The availability of think tank literature in Canadian academic libraries

Below is the text from a poster presentation that I delivered at the Canadian Library Association 2012 National Conference and Trade Show, May 30-June 2, 2012 in Ottawa. An image of the poster itself is above.


Think tanks are in the business of creating innovative ideas to address policy issues, which are disseminated through timely, well-researched publications made available for free or at a nominal cost. In 2007, L. DeLong published “Do think tanks matter to libraries?” which revealed “if not surprising, rather unsettling” results of the absence of this literature in Canadian library collections. The study drew on public and academic libraries across Canada and identified that only 31% of the publications sampled were available. As think tanks produce highly relevant literature to many academic disciplines, the disparities in visibility and inclusion in Canadian research libraries are worth re-visiting.

Objectives and Purpose:

  • To determine if think tank research, rich in policy-relevant academic study, is being included in academic library collections.
  • Update and contribute to DeLongʼs 2007 study: is the relative absence of think tank literature still a problem? What has changed?
  • To identify if library research guides include information on think tanks.


  • Six Canadian think tanks were chosen, ranging in area of focus (environment, economics, social issues, and international politics), and political lean (conservative-right, non-partisan, liberal-left). The organizations chosen were:
  1. C.D. Howe Institute
  2. Caledon Institute of Social Policy
  3. Conference Board of Canada
  4. Fraser Institute
  5. Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP)
  6. Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development
  • Four publications were selected from each organization to be used as a sample for the study. Each at least 5 months old, substantial in length, and free. These publications were searched in the OPAC of eight large Canadian academic libraries, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia:
  1. Dalhousie University
  2. University of New Brunswick
  3. McGill University
  4. University of Ottawa
  5. University of Manitoba
  6. University of Saskatchewan
  7. University of Alberta
  8. Simon Fraser University
  • Subject guides were also consulted for the mention of think tanks and their activities.

Findings and outcomes:

  • The availability of the 24 publications differed greatly by library, however, this study found that since 2007 there has been an overall increase in the availability of think tank literature in Canadian academic library collections.
  • From the sample of 24 publications searched in the 8 library OPACs, only 99 were available out of a possible 192. Therefore 52% of the publications sampled in this study were available in library catalogues across Canada.
  • 5 of the 8 libraries maintained research guides that list Canadian think tanks, their activities, and resources.

Lessons Learned:
What has changed since 2007? The increase in availability from 31% to 52% is
worth noting, as well as the inclusion of think tanks within research guides. Consortium agreements among libraries, the expansion of electronic documents, and the advent of WorldCat OPAC systems at many academic libraries have also assisted with the visibility and access of think tank publications and other grey literature in Canadian academic libraries.
Works cited:

  • DeLong, L. “Do think tanks matter to libraries? Assessing the availability of Canadian think tanks publications in Canadian libraries and databases.” The Serials Librarian, Vol. 5 (3/4), 2007: 157-164.
  • Moon, J. “Microlog and the ʻCanadian Public Policy Collectionʼ – A comparison.” Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, Vol. 6, No. 2, 2011: 1-13.
  • Tompkins, E. “Think tanks and public policy research institutes: An annotated bibliography.” Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2007: 11-27.
  • Umbach, K. “Think tanks on the web as a curriculum resource.” Knowledge Quest, Vol. 32, No. 5, May/June, 2004: 44-45.

Re-evaluating knowing “too much about too little”

Are the most desirable reference and research librarians ones who are subject-experts, or those who have excellent broad knowledge in many areas (i.e. generalists)? Lately I’ve heard a number of opinions on the debatable impediments of subject specialization (see Pereyaslavska’s article in The Courier, re: “being overqualified”), along with the advantages of being a generalist reference librarian.  Both of these positions disagree with my longstanding view of the benefits of a second Masters degree.

I am quite interested in this “debate”, for I have often thought that being a “subject expert” is what made excellent librarians (among other qualities, of course). The abilities to discover, interpret, evaluate, acquire, and recommend relevant information resources are what reference and research librarians are trained to do, and fundamentally, it is what sets us apart from other research professionals. I respect any librarian with a subject-specific affiliation (i.e. a second Masters degree), because they are familiar with appropriate thesaurus terms for specific databases, have seasoned knowledge of research trends, and overall, have a uniquely sophisticated understanding of a subject area. Having experience and background in a particular field can increase the quality of reference and research by being value-added, intellectual, rigorous, and more thorough. In the previous issue of The Courier, Pereyaslavska expressed her uncertainties about being too specialized, revealing that perhaps some academic reference departments prefer a generalist librarian.  She wrote that “I have been repeatedly advised by a number of academic librarians that my graduate background is too specialized to provide proper breadth for reference services, which may be expected at a general academic reference desk. Have I shot myself in the foot by acquiring my M.A., and do I really know too much about too little?”

In response to Pereyaslavska’s doubts, I respectfully and encouragingly disagree. At many large academic institutions, librarians work together to staff a general reference desk, responding to a broad range of reference inquiries. While a librarian assists an undergraduate student with research for their paper on a Feminist critique of The Watchmen, the graduate student next in line might require in-depth reference assistance in locating rare British Parliamentary Papers. Having an advanced-subject expertise in one field should not limit your approach and response to reference questions outside your specialization. Obtaining graduate-level education on top of the practical education of an MISt/MLIS can position someone far better for academic librarianship. In practice, specialists have more experience executing varying levels of academic research, and have had greater exposure to academic processes. In addition, there is more to academic librarianship than assisting at an information desk. Collection development and information literacy are two tasks that, when performed by a librarian with related subject-specialization, are inherently and exponentially improved.

