Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Fall 1999

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Scientific Literacy Skills for Non-Science Librarians: Bootstrap Training

Christina Peterson
Life Sciences Librarian
San Jose State University, California

Sandra Kajiwara
Physical Sciences Librarian
San Jose State University, California


Adding scientific literacy to the skill set of permanent non-science and part-time adjunct librarians became a major focus of a staff development program at San Jose State University Library. The Library's one reference desk is busy, and librarians field questions from all disciplines. Changing staffing patterns in the Reference Department have necessitated the use of more adjuncts at the reference desk. A proliferation of web-based scientific information sources was overloading students and the librarians who serve them at Reference. In order to determine our most pressing training goals, we administered a survey to all reference personnel, discovering that librarians in the social sciences and humanities and adjunct librarians felt a knowledge deficit in chemistry, health sciences, and engineering, among other disciplines. The adjuncts, in particular, wanted to be brought up to speed in several aspects of science and technology librarianship, including the nature of science and its literature, typical undergraduate and graduate science students' information requirements, how to use both electronic and print sources in the sciences, and when to refer questions to science librarians. We put into place Bootstrap Training, a program for integrated groups of full-time and adjunct librarians. In this paper we describe an initial training-needs questionnaire distributed to all reference personnel, the implementation of a staff development program with scientific literacy goals, evaluation of the program, and implications for replicating the training in other library settings.

The Setting

Many college and university libraries have general reference desks staffed by librarians with specific subject expertise, but no general reference desk can be staffed by reference librarians in all areas of expertise at any one time. Thus, at any hour of the day, in-depth subject knowledge available at the desk changes drastically. San Jose State University Library (SJSUL) has one general reference desk, full-time reference librarians with subject specialties and major off-desk responsibilities such as collection development and instruction, and a cadre of part-time adjunct librarians who work reference desk hours only. We implemented a series of staff development programs for adjunct and full-time reference librarians so we were all able to offer more uniformly excellent service to any student who approaches the reference desk.

The library literature is a treasure of information on training specialist librarians in various subject fields, on new databases, or new data and literature (Mendelsohn 1999; Spang, 1996; Berkov et al 1990). There are also articles on training librarians to provide good reference service in all types of libraries (Kalvee 1996; Winston 1995). But there is little written on training non-science librarians in-house to provide a level of help for science fields for which they have no background. The literature also shows that specialized subject training offered is for an extended time period (days or weeks) or at special seminars, usually held at distant points, or for particular databases or areas of literature (Huber & Baysinger 1997). However, it is rare that a subject specialist for political science would attend a seminar for chemistry, because that training is aimed at people who already have a basic understanding of the discipline. This article describes in-house training for non-science librarians and non-science adjunct librarians where length of training time is a limiting factor, and gathering all librarians together for training is problematical. We called the program, "Bootstrap Training" because we used readily-available in-house talent.

Why the Bootstrap Training Program?

SJSUL, in common with many others around the United States, has been changing rapidly with the advent of new technology which alters the face of library research almost daily (St. Lifer 1996; Noble 1998). There has been an influx of web-based scientific databases of differing types, some bibliographic, some for data, some more encyclopedic in nature. Asking non-science librarians to become instant experts in these resources has become a tall order. Add to that SJSUL's increasing reliance on part-time or adjunct librarians, and the problem became more complicated. We wanted to create a program of training that more fully integrated adjunct and full-time librarians and also took into consideration our limited amount of time and money.

Surveying for Training Needs

To start off the training program we administered a survey to all librarians, fulltime and adjunct, and to reference staff who serve on the directions desk next to the reference desk (see Appendix I). The survey asked about training needs in the areas of specific sources, subject areas, library organization, working with patrons, maintaining a climate of civility, work pressures, as well as appropriate timing for the training sessions. Results indicated that science subjects and databases were among the most highly requested. Other needs included how to work with patrons with low levels of subject knowledge and library basics, and when to refer a student to a specialist librarian. We used the survey data to fashion a series of training sessions in subject specialties, vendor demonstrations of heavily used databases and platforms, and discussions on topics such as working with patrons with a wide range of abilities and teamwork on the reference desk. This paper focuses on the science training sessions in which we incorporated material on what our students need and how to work with them.

