ACRL IS Current Issue Discussion Digest – ALA Annual 2010 – Discussion 2

Paving the path: What role do libraries play in supporting undergraduate researchers?

Convener: Emily Daly

Sunday, June 27, 2010; 4:00 – 5:30 p.m.
JW Marriott, Capitol Ballroom E/F  |  Washington D.C.

Description and Importance of Topic

Academic libraries across the country are tailoring their services to the needs of specific user groups.  Undergraduate researchers – students engaging in graduate-level research often culminating in a thesis or major project – comprise a user group that a number of libraries are considering in their outreach endeavors, whether it be by recognizing outstanding research with library prizes, coordinating “Personal Librarian” programs, providing course-specific instruction to students enrolled in honors research seminars, scheduling research consultations mandated by students’ departments, or designating building space specifically for undergraduates engaging in high-level research.  The connection between librarians and library collections and undergraduate researchers is an obvious one, and the increasing level of importance that universities are placing on undergraduate research underscores the need for librarians to attend to the interests of these particular users.

This attention to and focus on undergraduate research is certainly evident at Duke University, where the discussion leader serves as Instruction & Outreach Librarian/Coordinator of Upper Level Instruction.  In 2005, the administration set as a goal to double the number of undergraduates who complete honors theses or projects and thereby “graduate with distinction.” As of this May, Duke has achieved its goal:  Twenty-six percent of the 2010 graduating class completed honors theses or projects (just twelve percent of the 2005 graduating class earned distinction), and the number continues to grow in every department on campus.  The university has developed extensive support mechanisms for these students – honors seminars, a dean and office to oversee the distinction program, an annual symposium – and Duke’s librarians have worked with key stakeholders on campus to ensure that they are an integral part of this infrastructure.

This discussion aims to consider various institutions’ definitions of “undergraduate research,” explore the role that libraries – and instruction librarians, in particular – play in the lives of these high achieving individuals and then brainstorm innovative and meaningful ways that campus libraries can support and acknowledge the work of these students.

Summary of Discussion

Discussion began with an introduction of the topic and an overview of the discussion format.  Small groups then responded to the following three sets of questions, pausing to summarize key points between each round.

Round one

  1. How does your institution define “undergraduate research”?  What do these students’ final projects/papers/reports look like?
  2. What support mechanisms are in place at the institutional level for these students?

Discussion points

  1. Institutions and departments tend to define “undergraduate research” differently and have different expectations of undergraduate researchers, but most participants agree that undergraduate research is independent of the curriculum and directed under the mentorship of a faculty member outside of the classroom
  2. Projects are often called “honors theses,” and students often create professional-looking posters for poster sessions — research culminates in more than the standard “term paper”
  3. Institutional-level support varies widely; some institutions have offices of undergraduate research or administrators dedicated to supporting these students
  4. Departmental support often varies, but those departments that provide the most programmatic support (e.g. honors seminars, guidelines for reporting research, poster sessions for sharing findings) tend to turn out the most impressive theses and projects, which is not surprising

Round two

  1. How do the libraries on your campus support honors students/undergraduate researchers?  What role do instruction librarians play in encouraging and supporting undergraduate research initiatives?
  2. Is library support for undergraduate researchers programmatic, or does it vary by department/subject liaison/library?
  3. Are there advantages to making library support programmatic?  If so, what are they?  Are there disadvantages to this model?  If so, what are they?
  4. What mechanisms are in place for recognizing, publishing or archiving students’ work?  How is the library involved?  How might the library be involved if it is not already?

Discussion points

  1. Most libraries are not programmatic in their efforts to support undergraduate researchers, although participants see the value in making these efforts more programmatic (e.g. less confusion about who is to support their work, greater assurance that students will indeed receive the help that they need)
  2. The key disadvantage to a programmatic model is, as always, finding a way to allocate staffing and resources
  3. A few librarians reported having a suite of services (e.g. extended borrowing privileges, lockers, group study room, study carrels) in place for serving these students; others are interested in establishing these services
  4. A handful of librarians reported having institutional repositories at their institutions for capturing undergraduate and graduate students’ theses and projects; none of us, however, is collecting all undergraduate theses and projects systematically – many of us hope to see that change in the near future
  5. Librarians at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign organize an bi-annual poster session for Ethnography of the University students that complements a student conference; students learn how to create professional posters and then share their findings; one student is awarded a  a library prize each semester
  6. Duke University Libraries award an undergraduate research prize modeled after UC-Berkeley’s prize; several librarians expressed interest in such a prize
  7. Others mentioned that their institutions have undergraduate research prizes, research “days,”  research “weeks,” or “celebrations” for recognizing students’ work, but that their libraries are not directly responsible for organizing those events – there may be room for libraries to become more involved

Round three

  1. Let’s think blue sky – what might the library as a whole, or instruction librarians in particular, do to be involved in the research and publishing activities of these students?  How can your library support undergraduate research initiatives?
  2. What are your peer/aspirant institutions or libraries doing to support these students and to encourage undergraduate research?
  3. How might we translate some of these blue sky activities or initiatives into reality?  Think briefly about the resources these initiatives require.  Which can be instituted fairly easily?  Which activities will achieve the highest impact?

Discussion points

  1. Many would love to see their libraries more closely involved in the work of undergraduate researchers, and many would like to design a method to ensure that all students know who their subject librarians are
  2. Several mentioned the possibility of developing a “Personal Librarian” program or requiring that students meet with subject librarians in their fields, although we commented on the downsides to this model (i.e. not all students will be personally invested in research consultations, staffing may not be adequate to serve all students)
  3. Many hope to be able to expand and make more programmatic the services that they offer to undergraduate researchers
  4. Many hope to develop methods for systematically adding undergraduate theses and projects in their institutional repositories
  5. Many commented that they’d like to learn more about individual programs (e.g. McNair Scholars) at their institutions
  6. Some mentioned that they’d like to learn more about what their peer/aspirant libraries are doing to support this user group
  7. Some would like to become more involved in final symposia or research awards organized/overseen by their institutions
  8. All believe that buy-in from university administration and faculty is critical to achieving these goals; we also noted that time and money are key, as well

Recommended Readings

Isbell, D. (2009). A librarian research consultation requirement for university honors students beginning their theses. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 16, 53-57.  PDF:…(REQUIRES SUBSCRIPTION)

Jones, L. (2009). The rewards of research: Library prizes for undergraduate research. College & Research Libraries News, 70(6), 338-341.  PDF: (REQUIRES SUBSCRIPTION)

National Conferences on Undergraduate Research. (2005, June). Joint statement of principles in support of undergraduate research, scholarship and creative activities. Retrieved June 3, 2010 from

Stamatoplos, A. (2009). The role of academic libraries in mentored undergraduate research: A model of engagement in the academic community. College & Research Libraries, 70(3), 235-249. PDF: SUBSCRIPTION)


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