A Database Tells No Tales: Narrating Inquiry with LibGuides

By Michael Kicey
University at Buffalo (SUNY)

One of the refrains in recent conversations between academic librarians and their constituencies has been a marked shift in the focus of user needs. For decades, the most pressing need was to create, broaden, and maintain access to research resources, especially but not exclusively online. As a result, an enormous heap of resources is now accessible, and the heap grows greater every day. More recently, however, as the available trove of resources has grown to unimaginable and sometimes unmanageable dimensions, we are witnessing more urgency around questions of organization, articulation, and presentation of these resources, where the most crucial aim is to illuminate relationships between the different elements in scholarly conversations. The task for librarians now lies less in growing the heap, and more in clarifying the narrative in which each element in that heap – each text, author, approach, or topic – plays a distinct and meaningful role. It is one thing to have virtually everything of significance that has been said or written on a single topic at one’s disposal en masse; it is quite another to understand the genesis and internal structure of that written totality well enough to intervene in it effectively and meaningfully with one’s own work.

These two problems are, of course, not divorced from each other, but we should remind ourselves that our runaway successes at resolving issues of access to scholarship may paradoxically obstruct the articulation of scholarly conversations as structured, living wholes. Consider, for instance, that mainstay of contemporary information search, the database search results page. It offers a multitude of records, selected from a greater multitude according to criteria set by the user, each record equipped with a wealth of metadata describing its object, and all of these arranged sequentially by another, more or less invisible, set of criteria, usually captured under the nebulous concept of “relevance.” For all its richness and proven utility in facilitating access, the results page essentially offers the user a bunch of objects dropped loosely into a box, each totally disintegrated with the other and, in the average search, many that are utterly extraneous. It is difficult to invent a less appropriate image of the actual process – the messy, contingent, human process – of research than a bunch of disintegrated objects rattling about in a box. Nonetheless, this is precisely the picture users receive of scholarship – indeed, of all intellectual life – from the habit of database searching. Beyond a certain point, the infinite refinement of the technology with which we select, categorize, stack, and rearrange digital objects only serves to conceal or even erase the realities of human experience and human inquiry of which those objects are simply a trace – a highly valuable trace, nothing less than the lifeblood of our profession, but nonetheless only a trace.

From this viewpoint, much needs to be done to meet the needs of both beginning and advanced researchers who want to construct an accurate image of scholarship as a meaningfully integrated whole, which is the first task of every serious inquiry. Despite the impressive tools already at our disposal, we are only just beginning to help users figure out how all those objects in a results list form the trace of a compelling story in thought and action, and thus how those users might make an appearance in the next chapter of that story themselves.

My readers may balk at this imperative, anticipating that the solution I plan to offer involves the construction of even more complicated, expensive, and thus potentially inaccessible technologies, the burdening of strained budgets to license them, the expansion of library instruction to enable students to use them, and the ever greater complication of the core tasks of academic librarianship. Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. It turns out that telling a compelling story about scholarly inquiry requires only access to a common and straightforward tool that many academic librarians already use on a regular basis for far less complex and exalted tasks. I’m referring to LibGuides.

I have written at some length elsewhere[1] on how the conscious development of LibGuides as full-fledged web resources can promote creativity, community, and intellectual exploration within and beyond academic libraries. In the present piece, I want to show specifically how LibGuides can support the process of academic research by mapping out the continents of scholarship and narrating the story of inquiry through an intellectually substantial and aesthetically cohesive web experience. While the ‘stuff in a box’ database search model certainly outpaces a curated LibGuide in terms of currency and breadth, the latter triumphs over the former when it comes to revealing the structure and direction of scholarly discourse in space and time. In pedagogical terms, this means students and scholars can gain genuine, humane insight into the work of scholarship – not as a faceless and automatic activity proliferating various kinds of digital objects, as impersonal and relentless as the operations of a laptop CPU, but rather as a series of actions and reflections experienced by human beings both individually and collectively, transacted across historical, geographic, and cultural boundaries, and reflecting the full depth of human concerns, passions, anxieties, and aspirations. More than anything else, after all, this is the image of intellectual life we seek to transmit, not merely because it is faithful to the messiness and grandeur of scholarship, nor because it offers the widest range of affordances to experienced working scholars, but primarily because it has the effect of an invitation to participate addressed to all who encounter it – at a moment when inclusion, accessibility, and engagement are among the highest values we claim for our profession. Quite simply: telling the story of scholarship, rather than merely delivering a selection of its products, empowers those who receive the story to become a part of it.

