D-Lib Magazine
November 2000

Volume 6 Number 11

ISSN 1082-9873

Resource Guide for the Social Sciences

Signposting a Dissemination and Support Route for Barefoot and Meta-librarians in UK Higher Education


Lesly Huxley and Karen Ford
Institute for Learning and Research Technology
University of Bristol
8 - 10 Berkeley Square
Bristol BS8 1HH, United Kingdom

Red Line



The Resource Guide for the Social Sciences pilot project aimed to trial a coordinated, national and subject-based approach to the promotion of publicly-funded networked resources for UK higher education and to provide a qualitative evaluation of methods. The resulting dissemination and support framework was intended to complement and add value to existing national and local activity. The pilot's success led to a subsequent two-year extension. Our pilot and subsequent findings align with those of Zeitlyn et al. (1999) [1] and more recent research for Joseph Rowntree [2], highlighting the importance of social networks and an understanding of users' needs. The Resource Guide’s framework provides signposts to effective dissemination routes peopled by meta-librarians and 'barefoot librarians'1 using individual, institutional and combined approaches. Here we describe outcomes from the pilot and interim findings from the extension period, including adaptation of the framework to other subject areas.

1. Introduction

The Resource Guide for the Social Sciences [3] was funded as a one-year pilot project in 1998-99 by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) [4] and JISC ASSIST [5], the dissemination 'arm' of the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) [6] of the four UK higher education funding councils. Its aims: to trial a coordinated, national and subject-based approach to the promotion of relevant networked resources and provide a qualitative evaluation of dissemination methods. The ESRC and JISC make considerable investment in networked resources to support learning and research, particularly for the relatively computer-literate social science community. Most resource providers offer training and support, often through the key traditional intermediaries of library and information support staff. Whilst some collaborative activity between providers was trialled in the mid-1990s, funding models and limited resources precluded any real coherent, targeted approach. Feedback continued to indicate that users’ awareness of these expensive networked resources was generally low and confusion over availability and potential use of resources high.

Whilst the social sciences were the target for the pilot project, the intention was to trial a range of approaches with a view to adaptation for other subject areas. Based on pilot activities, the Resource Guide team developed a dissemination and support framework intended to complement and add value to the existing activities of both resource providers at national level and librarians and other support staff at local university level. The framework offers signposts to the effectiveness of paper, online and face-to-face dissemination and awareness-raising activities via a number of routes, both in isolation and combined. These include 'piggy-backing' on the activities and social/professional networks of 'meta-librarians' and 'barefoot librarians'1 (Zeitlyn et al., 1999, p.3 [1]) and complementary individual, institutional and combined approaches. The framework takes into account the need to maintain a careful balance between users’ and funders’ needs, sensitivities arising from overlaps with providers’ and information specialists’ activities and making best use of appropriate networks within limited resources.

The Resource Guide for the Social Sciences is based at the Institute for Learning and Research Technology (ILRT) [7] at the University of Bristol, UK. Project staffing levels were increased for the two-year extension period of funding which ends October 2001: the team comprises a Resource Guide Adviser (Karen Ford); Project Director (Lesly Huxley) and two administrative support staff, all of whom work part-time. Below we describe the pilot project’s key elements and findings, our subsequent experience and recent work on adapting the framework for other areas.

2. The pilot framework: signposts to resource discovery

Scope and resource coverage

Our starting point was a focus on resources funded directly or indirectly by the ESRC and/or JISC. The team’s own subject knowledge helped identify key existing resources, whilst the funding bodies identified new or 'pipeline' resources. We did not want to duplicate the excellent work of the Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG) [8] or similar services, so development of a clear scope policy [9] early on was essential.

