Essays and rants on libraries, technology, webdev, etc. by Ruth Collings

Library Instruction Tutorial

This is a lesson plan I put together in Fall 2015 to give to first year Biology students at Mount Allison University. It is spell-checked, but that's about it in terms of editing. I write talks like this colloquially, but in the end I usually don't actually say exactly what is on this page and I only talk from an outline. There is no powerpoint, I teach live. This lecture-style tutorial takes me 45 minutes with a short stretch and wake up break in the middle to take a full 50 minute class time, which is also what I estimate to be the maximum student attention span. I gave this talk four times so they were slightly different each time, but mostly the same. Students did not ask any questions worth mentioning.

I produced a handout with an outline of what I talked about and it was on paper because many of them didn't bring laptops -- laptops are banned in their lectures. I then took notes for myself on a copy of the handout which I have included.

They had an assignment to complete based on this lab that would be due in next week's lab so what I taught was somewhat reflected in that, although the assignment was written by the Lab Instructor.

I then designed a quick online survey to gather feedback, but I did not get consent or ethics approval so I will not be sharing that data.

Feel free to remix/reuse with or without attribution as convenient.

  • How to search the Library Catalogue (Books, Journals, DVDs…)
  • What is a Call Number?
  • What are the Library Hours?
  • A-Z List of Databases
  • Finding Journal Articles
  • How to Contact Us (the library)
  • Getting research help, for this or any other class

You can search the library website here or navigate here or here depending on what you're looking for, but there are a couple key points I want to draw your attention to. Here is the library hours. Notice the hours are different during exam time (longer) and the public research help desk hours are shorter.

THIS box is where you search for books [CATALOGUE].

What's the name of your textbook for this course? This is what you'll get. Click on the title and it will take you to the item's page. If it's an online resource, there will be a little button down here that says URL that you can click on. If it's a paper copy, there will be what's called a Call Number.

[Q]]Does anybody here know what a call number is?

The call number for this book is [RC 51 L53 2001]. Now, university libraries don't organize books the same way public libraries or school libraries do, they're not organized by title or author, they're organized by subject. So we use these codes to file them properly. It might seem weird now, but once you figure it out it all start making sense. So the first two digits are always letters and always refer to the general subject. R is Medicine so RC is a narrower subject in Medicine, Internal Medicine. And you'll see signs on all the shelves saying what letters are in that row, and on all of the doors in the stairwells there are yellow signs with lists of which categories are on which floors.

So the next part of the call number is any number between 1 and 999. These are also sub-sub-categories. Then there will be another letter and another set of numbers identifying this specific book. The last four numbers are always the year. So if you keep in mind that you need to read from left to right, one section at a time, and look at the signs on the shelves, you should be able to find what you're looking for. And of course, if you get stuck, you can find a librarian and ask for help.

Other important links on the library homepage are the A-Z List of Databases as you get more experience in a specific area you'll come to know the databases that are the most important for that subject and you can look them up quickly here. We're about to go more in depth about databases, but what you need to know is that most scientific information is not available for free online. Most of it you have to pay to access. Part of your tuition goes towards the library paying for these databases, which are big piles of journal articles, and other things.

There are a lot of ways you can get help if you need it, you can use the chat or email the research help desk or me individually (not the fastest option) or come to the library research help desk. Librarians there can help you with most questions.

The subject guide. These are put together by librarians to gather together all the resources you will need to use in a given research area. If you have classes in French Literature we have a guide for that too. There are guides for every subject, and you shouldn't just use the one whose department you're in, use the one most related to the topic you're researching. Today I'm going to talk about the [Biology] guide, but if what you're doing is more envirosci or biochemistry you should look at those guides too.

In the guide right off the bat I have the databases you're probably going to have the most luck in using. Google Scholar is there, but we're going to come back to it later. There's also some books and magazines, more primary sources, sources for data and reports, what's often called "grey literature", and some APA citation guides. On the Help page there's me with my email address and my office hour schedule. There's also a few other places you can go for help. So I'm not going to spend a huge amount of time going into this because you can bookmark it and look at it yourself. The URL is []

One thing about using the subject guide is that when you are on campus, the databases all know you're a mount allison student because of your location, like Yik Yak. But when you're off campus it doesn't know you're a student so it will ask you to pay for articles. You should never pay for articles. If you just bookmark a database itself and go to it, it doesn't know who you are. So go through the library website to get to the databases and you'll get a log in screen asking for your mount a username and password and you'll be good to go.

Databases come in two flavours: indexes and full text. Usually they're a mix, honestly. An index is just a search engine. It compiles citations and abstracts and links them together and makes them easy to search. But when you search in them, there won't be a PDF link to the actual article. Usually there will be a link somewhere that says "Find Full Text @ MTA" and you can click that and it will search to see if we have that article through the library, but there's no guarantee. People use indexes because they gather the broadest range of resources. We also pay for full text databases because that's where the actual articles are. We have to buy them from the publishers, and so each publisher has their own website. If you know what you're looking for, going directly to the full text can make sense.

Probably the biggest index is actually free: Google Scholar. It's google, but it focuses on journal articles, citations, and books. Not everything you find in GScholar is going to be the best source. You can't just assume that everything that shows up in the results is what you want. But if you're doing something with a broad topic this can be the way to go.

I am going to show you now how to set up Google Scholar so it knows you're a MTA student and show that Full Text @ MTA link I mentioned earlier.


How to Research

  • Primary vs Secondary Source
  • Peer-review and scholarly resources
  • Open access
  • Developing keywords using Wikipedia
  • Using Boolean search
  • Facets
  • Citation-chaining

Primary & Secondary Sources

So those are the most important physical parts of the library, but what you're probably really worried about is how to do research for your papers, am I right? OK so before we start talking about that, I want to know what you already know.

