Research librarians demystify VC’s extensive resources

Vassar boasts over a million voulmes in its library, in addition to vast online resources for scholarly research. The College’s research librarians pose as helpful guides to direct students through this labyrinth. Photo By: Jacob Gorski
Vassar boasts over a million voulmes in its library, in addition to vast online resources for scholarly research. The College’s research librarians pose as helpful guides to direct students through this labyrinth. Photo By: Jacob Gorski
Vassar boasts over a million voulmes in its library, in addition to vast online resources for scholarly research.
The College’s research librarians pose as helpful guides to direct students through this labyrinth. Photo By: Jacob Gorski

As the semester winds down and the workload piles up, students will spend a great amount of time in the library. However, when it comes to doing research, students might not realize that research librarians can make the process infinitely easier.

When Julianna Shinnick ‘14 needed help with research for her Women, Crime, and Punishment paper, she set up an appointment with Research Librarian Gretchen Leib. The College’s research librarians assist students and faculty with finding and accessing the sources they need, and as the times and student body have changed, so have they.

At each step of the process, research librarians are there  to help guide students through the collection’s vast pools of print and digital information, over one million volumes and subscriptions to 70,000 publications, according to the library website. Sometimes an item will be here in the library or it will be at another school, in which a student will have to complete an Interlibrary Loan (ILL) Request. This, too, can require a librarian’s assistance.

Shinnick met Leib in the Research Consultation Area past the main lobby. She told her what she was looking for.

Said Shinnick, “I’m writing about HIV/AIDS care in prison. And I’m trying to show that the risk factors for being in prison are the same as having AIDS, they’re very similar. So I’m looking for information on the influence of race and class on…

“…on prison?” asked Leib.

“..on AIDS,” said Shinnick “and I’ve been coming up really short I don’t know why.”

“Okay, have you tried using soc abstract?”

Students like Shinnick can contact research librarians through many different methods through phone, email, and even chat.

Though the work rhythm varies through the year, often paralleling the work rhythms of students, on a busy day research librarian Carol Lynn Marshall says they will have ten-twelve research consultations a week. This doesn’t include the daily short emails and chat messages she receives from students asking all types of questions, and, according to Marshall, many of them are very similar. Students want to know where to look for an article on a certain subject or, if they have already found it, want help accessing it. Marshall said research librarians exist to answer anything the student asks, no matter how small.

“There is absolutely no stupid question,” said Marshall. “We’re librarians. Our job is to be interrupted.”

Indeed, Leib also worries students are too hesitant to ask librarians.

“Sometimes I am concerned that some students don’t feel like their questions merits calling someone, but it does,” said Leib.

A librarian is always on call from 8:30am-5:00pm weekdays and available in-person Sunday-Thursday.

You can find them at the Research Consultation Area, a lounge-style arrangement of chairs, a coffee table and a sofa in what the librarians hope is a more conversational space.

Its predecessor was a research desk that Leib, who has worked as a research librarian at Vassar since 2000, said saw more visitors.

The internet and the digitization of information has changed the modes of research. Students can access databases remotely and they can contact librarians remotely.

“The whole virtuality for me has been a loss with working in person with students, which is what I like doing the most,” said Leib. “We talk about the old days when we would go home physically tired from the lines of people at the desk. Now it is mostly answering emails.”

Although internet has made things less personal, it has expedited loan programs. A student expecting a book or article from Interlibrary Loans can expect the item to typically come in within three days to a week. This was not the case for Leib when she was student twenty years ago, and loan requests were sent by mail.

“No matter what college you went to you had to jump through hoops of fire to prove you needed it,” said Leib. “Three days? We had to wait for weeks before we got an article. And there was always the question if it would even come in.”

Marshall and the five other research librarians divide all of the academic programs and departments among each other, so that each librarian has a specialty and particular knowledge in certain fields. When they are not helping students, research librarians are busy meeting with vendors, acquiring new items for the collection, and attending the occasional conference.

Shinnick, still finding no luck, asked Leib how she could refine her search.

“You can do something like to narrow those factors,” said Mucher.

“I’m looking at especially at African-American and Latina women,” said Shinnick.

“That’s good. You can add that in quotes.  What you are doing is creating a very simple mathematical statement. Theses things. And then x or y.”

Several minutes had passed with still no promising sources until Leib suggested inserting an “and” before “race” and “class” in the search. Shinnick tried it and 9,000 articles on the topic of prison and race and class appeared on the screen.

Head of Collection Development and Research Services Debra Bucher has been at Vassar for four years, and has accumulated 22 years as a research librarian at different colleges and universities. In her time, she has come to a conclusion of what her work means to her.

“We see ourselves as teachers [and] our mission as one of teaching how to be self-reliant,” said Bucher. Students are taught the steps of research and they can apply those steps in other papers, classes, and any moment beyond Vassar.

Marshall thinks that just as important as learning self-reliance is learning self-confidence. Said Marshall, “Next time you’ll need this you’ll feel less anxious and know exactly how to do it.”

And then Bucher added quickly, “But always knowing that you can come back to us as many times as you need to.”

“Yes, that’s what you learn,” said Marshall, “that you should come talk to librarians cause they’ll help you.”

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