Thoughts on Library Research Guides

Thoughts on Library Research Guides

Since I came back to the law library from my professional development leave, I have been looking at and thinking about the research guides I have written here.  (You can view the list of them.)  I was never formally trained on writing research guides.  I learned a little bit about them, conceptually, in library school, but mainly I have developed my own process and style by just doing them.

I think my philosophy about research guides has changed a little over the years.  In the past, I thought that bigger is definitely better.  Certainly the guides that I have done for German Law Research and Alternative Dispute Resolution Research are quite broad in terms of the number of topics covered and number of resources referenced.  Those guides generate a lot of interest in terms of traffic and hits, not just from Harvard but from all over the world.  People clearly find them helpful on some level.

However, I seem to be shifting a bit toward preferring to write smaller guides on narrower topics.  Like every librarian, I have a unique set of interests, strengths, and favored research techniques, and I think my guides should reflect those.

I am also thinking about how to maximize the utility of the guides that I write for Harvard Library users.  The Harvard Library has over 17 million volumes across all its libraries’ collections.  That’s a lot!  Many of the physical books and journals in the collection are stored off-site and cannot be physically browsed on the Harvard campus by library users.

In addition, our library catalog, HOLLIS, has been evolving over the last few years, as are catalogs at other academic libraries.  What I’ve been hearing about user feedback related to academic library catalogs is that people want a one-stop shop that delivers books and periodical articles, with a Google-like single-box search interface.  Of course a catalog that is set up like this makes quick searches easier.  However, it also might make it more difficult to dive deeply into a very nuanced scholarly topic, to maximize the relevancy of search results, and to find all the relevant materials in the collection, especially if users do not know very much about advanced searching.

The bottom line for me: I think it’s important to help library users where they are, and where many of them are is online, maybe even on their phone, looking for the fastest and easiest way to find the exact library materials they need.  And who can blame them for that?  If research is arduous and frustrating, then it’s not fun.  As someone who loves research, I hate the thought of that!

So the last two guides I have written for the law library have been very much of a “niche” variety.  For each of these guides, I took a smaller topic and wrote a guide describing, on a single web page with lots of links, the best options that I know to use to research it.

One of these new guides, Organized Crime in Italy, was written after I worked with a student who is doing some research in this area.  I have to admit I am more than a little fascinated with this topic.  I also wanted the opportunity to practice working with Italian-language resources.  Of course, in writing this guide, I am not doing the student’s research for her, but I am suggesting options that are available to her, based on my experience as a researcher here at Harvard.

The other guide I wrote recently is Resistance to the National Socialist Government in Germany.  This was also in created in response to a research area in which one of our users is interested.  As the library’s expert in German law, and because the Harvard Library has so many relevant materials on this subject, this was too important a guide for me not to spend my time on.

As for the contents of the guides themselves, anyone who looks at my guides will see immediately how much I love Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) as an indexing instrument.  I always include links to pre-populated HOLLIS searches by subject, using controlled LCSH vocabulary, in my guides.  This is the surest way I know to find relevant books on a subject, regardless of publication language.

Writing a research guide is, in my experience as a research librarian, the best and most rewarding way to learn about a topic and about optimal research techniques.  But it is definitely more important that a guide is readable and useful to the researchers who are looking for help on how research should be done at your library.  Going forward, I will continue to work toward that as my primary goal.

About: Jennifer Allison

Librarian for Foreign, Comparative, and International Law, Harvard Law School Library.
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