We felt it important to make personal visits to key resource providers at an early stage to avoid any potential duplication of effort and reassure providers of our intention not to replace their in-depth training and dissemination activities: Karen contacted and visited eight providers. As a result of the visits, resource providers agreed to a pro-active approach with small-scale targeted promotion and awareness-raising activities involving promotion by resource type, not by provider. Recent research for the UK's Joseph Rowntree Trust [2] highlights the need for those disseminating [in this case, research results] to recognise the 'end point user' as "a powerful force in demanding the best of what works". Our aim was to provide a simple categorisation to highlight resources’ relevance to users' learning and research, rather than focusing, as was traditionally the case, on where resources were located and who provided them.

The concept of categorisation formed the basis of the Resource Guide logo (see figure 1 below) and the organisation in five main categories of information in paper and online materials developed later in the pilot.

Graphical image of signpost.

Figure 1 - Resource Guide for the Social Sciences signpost logo.

Development of materials

The signpost logo and project name were designed to be adaptable for other subject areas. One of the major challenges for the project was to develop materials and activities that would allow awareness-raising of more than 40 resources across the social sciences in a coherent and useful way.

Librarians and other support staff have often tried to meet this challenge in recent years by providing local Web pages or leaflets with lists of resources and their URLs. Early anecdotal evidence suggested to us that users still like to have paper-based reference and promotional material, even when they have daily online access. Subsequent analysis of our Web site user logs, feedback, and formative and summative evaluation indicated users' quite strong preference for the paper-based flier described below. This 'paper portal' appears to be the 'default' reference source rather than the Web version which is actually more current. This applies even amongst those known to use the Internet daily.

The cornerstone of the Resource Guide framework has been the development of the Resource Guide flier. The printed flier offers brief descriptions with URLs of each resource under the five categories. An additional tear-off flap (the QUESTICARD) allows users to request further information about selected resources and training/awareness-raising events. The flier was time-consuming to produce, with constant liaison with resource providers over a four-month period to gather appropriate text, agree layout and categorisations and ensure accuracy and currency at the time of printing. Several drafts were produced and piloted with local user groups before production. Feedback from the drafts was extremely positive: a number of unsolicited requests from pilot contacts were received, asking to photocopy the draft for local distribution. An initial 10,000 print run of the pilot edition was distributed with ease, and many repeat orders were received. Feedback suggests the flier provides a very useful overview, saves librarians and other support staff the time needed to do a similar job at local level and offers a useful reference guide. Some providers also reported extensions to their normal user base and increased requests for information since its production.

Other promotional items developed during the pilot project included postcards, post-it notes and posters, distributed at face-to-face events, by targeted mailshots and in response to small-scale mailing list announcements. The Resource Guide for the Social Sciences Web site [3] replicates the information presented on the flier, with adjustments made to make best use of the medium. Whilst offering more accurate and current links and descriptions than any printed version can be over time, it is clear from user access analysis that the Web 'guide' is used mainly to order printed fliers and access training materials rather than as the default reference source.

Awareness-raising activities

A range of events and activities were developed and all were piloted locally before being 'rolled out' to other organisations. Some of the first activities included meetings with, for example, information specialists, research deans, heads of department, etc., at a number of HEIs. Meetings had both information-giving and information-gathering purposes. Individuals were either approached through known contacts or 'cold called'. In most cases, the initial contact was with a librarian or other support staff. We also developed the idea of 'chats', building on the less formal interactions that occur either in person or on the telephone. These tended to be shorter than meetings, less formal and sometimes involved groups brought together as part of another meeting (e.g., regular development session or departmental meeting). Zeitlyn et al. confirm the validity of this kind of approach and the need to 'tap into' existing routines and less formal networks (1999, p.51). Over 20 chats occurred and most were with library staff. As with the meetings, most chats resulted in further activities, often within academic departments and allowed us to meet and involve both meta- and barefoot librarians.

