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Got a research paper to write? Friend a librarian

CampusOverload.jpgSpring break is over. April is here. Those end-of-the-semester deadlines are not quite as distant as you think. And chances are your to-do list includes at least one research paper.

Ah, college research papers -- it takes most students all four years to figure out how to complete them quickly and accurately (especially through hang-overs or Red Bull jitters).

Your secret weapon? The college reference librarian.

No, seriously. And here are some reasons why:

BarbaraFister.jpgThey can help get you started, even if you don't understand your topic.

As soon as you get a research paper assignment, stop by your library's reference desk and ask for help, says Barbara Fister, academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minn. "The reference desk is an underutilized site for one-on-one individualized help," she said. "And if you're not on campus, chances are there's a chat reference."

beth_mark.jpgUnderstanding the assignment is half the battle, says Beth Mark, instruction coordinator at the Murray Library at Messiah College in Grantham, Penn. "We often work with students to either narrow the research topic or broaden it," she says. "A topic that is too narrow won't produce the results needed for the student and a topic that is too broad oftentimes overwhelms the student with thousands of results."

They are Google experts.

Let's get this straight: Most reference librarians do not hate Google. They just get frustrated when students think a #1 hit means a reliable source.

PriscillaAtkins.jpgAnd if used correctly, search engines like Google can be beneficial, said Priscilla Atkins, library head of reference and instruction at Hope College in Holland, Mich. Plus, Google offers more advanced search options, like Google Scholar and Google Books. Reference librarians can show students how to do that.

"Googling is not a cause for dismay," she says. "I don't know anyone who doesn't use Google; but in 2010, it's still the case that reference books and scholarly articles provide the most authoritative information on most topics."

But when Googling, students need to take a hard look at the source of their information.

"Think about your sources being your expert witnesses: if you were in court and your expert witness showed up in jeans and flip-flops... do you think the jury would be impressed?" Fister said. "Pick your expert witnesses with an eye on not just what they say, but what impression they'll make on your audience."

donna miller.jpgBut don't think that being tech savvy alone makes you a good researcher, cautions Donna Miller, a librarian at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Penn.
"A cook can be wonderfully adept with the gadgets found in today's kitchens, but nevertheless whip up dreadfully tasting meals," says Miller. "It's very easy to conduct awful information searches, yet be quite proficient with technology."

They have access to information you didn't even know existed.

Susan_McClintock.JPGMost college libraries give students access to online tutorials, online research guides, electronic databases and electronic journal subscriptions. Susan McClintock, head of reference at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., said a librarian can help you figure out which ones to use.

"We want them to understand that research is like being a detective. Just looking is not enough," she says. "To solve the case you need to look in the best places for the clues. Then you need to analyze the results to make sure you have solved the case."


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By Jenna Johnson  |  April 9, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
 
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