A survey of the literature

Not surprisingly, discussions of LibGuides in library scholarship tend to focus on how guides can best facilitate the process of research for end users – it is for this, after all, that guides are created and used. Nonetheless, a handful of inquiries in this area have skirted the edges of the question posed here: how guides can accurately and engagingly represent the emergence and development of scholarly conversations to users who are then empowered to participate in those conversations themselves. These discussions overall tend to fall into three major categories: (1) studies of how LibGuides support the undergraduate classroom experience; (2) studies in the application of design principles by guide creators; and (3) usability studies focused on issues of user experience (UX).

Classroom instruction

Emanuel (2013) offers a useful historical overview of library research guides ranging from paper pathfinders to online guides, the last including but not limited to LibGuides, and focuses throughout on the changing use of guides in library instruction. Multiple angles for the incorporation of LibGuides into undergraduate courses have been explored: Adebonojo (2010) discusses the use of LibGuides as a bridge for students to locate library resources through direct course integration; similarly, Bielat et al (2013) uses theories of learning modality to look at LibGuides as an adjunct to information literacy training or asynchronous instruction; lastly, Gonzalez & Westbrock (2010) study LibGuides as a useful support for library instruction aimed at off-campus students.

Assessment and evaluation get their due here as well: Mahaffy (2012) and Staley (2007) both try to assess the utility of LibGuides to students and point to the effect of their integration with library instruction, while Ghaphery & White (2012) examine the breadth of LibGuides use across ARL institutions and conclude that no consistent patterns of institutional-level management or assessment had (by that point) emerged.

Seeking ever closer engagement by students with guide content, Adebonojo & Campbell (2017) deepen the possible embeddedness of LibGuides in coursework by examining a LibGuides student assignment as an alternative to the traditional research paper; Mortimore & Baker (2019) extend this line by formulating best practices for hosting student- or even faculty-created content on LibGuides. At a somewhat greater distance from the day-to-day of coursework, Brazzeal (2006) and German (2017) combine instructional and design perspectives: the former applies guidelines for information literacy and library instruction to guide design, giving concrete examples; the latter examines the use of LibGuides in instruction by way of service design thinking and e-learning project planning.

Design

For any new guide designer who wants clarity about the basics of LibGuides design, Liss (2013) offers clear instruction in employing design principles to create a first guide, while Goodsett et al (2020) offer a helpful compendium of best practices in LibGuides design via an extensive review of the literature. Leibiger & Aldrich (2013) apply helpful insights from communication and network theory to propose methods for replicating frequently-used content from an existing “mother” guide to a new “child” guide in order to reduce staff time spent on guide construction and to regularize guide design and usability across an institution’s offerings. Logan & Spence (2021) offers a survey-based study of how unified content strategies are applied through LibGuides at multiple institutions, including practices around page design, content reuse, naming conventions, and navigation. They found that once guides were created and published, guide creators were largely left responsible for their review and maintenance, leading to wide variation in the degree to which content strategies maintained their coherence over time. Concerns with the transparency and consistency of terminology used on guides are further reflected in Neuhaus et al (2021), who conducted a survey of design techniques that spanned hundreds of institutions and discovered that naming conventions on research guides had notable consistency across many institutions and types of institutions.

Reflecting the trend (described immediately below) toward inquiries informed by user-centered design, Ahmed (2013) offers a welcome and useful discussion of design and usability principles in the construction of LibGuides, while Thorngate & Hoden (2017) review new features in LibGuides v2.0 from a usability and UX perspective. Addressing common usability concerns, Liu (2020) provocatively proposes creating online interactive visual knowledge maps using Freeplane to help users navigate guide resources rather than burying guide pages in a library website. Lastly, Brazzeal (2006) and German (2017), already mentioned above, also address issues related to user-centered guide design in the specific context of classroom instruction.

