Monday, November 28, 2011

Dealing with Politicized Reference Questions, by Amanda Maddock

Since starting my current position a little over two years ago, I've found myself regularly faced with reference interactions where a patron is looking for sources to support a position for which there is a lack of academic support. Some of these "hot topic" issues have actually been barred as research topics by professors who feel like abortion, gun rights, and gay rights often produce limited and repetitive arguments in student papers. As a librarian, however, I do not have the luxury of telling a patron that their topic isn't going to work. I'm there to provide objective information access, even if the topic in question challenges my own ideas of what is objective.

My library science coursework prepared me with theories and methods for conducting reference interviews. We addressed how to provide access to information ethically and subjectively, but we never quite discussed how to serve a patron who needs scholarly resources on a politicized topic. Luckily, the teaching experience I gained while earning an m.a. in women's studies has helped me to create a framework for approaching this kind of reference interaction. Although there is much to be said about the politics of providing this type of information to students, this post focuses on how to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument.  Since these issues vary in their degree of existing scholarly support, I use a tiered approach:

Level 1 :: These are the easiest politicized questions to answer, in that academic sources can be easily found to support a “pro” or “con” position. When a patron asks for help locating articles on a topic such as school uniforms, all they often need are some additional keywords to limit their search to the different for and against arguments (e.g. attitudes, social aspects, etc). This type of reference interaction is usually stress free as patrons are able to find what they are looking for with little difficulty.

Level 2 :: These types of questions are a little more difficult to answer, although supporting academic sources can be found. They typically require a more intensive reference interview as a patron usually has a definite opinion on the topic, but often lacks awareness of specific facts, data, or arguments. If someone asks for help finding articles against legalized gambling, I'll ask them why they are against it. If they are unable to express anything beyond a basic "anti" passion, I ask them questions--ones designed to get tangible answers--that pertain to the dominant discourses around the topic: what are the social affects of legalized gambling on a community? the economic? is there a correlation between high crime rates and legalized gambling?

Level 3 :: These types of questions are the most difficult to answer, as I find individuals who take an "anti" position often do so due to political rather than intellectual ideologies. This oftentimes results in the patron being unable to find any academic sources in support of their position. Sometimes this may be a result of them wanting the "perfect" article (i.e. one that says exactly what they want to say), but more often than not it is simply a result of little or no supporting scholarly research.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with the patron’s position, it is important to remain objective and explain their options to them. If there isn't much in the way of supportive material, suggest that they may want to read some of the article arguing against their position. Although this is almost always met with a wary look, it helps to explain that these types of articles often discuss both "pro" and "anti" discourses. Knowing what the "other side" thinks can also give someone a stronger place from which to make their own claims. If this doesn't seem to be grabbing them, I try to remind them that they are new scholars entering into an array of existing conversations and that, just because an article completely agreeing with them doesn't seem to exist, doesn't mean that their argument is wrong.

Failing each of these approaches, you can always turn to a co-worker if you aren't the only librarian. If you are a solo librarian like myself, turning to the librarian community at large (through blogs like this or other social media sources) may give you the answers you’re looking for.

Amanda Maddock is Reference & Instruction Librarian at a Big 10 regional campus. You can follow her on Twitter @infofeminist.


  1. Outstanding post! The level 2 is very interesting, I am so excited...... Thanks for the share.

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  2. Pretty solid advice-- I just dealt with one of those level 2's myself yesterday. I do think, however, that a librarian can suggest that a student tweak their topics. After all many of us teach beginning research skills in library instruction sessions and one of the first lessons is choosing a doable topic.

    I do agree that you shouldn't tell patrons to change their point of view just because you don't agree with it, but if a topic just isn't working and you can't find good sources to support their argument I think it's helpful to at least tell them they might get a better end product assignment if they re-examine their topic choice. Just my two cents. So far the few times that has happened I haven't gotten any complaints.

  3. Mara,

    Thanks for your two cents :) I totally agree with you, and have done the same thing myself when it appears that the student won't be able to create a successful end product.