Emily Sartorius, Assessment in Student Learning Lab

The fall of 2020 was my first semester as part of the IMLS Grant-funded Library as Research Lab. As a member of the Library Assessment in Student Learning Lab, my team focused the semester on a survey that asked the question: How do students evaluate information before and after a library instruction session? I also participated in this project for internship credit as part of my UMSI coursework, which meant I had projects outside of our initial research question. I took this extra time to perform informational interviews with librarians at the University of Michigan to explore different roles within an academic library. As someone new to conducting research, and as a future librarian eager to explore my future profession, the theme of this semester was Learning How to Ask the Right Questions.

One example of asking questions came from working as a team to develop our codebook for the qualitative responses of our survey. I learned that coding as part of a team can take time, and  creating unified definitions of codes requires multiple conversations. For example, as a team we decided to look at the individual responses and decipher the key factors that students gave for why or why not a certain piece of information was appropriate or inappropriate. At first one of our factors was “source” which we defined as the source of information. But upon further review of our responses, I found that students used the word “source” to refer to different factors, such as the article itself, the publisher of the article, the website the article was on and the author of the article. Sometimes the distinction was not clear. I also found that in our own conversation as a group, the term for “source” seemed to be split. This led me to ask the question about how we could replace this word from our codebook and find a clearer definition. My team agreed that the questions I was asking were important to our research. We replaced “source” in our codebook with “information object” defined as “the thing (article, blog post, news story) that we had the student read,” and having separate codes for publisher and author. These questions improved our intercoder reliability and our conversations as a team in the long run. This question also made me think about how I teach evaluation skills to patrons at the reference desk. Do I use words, such as “source,” that have opaque meanings? Can I use clearer language when teaching and writing about evaluating information? 

I also had the opportunity to learn how to ask the right questions through informational interviews with different professionals across the University of Michigan Library. Throughout the semester I interviewed seven different professionals about their daily tasks in the university library. I will be applying to jobs, and these informational interviews were important in unpacking the often opaque job descriptions and jargony job titles. Preparing for these interviews taught me also how to ask important questions. I did my research by reviewing professional bios of my interviewees, and job descriptions of similar positions at other institutions to craft interview questions that were thoughtful and impactful. I learned about the daily tasks of these professionals, trends in the field of information, and the projects they were most proud of. I found that these interviews got easier with practice. I also found that many of the questions that I asked my interviewees were questions I would want to ask my future employers as well. I learned that asking the right questions is a skill that I can improve through practice.

This semester in the Library Assessment in Student Learning Lab has been full of important experiences, both as a team and individually, that will affect how I continue to ask professional questions in the future.