Usability and UX

Many empirical studies employ mixed-methods usability testing, usage statistics, analytics data more robust than that provided by SpringShare, or a combination of these to build a quantitative picture of how users interface with the medium: Almeida & Tidal (2017), Barker & Hoffman (2021), Bowen (2014), Castro-Gessner et al (2013), Conerton & Goldenstein (2017), Courtois et al (2004), German (2017 & 2018), Gessner et al (2015), and Griffin & Taylor (2018).

Particularly from the middle of the 2010s to the present writing, usability studies increasingly stress the importance of user-centered design in LibGuides. Design issues that were formerly invisible to librarians have emerged as solvable problems thanks to these inquiries. Chief among these issues have been the overuse of library jargon, opacity in guide navigation, the overstuffing of guides with content, and, most notoriously, the organization of guides around specific resource formats rather than the user-side research process. Little’s (2010) early and influential application of cognitive load theory in the context of guide design offers techniques for guide creators that reduce the strain on user attention and energy. Ouellette (2011) interviewed student users about their expectations and needs in guide use with a view to developing best practices for user-centered LibGuides. Reflecting a new concreteness in how user-centered design is understood and applied, Pittsley & Memmott (2012) is the definitive usability study centered on issues of guide navigation, especially around tabbed, topside navigation bars vs. list-style sidebar navigation, deciding in favor of the latter. In the same vein, Sonsteby & DeJonghe (2013) focus on revising library-centric jargon often found on guides, using a consistent and structured vocabulary across all guides maintained by one institution, and reducing visual clutter on guide pages. Alverson et al (2015) offer a usability study focused on ascertaining the needs and expectations of student guide users, with special attention to the interface between user attention and cognitive aspects of guide design first explored by Little. Lastly, Bergstrom-Lynch (2019) advocates an approach from an instructional design perspective that adapts existing best practices in the creation of LibGuides to aim at learner-centered, rather than just user-centered, experiences.

The present intervention

While showing growing and laudable regard for the experience of guide users, the literature on LibGuides in all three of these areas – classroom instruction, design, and usability/UX – nonetheless remains at a certain remove from the lived experience of students doing research. In part, this is because so many of these studies seek to be content- and subject-agnostic, while the entire experience of student users is naturally centered on arriving at and utilizing subject-specific content. In the urgent effort to produce results that are, as we say now, “portable” and “scalable,” these inquiries tend to formulate abstract principles with wide applicability across disciplines, rather than explore how users interface with concrete constellations of content- and subject-specific resources.

By way of exception to the general tendency, and by way of anticipation of the present work, two studies are worth mentioning here for the way they push into and reckon with the domain of concrete experience on the user side. Liu’s (2020) visual knowledge maps suggest a radical break with the traditional list-based treatment of resources on guides and at least broach the topic of how guides represent research activity and domains of knowledge to student users. Lee & Lowe (2018) press further into this domain, conducting a usability study that offers student subjects two different versions of the same research guide: one that is resource- or format-centered and organizes content according to traditional library designations (monographs, articles, etc.), and another structured according to the process of research, leading the user by stages from initial brainstorming to the finished work of scholarship. Although, in Lee & Lowe’s study, both versions of guide content led to comparable levels of student success in reaching research goals, student subjects reported overall a more positive and engaging experience with the process-centered version of the guide. We should not consider this positive affect merely a disposable bonus, nor should we stop at simply structuring guides so that they teach and support the research process step by step. We must instead go further, and demonstrate to users how their own process forms one wave in a much wider ocean of inquiry, and that is done most meaningfully and appealingly through bibliographic storytelling.

Despite the pressure to arrive at general applicability, it’s worth stressing that for both librarians and students, research is, and rightly should be, an entirely different beast between specific disciplines and subdisciplines, and even between individual conversations in the same discipline. As a result, studies that favor solely abstract principles of design or usability cannot finally bridge the gap between the research process that students experience themselves and the research processes, undertaken by thousands of scholars the world over, that give rise to the resources students use. For the direct benefit of these student-researchers, then, the present study proposes a number of techniques that narrativize the production of scholarship itself. Application of these techniques can bridge the decisive gap by showing students how their individual, in-class research reflects and participates in the worldwide human story of research in general.

