“Library Orientation” for Graduate Students

It’s one week into the new semester, and I’ve already hosted 3 groups of graduate students for “library orientations.”  Since this often happens at the start of the academic year, it seems an appropriate first post about instruction. I prefer for information literacy instruction to coincide with a research assignment, scheduled close enough to the due date for students to be ready to research. The beginning of the year is not that time. I can usually fend off requests for undergraduate instruction until later by making the case that most of them write their papers 1-2 days before the due date.1 That’s a harder sell when it comes to graduate students. And while it may be true that the grad students aren’t as afflicted with procrastination as the undergrads (although I have my doubts), I’m fairly certain they aren’t thinking about library research the same week they moved into their new apartment, met new people, went over a few syllabi and then proceeded to question their life choices.

So how to handle an orientation divorced from real research activity? Tour the building? No. No one cares where the microforms room is unless they need to look at a particular reel of microfilm. (Don’t fret microform aficionados; I’ll defend the format pedagogically in a future post.) Demonstrations of databases I think they’ll need eventually? I pity the student who has to sit through that. Decline all requests for library orientations? Tempting, but that’s not very politic. And I concede, there are a few things graduate students should probably know from the start of their academic journey.

I first consider what do I know about these graduate students? They bring with them some set of research experiences. They demonstrated sufficient academic skills and potential to be accepted into grad school. Presumably not everyone in the group went to the same undergrad institution, so they’ve had a diverse educational background in research skills and subject matter, and are not on the same page. They are passionate about some academic topic, which is why they came to graduate school, but everyone’s passion will be different. And most, if not all, will be new to my institution.

Second, what do graduate students need to know about the library and graduate-level research to succeed? Some things are time sensitive, like signing up for one of the limited graduate carrels available. They are about to be bombarded with an amount of reading to which they are not accustomed. And they may not know it, but they just entered the unique and unpredictable political arena of their academic department, with personal and administrative idiosyncrasies that developed long before they got to this place.

And that’s how I lesson plan an orientation. I’ve thought about what they know, what they need to know in the first few weeks, and that’s what I want to cover. I don’t try to prepare them for the entirety of their graduate careers in one session. Not possible given the short time, the diversity of the crowd, and I don’t have all the answers anyway.

I start with services. While demonstrating where this information is on the library website, I tell them to sign up for a research carrel, I tell them how many books they can check out and other special borrowing privileges, and emphasize that InterLibrary Loan (ILL) is their friend. I also talk about me; I will buy the books they want, help them track down obscure citations, and be available when they need to sit down and work through their research hurdles one-on-one. And I throw in where the Music & Media Center is for when they need to take a break with DVD episodes of Treme or some of the latest from “Trombone” Shorty. (Look him up, he’s great.)

I can’t let them leave without talking about the catalog and databases, but they’re not actually researching. So I couch it in something else. If I have enough time, I make it a session on citation management software. Zotero is my favorite, and graduate students are pretty receptive to this kind of tool early on. So while they see the wonders of citation management, they’re also seeing the important article database in their discipline (no, it’s not JSTOR), and the catalog. That means they see how to get full text with our link resolvers, and how the stacks are organized without the accusations they didn’t already know this, or embarrassment at having to ask this late in their schooling lives.

If there’s not much time allotted, I skip Zotero but at least show them where I put the LibGuide for their discipline, and the helpful links it contains. I do give them pointers on keeping current and keeping up with the scholarship they need to be a part of. I talk about reading book reviews, setting up e-mail notifications to new issues of their important journals, and knowing what their professors have published and reviewed. Not that they should cite their advisor in every paper they write, but they certainly don’t want to miss that citation when it’s warranted. And that will make scholarly conversations in the hallway that much easier.

And that’s it. I can’t always hit all these notes in one session, and if I have covered all this then they’ve probably absorbed everything they can. I keep it loose and informal, not as structured as a lesson plan for undergrads. I account for their previous experiences and knowledge by engaging with them as colleagues, not students, and I try to address their immediate needs. I know what they’re going through, having been there myself, and I’m here to help.

Coming soon: My presentation at the NOLA Information Literacy Collective Forum 2013 about content analysis in sociology, primary sources, and hands-on learning with print resources at the library.  There will be lagniappe!


1Head, Alison J., and Michael B. Eisenberg, “Finding Context: What Today’s College Student Say about Conducting Research in the Digital Age,” Project Information Literacy Progress Report (Information School, University of Washington, 2009): 7.

One thought on ““Library Orientation” for Graduate Students

  1. My graduate orientations look very similar. I am highlighting services, asking them what they want to know about, talking about bibliographic management, and showing them the guide. I give them some play time in the databases if they want, and, like you, try to show that we are colleagues and that I am here to help. Nice post!

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