In support of meetings and chats, we developed a PowerPoint presentation based on the structure of the flier to provide an overview of the resources covered by the Guide and the activities on offer. The resulting 70-slide show was designed to be shown in part or in its entirety. Presentations were adapted with each delivery to suit the audience (for example, highlighting resources to which they had access through institutional subscription). Each presentation took approximately 45 minutes, with 15 minutes allowed for questions or discussion. Participants were given a copy of the flier to refer to during the presentation. The Rowntree research recommends tailoring dissemination events to the target audience whilst Zeitlyn (1999, p.51) urges trainers to 'socialise' with and gain a greater understanding of their users. The role and needs of the user have been a key focus for all our activities.

The 'Taster Workshop': Tour the Sites with the Resource Guide

We anticipated that any workshops we delivered would be coordinated training events involving more than one provider on a 'show case' basis: in practice, this did not happen. The development of what was to become one of our most popular events was triggered by a request from a librarian who was organising a development programme for library staff, had acquired a photocopied version of the first draft of the flier and was impressed by the overview approach. In consultation with this librarian and resource providers, the workshop framework was developed to comprise:

  • An overview presentation (one slide per resource)
  • A 'tool' for participants to use to select resources for hands-on exploration and to inform a post-presentation 'vote' on selected resources of common interest to be demonstrated
  • Hands-on exploration of resources, supported by materials containing suggested activities for each resource

We decided that, where available, providers’ training and promotional materials would be included as part of the workshop materials. To unify these and provide a coherent structure, we designed the Site-seeing Guide Card, an A3 folded to A4 sheet printed with standardised headings with suggested activities for exploration and use of the provider’s material which were placed inside the A3 fold. The Guide Cards were colour-coded according to the category of resource (indicated on the signpost) to which they belonged. The cards were collated into a 'Tour Pack' including a sheet explaining the contents and two Advice Guide Cards offering generic guidance on effective search strategies. Feedback from the pilot workshop was very positive, both for the structure/format and the content.

Lessons learned from the pilot project

All of the distribution methods for paper-based materials and awareness-raising of our activities were on a modest scale. We avoided 'blitzing' the UK higher education mailing list service Mailbase [10] in case demand outstripped our initial 10,000 flier supply: this would have limited our ability to test other methods of distribution. Postal targeting, particularly of new ESRC-funded postgraduate students via their confirmation packs, resulted in an increase of QUESTICARD requests.

Meetings, chat and other events at HEIs were generally arranged via personal contacts, either directly or on recommendation. The Rowntree research recommends a proactive approach to dissemination: most of our proactive approaches to institutions were successful where we had known contacts. Proactive 'cold-calling' was less successful. In many cases, contact was made through responses to telephone requests for fliers: although time-consuming, this personal approach appeared to be more effective in determining whether or not face-to-face activities occurred at a later stage. We found word-of-mouth recommendations and personal contact to be powerful tools in establishing initial contact and gaining a 'foothold' for further activity and dissemination. Meetings and chats also highlighted the need to keep to a minimum the level of effort required by the contacts at host institutions. Although this places more work on the Resource Guide team, it appears to result in a more positive response and supports the notion of using existing professional and cultural networks referred to by Zeitlyn (ibid). A structured approach, including presentation of a 'menu' of potential follow-up options, was also found preferable to an open-ended question, particularly by the barefoot librarians in departments.

From the outset, we were sensitive to the fact that the aims of the project had considerable overlap with work undertaken by librarians and other support staff. The growth of the Internet and networked resource provision has had a significant impact on the traditional roles of information specialists. As Zeitlyn suggested might happen (1991, p.6), some have taken on the role of mediating meta-librarian between their users (staff and students) and external resource providers such as the UK Data Archive [11] or the Edinburgh Data and Information Access (EDINA) [12] in the same way as they operate Inter-Library Loans. Many of the providers’ own training and dissemination activities relied heavily on library and information specialist networks, although few had tried to establish whether these routes actually led to staff and students. In some cases, barefoot librarians have also emerged from the information jungle, providing outposts of support for networked resources in academic departments (but, as Zeitlyn describes (p.3), on an ad hoc basis rather than as the result of any coherent information strategy).