Four principles of bibliographic storytelling

In concrete terms, though, how does one go about telling the complex and demanding story behind an entire domain of scholarly endeavor? In what follows, I recount my own experience in constructing and sharing a multipage LibGuide devoted to modern scholarship in English on Buddhism, a topic of great breadth and complexity currently experiencing a rapid increase of interest in the West and thus uniquely positioned to form the basis of a case study. Before I tell the story of that particular LibGuide, however, I want to outline in the abstract four principles of design and presentation that facilitate what, for lack of a better term, may be called bibliographic storytelling: partition, relation, and hierarchy; genesis, sequence, and conflict; redundancy & contextualization; and sensory concretization. The case study that follows will demonstrate how application of these four principles creates guides that a wide range of users explore freely, embrace enthusiastically, and share broadly.

Partition, relation, and hierarchy

As everyone knows, in order to tell a good story, you have to make clear its characters, its themes, its setting, and its central conflict; these have to be separated from each other enough to discern their distinct outlines, but they must also be related to each other closely enough to form an integral whole.

The first and most basic principle for designing a LibGuide that reveals the genesis and structure of a domain of scholarship is what I call partition, relation, and hierarchy: taking a great mass of resources, chunking it into more manageable parts, and then repeating this process of chunking on the chunks themselves as many times as necessary until you reach groups that have a manageable size, a clear set of interrelations, and a functional value for the researcher. The principle of partition, relation, and hierarchy establishes the basic conditions for a story to take shape by defining the primary forces at work in the narrative, which are not necessarily immediately visible to the novice at the level of individual books, articles, datasets, or other publications.

In any given discipline, there is a number of subdisciplines; in any subdiscipline, there is a number of active research areas, as well as a number of dormant or historical research areas; in any active research area, there is a number of discrete topics; and in any discrete topic, there is a number of approaches, positions, or schools of thought – all the way down to the granular level of individual scholars and individual pieces of scholarship. With an object of any complexity, this process of articulation is necessarily hierarchical and quite transparently iterative. A guide that seeks to represent it may very well have to undergo a revision of scope in the process of its construction: what at first appeared a manageable project may only become so by focusing on a single compartment of a larger field; or, on the contrary, relations within topics or fields in a subdiscipline may only make sense if you articulate relations between subdisciplines in the discipline as a whole.

Guide designers should remain sensitive at every stage to both the overall coherence and utility of the projected product as well as the practical manageability of the concepts and groupings on which the guide is based. Above all, the method by which we undertake partition and relation should directly reflect the way the bibliographic mass communicates its own inner articulations to a disinterested observer, and we should assiduously avoid imposing arbitrary, tendentious, or extrinsic criteria on it from without. The bibliographer’s job is to represent what has been written on its own terms – not, it bears saying, what should be written, or what should be written differently, or what has not been written at all!

The work of partition, relation, and hierarchy – teasing out all the parts that form a complex whole, giving them accurate and disinterested labels, and showing how they relate to one another both vertically and horizontally within a hierarchy – creates a foundation of integrated entities and relationships on which the edifice of a resource guide can comfortably rest. While the principle of partition, relation, and hierarchy cannot tell the story of inquiry on its own, it establishes the basic bones of the narrative without which all subsequent storytelling would remain impossible.

Genesis, sequence, and conflict

While the principle of partition, relation, and hierarchy establishes the constellation of forces and entities in a given field of inquiry, the principle of genesis, sequence, and conflict seeks to discern, and then accurately represent, how these forces and entities emerge, interact, and metamorphose through time. Emergences can be explosively sudden or glacially gradual; interactions can be mutually reinforcing or intensely hostile; metamorphoses can be slight and inconsequential or deep and total. If it can happen in time and among human beings, it can happen in the process of research. The role of time as the medium for an ordered network of events is absolutely crucial for anyone who wants to understand how inquiry works, whether on the level of an individual researcher engaging with data over a year, a month, or even a single afternoon, or on the level of entire disciplines or research institutions forming and reforming over decades and centuries.

