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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2012


Maximizing the Impact of Engineering Librarianship with a Literature Research Guidance Process

James B. Clarke
B.E.S.T. Library
Miami University
Oxford, Ohio

Copyright 2012, James B. Clarke. Used with permission.

When I joined the ranks of academia a few years ago, I quickly became concerned with the ineffectiveness of traditional liaison librarianship on undergraduate engineering education. The limited impact of one-shot instruction sessions and the decline in reference demands place significant restraints on how librarians can influence their students. (Arndt 2010) Many librarians embrace technological innovation as a means of remaining relevant, but online information access tools are only a part of the solution. Today's students have extraordinarily easy access to self-service information tools, but the first three years of most undergraduate engineering curricula typically involve assignments based largely on class lectures, textbook reading, and lab assignments. Students have no practical need to embrace online information tools when the majority of course assignments do not require routine usage (Elrod, Husic and Kinzie 2010). As I began interacting with the seniors at the start of capstone projects, I observed that their knowledge about design analysis was impressive, but their literature research skills were extremely poor (Clarke 2011).

In reaction to these realities, I began co-teaching several senior engineering design project classes with a method I call the Literature Research Guidance Process (LRGP). Once I achieved initial success, I asked for an opportunity to address the seniors of each engineering department at the start of the next academic year. I used these opportunities to explain what good literature research comprises within the design cycle process, and I demanded that students seek my guidance after they were assigned to specific design project teams. Over 20 senior design project teams responded to my bravado.

Ideally, LRGP begins with common practices such as reference interviews, database queries, and physical collection searches. Once the initial literature research is completed, I break with convention by attending multiple capstone team meetings to facilitate literature discussions based on assigned readings. I ask each of the students to summarize their findings in three minutes or less and to explain how their readings can be used in the design project. While the students deliver their summaries, a projector displays figures and formulas from the readings for all to see. I make certain that the literature analysis is captured in the meeting minutes and that all literature is examined carefully. The professors attend these sessions and frequently contribute questions and advice.

As students discover useful citations and identify supplemental information needs, I assist with more queries, assign additional readings, and maintain a rapid pace for the literature analysis. Process efficiency can be established by requiring the students to use basic project management practices such as defined roles and responsibilities, formal meeting agendas, design cycle models, Gantt charts, and wiki hubs. The students' use of these tools will help to prepare them for the workplace, while allowing me to incorporate defined literature research goals into the students' design cycle process. I share examples of all these project management tools with the design teams and let them make modifications to suit their specific needs. LRGP is a versatile process that is currently being used to support mechanical, electrical, chemical, and paper engineering design projects.

Students acknowledge me as an educator within these circumstances and interact with me in the same way they engage their professors. When I challenge the students to explain how their literature analysis supports later design decisions, the reading remains relevant. I can then play an advisory role in assignment preparation for papers, posters, and presentations. LRGP has increased the quantity of my significant undergraduate student engagement from two design teams comprised of ten students to more than 24 design teams that include more than 120 students. The amount of time spent on LRGP fluctuates, but I typically spend a minimum of 10 hours a week conducting this intense level of student engagement. I believe LRGP optimizes my impact on student learning and realizes information literacy instruction at its highest level.

Miami University engineering professors embrace LRGP after they observe its positive impact on student design projects. Initially, they are surprised by the extent of my involvement, but they never become defensive about their "turf." The extent of my collaboration depends on each professor's preferences. In some cases, I co-teach the courses as a full partner. In other cases, I facilitate literature research in separate meetings, and in a few instances I only maximize the amount of scientific literature read by a research team. Regardless, I maintain a consistent focus on facilitating student reading and meeting weekly literature research goals. Some engineering professors value literature analysis more than others, but all of them appreciate the importance of background reading within the design cycle process. Professors also vary on the student usage of project management practices, but no one ever complains about their students becoming better organized as a result of my participation. One hundred percent of the participating professors acknowledge an improvement in the scope and quantity of student literature research performed as a result of my engagement.

I now believe that all types of science librarians can improve their level of undergraduate student engagement by serving as research instructors who play a facilitating role in literature analysis. Design project co-teaching opportunities such as first-year student research programs, independent research projects, co-curricular design projects, and senior capstone projects offer librarians a practical means to facilitate excellent undergraduate literature research. Senior capstone classes offer the most ideal LRGP opportunities because engineering librarians can participate in these credit-bearing group projects as co-teachers for at least several weeks if not an entire academic year.

LRGP has the potential to establish a new benchmark for undergraduate engineering education, and a widespread adoption would greatly expand the influence of all science librarians. Some may argue that LRGP is unusual and too technical for many engineering librarians, but the practice merely involves leading students as a literature research facilitator. Furthermore, I doubt many professors will reject LRGP once they observe the benefits of incremental literature analysis and enhanced project management. Pragmatists may be quick to point out the time-intensiveness of LRGP and its need for additional engineering librarians. They are correct on both counts. The time needed to invest in this activity is substantial, but I believe the educational impact is worth the shift in priorities. The prospect of hiring more engineering librarians may indeed seem impractical, but I think the status quo, in which one or only a few librarians serve dozens if not hundreds of professors and thousands of students, is equally unviable. Engineering librarians who customize and successfully deploy an LRGP process will have a strong argument for incremental growth in staff or an adjustment in job priorities. Change of this magnitude will not happen swiftly or easily, but I believe the end result will increase the importance of engineering librarians and the value of their collections.


Arndt, T. 2010. Reference service without the desk. Reference Services Review 38(1):71-80.

Clarke, James B. 2011. Seeking a paradigm shift for engineering librarian education. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship. [Internet]. [Cited February 13, 2012]. Available from:

Elrod, S., Husic, D., & Kinzie, J. 2010. Research and discovery across the curriculum. Peer Review 12(2) 4-8.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ISTL, the Science and Technology Section, or the American Library Association.

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