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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2000

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Library Instruction in an Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies Program: Challenges, Opportunities, and Reflections

Laurie A. Kutner
Library Instructor
University of Vermont


Teaching library and information skills to students in interdisciplinary areas presents a unique set of challenges for a variety of reasons. Focusing on the experience of delivering multiple, progressive library instruction sessions to undergraduates in the interdisciplinary Environmental Program at the University of Vermont, this article discusses both challenges and opportunities involved in teaching interdisciplinary students library and information skills in the context of our current electronic information environment.


The interdisciplinary nature of the study of environmental issues and problems presents challenges to environmental researchers that are compounded by a largely subject-based library and information environment. This article reflects upon and addresses issues associated with delivering sustained library instruction to undergraduate students who have chosen to focus on the interdisciplinary study of the environment at the University of Vermont.

In an effort to understand the challenges associated with teaching library and information skills to students focusing in interdisciplinary areas, I will discuss the nature of interdisciplinary scholarship, the problems associated with accessing and locating interdisciplinary information with subject-based information tools, the opportunities that electronic information resources and a networked information environment present for interdisciplinary researchers, and the juxtaposition of increasing interdisciplinary study and the complex information environment in which we work. Each of these issues affects the content of my library instruction classes and the ways in which I present information resources in an interdisciplinary context.

The Environmental Program at the University of Vermont

Currently supporting almost 300 Environmental Studies majors, the Environmental Program at the University of Vermont was founded in the early 1970s as an interdisciplinary program without any departmental, school, or college affiliation, to allow for study and exploration that is truly interdisciplinary in nature (University of Vermont Environmental Program 2000). This philosophy has been maintained for almost 30 years and is indeed the strength and heart of the Environmental Program. As the only undergraduate major at the University of Vermont with a thesis requirement, students majoring in Environmental Studies must successfully design, conduct, and complete a substantive piece of research that can conceivably span the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, depending upon the topic chosen.

In support of this requirement, Environmental Studies majors receive a sustained library instruction effort aimed at ultimately providing them with the skills to research and write their theses. These course-integrated sessions start with the teaching of basic library and information skills in an introductory level class. Next, students progress through developing an understanding of information structure, formats, mechanisms for successful information retrieval, and evaluative skills in an intermediate level research class. Finally, these concepts are reinforced in an advanced research methods class focusing on understanding and applying research and information skills necessary for the successful completion of their theses. Library instruction sessions are complemented by my availability for individual consultations as the need arises during all stages of the thesis preparation and writing process and my availability to serve as a thesis committee member as requested. The success of the entire process is predicated upon the understanding by the Environmental Studies faculty of the importance and centrality of incorporating the teaching of critical thinking and information skills into their required courses and the close working relationship between the Environmental Program and the library to meet that goal.

Interdisciplinary Scholarship

Universities have traditionally been organized by disciplines and departments, reflecting an organization of knowledge by subject, and increasing specialization within subjects. However, scholars recently examining the structure of knowledge suggest that innovation and advancement of ideas often occurs at the boundaries or intersections of disciplines, creating new ways to think about concepts that are not peripheral, but central to the advancement of knowledge (Nissani 1997; Klein 1996a; Klein 1996b). Studies on the transfer of information between disciplines through analysis of citation patterns suggest that there is significant cross-fertilization among disciplines in the advancement of scholarship (Hurd 1992; Pierce 1999; Steele and Stier 2000).

Interdisciplinary study answers questions that address complex social or scientific issues that do not fit neatly into the confines of one discipline. "The challenges of the modern world require integrative problem solving and, at a more comprehensive level, holistic thought and transdisciplinary schema promote unity of knowledge" (Klein 1996b, pp. 134-135). Scholars who have examined the nature of interdisciplinarity recognize that we must move beyond the disciplinary structure to deal with complex problem-oriented research (Karlqvist 1999; Hansson 1999; Klein 1996a).

