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.

These days, says Head of Reference Services Martina Darragh, 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 a hands-on approach is more vital now than ever, Darragh explains.

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 on a fairly specific search, and must spend a large amount of time simply sifting through results to find pertinent, valuable material.

What’s more, with pay-to-print outlets on the rise in the field of academic publishing, and some recent shocking revelations about the state of peer review and editing even in traditionally-respected outlets, a significant number of the materials out there being returned in scholarly searches are “simply junk,” according to Darragh.

Finally, the highly polarizing, often political nature of certain topics in bioethics—abortion, health care reform, euthanasia, eugenics, stem cell research—means that bias can be an issue in accessing credible information on a topic as well.

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, according to library head Mark Hakkarinen, is a personalized, one-on-one research consultation with the Library’s reference team. These are offered free of charge to any researcher pursuing a suitable project: from a Georgetown undergraduate to a clinician in Boston an independent scholar in Ghana.

How does it work? Library staff work directly with you to narrow a search to a few of the most credible, high-value results, explains Darragh, and work with you directly to build an iterative search strategy that grows directly out of the initial materials that you found most pertinent to your research project. “We start small, and grow from there,” she says. “It’s typically a conversation, not a one-off where we dump a list of search results and part ways.”

Library specialists 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,” says Darragh. The staff of the Bioethics Research Library is proud of the role the Library plays in seeking truth in a complex age.

Book a reference consult »