Implementing the Bootstrap Training Program

Our training program relied on our own full-time librarians as trainers, using their individual knowledge of particular science areas to share with the non-science librarians. The audience was all full-time or adjunct librarians and library staff serving at any reference point who felt they could profit from the scientific training. Our library was able to pay the adjunct librarians for the extra hours they spent in the training sessions.

We determined through our initial survey the hours that would be most convenient to the adjunct librarians and finally settled on Saturday mornings as our best compromise. We held the training sessions in the library classroom and on Saturdays provided coffee, bagels, and other morning fare. Our full-time librarians were trained during regular department meeting times. No food or drink was offered at these sessions. Sessions were designed to be two hours but usually ran closer to three hours because of extensive questions from the audience.

Introducing Scientific Literacy

Why is it easier for librarians to work with the humanities and the social sciences than with the science and engineering disciplines? The answer to this question formed the crux of how we chose to design our training sessions.

The educational background of a graduate of the United States' K-12 system is filled with required courses in English and Social Studies for grades 7-12; English and Social Studies are emphasized in the lower grades as well. Most teachers are themselves more familiar with the humanities and social sciences from their own education and are more comfortable spending time on these subjects in elementary schools. The sciences are usually better taught with special apparatus and supplies which most school districts have trouble providing due to limited budgets. Also, teachers in the K-12 system less often have an educational background in science than in a field of humanities or social science. So the educational system perpetuates a dearth of people versed in the sciences. Of the K-12 science teachers themselves, a recent National Science Teachers Association survey revealed among science teachers,

four out of five (78 percent) of the 80 percent involved in science education reform efforts report experiencing barriers, including lack of adequate time for planning and working with other teachers (81 percent); a shortage or science materials, resources and facilities (58 percent); and lack of financial support for relevant professional development (45 percent).
Furthermore, 49% of the science teachers "are not at all confident that elementary schools are providing students with the kind of quality science education they will need in the coming century, and 29% and 23% report the same lack of confidence about middle and high school science education, respectively." The Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) unfortunately shows, "U.S. middle and high school students performing substantially below those of leading countries in math and science" (NSTA 1999), validating the worries of the science teachers.

Our future librarians come from this system into the college environment with very little understanding of science and perhaps even a fear of the unknown. So, training librarians to provide good science reference help starts with a large deficit in their knowledge base. Most librarians are ill at ease with the science disciplines; fear of science is not unusual for people who did not take science as a degree major or minor in college. Science, more than most disciplines (excepting perhaps music), has a large and incomprehensible vocabulary which becomes a barrier for a non-science librarian who is trying to answer a science question. Because of this barrier, we developed a program to give librarians a fast, but focused view of a particular science field and its organization, tying that to the literature for that field. We wanted to give the non-science librarian enough information to be able to determine in a basic way, how to guide the science student to material he or she needed and when to refer a question to a subject specialist.

Two initial training sessions were offered for chemistry and for the health sciences. We started each session with a very basic introduction to the subject field. Obviously there is not much one can cover in a two hour session which will make a non-science librarian an expert in a science field, but expertise is not always necessary. If the librarian can become more comfortable with the databases because s/he now understands the rudiments of a field, this may be all the training needed for the librarian to be successful in finding information for a patron. For example, giving a librarian a clue about whether they are seeing an organic or inorganic chemical compound goes a long way in helping them choose where to direct a patron.

How difficult is it to teach a science in capsule form? How does one decide what is important and what is too much? Teaching a new science discipline in the classroom is easier because there are many class hours to detail the basics. When one has two to three hours for instruction, one must pick the basics that will enhance the librarian's experience at the reference desk. We were teaching a science area completely new to most of the librarians so starting with the simplest foundation was necessary. What we found was that the librarians really enjoyed learning a little bit about science because it was presented simply and related strongly to their experiences at the reference desk. Not only was it pertinent to their work, it gave them the feeling that they could now succeed with areas that previously had given them grief.