Foregrounding the temporal dimension of inquiry is especially difficult for many librarians to grasp because most of our work turns on objects we receive, take over, and manage rather than on the processes that created them, which we leave to researchers.[2] If we reckon directly with time at all, it is usually through the activity of preservation, which focuses on either decelerating or eliminating most of the normal effects of time, rather than the activity of creation, which very nearly aims at the opposite: disruption, innovation, and reconfiguration of the given. Perhaps this basically conservative outlook of librarianship is as it should be, but we could add that it is not entirely as it must be. Certainly, scholarly activity issues in a great multitude of objects, and libraries acquire, preserve, and distribute those objects – but these objects do not suddenly leap forth complete and mature, like Athena from the head of Zeus, nor, once released, do they float in an ether of arbitrary and dissociated freedom among their fellow objects, nor do they remain eternally the same in the process of their use and adaptation. Instead, scholarly products are constructed by deliberate action, mediated by multiple forces and factors, and undergo transformation at every point and in every moment they are received by others – indeed, this variable reception, both creative and destructive, constitutes their entire productive life. To this entire universe of experience, the search results list is necessarily and eternally blind.

In comparison to the database, the effective representation of genesis, sequence, and conflict in a tradition of scholarly inquiry possesses the clearest advantages, and enacts the most lasting changes in viewpoint, when it comes to giving beginning students a synoptic grasp of an entire field as a temporal phenomenon, or giving seasoned researchers a viable model of past and present work as well as, by that same token, a roadmap to the future. By grasping the ongoing work of inquiry as an ever-incomplete story, which is in the process of being enacted just as it is being told, anyone encountering that work for the first or the millionth time will, by that universal and lifelong initiation into the mode and manner of storytelling in general which is distinctive to human life, be able to anticipate at least a few viable options for the next turn in the tale, and thereby gain a great measure of power to insert themselves into that tale and bring forth the next turn themselves.

Redundancy & contextualization

It may seem counterintuitive to advance redundancy as a fundamental principle of guide design. Web users are notoriously short on attention and energy, eager to find what they need and get on with life: why then would we ever want to deliberately design any sort of redundancy into a resource guide, which prima facie seems to interpose more barriers between users and their goals and thus slow down the search process?

We should examine where this prejudice against redundancy comes from. A moment’s consideration reveals that it was drummed into us by our teachers early on in life as we learned about economy in writing. The visual, linear, and sequential order of the written page dictates that anything communicated once in a piece of continuous prose need not be revisited in detail later, on the assumption that the reader who has been following our reasoning since the beginning can simply refer back to our initial treatment of any given topic in its original context. This convenience of writing frees up the writer’s energy for each new topic and eases the burdens on the reader’s attention and memory. The duration of the reading experience in time weaves a constantly growing and changing context of remembered meanings which the reader then brings to bear on every subsequent moment in their experience of a written text.

When we learn about public speaking, however, we discover that the same principle of economy does not apply to the spoken word. Here we are taught that a judicious quantity of redundancy actually enhances the forcefulness and memorability of an oral presentation, because the auditor cannot, like the reader, easily refer back to our previous treatment of any given topic except in their always-imperfect episodic memory. In the context of oral/aural delivery, it is actually more effective for a speaker to employ redundancy as a deliberate strategy, revisiting the same idea more than once and in multiple contexts in order to imprint it more deeply on the auditor’s mind, rather than to treat any single idea completely once and then never return to it. The thoroughgoing subordination of speech to writing in our educational system and the broader culture, however, leads most of us over the long haul to generally deprecate repetition and redundancy as concessions to inferior orders of thought and feeling, and instead to valorize forms of expression governed by a perfect economy, in which every key idea appears exactly once in its definitive form and nothing ever gets rehashed.

As in so many other respects, digital technologies have compelled us to revise our habits and prejudices when it comes to strategies for presenting information, and here we see something of a conditional rehabilitation of redundancy as a design principle that helps create and strengthen context. Historically, the experiences we have in both the reading/writing continuum and the speaking/listening continuum depend on lengthy chunks of continuous time being sunk into the communicative process and considerable quantities of energy being expended on creating and maintaining complex and refined contexts for any given communicative act. Digital technologies do not necessarily prevent these processes of expenditure from occurring; after all, digital communities of shared interests or beliefs freely develop standing memberships of participants and complex, contextually-sensitive cultures. Outside these more or less stable and autonomous communicative groups, however, digital experiences do noticeably tend toward the transactional: communicative encounters may last for mere moments, demand sometimes perishingly small quanta of mental energy, and exist in virtually a vacuum of context. Consider, for instance, how thoughtful you were about your last Google search, and how discriminating you were in visiting any given page listed in the results: it’s unlikely the experience lasted more than a few seconds or compelled you to revolutionize any deep-seated ideas.

