Literature and Data Search Library Session

This page is authored by Kristin Partlo, Gould Library, Carleton College.
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This material was developed as part of the Carleton Teaching Activity Collection and is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


In this library session, students learn advanced bibliographic search concepts, citation management and instrumental reading in order to conduct a data search via the published literature. After brief sections of discussion and demonstration from the librarian, students engage what they have just learned with their own topics, recording their findings on a worksheet.

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Learning Goals

The goals (I am aware that there are too many goals and could use help with this) of the session are for students to:
  • Understand the importance of searching in more than one place (i.e. with more than one search tool)
  • See the power of using a bibliographic management tool
  • Understand how descriptors and subject headings can be used distinctly from keywords to improve a search
  • Know how and why to conduct a citation search in the Social Science Citation Index
  • Gain some awareness of the importance of careful note-taking and reading instrumentally as a search strategy for identifying data sources
  • Leave with several concrete ideas of ways to find data

The overall goal of this and most of my sessions is to complicate for students the idea of search and why and how one uses disciplinary journal databases. That is, these resources are not just for finding
  • articles on a topic,
  • which students will read in their entirety
  • and cite as evidence in an argument.
Rather, they can be used much more creatively to build an understanding the state of literature in the field, in which students can find
  • articles in a subfield, using a particular methodology, employing certain types of data
  • from which students can skim just the abstract, introduction, and data section for useful leads
  • and treat as data in an exploratory investigation of what other researchers have done.

The purpose of the worksheet is to:
  • Provide a sense of order and method to the varied techniques discussed in class
  • Model the types of information that should be collected in a research journal
  • Raise questions for students to help them see the intellectual decisions being made while searching -- that it is not a content-free process
  • Encourage the students to accomplish something meaningful during hands-on time so that they will leave having made progress in their research

Context for Use

This is a guest librarian session that fits into a senior seminar for economics majors preparing to write their senior integrative exercise paper (capstone project), known at Carleton as comps. Students must write an empirical paper 35-60 pages in length. Most students have not previously tackled a research project of this magnitude. In the senior seminars, students are coached for this process and complete their prospectuses by the end of term. This library session, then, is geared to make students aware of the resources available to them as they select their topics and research questions, prepare their literature reviews, and search for data.

The session is one part of a collaboration with Paula Lackie, the Academic Technologist (AT) who supports students' use of data in the social sciences. Ideally, the librarian and AT visit twice together, focusing the first session (the one described here) on finding literature and data so the second session can focus on managing data files and other concerns of working with large data sets. When the librarian and AT can only visit once, we must scale back dramatically.

This activity, as described here, is for the first of the two sessions, and requires approximately one hour. A classroom with projection for demonstration and individual student workstations for the hands-on components is necessary.

It is my hope that this activity could be easily adapted to other library session in which students are required to search for data. In classes where students are researching less diverse topics, the session could emphasize less of the bibliographic search techniques and more specific, topical resources where students might find data.

Description and Teaching Materials

All work happens within the class period. Because of the structured way we move through the worksheet, students leave with evidence of the tips they've learned and work they've done (in a short period of time). Students have continuous access to a research guide for their class posted on the library web site.

Handout for Literature and Data Search Session (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 28kB Dec7 10)
Goals and Outline for Literature and Data Search Session (Microsoft Word 36kB Dec7 10)
Data Reference Worksheet (Acrobat (PDF) 91kB Dec7 10)

Teaching Notes and Tips


As a visiting librarian, there are no formal mechanisms for me to assess the success of this session.

References and Resources

Sessions following this design also have an accompanying research guide on the library web site. The following is an example from fall 2010 for the Labor Economics seminar.