How Scholars Work: Panning for Gold in Libraries

By Ryan, Marianne; Nixon, Judith M. | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

How Scholars Work: Panning for Gold in Libraries

Ryan, Marianne, Nixon, Judith M., Reference & User Services Quarterly

Numerous articles have been written about the impact of today's simplified, remote access to information on the research habits of scholars, but few have probed the research process from the germination of an idea through the steps that bring it to fruition in this era. This article, part current study and part retrospective, does just that. Here Judith M. Nixon lends her insight into how liberal arts scholars engage in the research process. Sharing outcomes discovered through a recent workshop series offered by the Purdue University Libraries, Nixon suggests that the previously held notion of what made liberal arts scholars tick no longer holds in today's information environment--at least not entirely. She likens scholars' current approach to information seeking to panning for gold. The immediate past editor of this column, Nixon once again demonstrates the value of gathering and assessing user data to inform management decisions. In describing how humanities and social sciences scholars now work, she ably articulates a recommendation for how libraries can interact more effectively with them and help facilitate their approach to research as it continues to change.--Editor

How do liberal arts scholars work? For example, where do they get their ideas? When beginning a research project, do they start with a Google search, or the library's homepage? How and when do scholars use libraries and library resources--especially library-funded databases? How has research changed since the explosion of the Web?

These are questions that I and the other social science and humanities librarians at Purdue University Libraries have been asking. The answers would help us provide the necessary resources for scholarly pursuits and improve interaction between researchers and librarians. To begin to find answers, we invited selected faculty members and students to a How Scholars Work series. Every Thursday afternoon in October 2008 we held a panel discussion asking three to four scholars to share their research methods. We listened. Participants included undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty from accounting, classical field archaeology, art history, English, foreign languages and literature, history, philosophy, and sociology.

To kick off the series we invited Carole Palmer, associate professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and director of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science's Center for Informatics, to be our keynote speaker. Palmer's presentation was directly tied to her emerging research into how scholars in the humanities and the social sciences are working.(1) Her findings, corroborated by the research of Carol Tenopir,(2) reveal that today's scholars are looking at more articles than in the past--about 230 per year--but spending less time with each article. However, they are analytically engaged even if they are not reading. Palmer identified such "nonreading" activities as scanning, exploring, and looking at indexes and abstract tools, but not actually reading the article from beginning to the end. She also identified other activities that are similar to reading: probing, rereading, monitoring, and reading around. She noted that researchers in the humanities read around, collect, and reread while scientists, who are more fast-paced and horizontal, tend to scan more frequently. Additionally, Palmer identified a behavior called "chaining" in which one thing leads to another and another. She also mentioned that scholars are collecting articles to own and to reread in the future. They are building thematic collections of research resources, including manuscripts, published research, and data. With Palmer's research results in mind, we were motivated to listen to what our scholars had to tell us about their unique searching methods.


We tend to think of the liberal arts scholar, especially, the humanities researcher, as a solitary, person sitting quietly in a study carrel reading and getting ideas from reading, then writing single-authored papers. …

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