Measured by the standards of even the twentieth century, most information seekers on the Internet are like moviegoers who enter the theater halfway through the feature, stay for a few minutes, bolt to the lobby to engage with something else, return for a few seconds to see how the movie ends, and then clamor to leave as speedily as possible. If a director intends to offer these peculiar moviegoers as rich an experience as possible, they will have to find a way for virtually every moment of the film to communicate what traditionally was achieved only through a much lengthier and more demanding encounter.

This task seems impossible; it may very well be; this is not the place to editorialize on its feasibility or desirability. Provided we follow the cinematic analogy, however, the consequences should be clear for librarians designing information resources: each division of an online guide has to clearly orient its user and contextualize its specific content within the whole body of information represented on the guide, on the assumption that the encounter between user and guide is just as likely to be highly selective and momentary as deep and transformative. This means that every part of the resource must in a sense reiterate the whole, that what lies in the foreground of any given encounter must be transparent to its much larger background, and that the experience should eagerly invite user engagement with that background as conditions permit. All of this demands a great deal more redundancy than we are accustomed to incorporating, but what it achieves is a vast expansion of affordances and a vast enrichment of the user experience through strategic contextualization.

Sensory concretization

The last of these four fundamental principles I want to discuss is in many ways the most obvious, but is also the most frequently overlooked or ignored. A memorable narrative is a complex act of mediation, but we find that this act reaches the summit of effectiveness when, paradoxically, it achieves the impression of inserting us into a living immediacy. The greatest storytellers do not merely relate at second- or third-hand what those people, over there, in their own time, happened to do at some time or another: rather, by a vast range of artistic and technical devices, they manage to give us the impression that the protagonists of the tale are physically before us, that we are witnessing events with our own eyes, and that the entire fabric of narrated reality is close enough for us to touch.

This seems like an exceptionally high bar to set for a library resource guide, but it need not be. We must simply bear in mind first of all that just like us, our users are sensory creatures, filled with the passions created by sensory experiences, and secondly that the Internet is, even at this point in its development, extraordinarily well outfitted to engage the senses – and the mind behind them – in powerful ways. A guide can certainly be well-designed and useful by simply providing straightforward access to the best resources on a given topic, organized in an uncluttered and intuitive way and resisting every urge to elaborate on its subject matter. However, such a guide cannot hope to foster a real desire to learn or explore, or indeed even a desire to return to and use the same guide again and again, unless it engages not merely the reading eye but the whole sensorium. It is easier than ever to add audiovisual content to a LibGuide; when this content is used thoughtfully and strategically, it multiplies a thousandfold the effectiveness and the educational value of a guide. The driest possible subject comes alive, inserts itself into the user’s living continuum of experience, when their eyes and ears are engaged as well as, and at the same time as, their mind. At such a moment, the story of intellectual inquiry transcends its status as a mere story, and by the same token, inquiry emerges not as the obscure pastime of distant figures, but as the stuff of a life lived here and now.

The Buddhism guide: A case study

A personal interest I formed in Buddhism around March 2019 led to an intensive search for introductory literature on the subject. As my bibliography began to grow and deepen, I noted the absence of online open-access bibliographic resources on Buddhism designed to facilitate serious research; the Oxford Bibliography on the topic, which was formerly the only show in town where such a resource was concerned, is both proprietary and costly. In view of the rewarding experiences I had already had constructing and distributing an extensive LibGuide on Marcel Proust,[3] I formed a strong conviction that a robust open-access bibliographic resource on Buddhism could and should exist, particularly given the recent and ongoing growth of interest in the subject throughout the English-speaking West. Hence I returned to LibGuides to begin organizing my bibliography, nursing the probably insane ambition to create a comprehensive, freely-available guide that treated the entire contemporary literature in English on the subject – roughly from the 1960s or 70s onward.