Some have seen these developments in a negative light, representing an erosion of traditional roles and authority, whilst others have been enthusiastic in providing training and support in the new media and have been disappointed with the limited response from staff and students whose social and cultural networks are no longer associated with the library (Zeitlyn et al., p.44). Throughout the pilot we did our best to keep librarians and other support staff informed of our activities, especially when these were initiated by the barefoot librarians in academic departments, by-passing the library. Although this approach was aimed particularly at avoiding 'treading on toes' of librarians, barefoot or not, such contact also enabled us to deliver a number of activities in collaboration with library and support staff.

We used a range of evaluation methods, both qualitative and quantitative, to gather feedback on the effectiveness of our different approaches. There seems to be no doubt, from the results of the pilot project, that word of mouth and the social and cultural networks referred to by Zeitlyn are amongst the most effective means of raising awareness. Unfortunately these are difficult to control. We suspect that the personal contact made through events has been responsible for the level of colleague recommendation that we have been fortunate enough to experience. The modest level of material distributed by other methods leads us to believe that word of mouth has probably been the most effective method of dissemination.

3. One year on: sharpening the signposts

We are now reaching the end of the first year of our two-year extension funding and have built substantially on our pilot activities. The Resource Guide flier has been revised twice and is now in its final edition [13], with an increased range of resources, search tips and a table summarising access arrangements for all resources. 75,000 fliers (twice revised) have now been distributed. Orders were accepted through an online form available from the Web site which allows us to gather data about those submitting orders, distribution targets and methods.

The Taster Workshop materials have been revised and updated and are now available online, together with instructions on their use for local events [14]. In this way we have tried to overcome the potential limitations of the small number of workshops we can deliver personally. We have piloted a 'How to Become a Resource Guide’ workshop and expect to deliver a small number of these during our final year of activity. Meta-, traditional and barefoot librarians as well as individual staff and students are invited to register to download the workshop materials and indicate whether they would like to host or attend a 'How to' workshop: response to this invitation has been higher than we expected, given the complexity and number of materials and resources involved.

A range of additional promotional materials have been developed, selected particularly for their likely usefulness to recipients and visibility in the workplace for 'subliminal' awareness-raising. These include highlighter pens, fridge (filing cabinet) magnets, pens and post-it notes and disk holders. We found during our face-to-face activities that many of those in HEIs making the arrangements for our activities and/or distributing materials had little in the way of reward or 'freebies': targeted distribution of these gifts has helped emphasise the personal contact and register a reminder of our activities. These items have also proved useful at conferences and other well-attended events. The 'grapevine' effect of personal recommendation also occurs at these events, with participants targetting our modest stand to receive the same pen or disk holder as their colleagues. We make sure that they understand what the Resource Guide is about, and whether they are relevant contacts, before distributing our gifts!

We have also tried to complement the rather staid and serious nature of the flier with a range of inexpensive postcards for mass distribution via collection points in libraries and academic departments, conferences and similar events. The light-hearted and colourful postcard series shows the Resource Guide signpost in a range of interesting locations, emphasising that, wherever you are, you can always rely on the Resource Guide to point you in the right direction!

The overview approach adopted for both flier and workshop presentations has been well-received and appears to suits users' needs. As we have already mentioned, the Web site is used mainly as an access route to online order forms and downloadable material. Orders for the earlier versions of the flier, and pre-orders for the final revision, confirm that users still prefer the 'paper portal' to resources. The continued use of a combination of approaches to dissemination and awareness-raising, also recommended by the Rowntree research, is vindicated by order form data. The method that appears easiest and simplest (email to mailing lists), whilst accounting for 58% of the original source of flier orders, is not substantial enough to ignore other methods where colleague recommendation, internal events and internal mail feature strongly. A similar picture emerges from information derived from the registration form for downloading workshop materials: the majority indicate that they heard about the materials through a Mailbase list, but a substantial number also originated through colleagues, with the Web site also featuring in the 'top three'.