The understanding and study of environmental problems is based on the fundamental belief of the interconnectedness of things. Students in the Environmental Program at the University of Vermont are taught not to be confined by disciplinary thinking, but to examine and think about environmental problems holistically and in terms of interrelationships. For example, a student researching the depletion of the cod fishery in the North Atlantic must examine the issue in terms of an understanding of ecology, social aspects, economic aspects, policy, and political aspects. Additionally, the student should be able to discern how these individual manifestations of the problem are driven by each other and interrelated with each other. In order to accomplish such an understanding, the student will need to examine literature in a wide variety of subject areas and in a variety of formats, as well as literature that treats the topic from a more interdisciplinary perspective. The student, therefore, should have a broad understanding of how information is organized and described, how information access tools are organized and how they work, where to find different types of information, and how to critically evaluate a wide variety of information resources for usefulness. Library instruction sessions for students in the Environmental Program, therefore, transcend all subjects, focus on major information literacy concepts, and are framed with the understanding that interdisciplinary information seeking can be challenging and must be thorough and inclusive.

Challenges Associated with Interdisciplinary Research

Library of Congress Classification System:

Some of the first concepts covered in library instruction sessions with Environmental Studies students are the organization of knowledge within the library and how to use the online catalog to access and locate library materials. This requires an explanation of the Library of Congress classification system -- a system which organizes knowledge by subject. It is particularly important for me to stress the subject-based nature of the organization of library materials in order to provide a context for understanding the limitations of this structure for students involved in interdisciplinary research. Students researching environmental issues may conceivably run across call numbers that span the geography of the library. While they should understand the utility of browsing the stacks in particular call number areas relevant to their research needs, these areas are not restricted to one general physical location, and seemingly related materials for their needs may be found in widely divergent areas of the library.

Searing (1992, 1996) and Intner and Futas (1996) discuss the problems that the Library of Congress classification system poses for interdisciplinary researchers, focusing on the interdisciplinary area of women's studies. Once a book is given a call number, a decision has been made to place it within a particular subject area in the stacks, and according to Searing (1992, p. 9), these materials "must be squeezed into pre-existing outlines of knowledge that no longer fit the shape of current scholarly output." A study conducted by Searing (1992) showed that less than one quarter of the books relevant to women's studies research are found in the HQ section, the Library of Congress call number area designated for women's studies materials. DeFelice and Rinaldo (1994) specifically focus on problems with the Library of Congress classification system for environmental topics, which can be found in many different call number areas and create challenges for collection development of environmental studies materials. These issues translate into the need to instruct students focusing their studies in interdisciplinary areas to understand the nature of the subject-based organization of materials in libraries and conversely, understand how to effectively deal with its limitations.

Using the library catalog to access relevant library materials:

The ability to use keywords to search the library catalog electronically for relevant library materials has proven to be invaluable for interdisciplinary researchers and researchers focusing on emerging, new areas of study. Library of Congress Subject Headings, which provide intellectual access to library materials, are slow to be created for new, emerging fields of study, often do not adequately describe the contents of interdisciplinary works, and use vocabulary that is slow to be updated (Searing 1996; Gerhard, Su, and Rubens 1998). Research conducted on women's studies subject headings showed that in about one out of every three bibliographic records " a large number of basic concepts were either overlooked in cataloging, or lacked an established subject heading at the time the item in question was cataloged" (Gerhard, Su, and Rubens 1998, p. 136).

I have found that Library of Congress subject headings are slow to be established for emerging environmental concepts, as well. By the time they are established, the seminal, groundbreaking and early works in these areas have already been cataloged with insufficient subject terminology and tend not to be retrospectively fitted with more accurate, newly established LC subject headings. A couple of examples from the library catalog at the University of Vermont are the subjects of ecofeminism and deep ecology. By the time these two subject headings were established by the Library of Congress in 1991 and 1992 respectively, the important early works in these areas had already been cataloged with insufficient LC subject terminology. Students focusing in these areas, therefore, need to be aware that subject searching will not yield comprehensive results and will indeed miss some very important works.

