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...

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)