Friday June 23rd 2017




Scrutinizing the Subject Guide. Or, putting my money where my mouth is…

Things many librarians love: tea, cats, complaining about patrons, going on vacation to visit libraries, and of course, leftover food from panels… To which we must surely add our love of lists. Shelf lists, weeding lists, list of e-resources, listservs- the list (ahem) is endless. And if we throw in the list’s first cousins- the directory, the index and the register then I think it becomes pretty clear that our profession is probably one of the most unapologetic inventory makers out there. Which is great. But it does bother me when we try and impose our lists on our students. When we equate lists with a crash course on something of Great Significance. When the list is taken to promise instant knowledge. In short, when we make long lists of every potentially useful resource that ever existed on a topic, throw them up on a LibGuide and congratulate ourselves on Job Done. Yep, you guessed it. The time has finally come for me to put my money where my mouth is and explain my growing aversion to pathfinders, subject guides or research companions- and for you to persuade me that they still have value.

When you start to look for hidden pockets of research guide rage, complaints tend to centre around the lack of usability testing: the ugly, cluttered designs, 27 tab monster-guides and a frustrating number of broken links. Others complain about the growing system of parallel research guide websites, using software such as LibGuides to get round a lack of editing privileges on locked down library webpages. However, aesthetic sensibilities notwithstanding, this doesn’t get to what I think is the crux of the problem, which could be summed up as the disconnect between what librarians want to achieve with guides and what students get out of them. (And yes, this could apply to many library interactions, but I only have 600 words, so let’s focus…)

This disconnect is partly design related too. Research that my colleagues and I undertook showed that while most librarians organised guides by format (e.g. articles, books) most students preferred a design focused around help functions (e.g. where is the printer v how do I use the printer) or a specific research need (e.g. research an author). More recently, further research that we undertook on e-resources showed that students expect lists to offer guidance on where to start research. I suspect many current guides are merely alphabetical. These examples demonstrate that on the whole, librarians are designing guides for expert usage rather than the target student audience, which understandably causes certain problems. Aha, shout the subject guide supporters! So your antipathy can be explained by the fact that many librarians (and I include myself) merely use the tool badly? This doesn’t make the guide inherently evil, surely…

Well, no, but I still don’t think that gets at the heart of the matter. To my mind, it all gets back to conversations about the changing role of the librarian. Bear with me… When we started making pathfinders, these guides were shortcuts to the librarian’s brain; here are the key sources in the library on a topic. Inwardly digest and information nirvana will be yours. But nowadays, I find there’s quite a lot that’s awkward about that supposition. Firstly, the idea that we can represent all the sources in a field. We can’t. It’s very similar to the problems involved with our attempts to catalog the web- the lack of stability, the changing formats, the explosion of content mean that it’s just not going to happen.  Secondly, the idea that the research guide represents the totality of, well, research. It doesn’t. Research is a process; information practices, for example, rely heavily on physical and social sources as well as textual. We are selling students short when our guides focus exclusively on research as a bunch of stuff to be found. Thirdly, the idea that without these guides, students will never use anything but JSTOR ever again. Well, possibly. But we’re not the content police and there’s only so much we can do with poorly designed research assignments that focus on the end research product while skipping over all the intermediary and more nuanced research process steps. Lastly, the idea that our librarian knowledge can be condensed into bite sized pieces that can then be transferred to a student’s brain. And that is where I think I am most squeamish. By using these guides as lists of resources we’re dumbing down the complexity of research instead of teaching survival strategies for knowledge societies of the future. We’re representing knowledge as fixed and static rather than messy and changeable and open to questioning. And, most importantly, we’re saying that our librarian knowledge can be condensed into everything you need to know, all packaged in a neat five box format. We’re selling ourselves and our expertise short when it is more necessary than ever before.

Ok, Alison. Enough with the histrionics. Just tell me what a thwarted list-lovin’ librarian is to do… Well, I think it depends on what you are going for. If you’re designing a guide for a class, build it round the research process, add context, distinguish between learning and doing. And if you’re still not convinced, I would love to hear your defence of guides. We could even start a list 🙂

Alison Hicks

University of Colorado, Boulder


alison.hicks (at)


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18 Comments for “Scrutinizing the Subject Guide. Or, putting my money where my mouth is…”

  • Sarah says:

    Ciao Alison, et. al. —

    You catch me in the middle of revising my general subject guides and wallowing in the agony of the same questions you raise. I’ve decided that my guides have two primary purposes, to provide a list of quick links for students and to help my colleagues.

    Students, that is who are finding oceans too much information on Google or JSTOR or ProjectMUSE (especially now that it’s searching books, too) and who want to *gasp* find fewer things.

    Therein lies the rub; we are used to listing everything but the kitchen sink because most of us “grew up” in an era of scarcity. Like my depression-era grandparents, we grabbed every possible item and held on to it for dear life, because someday it could be useful — and we might not be able to find it again.

