Mastering the Research Maze

Forum Guides Grad Students Through Libraries’ Resources

By Drew ScottMarch 7, 2017

In September, life sciences librarian Steve Adams stood before eight incoming graduate students, preparing to open the door to University Libraries’ vast world of resources. But first he had to diffuse some anxiety.

For many of the students, the coming academic year would mark their first encounter with the demands of graduate-level research. Though the Libraries are a natural partner in that effort, Adams knows the sheer quantity of an academic library’s holdings can seem overwhelming.

“Sometimes grad students feel like they ought to know this already, but they don’t have to,” he told the students, gently trying to set them at ease. “Librarians are here to help you with all kinds of stuff.”

Adams then began an overview of databases that could be useful to these biological science students, offered tips for evaluating reams of journal articles, and introduced the students to issues they may never have considered, like determining which sources to cite when participating in certain scientific conversations.

Adams’s session was one of dozens held in early September, and the students were among several hundred who would go on to participate in an event known as the Research Resources Forum (RRF). Created in 2002 in partnership with Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Northwestern University Information Technology, the forum seeks to demystify the Libraries’ sometimes intimidating maze of information and services.

During the event, grad students mingled with the librarians assigned to their fields of study, toured labs and work spaces, and attended sessions on app-based time-saving tools, automated bibliographic software, and mapping programs.

In her session, data management librarian Cunera Buys covered a topic that might have struck many students as an afterthought: what to do with all the data collected during research. In federally funded research, for which data should be made available to all, students must be prepared to face multiple questions: How will your data be shared? What provisions do you have for reusing it? How will others be able to review it?

Of course, Buys said, librarians are standing by with software solutions, consultations, and advice for managing the monumental process.

The RRF represents a vital effort by the Libraries to help students find essential resources that are “hidden in plain sight,” said Harriet Lightman, history librarian and head of Research and Learning Services. But the forum didn’t start out as an intensive library orientation; in the early days, the event highlighted the Libraries’ nascent digital collections for just a few dozen graduate students.

“Over the years, it became clear that students have grown accustomed to finding resources themselves from a laptop or smart phone,” said Lightman, who also helped create the annual event. But many important resources are unavailable via a cursory sweep of the free web, she noted. “Libraries and librarians are still your best bet for finding the precise information you need in the least amount of time.”

The RRF has now become an essential boot camp for graduate-level research, and the Libraries partner with all schools on campus to showcase the Libraries’ offerings.

“It has given us unparalleled exposure,” Lightman said. “We’ve been able to help our graduate students navigate the immense complexity of our library in particular. And we’ve reinforced the notion that the library is a full partner in all campus activities.”

Now, with hundreds of attendees each year, the RRF is the chief method of disseminating what may be the most important message these students will receive: “You can do this. And the Libraries can help.”

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