Applying the principles

Despite the magnitude of the task, diligence and sensitivity paved the way to its completion. Rather than create my own, a priori categories into which I placed existing works, I allowed the sources I found to speak for themselves, adding them to the guide and then grouping them together in ways I thought would prove most useful to a wide audience of readers and researchers. For instance: although the broad threefold matrix of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana (Tibetan) proved serviceable at first, I soon discovered that the breadth and depth of the literature on Zen in English – likely because of the relative popularity of this tradition among non-ethnic Buddhists in America – demanded that I assign it a guide tab of its own rather than shunting it uncomfortably under Mahayana, where at least historically and conceptually it rightfully belonged. The distinct and growing literature on the importation and growth of Buddhism specifically in the Western world likewise necessitated in time that I treat this area under its own major heading.

Although at every point the guide’s organization was thus founded on the principles of partition, relation, and hierarchy, it likely strikes the user expecting strictly sectarian or nation-based treatment as eccentric, while users who view Buddhism as a phenomenon that transcends sectarian or nation-based categories likely find it far too rigid. I still find the guide’s organization eminently defensible (1) from the user side, on the grounds of usability and approachability, with an eye to moderating the copiousness and complexity of the literature in order to prevent user fatigue or exasperation; (2) from the content side, on the grounds that the contemporary scholarly monograph literature in English for Buddhist studies tends to present itself according to precisely the categorizations I have reproduced. (Whether these categorizations are inherently defensible, furthermore, is not a question for the bibliographer; it is a question for the scholar.)

As far as the principle of genesis, sequence, and conflict is concerned: certainly it would prove beyond any individual guide designer’s ability to depict in detail the interrelations among these hundreds of books in a way that would tell the complete story of English scholarship on Buddhism, sequentially and with the highest possible granularity. The relative nuance of the guide’s categorizations, however, and its use of a reverse-chronological organization in its galleries aimed at representing with the best means available in LibGuides the development of scholarship around discrete topics over time.

Invisible to the casual user, but enormously important to the intellectual integrity of the guide, I placed countless individual books within multiple relevant groupings on the guide in the name of the principle of redundancy & contextualization; e.g. a book on violence and Buddhist monasticism in Myanmar would appear in groupings on violence, monasticism, and Myanmar simultaneously, so that users interested in any of these topics would be led to the same resource. While this proved laborious and not entirely foolproof – especially in view of the limitations of my own knowledge about Buddhism – it greatly increased the relative advantage the guide enjoys over database searches as a way for users to learn about Buddhism and to understand the complex interrelations between topics and areas in the discipline of Buddhist studies.

My entire effort in designing the guide was directed towards telling a comprehensive and relatively unbiased story about a certain portion of the available literature on Buddhism, and, by the same means, to facilitate readers’ engagement with that literature and the phenomenon it investigates. Turning to the principle of sensory concretization, I found that the rich visuality of Buddhist life and culture through the centuries, and the readily available representation of that visuality on the Internet, meant that I could make liberal use of images on the guide as a design element, as a teaching tool, and as an invitation to engagement. Although the guide simply presents hundreds of books, the multitude of images constantly remind the user that these books refer to experiences that are alive and active for millions of people, West and East, in our present globalized world – that the story of Buddhism told by the guide continues with great vigor in our own time.

First and second editions

Three months of consistent, daily hard work on gathering and organizing bibliography along the lines of the principles outlined above resulted in the release of the first edition of the guide in May 2019, in time for Vesak, the holiday in traditional Buddhist countries celebrating the Buddha’s birth, death, and enlightenment. I did not arbitrarily rush this first edition to publication, but even upon its release I could see many of its shortcomings plainly: certain areas remained thinly represented, though I was certain that more relevant literature existed; certain groupings I had created, especially on the pages devoted to Tibetan Buddhism, remained too broad and crude to serve the needs of specialists, though they were at least copiously represented; the design as yet lacked a consistent and compelling look and feel, and relied heavily on book cover art rather than incorporating relevant visual material from other sources to give a fuller picture of the world of Buddhist experience.