    In this new economy of information, students are overwhelmed with the flood of sources. They need to let go, not hold on; drop the ballast, not cling to the scraps.

    Thus my attempt to provide quick links, although I’m not good yet about focusing on tasks (all help accepted). And avoid alphabetical order (talk about random hierarchies!) at all costs.

    The second purpose of my libguides is to help my colleagues who don’t know my subject areas assist students. As subjects become more interdisciplinary, I use the Art Bibliographer’s pages over and over to help literature students who work with images. What do I use most? The quick links to relevant databases. What do I read that the students don’t? Those ‘hidden’ information pop-up links with more information.

    How do I assuage my guilt at possibly missing out on something someone someday might need?

    – For one thing, in all honesty, I don’t have time to maintain a link-heavy subject guide. In 15 years of being a librarian I never have and I doubt I ever will.

    – For another, I can ask Cataloging to catalog extremely useful websites or databases when warranted, which means that _I_ can find them again because I know how to use subject headings. (Long live catalogers!)

    – And, I have a wonderful tab that was originally a compromise when three of us were working on a page and bringing different expectations to the table : “Starting Points for In-Depth Research.” On that tab I can put older books, list to my heart’s delight, ‘store’ things for future use, and comfort myself with the fact that I haven’t ‘dumbed down’ anything. I’ve simply labeled it accurately for the vast majority of users.

    And lastly, may I point out that in every user study that has been done in all four libraries in which I’ve worked over these past 15 years, never has it been found that users know what research guides _are_, let alone how to find them and use them?

    So the gauntlet I throw down, to add to Alison’s, is “why do we keep making these?”

  • Mei says:

    I agree with you on all points, yet I find myself helpless to keep adding links to already bloated lists. I’m following your last link to see if I can learn a better way 🙂


  • Sócrates says:

    I think my current LibGuides are consulted more by my colleagues than my students and I do find the attempt at exhaustive lists wasteful, both from the use of my time and the likelihood that a student might spend 30 minutes looking through all my tabs and sub-lists (my stats don’t reflect this happening).

    I really like the idea of building around the research process though I am sure I will have more questions about how to implement this as I go along. Anyway thank you as always for a thoughtful reflection.

  • Alison Hicks says:

    Thanks for all your feedback! As Sarah says- I don’t know why we keep doing these! Why have collaborative efforts at guides etc mostly failed? And how much money do people like Springshare make out of our desire to keep making lists?! As all of you mention I too use them for sources or topics that I’m not familiar with, but that in no way justifies ALL THAT EFFORT. In a way I wonder if they’re like our comfort blanket to reassure ourselves that we’re still useful- how do we wean ourselves off that? Or if they just suck because very few librarians (myself included) have instructional design experience? I do love the research process guide that I linked to above though. I have no answers I’m afraid- but think it’s probably tied up with the way we teach, old models of information practices and our overwhelming desire to help people…

  • Paloma says:

    At UW we have two types of guides: Research Guides (lib guides) and Library Course Pages. These last ones are specifically tailored for a course.

  • Miguel Torrens says:

    I am totally in agreement with Alison, Sarah, Socrates,… on the issue of subject guides. I do, however, have no warm feelings towards felines or any other pets, would not touch leftovers from panels with a the proverbial ten-foot pole, and never, ever, visit libraries while on holidays, unless I need to use them for my research.

    Saludos cordiales,

    Miguel (U. of Toronto)

    • Alison Hicks says:

      Wait, Miguel… are you sure you’re a real librarian?! (joke… I’m not a cat person either!)

  • Daisy Dominguez says:

    Great post, Alison, and I’m happy to see all the commentary, too. I particularly liked you pointing out that “…there’s only so much we can do with poorly designed research assignments that focus on the end research product while skipping over all the intermediary and more nuanced research process steps.” Some assignments do not require library use and sometimes, when they do, I think it’s expected that students know how to conduct research, so the library is seen as an archive of stuff rather than a setting where librarians can help students through the process of research. I really like that “instructionally robust” LibGuide. Some of us here use worksheets like that in our classes but it makes sense to carry it over onto our guides. I’m not sure I can eschew lists on my the “primary resources” section of my History guide, though. I figure in that case, undergrad assignments will not allow enough time for students to go to an actual archive, so if I at least link portals organized by time period; location; subject, etc., they’ll be able to narrow down their source and focus on analyzing it and integrating it into their paper, which I hope includes secondary sources which they have obtained using the research process. I guess if the main point of the assignment is to find a primary source, then in that case, my compilations don’t make sense. Which brings me back to the importance of how an assignment is designed and more specifically, having faculty engage librarians at that level so learning and research is seen as part of a process and not things you do in isolation in different departments.