4. Signposts to the future: adapting the framework

Web-based Resource Guides

The Resource Guide framework has been adapted in two ways for use in other subject areas. Firstly, a number of Web based guides [15] have been established by JISC ASSIST that provide a listing of resources under the framework headings. The look and feel of the Web guides are the same as those developed in the Institute for the Resource Guide for the Social Sciences' Web presence. The Guides cover engineering, mathematics and computing; life sciences and health studies and the physical sciences (there is also a 'generic' guide that covers resources perceived to be relevant to all subject areas). There are currently no Resource Guide Advisers in post for these areas so other elements of the framework, such as training and materials, have not been adapted so far. Neither we nor JISC ASSIST currently have any evaluative material that would indicate whether or not the missing 'human' aspect of the Web-based Guides is detrimental to their perceived value. However, our findings from the pilot project and our experience of the last 12 months suggest the importance of personal contact and the ability to build on professional, cultural and social networks in HEIs in facilitating effective dissemination. Our user logs also indicate that, in the social sciences at least, users appear to prefer the 'paper portal' provided by the flier rather than use the Web site as a jumping off point to access resources.

Resource Guide for the Arts and Humanities

The first full adaptation of our framework and approach is being piloted in the arts and humanities, a discipline currently receiving attention in the development of online resources, as Zeitlyn et al. report with some satisfaction (Zeitlyn, 1999, p.51). The Resource Guide for the Arts and Humanities [16] was established at the end of October 1999, with the post of Resource Guide Adviser based at the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS) [17], King's College London. The post was jointly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) [18] and JISC.

Karen met with AHDS staff to discuss findings from the first year of the social sciences pilot. Whilst we anticipated that the framework itself could be utilised and the principles of the social science approach adopted, it was likely that some of the activities that had worked well in the social science context may not be as successful or relevant to the arts and humanities. The Resource Guide Adviser for the Arts and Humanities, Liz Lewis, used a similar methodology to approach, and establish a working relationship with, resource providers, including the use of established networks. Again, the 'resource' rather than 'provider' focus for promotion was adopted, allowing adaptation of the resource categorisation developed for the social sciences.

The broad resource categories were used as a starting point to produce a flier (including QUESTICARD) and Web site with the same look and feel as the social science materials. The first example of anticipated discipline differences occurred when trying to determine the subsections used in the data services category. The social sciences subsections were not relevant, resulting in a re-categorisation according to subject orientation (creative arts; history and archaeology; language and literature; and interdisciplinary resources). Feedback on the flier and Web site from the arts and humanities community has been very positive. It will be interesting to monitor the flier's development to see whether similar changes will need to be made as with the social sciences: for example, removal of the QUESTICARD owing to falling levels of response, addition of the search tips, access index, etc.

The difference in resource coverage between the subject areas has also affected the way in which our approach and activities could be adapted for the arts and humanities. The range of resources funded by the JISC and the ESRC is fairly comprehensive such that space is at a premium on the social sciences flier. In contrast the range of resources for the arts and humanities is currently more modest (although this is a rapidly expanding area). This situation could argue a case for the inclusion of resources which fall outside the existing scope policy, given the importance of maintaining 'credible coverage.'

The Resource Guide Adviser for the Arts and Humanities has found that her community is at an earlier stage of development in its level of awareness and use of electronic resources than the social sciences. One of the key reasons for this is likely to be the lack of available resources in the past -- you cannot use what isn't there. Consequently the role of the Adviser is about raising awareness (sometimes from nothing) which has resulted in a different emphasis on promotional events and activities. Most of the arts and humanities activities to date have involved presentations, seminars and chats during which the concept of electronic resources has been introduced in the context of the more traditional and familiar resources. Liz is currently planning a number of workshops for 2001 which will also adopt this integrated approach, designed to encourage both sceptics and the IT-reluctant to explore and consider using the electronic resources available to them. In a sense, Liz and Karen are fulfilling the role of 'barefoot librarian' on a national, rather than local, scale.

