Sunday, September 7, 2014

Reflections on Political Science Sources

As an undergraduate student of the humanities, my primary challenge was not writing papers that would sufficiently support my thesis. Rather, my biggest difficulty often was to find the primary sources I needed. This is supported by the Political Science Research Competency Guidelines from LPSS, which state that “political science research...relies heavily on primary sources that may be difficult for the undergraduate to find and understand.” Thus, its list of competencies provide a framework for the librarian, who must provide research aid, and the student, who must be literate in information-seeking.

The Competency Guidelines make a variety of recommendations for information literacy on the student's part, one of which relates to bias in sources. This is a topic addressed by the article I examined for this unit, The Taking Liberties Exhibition at the British Library (Kellner, 2009). The article itself is a review of an exhibition on several centuries of efforts toward obtaining personal liberty in the UK, but Kellner introduces the notion of bias in his piece, saying that the definition of liberty varies from individual to individual. That is, liberty is subjective. Liberty is also a driving force in the political climate of most nations, and the notion of liberty is a common thread through those documents that students and researchers in the political science field will utilize. As librarians, it is imperative that we understand this subjectivity and help our patrons to understand it, as well, not to influence their understanding of liberty – or any other topic or source of bias – but to help them to seek out those sources which are either unbiased or, if bias is the topic, those which will satisfy the requirements of our patrons.

Topical libguides are an excellent means of directing students to a variety of sources in multiple formats. The Political Science LibGuide provided by Westmont College's Voskuyl Library recommends many different political science resources, including books, databases, websites, and courses. Westmont's political science libguide was updated recently (August 29, 2014) and also includes a class list for prospective and current students. In terms of access to relevant materials, this libguide is an excellent source.

The Social Sciences Librarians' Blog from the University of Leicester, on the other hand, was easy to use and navigate and highly accessible. I scrolled through and found a post on Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East. By nearly anyone's definition, and certainly for students, the events taking place in, and the cultures of, these nations are complicated and challenging. To ease understanding, this particular blog post links to a number of sources of information. It may not be exhaustive, and bias may be a concern: these sources are authored by individuals who may be experts but may not be members of these cultures, and any published list of “good” resources is inherently biased. That said, students are well-served by such a list (this is also annotated), and it is clear that the author, Andrew Dunn, has a good grasp on the competencies suggested by the LPSS.

The CQ Press, which was assigned for exploration, is a rich resource for government information. However, I found it to be challenging to locate CQ Press on the Kent libraries website until I recalled that it is a database. Sources of political science information were linked from the library page for government documents but that page did not list CQ Press databases as a source for information. Instead, I navigated to the library home page, selected the link for databases, and found CQ Press databases in the list. This is a logical construction method for accessing materials but intuition would direct the researcher to the government document resource page first. Because I am focusing on access to materials, rather than the quality of resources, I would say that CQ Press as a source of information through Kent was difficult to use.

A large number of courses, and related materials, are available via the MIT Opencourseware site. Course links include syllabi and readings, and it is conceivable that students studying the topics offered, but not enrolled in courses at MIT, would still find these links useful. Instructor lectures can be a useful source for research, and may even be considered primary sources under certain circumstances. Students who are directed to such a source by reference librarians will find a unique resource for their studies. As with other sources of information, bias may be present, and students should take that fact under consideration.

As a resource for usable information, the political science reddit is a mixed bag. Some threads focus on whether to continue school or on post-graduation job prospects. Many others, however, link to articles of interest to political science students or other interested parties. Like instructor lectures, comments in response to articles and other discussion board contributions can be utilized as primary sources under the right circumstances, and with the large following that reddit enjoys, it is logical that it is a tool of which reference librarians should be aware. Unfortunately, I found that the threads most likely to receive comments were those relating to education and careers in political science rather than to posted articles. Still, reddit could be considered a database, albeit a crowdsourced one, and as such is an indicator of culture and current events and interests, which increases its value as a unique resource.

Ultimately, librarians understand two important things: that patrons should be directed toward resources relating to their topics of interest, and that patrons should understand that resources for research vary in quality. I have attempted to assess the quality of each of the sources to be explored this week, and have found that, while some are more usable than others, all are excellent in terms of access to resources.

1 comment:

  1. I like your commentary on Reddit. I agree, it's an important resource tool even if it's somewhat unorthodox in terms of resources that librarians usually think of. Also, I think that the information on education and careers in political science should not be necessarily eschewed. That information could still prove useful to a patron asking questions in the political science discipline.