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Pathfinder (library science)

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A pathfinder is a bibliography created to help begin research in a particular topic or subject area. Pathfinders are also called subject guides, topic guides, research guides, libguides, information portals, resource lists or study guides. Pathfinders produced by the Library of Congress are known as "tracer bullets".[1] What is special about a pathfinder is that it only refers to the information in a specific location, i.e. the shelves of a local library.[2]

According to the Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science, a pathfinder is "designed to lead the user through the process of researching a specific topic, or any topic in a given field or discipline, usually in a systematic, step-by-step way, making use of the best finding tools the library has to offer. Pathfinders may be printed or available online."[3]

The goal of a pathfinder is to gather the most useful, relevant, reliable and authoritative resources on a variety of academic, work-related or general-interest topics.[4] Originally provided in print format in the 20th century in large academic libraries,[5][6] pathfinders have evolved with the emergence of the World Wide Web and may now act as portals to information about resources in a variety of formats, including books, encyclopedias, bibliographic databases, almanacs, documentaries, websites, search engines and journals.

Often used as curriculum tools for bibliographic instruction, the guides help library users find materials or help those unfamiliar with a discipline understand the key sources."[6]


Pathfinders are intended to be a launch point for research on a particular topic, via the collection of select materials available in a particular institution on that topic. However they are not generally an exhaustive collection of all of the materials on a given topic- they are designed for beginners in research to find the fundamental information they need to get started.[7] In addition to this basic concept, many research guides include other complex goals, such as "teaching how to complete a given task, providing access to tools for actually doing it, promoting collections and services, educating users about the research process, and providing disciplinary context for in-depth research needs".[8] Pathfinders also help to teach essential information and technology skills, and promote books and reading.[9] They are broader in scope than subject headings, and have been chosen from university course descriptions, thesis titles, and from term paper titles.[10] Breaking down the topic the pathfinder is about is recommended to reduce the cognitive load for users.[11] For public libraries, it has been suggested to use surveys, past experience and hot topics from local media to find topics for pathfinders.[12] It has been argued to expand the purpose of a research guide from being a list of resources to also incorporating instruction on information literacy, both in 1984[13] and 2014.[14]


MIT pathfinders in the 1970s had the following format:[15]

  • Scope - a definition of the subject covered by the pathfinder.[15]
  • An introduction to this is in... - typically an encyclopedia or specialised dictionary.[15]
  • Books - alerting readers to relevant subject terms.[15]
  • Reference Works - citations for specific books.[15]
  • Bibliographies - lists of sources which are too long to include in the pathfinder.[15]
  • Journal Articles - referring readers to indexes.[15]
  • Journals - referring readers to journals and magazines to browse that might have some information.[15]
  • Reviews, government sources, etc. - other sources as appropriate.[15]

Although the format varied, it emphasised subjects that were broad in scope and providing many different types of sources to the reader. In contrast, some academic libraries created specific pathfinders that functioned as a partial bibliography.[16] Jackson rejected the bibliographic format in 1984, arguing that search strategies should be taught in a pathfinder.[13] In 2012, a study on mental models of research guides showed that students preferred guides which were format-agnostic rather than grouped by format type.[8] In 1995, Jim Kapoun argued that key features of good pathfinders were "compactness and basic informational resources".[17] Browser extensions like alternative search plugins have been added to subject guides.[18]


Booklists have been produced by libraries since at least the 1950s.[1] Patricia Knapp, in the 1960s, integrated librarianship with academic instruction,[19] but the term pathfinder was coined in 1972 by Marie Canfield.[20] From approximately 1973-1975, the Model Library Program sold pathfinders among libraries, but there was not enough interest to continue selling pathfinders, as most libraries preferred to create their own.[20] However, this was an expensive proposition, as collection-tailored pathfinders took about 8[21] - 20 hours of librarians' time as of the 1980s.[22]

