Creating subject guides that students will use

I believe that subject guides are a potentially valuable but generally underused resource for academic libraries. As a student, my practicum project at the McGill Library involved conducting a focus group with students to learn what they thought about subject guide design. I asked them what they thought of the current design and had them offer suggestions for potential future designs. One of the most striking findings (from my admittedly small sample) was that almost none of them were aware that such resources existed, but most of them said they would find the guides useful for their work (they also had some criticisms of the layout being used at the time, which has since been improved). This study, along with anecdotal evidence from other insitutions, reinforced my suspicion that subject guides are somehow not quite connecting with students.

Later, as a newly minted liaison librarian, I relied heavily on subject guides in my work. While learning the ropes of the reference desk, I spent time between questions scouring the guides relevant to my subjects. I found this to be an incredibly useful way to discover the various resources my library had access to and how these resources could be used to research different subjects. When giving information literacy sessions in classes, the guides helped me choose which resources to recommend, and in almost every presentation I showed how to reach the appropriate subject guide, in the hopes that students would go there when researching their assignments. But no matter how much I promoted subject guides, students coming to the reference desk still seemed unaware of their existence.

Of course, there are some resources that only a librarian could love, and librarians sometimes foist these upon students because we believe they need them, without considering whether they will actually use them once they’ve left the reference desk. A good example would be old school Dialog-style search interfaces that require advanced search skills; some librarians still believe that we should train all students to use these databases so they can perform the most efficient searches possible. While some disciplines may require somewhat more structured searching, I think the typical undergraduate student will end up doing better research by learning to perform relatively simple searches in the appropriate modern databases, as they will be more likely to retain what they’ve learned and less likely to resort to plagiarism or a Google-only strategy. So is it possible that subject guides are great for librarians but not for students? Should we take them off our public websites altogether, and focus on other methods of getting the word out about resources, such as through information literacy sessions? Based on the interactions I’ve had with students, I still have hope for subject guides. Once they’re aware that the guides exist, students seem to appreciate being able to find all the best resources listed on a single page, and they usually indicate that they will use them in the future. So they still have potential, but there’s clearly work to be done to make them as usable and discoverable as possible.

Other libraries seem to be struggling with the same issues, and I am always interested to learn how other institutions are attempting to connect their students with subject guides. Today I noticed the following tweet from the libraries at Seneca College in Toronto (@senecalibraries):

I thought this was a great way to solicit feedback from students while also reminding them that the subject guides are available. What do you think about subject guides? How can we make them live up to their potential? Or should we get rid of them altogether? Let me know in the comments.


5 thoughts on “Creating subject guides that students will use

  1. I tend to think that subject guides are tools that librarians like but students rarely use. I could be wrong, however. I was searching on Google for information about student usage of subject guides, and that’s how I landed here. Thanks for your post!

    • Thanks for the comment – I completely agree! I think the real question is whether students rarely use them because of some fundamental limitation to subject guides, or whether the right guides with the right amount of promotion could make students take notice. Personally, I think it’s possible to make students want to use the guides, but most libraries have not quite figured how to make it happen. In any case, I think we should put some research into the question before giving up on them altogether.

  2. I’m doing an masters dissertation on subject guides in genealogy. It would seem that subject guides for genealogy are more widely used, maybe because of the nature of subject, and maybe because of the age of the average genealogy researcher. The project not a survey of users, as you have done, but a survey of the guides themselves in public libraries across England. Do you happen to know if there is a subject guide on the creation of subject guides? (hahaha….ha)

      • Sounds like an interesting project. I agree that it may have to do with both the subject and the age of the users. Someone researching existentialism may assume that there are plenty of articles available through Google (and this is true, though they may not be the best articles), while they may not expect information on their ancestors to be as easily available online. And I doubt the majority of genealogy researchers are university age, so they may be more likely to have experience using guides rather than just throwing searches into a search box.

        As for a meta subject guide, I think that’s a great idea. There are plenty of poorly designed guides out there that would benefit from such a resource!

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