Library Reference Services: An introduction

When the Kennedy Institute of Ethics’s Bioethics Research Library was founded, the interdisciplinary field of bioethics was just coming into its own in the US. Research and policy projects in applied ethics would typically draw on materials from fields as disparate as law, philosophy, medical science, public policy, federal and international regulations, theology, anthropology, history, and more… each with its own standards of indexing, far-flung physical collections, and so on.

Today the challenges facing those attempting applied ethics research are different. In some ways, these new challenges are the opposite of the sorts of information access issues that the Library was originally founded to solve. But, Library staff Patricia Martin, John Zarrillo, and Roxie France-Nuriddin believe a hands-on approach is more vital now than ever.

With the advent of wide-scale digitization (which the Library has contributed to significantly over the years) and massive cross-field search tools such as Google Scholar, the issue most researchers face is not too little information, but too much. Novice researchers are easily faced with thousands of hits, even when executing a fairly specific search, and must spend a large amount of time simply sifting through results to find pertinent, valuable material.

Topics in bioethics are sometimes highly polarizing, and often political in nature — environmental ethics; fetal tissue research, genetic engineering, health care reform, physician assisted suicide, reproductive rights — which means that bias can be an issue in accessing credible information on a topic. The Library has committed decades of work to ensuring information access and data integrity for the field of bioethics, and it continues to serve scholars locally and globally as a peerless resource in the field. From custom search strategies to special archival collections, it offers a variety of curated tools to kick off a serious search.

One of its most popular services offered to Library patrons is a personalized reference consultation with the Library’s reference team and the identification of curated resources to launch the research process.  How does it work? Library staff work directly with you to focus a search to the most credible, high-value results, and then continue to work with you to build an iterative search strategy that grows directly out of the initial materials that you found most pertinent to your research project.  All reference consultations are free of charge to any researcher pursuing a suitable project: from a Georgetown undergraduate to a clinician in Boston, to an independent scholar in Ghana.

Library staff can also help connect researchers to resources in their local library systems, and in many cases help to procure them via Inter-Library Loan for even far-distant researchers who lack digital institutional access to online resources.

In an age of “fake news”, information literacy is more important than ever. The staff of the Bioethics Research Library is proud of the role the Library plays in seeking truth in a complex age.

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