The ability to search the library catalog by keyword has provided essential access for relatively new concepts and topics that span subject areas and disciplines. In teaching Environmental Studies students how to use the library catalog to locate relevant resources for their topics, I initially focus on teaching the philosophy and mechanics of keyword searching, including Boolean logic, truncation, the importance of being able to define a topic in one's own terms, and the importance of thinking about a topic in terms of synonyms and alternative phrasing. We use keyword searching to locate relevant material on a selected topic, and then look at the Library of Congress subject headings assigned to a relevant book. We discuss the utility of Library of Congress subject searching and the use of controlled vocabulary, and examine further materials using those subject headings. I stress the importance of using keyword searching first and then subject searching for their topics which are interdisciplinary in nature and may be new and emerging. In individual consultations, I often attempt to develop a further understanding of both usefulness and limitations of Library of Congress Subject headings for environmental topics. I am fortunate to see students multiple times in multiple venues during the course of their careers as Environmental Studies majors, which provides important opportunities to discuss additional research challenges they face as interdisciplinary researchers.

While keyword searching and the use of Boolean and other sophisticated searching techniques have made it easier to access interdisciplinary and newly emerging bodies of literature, poorly constructed keyword searching still results in retrieval of much irrelevant material (Gerhard, Su, and Rubens 1998). It therefore becomes especially important to teach students involved in interdisciplinary research the concepts involved in effective keyword searching.

Challenges in searching bibliographic databases for interdisciplinary topics:

Environmental Studies students also receive instruction in accessing and retrieving various types of information, understanding information formats and their respective utilities, and understanding the mechanisms by which scholarly ideas are transmitted. From early on in their academic careers, it is expected that students comprehend the concepts of scholarly journals vs. popular magazines vs. substantive news/opinion publications and understand the significance of peer-reviewed publications and the use of scholarly journals to present primary research. We discuss the wide range of bibliographic databases available to access information in various formats, with much attention focused on the available tools to access the scholarly journal literature. Bibliographic databases that are broad and multidisciplinary in scope as well as databases that are more subject-specific in their coverage are discussed. The broad, multidisciplinary databases hold great potential as a starting-off point for the interdisciplinary researcher, while the subject-specific bibliographic databases provide thorough, comprehensive access to the scholarship in a particular area. Environmental Studies students are taught the necessity of using an array of resources to comprehensively access research that has been done in their areas of interest.

Although electronic bibliographic databases that provide sophisticated searching capabilities and multiple access points to the scholarly literature have been a boon to the interdisciplinary researcher, problems continue to exist in terms of lack of consistent interfaces and consistent controlled vocabularies across databases (Westbrook 1999). "In some ways, the availability is as exciting as the problems are daunting" (Westbrook 1999, p. 36).

Many of these problems, still evident today, are outlined in a report by the International Council for Scientific and Technical Information Group on Interdisciplinary Searching (Weisgerber 1993). The group found that:

These problems continue to apply to today's electronic information environment, despite the advent of Z39.50 and the push for greater standardization between bibliographic databases. They are manifested very clearly in the challenges involved in providing instruction in the use of these resources to interdisciplinary Environmental Studies students. Some of the search interfaces that Environmental Studies students use regularly at the University of Vermont are: Information Access Company, CIS, SilverPlatter, FirstSearch, Cambridge Scientific, UnCover, and more. Although we can focus on the concepts behind keyword searching and use of controlled vocabulary within databases, the waters get quite muddied when rules for Boolean searching, proximity searching, nested searches, accessing lists of controlled vocabulary, printing, downloading, and e-mailing citations vary widely between databases. In this context, the importance of multiple meetings in multiple classes with Environmental Studies students must again be stressed, in order to have the time and ability to cover the nuances faced by researchers with interdisciplinary interests. Individual consultations provide further opportunity to work with students individually on understanding the mechanics involved in retrieving information using a wide range of search interfaces.