The two Resource Guide Advisers have collaborated in a number of ways including joint stands at conferences and exhibitions, a calendar for a shared audience (there is overlap between our areas) and there are plans for some regional workshops for information specialists. We have found that the work of one has a 'knock-on' effect on the other. Consistent use of the look and feel of the flier and Web site of the 'original' social sciences Guide has resulted in users expecting (and getting) a similar product from the Resource Guide for the Arts and Humanities. Users have demonstrated their assumption about the consistency of product and operation between the Guides, by using the question headings from the social science online flier order form to email requests to the Resource Guide for the Arts and Humanities (an online form is not currently being used). While the flier and Web site format seems to suit both areas, each Guide has also produced an individual range of other promotional items to suit their audiences.

Based on the experience of both Resource Guide Advisers to date, the anticipated discipline differences are a reality and the need for subject knowledge in an educational context important to our credibility. The framework developed by the Resource Guide for the Social Sciences provides an excellent tool for adaptation but the fine detail is determined by the needs of the respective subject communities. Collaborative efforts are also confined to the limits in overlap between the subject areas.

Signposts to the future

At present, the future for the Resource Guides and their human Advisers is unclear. JISC is in the process of commissioning an independent evaluation of the Resource Guide concept before deciding on any course of action which would offer continuing support for the two existing Resource Guide posts beyond the current project timeframes and possibly establish 'human' rather than Web-based Guides in other subject areas. The evaluation should be complete by May 2001, a time when we were due to begin our own full evaluation programme. The UK's publicly-funded electronic resources are being brought together under the Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER) [19] and are refocusing on user communities that extend from HE to the further education sector. Against this shifting landscape, the Resource Guides offer stable signposts for meta- and barefoot librarians in their user support activities.

5. Notes

1 Zeitlyn et al. (op cit, p.3) refer to'barefoot librarians' as those in academic departments who have officially or, more often, unofficially, taken on the role of 'departmental guru' or mediator between 'cultural and technical networks', that is, between their academic and other colleagues and the available electronic resources: 'technology officers ... operating at the local level'.

They also introduce the term 'meta-librarians' to acknowledge the increasing physical and cultural distance between librarians and users and the suggestion of provision of an 'information brokering service' (op cit, p.6): "the suggestion has been made by some that the library will increasingly play the role of mediator between demand from students, academics and external sources of supply, along the lines of the existing Inter-library Loans system ... (with an increasing level of electronic mediation)".

6. References

[1] Zeitlyn, David, David, Matthew and Bex, Jane (1999). Knowledge lost in information: patterns and non-use of networked bibliographic resources. Office for Humanities Communication, Publication 11. (ISSN 1366-8218).

[2] Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Linking Research and Practice, in Findings, September 2000
URL: <>

[3] Resource Guide for the Social Sciences
URL: <>

[4] Economic and Social Research Council
URL: <>

[5] JISC ASSIST (Activities, Services and Special Initiatives Support Team)
URL: <>

[6] Joint Information Systems Committee
URL: <>

[7] Institute for Learning and Research Technology (ILRT)
URL: <>

[8] Social Science Information Gateway
URL: <>

[9] Resource Guide for the Social Sciences Scope Policy
URL: <>

[10] UK HE mailing list service Mailbase (shortly to be replaced by JISCMail)
URL: <>

[11] UK Data Archive
URL: <>

[12] Edinburgh Data and Information Access (EDINA)
URL: <>

[13] Resource Guide for the Social Sciences flier (PDF)
URL: <>

[14] Resource Guide for the Social Sciences Taster Workshop materials (via free registration form)
URL: <>

[15] JISC Web-based Resource Guides
URL: <>

[16] Resource Guide for the Arts and Humanities
URL: <>

[17] Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS)
URL: <>

[18] Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB)
URL: <>

[19] Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER)
URL: <>

Copyright© 2000 Lesly Huxley and Karen Ford

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DOI: 10.1045/november2000-huxley