anything.

Figure out your topic first.  Sure, you might get started and then realize that, no, this topic bores you to tears and you’d rather switch to this other topic you’ve discovered along the way.  That’s okay.  (As long as your professor doesn’t mind you switching topics.)  Just don’t try to research a really general topic and hope to find one perfect article and build a paper around it.  That’s really hard.  Don’t make things harder on yourself.

Be bold. Stake a claim.  Find evidence to support it.  You might find that taking a stance and arguing a point is actually kind of fun.

[Library lessons] Research steps


Research steps?  Really?!?!  Don’t you just sorta think about your topic?  Or just go Google it or something?

Well, that’s one way of doing research.  That’s usually not the approach that is the fastest, or gets you the best results, but, hey, we’re not going to stand in your way of doing it that way!

If you want to try a more efficient way, we’ve got some concrete steps you can follow.  These might be the sort of steps that are “common sense”:  if you’ve done a few research assignments before, you know how this works.  But it’s like anything else you want to do efficiently: having a checklist makes it better.*

Until you’ve done something so frequently that it has become second nature to you, it’s a good idea to follow a checklist.  Save your brain for the heavy lifting, like reading, analyzing, and writing.  Let us help you with the Research Basics.

*(For more on checklists, check out Atul Gawande’s The checklist manifesto.  Believe it or not, it’s really fun to read!)

[Library lessons] It’s research time!


If you’ve ever assembled a piece of furniture, you have probably learned that here are two ways of doing it:

  1. You ignore the directions and do it yourself, just using your ‘common sense’.  This approach usually means that you are going to have to take things apart and put them back together several times, until you figure out the best sequence.
  2. You read the directions and get everything done in the best order, with the right pieces, on the first attempt.

Doing research is like building furniture.  Sure, some of it is common sense.  Here at the library, we’re interested not only in getting things done, but in being efficient, too.  If you want a quick overview of the best approach to doing research, with the steps all neatly explained for you, check out our Smart Student Library Research Guide.

This guide walks you through some basic steps.   The guide is particularly designed for students who are new to library research here at Salve Regina University, but it’s a helpful overview for all students.

One of my favorite features?  There’s an “assignment calculator” on the first page.  You enter what day you’ll start working on your assignment, and what day it is due, and the guide will give you an estimate of when you should meet certain goals on your way to finishing your assignment.

As always, if you need any help, be sure to contact us.

[Library lessons] Do-it-yourself


We did a patron satisfaction survey last spring, and one of the questions was: “If you never (or occasionally) seek help from library staff, why not?”

Most of the answers were like this: “I haven’t needed help.”

But my favorite answer was this:

“To stubborn to ask for help and want to figure it out on my own.”

Me too!!!

This is the era of “do-it-yourself”.  We DIYers check out our own groceries.  We try on our own shoes.  (When was the last time you were in a shoe store where they had to bring out the shoes for you?  I actually find that annoying now.)

What I’ve been trying to highlight in this series of blog posts are a few tips and hints so you can do-it-yourself.

But here’s the thing.  Librarians get master’s degrees in library and information science.  We are the ninjas of information and the internet.  (You didn’t notice?  That’s because we are ninjas.)

We want you to do it yourself.  But if you are pressed for time – and we know you are – we can show you more efficient ways of getting the information you need.

We are all about the do-it-yourself ethos at the library.  We even have a self-checkout machine on the second floor, if you want to do that yourself, too.

But you should never hesitate to get some advice from us on the best ways to get the resources you need.

I like to think of it as ‘getting some advice’, rather then ‘asking for help’.  Even DIYers like getting advice.  That’s why we are here.

[Library lessons] E-reserves


I’m going to explain about a bit about how “e-reserves” work.

I think I need to back up a little and explain the concept of “reserves” first.

Sometimes professors want to assign a few pages from a text, or they want a class to watch a particular movie.  So, instead of asking students to buy the book or dvd, the professors ask the library to put our copy of the book or dvd  “on reserve”.    That means the item can be checked out for a limited time only, and it usually can’t leave the building.  (There are some exceptions to this.)

The point is so that all students have a fair shot at borrowing and using the item (for a limited time), and no one person can check it out and hold on to it for weeks on end, so no one else can borrow it.

E-reserves are a little easier to use.  If the library owns an item, we can put an electronic copy on reserve so that students can access it online.  (There are copyright restrictions, of course.  We can’t just digitize everything we own.)

The cool think about e-reserves is that multiple students can access the electronic copy at one time, so you don’t have to wait for your classmate to finish with the item before you can look at it.

If you’re new to reserves and e-reserves, there is a brief guide here: http://library.salve.edu/newreserve.html.

[Library lessons] Coping with (personal) information overload


While university librarians typically focus on the sort of information used in research, there are all sorts of information that we have to manage everyday.

