It’s Never Too Early to Start Thinking about Summer Reseach Assistant Training

by Christina Glon

I know it’s hard to believe, but summer is right around the corner. In academic law libraries, summer is the season for Research Assistants, a time when rising 2Ls are feeling great about completing their first year and think they have it made as a summer Research Assistant only to be sadly overwhelmed by several competing emotions when they discover that perhaps Westlaw and Lexis don’t have everything they need for their research.

  1. First, the frustration sets in. Maybe they just haven’t searched the right terms so they try again. And again. And again.
  2. Then, the insecurity starts to sneak in. Maybe they aren’t using the tools properly. What are they doing wrong? It worked okay for the 1L memo, why is it not working now?
  3. Next, the anxiety level steadily increases. Maybe they aren’t as good at researching as they thought they were? They are sure the other RAs are not struggling. They fear they are the only ones failing at their research.
  4. Finally, the stress levels reach an all-time high and they can’t stop thinking “what have I gotten myself into? I’ll never be able to find the right information. My professor will hate me. This is awful. I think I need some help!”

This sad but true scenario plays out each year, and reference librarians in schools from coast to coast do all they can to reassure students that their frustrations are natural, they are not the only ones struggling, and many resources beyond Westlaw and Lexis are available to them. In the not-too-distant past, we could actually see the students progressing through theses stages as they happened right in front of us, right here in the library. But now that students no longer need to come into the library to do their research, the challenge of helping them through the learning curve has become that much harder.  Often times, we aren’t involved until well into the summer when they finally reach out for help.

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Manic Coffee by Candice Eisner| CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Last year, we decided our RA training needed a makeover, and make it over we did! We switched from a multi-day format to a half-day workshop. We worked with the faculty and urged them to make our workshop mandatory for their RAs and even allowed them to enroll their RAs in the workshop directly. We expanded the content to include additional topics such as payroll and circulation policies. We marketed the workshop as a fun way to jumpstart their legal research projects. Perhaps most importantly, we offered quality food. When all else fails, give them good food. Our workshop was actually catered by Panera Bread and included all kinds of breakfast goodies as well as a complete coffee bar.

We held our workshop on the Wednesday after finals from 9:30-12:30 and included six speakers and a Q&A session. We kicked off the workshop with HR, advising them that they were getting paid for attending and showing them how to properly submit their timecards each week. Next we included sessions on the library’s website (highlighting our “Request a Consultation” form), circulation policies for RAs, and suggestions for general research strategies. Next we offered a 30-minute session focused solely on LibGuides. We know they are awesome, but students often forget they are there. We offered a few short demos on additional databases and wrapped up with a panel of reference librarians ready to field their specific research questions.

The workshop was a huge success. Thirty-five students registered and 25 actually attended. Our student consultation requests during the summer were much more manageable and came in much earlier in the process. Naturally, there were a few surprises, most notably the Q&A session. The students didn’t have any questions. But how was that possible? We went out of our way to tell them to bring their questions and we would all be right there to help. We ultimately decided that perhaps they were too intimidated by their classmates to actually ask any questions (read: they didn’t know what to do first and didn’t want to admit it in front of their classmates for fear that they were the only one with questions.) Luckily, the other surprise was how swamped we were with questions during the breaks and after the workshop. It became readily apparent that the magic really happens during those informal “down” times. It was only during these one-on-one exchanges that the students opened up and really asked substantive questions.

We are planning a Summer RA Workshop again this year and sticking with the same basic format. However, we plan to allow extra time during the breaks (unbeknownst to the students) for questions and we certainly will not be afraid to end the Q&A session early knowing they will approach us directly after we wrap up. Hopefully making the summer that much better for all of us!

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About Christina Glon

Christina Glon is an Assistant Law Librarian for Reference at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. She currently teaches Health Law Research and Technology in Legal Practice.
This entry was posted in Legal Research, Legal Research Instruction, Reference Services, Research Assistants, Teaching (general), Training and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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