Moreover, attitudes toward generalists and subject specialists can differ from one academic library to the next. Some will value that their librarians hold a second Masters degree in the subject for which they have liaison responsibilities, while others might appreciate a general and holistic approach to academic research subjects and processes. It comes down to workplace culture (Mayer & Terrill, 2005): the librarians at University X may value professional development opportunities, workshops, courses, learning from each other, and long-term exposure to providing reference to obtain a level of “expert generalism”. University Z might require that their librarians hold a second masters degree. I do not think that Pereyaslavska has shot herself in the foot. There is a great interest (and need) for librarians with higher and specialized education. They can often be found in management roles, and at well established academic institutions.

Qualities that make a formidable generalist librarian include being adaptive, resourceful, a quick learner and creative problem-solver. So far, my honours Bachelor of Arts in history and sociology, in combination with formal library training have made me a skilled reference and research librarian. Although not a specialist (yet?) and therefore a generalist, I am one who recognizes the need for both, and a mixture of each. As a librarian, I plan to pursue professional development initiatives, and to continuously expand my knowledge and abilities. With increasing experience and training, it is my aspiration to grow into the type of librarian that exceeds the generalist, but does not quite meet the specialist… Something which Smith and Oliva (2010) have termed a “renaissance librarian”. A renaissance librarian is someone with accomplishments in diverse areas, who possesses knowledge in many subjects. They achieve this through “broadening their intellectual horizons by cross training informally with each other and obtaining formal training from their colleagues and from outside resources.” They attend and participate at conferences, pursue professional instruction courses, read professional literature, and collaborate with team members (p.144). Renaissance librarianship is the way for me.


Mayer, J. & L. J. Terrill.  “Academic librarians’ attitudes about advanced-subject degrees.”  College & Research Libraries, vol. 66, no. 1, January 2005: pp. 59-73.

Pereyaslavska, K. “How much is too much and how little is not enough.” The Courier, vol. 47, no. 3, Spring 2010. Retrieved June 29, 2010 from

Smith, D. A. & V. T. Oliva. “Becoming a renaissance reference librarian in academe: attitudes toward generalist and subject specific reference and related profession development.” Reference Services Review, vol. 38, no. 1, 2010: pp. 125-151.

Suuuper Sessions at the 2010 Super Conference

At the end of February, Ontario Librarians will come together at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to celebrate the Ontario Library Association Super Conference. For three marvellous session-packed days, Librarians from all sectors (Public, Academic, Government, School) convene to share knowledge and learn from each other. It’s a pretty great thing! In 2009, I volunteered as a graduating student and attended a session about digital libraries in public schools of remote communities in northern Ontario. This year, I look forward to volunteering again, this time with Knowledge Ontario’s AskON booth. On Thursday, February 25th I’ll be demonstrating the reference chat service, and will answer questions from visitors.

Additionally, I hope to attend one or two sessions on the Thursday. Unfortunately, there are several sessions of interest to me that conflict with each other. Here are my top few to choose between:

9:05 AM

While studying at FIS, I worked as a Graduate Student Library Assistant at the Data, Map & Government Information Centre (a mouthful, I know, but is acronymed as “DMGIS”). This job was amazing: rewarding, challenging, and I learned A LOT every single shift. However, it was often frustrating when/if a historical item from the collection was missing, or was never acquired (due to being rare or brittle). What is great about digitization initiatives (as well as Open Access developments), is the ability for other institutions to share their historic and rare collections through digitization! This session outlines these initiatives, and I would REALLY like to attend.

9:05 AM

This session strongly appeals to me for a few reasons. The first is that I am a huge fan of Academic Librarians who research, publish, and are ambitious about contributing to library and professional literature. Next, it is one of my major professional goals to one day work as an academic librarian (collections, research & reference, electronic resources or serials), and I hope to succeed in generating papers about my library and work. Thirdly, (and similarly), I think it is vvvvvvery important for librarians in academic settings to legitimize their status and role as tenure-track librarians by maintaining a culture of research.

Those are the two conflicting sessions for 9:05 AM. Below are the 3:45 PM sessions that I have to decide between:

3:45 PM

NOT ONLY is this session being convened by Marian Davies, a past conference collaborator, co-author, and present friend, but I am greatly interested in topics surrounding minimal funding in collections management. Solutions to, and the cause for some of these problems fascinate me, including aggregators, subscription agents, platform providers, the “serials crisis”, Open Access initiatives, etc. This would be a good session to attend!

3:45 PM

I love digitization projects and community/local histories. Period. I’d be interested to learn how Knowledge Ontario approached the project, what strategies were applied, and what obstacles (if any?) that they faced. During the Summer of 2007 I worked at the Oshawa Public Library, and digitized a collection of local history materials with optical character recognition. After this experience, I came to appreciate and realize the ability to access historical materials online. It is absolutely amazing, and increasingly necessary.

3:45 PM

Open Source Software is something that I barely understand, because of my limited knowledge of coding, etc., but I recognize it as a valuable and cost-saving alternative to proprietary system platforms. This sounds like a good learning opportunity, and I wish it was at a different time!