Librarians can help you find stuff, but who helps you organize it?

Lately I’ve been contemplating how much academic libraries should be involved in helping students learn to organize their research. Sure, we do information literacy, which apparently includes “information management strategies,” but from my experience that goes no further than how to use a citation manager to create a bibliography.

“Desktop Sketching” by Flickr user Eric Heupel, CC-BY-NC 2.0

I work mostly with graduate students, and as a graduate student myself, I’ve struggled with getting a handle on my sources. I started out as a “print everything” person, and fantasized about keeping a massive file cabinet with a single file for each reading (I know, I’m a dinosaur). I used a legal pad during class so I could tear out my notes and file them away with my annotated hard copy of the article. The problem with that system (other than the obvious environmental concerns) was its supreme lack of portability. Inevitably I’d bring the wrong file folder or forget my notebook, and either way when it came time to write I was mired in stacks of paper. Worse, all of my annotations were siloed away in their own little files, out of sight and out of mind.

I’m just about done with my second master’s degree and I still haven’t found a system as reliable as the one with index cards that my high school English teacher taught me. Think about it: they’re small, portable, and can easily be re-ordered and re-grouped depending on how your argument is taking shape. They force me to succinctly form my idea and write. It. Down. Index cards are like long-form post-its, which we all seem to love. So why do they have such a bad rap?

I think part of this comes from people who are accustomed to being with their own computer all the time. I know you’re out there, and I used to be one of you. But when you’re in that place it’s hard to imagine what life is like when having sustained time in front of a computer is a luxury. I’m a working parent who is also a graduate student, so my research has to fit into my life. Sometimes that means bringing the laptop into the kitchen, because that’s the only room where I can get 30 minutes without being interrupted (they think I’m cooking). Sometimes it means reading theory (or worse, trying to write it) while the theme song from Thomas the Tank Engine blares in the background. But whatever the case, it means that most days I have to work across devices and grab what I can when I can (and hope I can find it later). My research materials are print and digital, with messy boundaries between them. And whatever workflow I develop has to be able to migrate from my personal computer to a public, shared computer. Sometimes that’s an index card and sometimes that’s the cloud. (As much as I hate the idea of relying so heavily on “the cloud,” I know that as a parent/student I could not have gotten through my classes without it.) The trick, for me, is finding a way to work with both.

I’ve had to learn how to use digital tools to increase my research productivity out of necessity, not because of some fetishized notion of efficiency (though there’s enough of that to go around these days). And, as a librarian, I’m compelled to figure out how we can help students who have similar struggles.

My library is beginning to develop workshops that introduce research management tools to graduate students. Is it within the library’s purview to do so? I think so. Does it fall under the umbrella of “information literacy”? Maybe. I think of it as part research skills, part citation management, and part personal digital archiving. Mostly, our first workshop is an attempt to pick up where disciplinary training leaves off, and it relies heavily on the resources compiled ever-so-helpfully here.

So, what digital tools do you wish your methods or research skills course had covered? What would be helpful for incoming graduate students to know about managing a research workflow?

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