A really useful article (filled with specific examples and directions) on dealing with personal information overload is Sara Houghton-Jan’s “Being wired or being tired: 10 ways to cope with information overload”, Ariadne, Issue 56, July 2008.

Maybe you don’t think you have an ‘information overload’ problem, but the article is still worth reading.  Her advice is helpful.  Especially her advice to just shut things off sometimes!

[Library lessons] McKillop Library everywhere!


When you sit down to do work, I bet you put your computer 15 feet away, your pen and paper on the other side of the room, and all your research information under your bed.

Let’s be serious.  You get everything you need and gather it together so you don’t have to go running around to find stuff while you are working.

We get that.  So we want library resources to be right at your fingertips, wherever you are:

[Library lessons] Your library account


A word of advice: a few times a semester, you should  login to your library account.  You can see a list of what you have checked out and what requests you’ve submitted.  You can also renew items you have checked out.

Here’s a helpful shortcut: if you use the catalog while you are logged in to your account, you won’t have to enter your name and barcode number if you make a request.  Being logged in also allows you to save items to a list to email to yourself later.

Let me move into the sad territory of overdue items:

McKillop Library has borrowing policies that tell you how long an item gets checked out to you, and how many times you can renew an item.  While we do not charge a daily overdue fine if an item is late, we will eventually bill you for the item if it is not returned.

A word of advice: if you borrow an item from another HELIN library or from Brown, you have to abide by their borrowing policies.  Some of those libraries do have daily fines for overdue materials, and they have their own rules about how long items are checked out.  That’s why it’s a good idea to log in to your account a few times a semester; you should check to make sure that you are not accruing any fines for overdue materials.

What if you try to renew an item, and it says that you have too many renewals on that item?  Just bring it back to the library.  We’ll check it in and then check it back out to you, as long as it has not been ‘recalled’.  (If something is ‘recalled’, that means someone else has requested it, and we’ll have to ask you to return the item so the other person can use it.)

If you need help with your account, with items you have checked out, or with fines, stop by the Circulation Desk in the library.  We’re happy to help.

[Library lessons] Call numbers


I think call numbers confuse the heck out of people.  And I’m sorry to hear that, because they are actually a pretty nifty research tool all on their own.

Let me explain.

In the online world, it doesn’t matter where a file (such as a website) actually lives – you can link to it from anywhere.  (Google makes its fortune on this very fact, by ranking a site according to how many other sites link to that site.)

Physical objects don’t work that way.  They have the unfortunate problem of only being able to be in one place at any given time.  Think of going to the grocery store: all the toothpaste sits in one aisle, all the produce is in another, and the frozen goods are somewhere else.  You can’t stand in front of the toothpaste no matter where you are in the store (which is how the internet works); you have to stand in the toothpaste aisle (which is how the physical world works).

Books (and other materials in the library) work the same way.  They can only sit in one place.  Like houses, they have an address – that’s the call number.

Only call numbers are much more powerful than a street address.

Call numbers tell us something about the topic of the book.  So, for instance, books on education are shelved in the Ls. Books on psychology are in the BFs.  Books on science are the Qs.  Books on medicine are in the Rs.

Big stinking deal, right?  Wrong!  It gets better.

Each call number starts with a letter (or letters) and numbers.  Then there’s a decimal point.  Then there’s more stuff after the decimal point.  It usually looks like this: BQ4022.K46 2000.

If you have a call number for something, you now have information about where to find other items on the same topic.  It just so happens that BQ is where we shelve books on Buddhism.  So if you found that one call number (BQ4022.K46 2000) and went to the shelves to find that item, you would be standing right in the midst of all the Buddhism books.  That’s pretty handy. Now you can start browsing the shelves, just like you are in a bookstore.

The Library of Congress maintains a page where you can view PDF or Word versions of the classification outline.  These outlines show you that, for instance, the history of Germany is shelved in the DD call numbers, or books on forestry are shelved in the SD call numbers.

If you want an even more precise breakdown of call numbers, contact me.  I have all 41 volumes of the classification outline next to my desk. (!!!)

[Library lessons] Janet L. Robinson Curriculum Resource Center


If you are an education major – and even if you are not – you should become familiar with the Janet L. Robinson Curriculum Resource Center in the McKillop Library.  This is a special library-within-the-library that is devoted to educational materials, including both materials about education, as well as materials used for education, like picture books for young children.

All of the call numbers starting with L are in this area.  Those are mostly education books, but sometimes they cross disciplines into other areas.  For example, some books about social work, disability studies, and administration of justice (particularly for young offenders) might end up in this area because they approach their issues from the perspective of education.

Check out the website, and drop by for a visit; the Curriculum Resource Center is on the second floor of the library.



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