Explaining Scientific Literature Literacy

We stepped back from the show and tell stance of teaching about available databases and their attributes, back from the student query, all the way to giving a mini-seminar about the subject field itself. We hoped that teaching librarians about the science subject itself would help give them enough knowledge and confidence to decide which databases or reference tools would be most applicable.

Building on their new basic knowledge, our second design was to gather the most often asked science questions for the discipline and connect the questions with the most likely sources to search. We wanted the learning situation to be very pragmatic and tied closely to our own students' needs. At this point, we asked the librarians to send us frequently asked questions they dealt with; the trainers also included questions experience had taught were often referred to them from the non-science librarians. The specialist trainer librarian melded into the lecture the basics of the discipline that were necessary for working with the students and the questions most often asked.

Part of the understanding necessary to learning about a science field's literature is knowing what forms of literature a discipline finds important and how their literature is organized. For example, the engineering fields have many handbooks filled with important data. The chemistry field has a strong dependence on journal literature with additional basic data in many multi-volume reference works. Primary literature in the sciences means something different from primary literature in history. The trainer used the frequently asked questions to show the relationship of the questions to the major types of literature common to the science field being discussed. This connected the subject to the literature in a way the librarian was familiar with -- formats for research tools.

Characterizing Science Students

In a user-centered reference environment, patrons and their needs are primary indicators of how librarians should structure a reference interview and choose sources, so we incorporated information about typical science students and other patrons with science questions. We discussed students' ability to read and understand science literature as well as their knowledge of typical sources. Student understanding of science subjects differs among general education classes, undergraduate major, and graduate courses. Fear of science can be exacerbated when non-science librarians work with non-science majors. Neither party has an extensive subject background and neither may be able to formulate flexible search strategies. Choice of database and use of features like limits and clickable subject headings are key to successful searches in this setting. Non-majors researching a science topic and needing primary sources must be steered carefully; the more comprehensive bibliographic databases such as Compendex, Medline, and GeoRef will be too daunting. We recommended the use of less-comprehensive science databases and the utilization of limiting features to match patrons' needs. Wilson's General Science Abstracts, Applied Science Index, and Biological and Agricultural Index were suggested as more appropriate for non-majors and even some lower division undergraduate science majors. Also, many general interdisciplinary databases such as InfoTrac Web offer the ability to limit to research articles or refereed journals. The non-major who might have trouble determining if a paper is a research report from a citation or abstract can use this limit feature. Undergraduate majors are beginning to grasp the important concepts, theories, and vocabulary of their field. They are easier to work with at the reference desk. Librarians can probe for alternative search strategies, broader and narrower expressions, and technical language. Graduate students and faculty frequently need comprehensive literature reviews or conversely, that one specific paper on their topic. We recommended the major databases such as Medline, Chemical Abstracts, and Compendex for these searches. In these interactions, librarians supply the searching skills and patrons supply the subject knowledge and vocabulary. We emphasized that successful science reference transactions are based on librarian understanding of the level of patron need. In-class exercises (Appendix II) strengthened this concept.

Recognizing Faculty Goals for Students

We knew that certain science departments and individual faculty members have information competency goals for their students, such as learning to find and use scholarly scientific papers and evaluating web-based information for authority and appropriateness. These goals were explained during training sessions, usually as relevant electronic sources were demonstrated. We also discussed the difficulty some students have when they first encounter electronic indexes to the scientific literature and ways to help them, i.e., carefully reading an abstract and following subject headings. We wanted to anchor the information sources within the specific environment of our College of Science, and while some of what we taught seems self-evident to science librarians, it needed to be articulated in the training sessions.


This Bootstrap Training program was originally set up to address reference librarians' frustrations at too many new databases in too many fields with inadequate training time and deficiencies in subject knowledge that somehow show up more glaringly when helping a student with a subject database. The librarians themselves chose the fields they wanted more training in, and the science subjects were at the head of the list. Post-training evaluation indicated that while learning about appropriate subject databases was valuable, exposure to the basics of the science discipline as well as student characteristics and needs was highly appreciated. After each training session, we distributed evaluation forms which were filled out anonymously by participating librarians. One response we received was, "Since I was a total novice, this workshop proved to be a "GodSend". The very next day I got a question masquerading as an engineering question which I helped answer using my newly acquired chemistry information". This type of training program lends itself to any subject field. Philosophy, religion, music, history, and others all have content with which some librarians may not be comfortable. Whenever the discomfort level is reached, frustration and anger can't be far behind. Some understanding of the field and typical students may be all that's needed for the librarian to confidently offer assistance in the general reference desk situation.


