Faculty Research Column: Laura Saunders by Jennifer Moyer

saunders2011.jpgThe best way to start an interview with Assistant Professor Laura Saunders is to ask, "What don't you do at Simmons GSLIS?" As the first graduate of Simmons GSLIS's Ph.D. program, Saunders is pioneering avenues of reference and information literacy research, as well as spearheading several new initiatives at the school.

While Saunders initially dreamed of becoming a high school English teacher, she switched gears after realizing that library science offered opportunities to bring together her teaching and research interests.  Today, her research contradicts popular beliefs about the future of reference services. Her 2012 study "The Reality of Reference: Responsibilities and Competencies for Current Reference Librarians" shows that reference services in academic libraries aren't dying, but are evolving. Saunders believes traditional services and artifacts, like the reference desk, are becoming less important and being replaced by embedded librarians. "Paraprofessionals can answer basic questions and re-direct queries. We need professionals at the point of need. Resources should be spent on professionals to develop pathfinder tools, partnering with faculty directly, and providing instruction."

Saunders believes public libraries also need to update their services by participating in engagement initiatives. For example, public librarians should directly offer services to schools, local businesses, assisted-living facilities, and other community centers that have information-seeking needs. Virtual reference services through IM or chat should also be expanded. In addition to providing mobile device instruction, there is also an opportunity to educate the public how to go beyond Google, emphasizing quality content over quantity.

Recently, Saunders and Assistant Professor Mary Wilkins Jordan gave their award-winning research presentation "Reference Competencies from the Practitioner's Perspective: An International Comparison" at the ALISE conference and at Simmons GSLIS. The study showed that online searching, interpersonal, and social-media skills ranked the highest in importance among reference librarians worldwide. The article about the international research project will be published in LIBRI: The International Journal of Librarians and Information Services. A second collaborative article, "Significantly Different: Reference Services Competencies in Public and Academic Libraries," will be featured in the Spring 2013 Reference & User Services Quarterly.

While Saunders teaches the traditional reference courses including LIS 407 Reference/Information Services, and LIS 408 User Instruction, she will also be teaching the LIS 493 Intellectual Freedom and Censorship course in Rome during the Summer 2013 semester. The class will explore the social-justice aspects of information literacy. The week before her two-week stint abroad, Saunders will teach LIS 410 Information Services for Diverse Users, which deals with how to cope with the challenges posed by various user populations, and how to develop policies accordingly.  In addition, Saunders recommends that those interested in a career in reference take LIS 453 Collection Development and Management, as well as specialty courses in their area of interest, which can be found at http://gslis.simmons.edu/advising/areas/reference.htm.

Saunders applies her research findings, such as those from "Identifying Core Reference Competencies from an Employers' Perspective: Implications for Instruction" to her classes. "As a professional program, Simmons GSLIS encourages students to seek practical experience beyond coursework to bridge the theory-to-practice gap. Cultivating interpersonal skills and learning how to respond to different types of queries from various user groups can be mastered with job, internship, and independent study experiences," says Saunders.

In addition to working with a graduate research assistant on data manipulation for an information-seeking-behavior project, Saunders is also supervising several independent study projects. The student research includes an in-depth review of embedded librarianship, access to library services for deployed troops, and a project that combines research and practical experience. When she is not conducting research, teaching, or advising students, she leads the interview sessions of GSLIS's career boot camp and also facilitates the "Change the Name, Not the Narrative" lecture series.

Saunders' future is full of opportunities, presentations, and promising projects. She will be presenting at several conferences around the world over the next few months, including in Istanbul and Rome. She also presented "The Future of Information Literacy" at the Massachusetts Library Association Conference in April 2013. Research projects on the horizon include exploring librarians' perspectives to improve access to information and education, as well as examining the social and ethical questions associated with library collections and how they have been changed by the Internet. For example, is it ethical for libraries to be influenced by patron-driven acquisition when librarians are expected to provide balanced information? We can all look forward to Saunders' helping us to answer these questions.

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