How a librarian can be a postgrad’s best friend

Since I haven’t posted on the Thesis Whisperer before, I’d better introduce myself by explaining that I’m a music librarian of many years’ standing who has recently completed a PhD.  This means I have useful insights into LibraryLand and into doctoral study.

By way of helping you get to know me, I thought I’d share with you my most embarrassing possession: the “First Class Librarian” mug that my mum bought me a couple of years ago.  It tells the world that I’m: “Proud to be a public serving, friendly, book stamping, softly spoken, helpful, well read librarian”. I think it’s the “book stamping” that annoys me most -  next, of course,  to the “softly spoken” epithet.  Fetch me my twinset and pearls!  Truth to tell, it wouldn’t matter if I spoke at a normal volume, given the amount of noise our undergrads make, but I digress.

I very rarely stamp books.  I do write and give papers on 19th century Scottish song-collecting and cultural nationalism.  This might be a little extreme, but I think it demonstrates that you shouldn’t underestimate your librarian!  So I’ve established that I am a highly qualified and exceptionally helpful college librarian.  How can librarians like me help you?

Here’s five ways:

Let us do the looking for you

We academic librarians love digging out information.  No, we won’t do your research for you (though I very nearly did, when an Honours student made the mistake of asking for help with a subject very close to my own thesis – I was like a Jack Russell once I got my teeth into that particular query!). We’re great at sourcing obscure materials, running inter library loans to ground, or interrogating databases.  Or, indeed, showing you how to run effective search strategies for yourself.

Give us time to do the looking

There are ways you can help your librarian to help you – it’s not rocket science, but might save you both some time. Please give us enough warning when you need books, articles or other items to be sourced.  I work with musicians – maybe no other breed is worse for giving insufficient notice when something isn’t in stock!  If the answer to: “And when do you need this trio sonata?”, is “Well, the first rehearsal is on Thursday,”  there’s not much I can do to help you on a late Tuesday afternoon … Similarly, if something’s got to be purchased, we honestly do our best, but – well, you know how long Amazon takes to deliver.  They take just the same amount of time delivering to our address as yours.

Tell us what you are really looking for

Make sure the information you give us about your reference is as precise as it can be.  Pass on all the bibliographic details you can. It can help to tell us where you found the reference or what you think you need it for.  Sometimes this gives us clues as to where to start looking.

You’re probably smart enough to realise this, but be wary of information sourced on the net.  In my library, not so long ago, I was asked for three items for a first year undergraduate essay.  One was an article in an Italian journal. Sourcing it was going to be expensive and time-consuming; had the student looked closely at the title of the article she would have realised it wasn’t going to help with her essay and might well not have arrived on time anyway.  Another reference she wanted was a book still being written!

Where had she found these references?  Wikipedia.

Look, sometimes Wikipedia is great; other times not so much.  It depends on the author of the article and the standard of their citations.  I suspect this entry was written by the author of the not-yet-written book, so it’s unlikely the information would have been impartial.

Let us help you from the beginning…

Many people don’t realise they can ask their librarian for help with maintaining a bibliography, early on in their research career. A librarian can help you get all the information in there, reasonably formatted, so that it’s less effort compiling the thesis bibliography later.  They may be able to help with a range of bibliographic software, whether EndNote, RefWorks, Zotero or something else.  They are probably the best guide to what your college or university officially offers you access to.

… don’t ask us to fix all your problems at the end!

Once you’ve got somewhere to store your references, use it!  (Sorry to shout!)  Then you won’t be like the rather subdued Honours student who came to ask for help working out just which book her quotation had originally come from.  She’d copied the quote, but not kept a note of the source.  Oops!  We did work it out between us, but on this occasion Googlebooks couldn’t help: it took much more detective work.

So that’s my top five tips for getting the most out of your college librarian. If I had the chance to re-word my mug, come to think of it, it would look something like this:-

“Proud to be a very helpful, totally committed and well-informed librarian … in my next life I’ll be either a detective or a clairvoyant!”

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8 thoughts on “How a librarian can be a postgrad’s best friend

  1. Thanks for the article! I love my uni library but know I don’t use the librarians as much as I should. i will try to do better. :)

  2. I will scream from the roof tops how incredibly valuable Lisa Donnelly, LaTrobe uni librarian, was in my (nearly finished) doctorate. All of the above p,us one other point, which in my case was massive. I had started on my nice neat topic, all going swimmingly. Then I stumbled on what seemed like an incredible new insight, that I was sure couldn’t be original, and if so, was going to comp,eatery change the whole direction of the thesis. Lisa was able to do the extensive checking on the originality, and thus help assure my supervisor that the risky move I was taking wasn’t totally loopy. I am now working across five disciplines, with no discipline of my own. This has left me totally isolated, and struggling to publish because most journals are so narrowly linked to a discipline. Over the three years, my confidence has lagged often. My supervisors have been great, but Lisa has been the most outspoken supporter. It is her confidence in my theories, and solid research basis to back it, which has made a massive difference to my continuing to take the risk I am with my topic. Should it make the splash I hope it will, then the role of the librarian will be mentioned in every single talk.

  3. Hi,

    Thank you for the article. Though I visit library:) quite often, I didnt know that I can approach librarian to help with my research. Thanks for that, now I am running to see my lovely librarian:))

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