E-JASL: The Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship


Date of this Version

Fall 2003

Document Type



Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship (Fall 2003) 4(2-3). Also available at http://southernlibrarianship.icaap.org/content/v04n03/Shaw_s01.htm.


Copyright 2003, the author. Used by permission.



This essay will explore research in the undergraduate curriculum by examining the divergent ways research is understood. The debate centers around the ways that the typical student perceives the role of the library in her education at the university. To limit the discussion to the relation between the student and the librarian misses the larger issue at stake. What needs does the average undergraduate have after completion of the B.A., if they have no plans to continue education further? Are research skills necessary only for the graduate student, or is there some truth to the humanistic notion of 'knowledge for knowledge's sake?"

There are three key sections to this essay; the first examines the perceived role of the academic library, in an overview fashion, from both the undergraduate and the casual reader of library literature. The second examines what I am calling the 'BI' (Bibliographic Instruction) model of research; what is usually taught in the one-shot 50 minute sessions about how to hunt down citations and navigate the OPAC and relevant databases. The last examines the 'humanistic' tradition which posits research as a democratizing tool needed for an effective citizenry.

It is argued that the BI model is a tool necessary to have in our cognitive toolbox and the humanistic model is the mindset necessary to see the value in the tool. As an imperfect analogy, consider the frustrated high school freshman forced to learn algebra. "Why do I have to learn this," he cries, "I'll never have to use the quadratic equation after I leave here!" The role of the successful teacher is to show him why he will need the overall mathematical philosophy learned, even if the specific formula will never again surface. So it is with research--although the average student will never have to track citations down with ISI Web of Science, the skillset she learns will be tested and used even without her knowing it.


We must move out of packaging undergraduate research. Yes it is understood that it a goal we all adopt and that there is real disagreement over whose provenance it is, but this all misses the central point that we have conflated two different conceptions of what research actually is. To the average student, research means the ability to pull up resources her professor will accept as footnotes in an essay. For the educator and librarian, it means a lifelong tool that is the bedrock for civilization; it is the ability to critically assess all possible information sources for relevance and worth. This is of greater and greater import in this wired world, but the recognition of the import of the mission is in danger of being lost.

Again, this is all lost if the students do not realize for themselves the benefit they stand to lose by not having this skill. Few undergraduates bother to consider the library as a place that offers classes, can help them with more than 'the printer is out of toner,' and more importantly can help them beyond this class and this assignment. How is this to be accomplished? Perhaps by recognizing (MacDonald et alia 2000) that we have to build for the future. The libraries have to take the research paradigm beyond the one-shot classes (while not discarding them, mind you) and actively involve the undergraduate, graduate, faculty, staff and community member. Borrow a page from the public library and have classes just for non-campus members, pop-up BI ads on the OPAC, posted signs on the walls and near the computers, hand out slingers as students check out books, take out advertisements in the student papers, mail handouts to student advisors. The list is endless, but so are the needs.