Over the following six months or so, I pursued two aims: (1) I continued to add to and reorganize the existing guide as well as polish its design; and (2) I began a small-scale publicity campaign to get the guide into the hands of those who could use it. This latter involved emailing active scholars in Buddhist studies whose recent work had been prominently featured in the guide, in the hope that their adoption would also result in their recommendation of the guide to their students and colleagues. Though not its intended aim, my emails resulted in a not inconsiderable quantity of written praise for the guide – including a handful of enthusiastic letters for my tenure dossier – as well as useful criticisms and suggestions for future editions. As I had hoped, I received many generous express promises from scholars to share the guide widely, forming in the process a foundational return audience for this and future editions. I released a second, greatly expanded and redesigned edition in November 2019;[4] my previous publicity campaign bore yet more fruit when I was interviewed by the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies in February 2020 and the video was posted to the OCBS’s YouTube channel, where it has since been viewed more than 1,600 times.

Usage trends

I took advantage of the onboard statistics console within LibGuides to observe changes in usage of the guide following each of the major events in its existence, and a marked shift in usage began to occur following the release of the second edition and the OCBS interview. Providing for a noticeable drop in usage around March 2020 – when most of us were somewhat preoccupied with other matters – the base level of usage for the second edition showed very gradual growth around a baseline of approximately twice as many page views as the first edition. This trend of gradual growth in usage continued for the first five months of the pandemic; after September 2020, the usage curve began to assume the shape of a series of waves that were timed with the predictable rhythm of the academic year, with high points in October-November and March-April and a low ebb around August. I take this rhythm of usage as evidence that the guide has not only reached a critical mass of use and sharing, but has also been picked up and circulated among precisely those communities of users at whom it was targeted: scholars, students, and serious practitioners conversant with scholarship.

So far the second major wave of usage, beginning in August 2021 and continuing to the time of this writing (October 2022), has peaked at a level above that of the initial wave (October 2020 to August 2021); we can be hopeful that successive waves will follow the same pattern of overall growth as the guide gains yet wider distribution. The precipitous drop in usage during April 2022 was due to a period of ten days or so when the guide had to be taken offline to revise a specific page; since then, usage appears to have largely gotten back on track in terms of its previous pattern without lasting alterations. In the thirty-nine months since the first edition of the guide became available, it has been viewed nearly 53,000 times; the available statistics on referring URLs furthermore indicate that site traffic has come in from around the world.

Usage statistics for the Buddhism guide, May 2019 to October 2022.
Figure 1: Usage statistics for the Buddhism guide, May 2019 to October 2022. (Click to enlarge.)

Future research

These statistics render concrete and quantifiable the global effect of a LibGuide designed according to the four principles outlined above and strategically distributed among its target audience – both of which proved to be within the powers of a single, highly motivated individual. Granted, the scholarship on LibGuides has noted for quite some time that Springshare’s usage statistics have serious limitations: since they only record distinct usages, they cannot offer a concrete and well-rounded picture of actual user engagement or satisfaction with the guide. Deeper and more focused usability study, including both student and scholarly, domestic and international populations, would be necessary to establish conclusive evidence for the effectiveness of the principles outlined here. The methodology of such a study would have to aim at ascertaining the extent to which users can perceive and exploit the guide’s storytelling about scholarship in Buddhist studies with a view to making their own substantive contributions to it. In the absence of such a study, however, the general upward trend of usage described above offers a strong indication that the guide is being shared with ever wider groups as well as revisited by individual users.

It remains to be seen what vast continents of scholarship might still be conquered by librarians eager to move past offering simply more ‘stuff in a box’ to their patrons and seeking instead to tell a highly compelling story about scholarly inquiry, using tools already within their reach.

 

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[1] Michael Kicey, “Ordinary beauty: An unashamed manifesto for LibGuides.” The Journal of Creative Library Practice, 29 November 2021. Retrieved from https://creativelibrarypractice.org/2021/11/29/ordinary-beauty/.

[2] On this tension in library practice between temporal processes and published objects, see my essay: M. Kicey. (2019). The art of asking and answering: Events, things, and librarianship in the disciplines. Journal of New Librarianship 4(1), 94-117. Retrieved from https://newlibs.org/index.php/jonl/article/view/651.

[3] Kicey, M. (2018-2021). Marcel Proust (1871-1922): A guide for readers and researchers, 2nd ed. University at Buffalo Libraries: Research Guides. Retrieved from http://research.lib.buffalo.edu/proust

[4] Kicey, M. (2019-2022). Buddhism: A guide to research, 2nd ed. University at Buffalo Libraries: Research Guides. Retrieved from https://research.lib.buffalo.edu/buddhism

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