The Information-Seeking Behavior of Today’s Latin American Researchers

The article “Researching Latin America: A Survey of How the Next Generation Is Doing Its Research” by Potts and Mazurkiewicz in Latin American Research Review investigates the information-seeking behavior of a very specific population: advanced-level university students belonging to the Latin American Studies Association (LASA).

In particular, the article examines how these students conducted their research, what particular tools they used in the discipline of Latin American studies and what level of bibliographic instruction they had previously received. The participants in the study were geographically dispersed across the United States and Puerto Rico and the vast majority was of Latino descent.

This user group is significant for several reasons. First, Latinos in the United States have had documented problems with using academic library resources (Haras et al. 2010, Solis and Dabbour 2010). In addition, this study’s specific population of doctoral and graduate students represents the next generation of teachers of Latin American studies. The manner in which this group conducts its research has implications for future generations of students as well.

While these advanced, graduate-level students have plenty of familiarity with using electronic resources for research, questions remain about whether they have an appropriate level of knowledge of discipline-specific databases that lead to higher quality information resources relevant to their investigations.

Potts and Mazurkiewicz’s methodology was a detailed three-part survey sent out to all 723 LASA members with postal codes in the United States and Puerto Rico, and it had a respectable return rate of 32%. The questions were mainly concerned with the students’ usage of print and electronic sources, their awareness of core Latin American information tools including a group of important subject databases and indexes (abbreviations HLAS, HAPI, LAPTOC and LANIC).

The authors found that the students did not overwhelmingly favor internet sources and that they still preferred to use traditional resources provided by the libraries. The students reported that their search strategy frequently included browsing the stacks and following journal citations to new articles.

This supports the popular viewpoint that users’ information-seeking behavior does not follow a linear pattern of a specific information query matched to an information source. Instead, the seeking process, both online and physical, is complex and evolving, and users often retrieve results one or two at a time and not all at once (Bates 1989).

The study’s findings relating to the use of discipline-specific information tools raise significant concerns, and suggest that Latin American bibliographic instruction in academic libraries, both in person and online, needs to be improved. Potts and Mazurkiewicz discovered that the students’ knowledge of the core Latin American databases was very low, as between 69 and 93 percent of respondents not only had not used the tools in the past year, but reported that they had never even heard of them.

It is troubling that such a high percentage of the next generation of Latin American studies instructors do not know of these core online resources, and the study’s findings imply that bibliographic instruction in Latin American studies needs to be improved at many institutions. 65 percent of respondents reported that they had never had an instruction session with a librarian and 55 percent said that they had not had a course or professor direct them on how to conduct their research.

The authors suggest that part of the problem is the fact that in many cases, graduate-level faculty do not provide these resources because they assume the students have already received such instruction before. This is not always the case, as the strategies needed to conduct research for undergraduate-level courses are much different than Latin American master’s and doctoral programs, and each specific discipline has its own specific tools. Faculty should work more closely with librarians to plan bibliographic instruction sessions, whether that be a class session in the library or just a short visit and lecture from the consulting librarian about how to conduct research on Latin America.

Today, bibliographic instruction does not just occur in person, and Potts and Mazurkiewicz do not address the benefits of online guides for teaching research skills. The Latin American studies programs at these institutions should be listing the core databases on their websites along with an explanation of how to find sources. Universities that subscribe to Libguides software can easily create subject specific guides that can be very helpful for students. The authors did not ask any questions about whether the students’ institutions offered any of these tools, and it is possible that the students who did not have a formal session with a librarian had indeed been using online tools created by the library. The statistics about database knowledge, however, suggest that this area of bibliographic instruction still needs great improvement.

Works Cited:

Bates, M J. “The design of browsing and berrypicking techniques for the online search interface.” Online Review 13.5 (1989): 407-424. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts.

Haras, Catherine, Edward M. Lopez, and Kristine Ferry. “(Generation 1.5) Latino Students and the Library: A Case Study.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 34.5 (2008): 425-433. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts.

Mazurkiewicz, Orchid, and Claude H. Potts. “Researching Latin America. A Survey of How the New Generation is Doing its Research.” Latin American Research Review 42.3 (2007): 161-182. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts.

Solis, Jacqueline, and Katherine S. Dabbour. “Latino students and libraries: a US federal grant project report.” New Library World 107.1/2 (2006): 48-56. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts.

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