  • Sarah says:

    The difficulty with “primary source” as a qualification deserves a blog post in itself. Faculty (and librarians) throw that term around without thinking and it’s so often dependent on the class and the assignment. Which brings us back to the importance of good assignments and thinking through the terminology.

    (Anything can be a primary source. Anything.)

  • Melissa Gasparotto says:

    I’ve had a lot of success using libguides for non-traditional research guides. What’s been really cool is offering the cms as a platform for the teaching faculty to collaborate with the library on things like reading groups, research centers and interdisciplinary departmental collaboration, conferences, etc. They’ve really run with it and some of the guides we’ve collaborated on are quite popular – one of the guides developed for a conference at Rutgers was not only cited in a peer reviewed article, but I’ve seen it shared on facebook by complete strangers!

    Generally speaking though, I find that the most popular section of each guide is the one for digital primary sources. I wouldn’t write off these guides just yet! 🙂

  • Alison Hicks says:

    Has anyone tried to get students to make their own research guides as part of an IL class? I’m thinking about trying that. It would be one way round the “study this because I told you to” and “work out what you need to study.” Time is always the problem for me and these classes though…

    • Paloma says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful article on this topic!

      Two libguides I am launching this week were created with help from PhD students in that department. The guides main objectives are to aid new grad students in the use of library resources. We had a focus group analysis to seek for feedback from other graduate students.

      I believe that libguides are a very valuable tool not only for reference but also for outreach if you get your patrons involved in one way or the other. I also believe that a libguide can be used, as Melissa says, for obscure topics. I have one for Cordel literature and another one for Cartonera publishers. These both get used frequently. The Cartonera one is a sort of clearing house for this topic that is not yet been widely documented in the academic world.

      I do, however, agree with you that we tend to create interminable lists in these research guides. A specific example for me was the Cartonera one that had gotten out of control. This summer it has gone through a major redesign to make it less overwhelming. I hope to launch the new version next week. I did this work, with help from library graduate students. They have so many creative solutions!

      As I mentioned before, here we make a distinction between:
      -Library Course Pages (created on a proprietary interface and tailored to the specific needs/assignments of each class and only accessible to the people enrolled and their instructor for the duration of the semester)


      -Research Guides (we use lib guides), more general in their information aimed to serve a larger public.

  • Diana Brooking says:

    At my institution, different people have different approaches, but the kind of guide you seem to be describing (“exhaustive” “totality of research” “all sources on a topic”) is in the minority. We try to focus on starting points for research for undergrads and for those unfamiliar with whatever the field is. Letting users just go fish for themselves in the endless sea of resources out there is not good service. (But neither is trying to reproduce that sea on a subject guide!)

  • Cindy Frank says:

    My favorite sentence: “We’re representing knowledge as fixed and static rather than messy and changeable and open to questioning.”
    For this academic year, my go to philosophy is going to be: Messy. It describes the thought process, design process, teaching process, research process…but not my desk.


  • Deb Raftus says:

    I see the guides as only one of many many many ways we offer our services and stuff to our users. I’m grateful I work where I do b/c of the support we get in creating our guides…I haven’t had to figure out the best practices myself, we have a whole team dedicated to it. To add to Diana B’s comments, and in defense of our guides…we’ve got an admirable and robust user experience team that has done extensive user testing. Their findings have guided our guides (and therefore kept them user-friendly and brief…they schedule regular LibGuide work parties for librarians to update their guides together, provide 1 on 1 help in maintaining your guide and in fixing any problems, and have created clear best practices and guidelines that we’re accountable to, based entirely on user feedback. If you need any usage stats and feedback, I may be able to get it for you. But in short, the people like them and use them, and therefore I trust that they are helpful and worth my time. (Very brief embedded tutorials help a lot with providing instruction and giving context. These tutorials are also are regularly updated, tested and assessed by another team, and are used much more than I ever imagined they would be.)

  • Sue Cardinal says:

    I have done some research on how my chemistry guide is used (Drupal platform, not libguides). First, who is for? I decided it is for advanced undergrads, grads (i.e. students) and faculty and put this on the guide. So I invited 4 faculty, 6 grads and 2 undergrads to cross out what they never used, circle what they used, and suggest additions. Then I asked them to draw their ideal guide. First – NONE of them said that it wasn’t useful (maybe they were being nice, but the usage stats and repeat visitors agree). Second, they all circled some things – databases, ejournals, my contact information, a link to the catalog, and link to their dept, chemistry drawing software and interlibrary loan. Third, they did not want web search tools. That was when I realized that this guide is for me also. I kept the search tools but buried it so far down that only I use it (as reminders). And as someone mentioned, my colleagues use it also to introduce me, and to point to major sources in chemistry. It doesn’t cover everything. And there are broken links, especially in the underlying pages. Not perfect and never will be, but functional. Best of all the Chemistry department likes it, uses it, links to it. It is kind of like shelving for the digital materials until the “discovery” tool is so fantastic, it isn’t needed.

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