Before we go looking for anything, you need to understand a few things: not all sources are created equal. And it's not just about "don't cite wikipedia", it's about looking at a source of information critically and deciding for yourself whether it's reliable or not.

[QUESTION] Who would say they know the difference between a primary and a secondary resource? Yes, put up your hand. OK, what is the definition of a primary resource? - It's a piece of writing that is based on research that the author actually did themselves. Outside of science it can also be for example an original work of art or piece of fiction. It's THE THING that the person created out of their own experiences.

[QUESTION] What is the definition of a secondary resource? - It's anything that looks at a piece of primary literature and re-interprets it. Usually a secondary source actually looks at a lot of different primary sources and synthesizes them.

[QUESTION] So what would be an example of a primary source? - A research paper describing the spectra of a certain chemical.
What would be a secondary source? - A book that keeps track of all of the spectra for all kinds of chemicals. (CRC Handbook)

When you are writing a research paper in the sciences, your professors really want you to read the primary literature, because the secondary lit has already done the analysing for you. This is taking the step from reading the textbook to reading the actual research behind what's in the textbook.

But just because something is a primary source does not mean it's automatically good enough for you to cite in your paper.

Scholarly & Peer-Review

The next two terms you need to learn to understand science is "scholarly" and "peer-review".

[QUESTION] Anyone want to take a guess at what a "scholarly resource" is? - It's actually a pretty nebulous idea, because who defines what a "scholar" is? But to be clear, a scholarly source can be either a primary or secondary source. It's less about WHAT the content is and more about whether the content is any good or not. Usually when a professor says scholarly they mean something produced by someone whose primary job is research.

So one of the ways you can tell whether something is scholarly or not is, have other people who are experts in this area agreed or signed-off on this? Scientists have a system for this and it's called peer review. Your PEERS are the people who are similar to you, doing similar research to you. Your equals. And when you write something and you want to publish it, the journal will grab a handful of your peers to read it and critique it. So say you find this really great, surprising result and you send it off to Nature. Nature will recruit a few people to read it, usually anonymously, and then they'll write up a review of it. So one person says "Wow, sounds great, but I wish you'd explained X more" and another person says "I'm not sure about your math here, there's no way that's right" and then you do corrections and send it back.

MOST journals are peer-reviewed, but not all of them. USUALLY if you get a journal article from the library databases there will be an option somewhere to choose "only show peer-reviewed sources" so that it'll cut out magazine articles or stuff like that.

One other specialty type of paper is a Review Paper or Review Article, sometimes also lumped in with meta-analyses. But you have to remember that a review is SECONDARY literature, not primary.

Open Access

Most articles are not free. Taxes go to the government, which gives it to big federal agencies like NSSRC. Grant agencies give researchers money to do research. Researchers do research and write a paper. Authors pay to have them published in journals, and then libraries have to pay to get access to those journals for you. If that sounds stupid, you're not alone.

Open Access is the movement towards making articles freely available online and cutting the money out as much as possible. Making that happen is more complicated than you might think. The important thing for you to remember is that it exists and it's where research is going.

PeerJ is one of the bigger open access sites and has lots of cool research published, most of it in the life sciences. There are other sites, called repositories, for other disciplines.

Research Tips

Now you know WHERE to search, I'm going to teach you some quick tips on how to search more effectively.

Once you've picked your topic, or you know generally what you're interested in, you should read some secondary sources to get some ideas about the kinds of WORDS are used in your topic. For example, if you are interested in [concussions], and you wikipedia it, you'll find out that [they're a type of traumatic brain injury]. So maybe instead of just searching [concussion] you should search those words too. Before you start searching, I want you to try just sitting with a piece of paper or an empty document and try and come up with a bunch of terms related to the thing you're studying. You can't use secondary sources in your paper, but they can help you figure out what's going on. If you aren't finding any results, it's usually because you skipped this step or you didn't find the right words to find the right papers.

Now that you've got some keywords, go to google scholar and try them out. If you are using a technical term with multiple words in it like traumatic brain injury, you should put that in quotation marks to make sure google understands you're not interested in just stuff that is traumatic AND related to brains AND injuries, right? Then you should always go try those search terms in other databases that are in your subject guide to try and get the broadest possible search results.

If you starting finding a few good papers, look at the page describing that paper in the database. What terms is IT categorized under? Was it published fairly recently? What kind of words show up in the abstract? Use these keywords to make your search even better.

Another thing you can do is look at the other papers the authors may have published. And one of the BEST things you can do, which scientists do all the time, ask your professor, is look at the papers that THIS paper cited. You can copy-paste those citations into google scholar and read THEM because they'll probably be on the topic you're looking at too.

If you've tried ALL these things, then it's time to come see a librarian. Maybe you really did just pick a really hard topic!

Citation & Paraphrasing

Now I know a lot of you guys get worried about citation because profs are all like "plagiarism!!!", but there are really only a few things you need to know to avoid getting accused of academic dishonesty:

  1. Do NOT use the kind of automatic citation generator things you find online because sometimes they are just straight-up WRONG. If you want to do your citations automatically you can use what's called a citation management system.
  2. Do NOT quote papers directly. You have to put it in your own words. And putting it in your own words does NOT mean just switching some words around. You really need to re-write it entirely, otherwise it's still plagiarism.

If you are having difficulty with being sure your writing is good, you can book an appointment with the Writing Resource Centre and they can sit down with you and go through it. This is better than asking me because they're actually dedicated to providing that service.

Paraphrasing is also not just replacing one word with another, you need to actually rewrite the thing using your actual brain.

My contact information is on the science subject guides under Help

ASK FOR HELP. COME TO THE LIBRARY. EMAIL ME. If you forget who I am or you don't like me you can also email and somebody will reply.

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