Opportunities for Interdisciplinary Researchers in a Networked Information Age

Though challenges clearly exist for students needing to research across a wide range of subject areas in a decentralized electronic information environment, there are also unprecedented benefits for interdisciplinary researchers working in this age of networked information. Despite the fact that there is a learning curve in developing the ability to design effective, precision searches in multiple bibliographic databases, the electronic format of scholarly information and the opportunity to access that information by constructing complex keyword searches lends itself very well to interdisciplinary scholarship (Westbrook 1999, p. 6-7).

Bartolo and Smith (1993) conducted a study among students comparing search results from online vs. print indexes and found that online searches were more effective with users conducting research outside of their main subject specialization than were print indexes and bibliographies. Users of the online resources felt that they spent less time retrieving more relevant information and had a higher degree of satisfaction and confidence than their colleagues using print counterparts. Bates, Wilde, and Siegfried (1995) report on the satisfaction expressed by humanities scholars in the ability to easily conduct interdisciplinary research in an online searching environment.

There is no question that online bibliographic and full text databases provide unprecedented opportunities to access greater amounts of a wide range of resources across disciplines than has previously been possible. The challenge lies in teaching students both sophisticated keyword searching concepts and how to make good use of thesauri, indexes, and controlled vocabulary within specific databases. The amount of information one can retrieve on a specific topic may be daunting; it is therefore an essential part of my library instruction efforts to include discussion of critical evaluation of information resources. Because the faculty in the Environmental Program at the University of Vermont recognize that the challenges of working with interdisciplinary information require a thorough understanding of the way information is organized, this has translated into an opportunity to teach and reinforce information literacy skills through a sustained, progressive library instruction effort. Having successfully completed a thesis in order to graduate, each Environmental Studies major leaves the university prepared to work in a complex information environment.

Thus far, the focus of this discussion has been on the library catalog and library classification system, and the use of bibliographic databases to access various formats of information, but primarily the scholarly, academic journal literature. The Internet and World Wide Web, however, have had a profound effect upon the ways in which we access and interact with information. There are challenges associated with teaching our students not to rely on web search engines for all their information needs and to think critically before utilizing web resources for scholarly research. However, these challenges are offset by the opportunities that the World Wide Web and the Internet provide for conducting research and developing a further understanding of environmental issues.

The use of networks of people and information that are made easily available through Internet technologies is stressed to Environmental Studies students as important components of conducting research. The ability to go beyond books and journal articles and take part in discussions with scholars actively working in their fields through electronic discussions and e-mail correspondence adds an important dimension to the thesis research process. In the course of our instruction sessions, we discuss various networks of information that are easily accessible and should be utilized as a research tool, including: how to learn about and access mailing lists, the usefulness of establishing e-mail contact with individuals working on similar environmental issues, the importance of contacting relevant environmental organizations, and establishing an understanding of the individuals actively involved in similar and related research problems. Clark (1996, p. 236) points out that requests for information and knowledge on the Internet are done "without regard to educational credentials, formal or physical settings, or disciplinary affiliation." For the undergraduate interdisciplinary researcher, this translates into an ease of communication across class lines (student to professor/scholar/professional in a field) and an ease of communicating across disciplines, which have previously been difficult and intimidating procedures.

Because of its unmediated nature, the Internet has become a place where it is possible to access emerging scholarship, new ideas, current research and research results, gray literature that can be important in the study of environmental issues, and voices of marginalized segments of society. The scholarly publishing process takes time, and current research in an area may appear on the web well before it appears in a scholarly peer-reviewed journal. While an understanding of the importance of critically evaluating web resources is essential for wise scholarly use of the Internet, the resources that are now easily accessible on the World Wide Web add an important dimension to interdisciplinary environmental research. Searing (1996, p. 326) points out that the unpredictability of the information content of the web "may be an advantage at the cutting edge of interdisciplinary inquiry." As part of my library instruction effort with the intermediate level Environmental Studies class, we use one class period to discuss the importance of networks of information and people on the Internet, various strategies for locating relevant information on the web, and critical evaluation of web resources.