Berkov, E. & B. Morganstern. 1990. Getting to the core: training librarians in basic reference tools. Reference Librarian 30:191-205.

Huber, C.F. & G. Baysinger. 1997. Training the trainers: creating a workshop on teaching chemical information. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship 16 [Online]. Available: {http://www.istl.org/97-fall/article1.html} [October 25, 1999].

Kalvee, D. 1996. Successful reference training on a shoestring. Library Administration and Management 10(4): 210-13.

Mendelsohn, J. 1999. Learning electronic reference resources: a team-learning project for reference staff. College and Research Libraries 60(4): 372-83.

Noble, C. 1998. Reflecting on our future. Computers in Libraries 18(2) [Online]. Available: {http://www.infotoday.com/cilmag/feb98/story2.htm} [October 25, 1999].

NSTA. 1999. Nation's science teachers register concern over U.S. science education in new survey. [Online]. Available: {https://web.archive.org/web/20100109034558/http://www.nsta.org/publications/surveys/survey19990419.aspx} [October 20, 1999].

St. Lifer, E. 1996. Net work: new roles, same mission. Library Journal 121(19): 26-30.

Spang, L. 1996. A staff-generated cross-training plan for academic reference librarians: the TQM approach at Wayne State University libraries. Reference Services Review 24(2):77-85.

Winston, M.D. 1995. Cultural sensitivity; or how to make the library a better place: training reference librarians for a pluralistic environment at the University of Arizona. Reference Services Review 23(3): 7-12.

Appendix I: Training Needs Survey

[Stereotyped image of a librarian] Is this how our patrons see us at the Reference Desk? The Reference Department wants to ensure consistently excellent patron service by offering training opportunities in reference sources and communication skills to all librarians serving at the Reference Desk. Please assist us to plan training sessions that will be of use both to adjunct librarians and to you also. This survey is to remain anonymous.


Web-based databases
(list specific titles)

CD ROM databases
(list specific titles)

Reference collection materials
(list specific titles)

Technical aspects of working with electronic sources (e.g. downloading, printing, Windows platform):

Others (list specific areas or titles)

LIBRARY ORGANIZATION (list specific areas if you wish)

Library operations and procedures:

Library departments, people, and referrals: training___

Other (please be specific)

PATRONS (list specific areas of concern)

Level of patron knowledge and information competency:

Working with international students

Working with students with disabilities

Working with students with limited English

Other (please list specific concerns)

MAINTAINING A CLIMATE OF CIVILITY (list specific concerns)

Managing a busy time at the Reference Desk

Dealing with difficult patrons

Working with uninformed patrons

Working with patrons who have minimal technical proficiency (e.g. using computers, downloading, using a mouse)

Remaining courteous even on a bad day

Working as a team on the Reference Desk

Other (please be specific)


In which subject areas would you like to receive training?


All SJSU Reference Librarians are feeling job-related pressures. Which conditions cause the most stress in your work at the SJSU Reference Desk?

List some coping skills and techniques that you would like to learn.

Appendix II: In-Class Exercises to Determine Patron Level of Expertise

Pair off all class participants; within pairs, one is patron and one is reference librarian. Each patron has the same question: "I want to find out something about cancer."

Each patron has a different background:

  1. Person whose grandmother has breast cancer and wants to know if it is contagious.
  2. Person who is writing a care plan for woman with ovarian cancer and needs to see similar plans.
  3. Person who is giving a speech on smoking and lung cancer and needs "primary sources" but doesn't quite know what a primary source might be.
  4. Person who is writing a grant to study cancer cell growth inhibition.
  5. Person who has been diagnosed with a certain type of carcinoma and wants information to help cope with the diagnosis.

The job of the librarians is to determine through a reference interview, the level and scope of information needed.


We welcome your comments about this article.


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