Carolyn is a Texan, born and raised, and earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Master of Science in Information Studies from UT Austin. After graduation, she served stints at St. Edward’s University, and UT San Antonio, before returning to UT Austin to work as the Social Sciences Liaison Librarian for Human Development & Family Sciences, Kinesiology & Health Education, Psychology, Social Work, and Sociology.
Research topics are driven not only by access to resources, but quality resources, walk us through how you develop new and curate existing resources for the social sciences.
Carolyn Cunningham: Social scientists use a little bit of everything in their research, from statistical data gathered from research articles and government agencies, books, to qualitative interviews. Some of this information is freely available, but a large portion is only available through our library subscriptions. We try to stay on top of developments in the field so our researchers will have access to the latest journal articles. With publication prices going up and budgets staying the same or shrinking, we have to prioritize carefully to serve the many different types of experts in our fields.
Many social science students go on to work outside of academia after graduation, so they lose access to the library resources they had while they were in school. It is just as important for them to have access to the latest research while working as practitioners as when they are students. Social work students are a great example. The agencies and organizations they work for after graduation sometimes have affiliations that allow research access, but often they are on their own. I try to squeeze in lessons about how to find open access material, how to request material through the public library, and other access points while they are still on campus.
How many patrons do you service on the Forty Acres?
CC: In my role as subject liaison, I serve folks in the following departments, across multiple colleges: Human Development & Family Sciences, Kinesiology & Health Education, Psychology, Social Work, and Sociology. I serve over 4,000 patrons, which includes 316 faculty and instructors, 700 masters and doctoral students, and 3,000 undergraduate students.
I also work unofficially with programs that don’t fit within one department, and I serve the campus at large when I answer questions through the Ask a Librarian chat and at the PCL Research Help desk.
Day to day, we see you in front of classrooms alongside professors teaching students how to access research information or with individuals who have an idea for research but are not sure how to get started. What happens in those sessions?
CC: Teaching in the classroom and meeting with folks one-on-one are some of the best parts of my job. When a faculty member invites me to talk about the art of doing research and exposing the students to the available tools, it can be tough to narrow down the talking points to fit the time allotted. It’s easy for me to go on and on, knowing all the tools we offer. Usually my classroom sessions happen when the students are writing research papers and they need to cite scholarly sources. With undergraduates, I show them how to pick a database and choose keywords in order to find research articles. We spend time during the class thinking about who is writing about their topics, whose expertise is considered authoritative, and what things are appropriate to cite (for example, scholarly articles versus news articles, or cutting edge research versus well-established theory). With graduate students, their projects often require deep interaction with the research in their areas, so we talk about finding works by major authors, methodology, and the process of publishing research articles. I recently worked with a class in which several students wanted to design surveys and questionnaires to measure social behaviors and attitudes about gender bias in the workplace. I showed them how to use the databases to find examples of previous studies that utilize surveys and questionnaires to use as models.
In one-on-one consultations, the meeting is molded by the where the researcher is in their project, and by their comfort level doing research. Undergraduates in the social sciences are often learning about their topics for the first time, and are shaping personal interests into something they can tackle in their coursework. Immigration, access to healthcare, LBGTQ issues; if there is a news story about it, we can usually find scholarly literature to lay the foundation for a research project. In these cases, I spend a good amount of the meeting introducing them to tools beyond Google or Google Scholar, and showing them how to produce a good pool of results. Graduate students and researchers are typically more experienced with the main tools in their fields, so we talk through the best keywords to search, the kinds of things published on their topic, and how to make sure they are not missing any key research in their fields. But this is just the beginning. It can go off in all kinds of crazy directions, sending us deep into the stacks, or deep down an Internet rabbit hole. This is a nerdy example, but I once helped a student dig through pages from the Wayback Machine in the Internet Archive to find a research abstract that was written in Italian. The original website had been taken down, but we had a partial citation. He had Italian language skills, so while I navigated and searched, he translated what we were seeing. It was the epitome of a wild goose chase, but we eventually found the full citation and were able to request the article through our interlibrary loan service.
What is the most satisfying aspect of your job?
CC: Talking to researchers one-on-one in consultations is incredibly gratifying. I learn something new almost every time. There are many great parts about these meetings, but learning about the issues researchers are interested in is so cool. UT has many movers and shakers on campus, and our faculty often get interviewed by NPR and other media outlets. It’s cool to hear a faculty member on the radio who just invited me to work with their classes.
I had no idea about that part of the job when I went to library school. I toyed with the thought of going into museum studies or preservation, and those specialties remain interests of mine. But I knew academic librarianship was for me early in my time as a student worker in the Geology library, and later as an intern at PCL. Dissecting people’s research questions and connecting them to information somehow works really well with my curiosity and people-orientation. I also love the cross-section of folks on campus: undergrads who are grinding through the college experience so they can go out and do other things in the world, and folks who stay in academia and build expertise in their areas (among many others, of course).
Is there a particularly rewarding or transformational interaction you had during a consultation with a patron?
CC: Transformation is one of the highest goals of pedagogy, and those moments are awesome. Sometimes, I see small transformations of people’s understandings of their topic. I have been working with a graduate student for the past few months who is investigating how college athletes identify as students. Just to give a very specific example of something I consult on regularly, we were searching for articles about college athletes and their student identity, but were not getting good results. I did a little playing around with our search, and we found that the research more commonly refers to “learner identity” or “academic identity.” Once we tweaked the search terms, the databases cracked open and gave us much better results. This student will use what she learns to make recommendations about how to advise and support student athletes in their academic achievement. It’s a great project with very tangible applications.
Other times, the transformation is more apparent in the classroom. I’ve gotten thank you notes from instructors saying their students’ papers are higher quality after a library session. Or they will redesign assignments after having me visit their classes.
Once, a patron high-fived me at the reference desk for finding a book they needed. That was awesome.
Anything you can teach us that will help us in our personal life?
CC: Sure, I can show you a few tips so you can Google like a librarian. Searching within a website can be really useful. If you know certain information lives on a site, but you can’t remember how to get there, you can search that whole site for the page you want. For instance, to find the UT calendar, enter this into the Google search bar:
Or you can easily limit your results to certain website domains. This may be helpful if you want to learn about a topic, but not see every type of result related to it. Let’s say you want find research about coconut oil. If you do a regular Google search for “coconut oil,” you get a lot of varied results, including news, social media, and products for sale. But if you scope to .edu websites, you get useful stuff right up front. Enter this into the search bar:
Check out other Google shortcuts and tricks here.