Discussion and Concluding Thoughts

The interdisciplinary nature of the study of environmental problems necessitates a broad and comprehensive understanding of the complex information environment in which we work. Because libraries and information are largely arranged by subject, accessing and retrieving information across disciplines presents additional challenges that are both perpetuated and accommodated in an electronic information environment. Lack of standardization between search interfaces in bibliographic databases creates confusion for users when a wisely conducted search in one database is not interpreted the same way in another database. Although products such as FirstSearch provide standardization within their product line, our interdisciplinary Environmental Studies students need to use a broad array of resources that go beyond what any single vendor can presently offer. The availability of more online bibliographic database products and competition between vendors to produce unique and high-quality search interfaces is perpetuating a non-standardized information environment that is a disadvantage for the increasing body of interdisciplinary researchers.

On the other hand, interdisciplinary research is served well by the ability to access unprecedented amounts of information across disciplines relatively quickly, using electronic information retrieval systems. The challenge for instruction librarians meeting increasingly interdisciplinary classes is to teach students information literacy concepts framed in the context of understanding the organization of information. Discussing electronic networks of information, thoughtful use, and critical evaluation of Internet resources are additional important components of teaching information skills to students in today's information environment.

In order to accomplish all these goals, particularly with Environmental Studies students whose interests and study cross disciplinary boundaries, it has been important for me to conduct multiple sessions of sustained, progressive library instruction, establish continued relationships with Environmental Studies students throughout the course of their academic careers, and meet with students both in a formal classroom setting and on an individual basis as requested. Additionally, I have served as a thesis evaluator for one to two students per year, which has provided me the opportunity to offer support and counsel on the thesis research and writing effort, and most rewardingly, see the fruits of our student's understanding of information literacy concepts in their successful finished products. The support, understanding, and collegiality of the Environmental Studies faculty is central to the successful, sustained interactions I have with students in the Environmental Program.

According to Palmer (1996) and Bates (1996), little systematic research has been done on information needs of interdisciplinary researchers. This is clearly an area in which further empirical study is needed. Authors who have focused on experiences working with students involved in interdisciplinary areas of study have reiterated points that are consistent with my experience. Weeg (1997) discusses the benefits of providing multiple library instruction sessions to interdisciplinary women's studies students because of the unique challenges in researching interdisciplinary topics as well as teaching general information access and retrieval concepts. Pritchard (1988) notes that the use of individual consultations in the interdisciplinary area of women's studies has proven to be very valuable in addressing additional information challenges. Westbrook (1999) has conducted empirical research on information seeking habits of women's studies faculty and observes that, due to the challenges in locating information across disciplinary lines, there is great benefit to having librarian specialists in interdisciplinary areas who understand the scope of an area and can conduct custom-tailored classes, provide specialized reference service, and assist in collection development (p. 74).

Today's intellectual environment is supporting increasing interdisciplinary scholarship as a means of developing further understanding of complex problems that transcend the sciences, social sciences, and humanities (Klein 1999). At the same time, today's information environment facilitates the advancement of intellectual ideas in ways not previously possible. Institutions of higher education would be well-served to address both these phenomena in tandem. At Brandeis University, a proposal has been funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to support the exploration of further multidisciplinary teaching within the context of a rapidly changing electronic information environment (Brandeis University Libraries, 1999, 2000). The recognition at Brandeis University of the interrelationship of interdisciplinary scholarly inquiry of the 21st century and the information environment in which this is taking place is providing a unique context for proactively engaging librarians in addressing the complex information needs generated by new, interdisciplinary courses. "Librarians are trained as interdisciplinary professionals and offer a key to maintaining interdisciplinary teaching and research skills that match current and future research skills of society" (Brandeis University Libraries 1999, paragraph 25).

Interdisciplinary study is becoming increasingly accepted in higher education and librarians understand both the challenges and opportunities associated with conducting interdisciplinary research in a networked information age. As new interdisciplinary courses and programs develop, and in existing interdisciplinary courses and programs such as the Environmental Program at the University of Vermont, librarians must work with academic faculty to assure that their students have the ability to access, retrieve, and evaluate a wide range of resources in a complex information environment.


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