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Interview: Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia arrived at Harvard in 1994 as coordinator of the Electronic Teaching Center that is known today as the Larsen Room in Lamont. For the past three years, LaGuardia has served as head of instructional services for the College Library. She holds a BS in literature from SUNY-Oneonta and an MLS from SUNY-Albany. This interview reflects her conversations with Library Notes in November 2002 and May 2003.

As instructional services increase in importance, what's the most distinctive feature of them?

In addition to pointing students to the materials they need, in the College Library we concentrate on showing them how to evaluate those materials, as well as how to develop mechanisms to go on evaluating them.

That sounds like a web issue to me.

Many librarians view the web lovingly but with just a little suspicion. It's like a relative that you welcome into your home gladly but with reservations: you know the downside as well as the up. And that's the way that the web functions for us. Everything is shifting constantly in the web environment. Documenting or doing a bibliography is very different when you've taken information from a web site. You have to note the exact date that you accessed information because the web is like a river: it's going to keep flowing and changing. You're talking about that fluid an information environment that gives students great power and great responsibility.

What specific questions do students need to ask?

The right ones! Establishing those questions, more and more, is the province of instructional librarians. We work with four basic questions: Is it an authoritative resource? Is there a bias? Is the site kept current? Is the information well documented? That is, is the factual information trustworthy? If students can applythis "ABCD"-authority, bias, currency, and documentation—to a web site, and have it pass, then presumably the information is reliable.

Students also need to consider if an online source is stable. Stable resources include the authenticated ones that the University has vetted, licensed, and paid for. But students are potentially using resources that are not authenticated, that have a bias they may not recognize, and that may be inaccurate or at least highly suspect. The trouble—even with authenticated resources—is that only the first level of connectivity is assured. That is, we have vetted the sources listed on our web portal at the first level. But once you go one click beyond that, we cannot guarantee the authenticity or the authority, the bias, the currency, or the documentation. And that's why students must learn to assess these resources well on their own.

Is globalization another factor in what you do?

Yes. As the boundaries around the Western canon have collapsed, as scientific and technological inquiry has exploded, the amount of information that students have available to them has expanded vastly. And much information is outside the walls of the library and beyond its immediate ability to store, authenticate, or catalog.

It's important for students to get a 360-degree view of material. Consider Middle Eastern studies, for example: among other research tools, we point students to a number of different web sites. And we will always point out what country is producing the information. Much of the material may be presented from a distinctly Western perspective. Some of it may be produced by a particular government—so that it has the imprimatur of a government or official resource. But if that government is at odds with another country in an area, you need to be aware of the possibility of bias and you need to be aware that the information may not be dispassionately presented.

How does this change the relationship of the librarians to the faculties?

Many of today's faculty were trained in a research environment that is completely different from that in which they're working now. And many faculty are interested in delving into some of these different resources as well. So very often, what will happen when we do a library class is the faculty member will be there taking notes or saying "oh, that's a new site, can you talk about that a little bit more." Because the number of information resources is growing at a remarkable rate now, and it's obvious to researchers that these resources are multiplying at a Malthusian rate rather than at an arithmetic one. This is in contrast to times in which the acquisition and distribution of library and information resources took place in a more behind-the-scenes environment, going on in back rooms, with technical processes turning out books and putting them on a shelf. Now, from their offices and dorm rooms, faculty and students can go into new online resources day by day and discover changes and entirely new material.

Is it actually possible to keep up with all the new information in any given field?

It's become more of an Alice-in-Wonderland situation, like the Red Queen running in place. We're trying to devise mechanisms so you can run fast enough in place not to fall behind, so you can effectively keep up where you need to keep up and not have to pay attention to that which is not important. With the advent of changing technologies and changing cultural phenomena, we have to consider new means of communication and whether they may have a role to play in distributing information to researchers. Recently we've been reading about blogging and RSS—that's rich site syndication, or really simple syndication, for streaming news information quickly—smart mobs, and thumb tribes. These are technological and cultural phenomena that are quickly becoming part of the social fabric of new generations of researchers. We may or may not be incorporating these in disseminating information—it's not clear that they are all equally valid or viable tools for library research—but it's important for us to be aware that students may be using them routinely in their work.

This leads into what we describe as achieving information mastery. Achieving that mastery in 2003 is a very different proposition than it was in 1976, when I was in college. As you say, how do you keep up? We're showing students resources we have at Harvard and the possibilities of what they can do with those resources. We show them ways of sifting the sometimes overwhelming universe of information available to them here, so they are not daunted by it. We also try to give them entrée into the larger research world. And we concentrate on giving them the tools so that they can go into that larger world confidently as information seekers and researchers so they are not going to produce any research based on poor information discovery.

High stakes. How do you begin?

One place where we've done more than begin is in our work with Harvard's Expos classes. An Expos class has been required of every Harvard student since 1872. Expos classes cover the gamut of research topics from A to Z. HCL Instructional Services developed a web resource called "Threading the Maze," which is the Expos student's guide to research in the Harvard libraries. This is not a tutorial you have to work through stage by stage. It's an online resource that outlines how to find journals and books, where you're going to be able to study, and where you're going to be able to get help. It also raises the right questions about the web.

Another example is HCL's online guide called "Conducting Research." The site is simply and intuitively organized in eight areas:

  • Start Your Research: online advice on how to select and refine a research topic, and how to find materials that support research.
  • HOLLIS Catalog Instruction: information on the Harvard Online Library Information System (HOLLIS) and on the instruction—both classroom and individual—that HCL provides on it.
  • Ask a Librarian: for online reference requests 24 hours a day.
  • Initial Research Contacts: individual, in-depth research consultations for students.
  • Research Guides: web-based research guides for research at Harvard, plus information on evaluating web sites and navigating the Harvard Libraries site at
  • Resources for Instructors: for class-specific library instruction on helping students make maximal use of Harvard's library holdings, both traditional and online.
  • Linking Course Pages to Library Resources: suggestions for faculty on linking to online library resources from course web pages.
  • Common Questions: a compendium of frequently asked questions.

We say that students do their research from 9 to 5 (that is, 9 pm to 5 am). In addition to being head of HCL Instructional Services, I'm also the primary Widener Library research, instruction, and reference liaison to area studies, and in that role, it is routine for me to get queries on e-mail between 11 pm at night and 3 in the morning. That's very typical. While we're not usually personally accessible at those hours, we're providing on the web site a wide range of tools that are.

Students here are remarkably entrepreneurial in their research, so we try to inculcate them with both traditional and cutting-edge research methods. We introduce them to the Harvard Libraries web site. We make them aware of the best research tools that are available. We show them how to delve into one of the richest resources in the world: the Harvard library system. But we also work to ensure that they question everything they come across in the research process, whether in print or online. That is their ultimate responsibility as students at Harvard.

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Last modified on Thursday, May 15, 2003.