From the mid-1990s, as the Internet became more popular, libraries began including web resources in their pathfinders and putting the pathfinders on their websites.[23] This was not true for hospital libraries, as the technical complexity of the web and centralised control of hospital websites made it difficult for librarians to make web-based pathfinders.[24] Webliographies became popular, lists of web links that were curated by librarians on a topic. These differed from pathfinders because they did not focus on the library's collection.[5] As library services became increasingly accessible online, options for creating online pathfinders expanded, including webpages, LibGuides, and open-source content management systems.[25] LibGuides was "ubiqutious" as of 2019, thought to be due to its ease of use.[26]


Library clients can use pathfinders at their own pace, and may find them "more approachable" than a reference desk. Electronic pathfinders on a library website can be used 24 hours a day.[20] In higher education, embedding library subject guides into a learning management system has been shown to increase use of library resources among students.[27] Pathfinders are often introduced to students as part of a one-shot library orientation session.[28] A 2011 study found that students often do not use library guides simply by not knowing they exist, or preferring to use a search engine or a trusted bibliographic database instead. This study found that students would use the subject guides if they didn't know where to begin, or if they were navigating a new discipline or if their lecturer told them to.[29] While the stated audience for pathfinders are library clients,[20] Jackson and Pellack reported that reference librarians regarded them as a useful tool for training and for librarians at the front desk.[30] It has been proposed that creating and maintaining library guides may be considered a professional development activity for librarians,[31] and their creation has been used as an assessment in library studies education programs.[21][22]


It has been argued that pathfinders do not take a user-centred approach.[19] Inconsistent formatting and overly-complex language have also been pointed to as being key points to watch out for.[32] Some students become frustrated with dead links on subject guides, or the omission of resources that they consider essential. Maintaining and updating pathfinders is considered problematic. The use of Web 2.0 tools such as wikis and blogs are considered to be helpful in enabling smaller libraries to quickly update their pathfinders.[5] Additionally, automatically checking web links to see if they are still working may be useful.[33] Individual librarians may consider themselves to "own" particular subject guides, rather than seeing a subject guide as one part of the institution's suite of subject guides.[34] It has also been said that librarians take a compilatory rather than a research attitude to creating a pathfinder.[35] Little study has been done on how well a pathfinder covers its subject matter. A study found that pathfinders did not show the multi-disciplinary nature of literary studies well.[36] Jackson and Pellack examined similar subject guides at different institutions to find out about duplication of effort in pathfinders. They found that there was little overlap between subject guides at different institutions, and that some websites used were of questionable quality. Furthermore, they found that libraries did not typically delete outdated pathfinders, because "something was better than nothing".[30] When academic libraries' subject guides are reviewed, they are mainly reviewed by the original authors.[37] When pathfinders at the course level are created, it may cause confusion to the students if the teacher also creates their own resources list, or faculty may regard the librarian as overstepping their role.[38] It has been recommended to involve faculty in the creation and promotion of library subject guides.[39] While the literature on pathfinders regularly discusses pathfinders' potential as a pedagogical tool, often the focus of the literature is shifted to merely optimising the form of the pathfinder.[40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Dunsmore, Carla (2002). "A Qualitative Study of Web-Mounted Pathfinders Created by Academic Business Libraries". Libri. 52 (3): 137–156. CiteSeerX doi:10.1515/LIBR.2002.137. ISSN 0024-2667. S2CID 62164764.
  2. ^ Taylor, A.G., Joudrey, D.N. (2009) "The Organization of Information." 3rd Edition. Connecticut, Libraries Unlimited.
  3. ^ Reitz, Joan. "Pathfinder (definition)". Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science. ABC-CLIO. Retrieved 7 April 2011.
  4. ^ Farkas, Meredith (October 2009). "Pathfinder in a Box: Crafting your own authoritative metasearch engine". American Libraries: 45.
  5. ^ a b c Morris, Sara; Bosque, Darcy Del (15 March 2010). "Forgotten Resources: Subject Guides in the era of Web 2.0". Technical Services Quarterly. 27 (2): 178–193. doi:10.1080/07317130903547592. S2CID 62555954.
  6. ^ a b Reeb, Brenda; Susan Gibbons (January 2004). "Students, Librarians, and Subject Guides: Improving a Poor Rate of Return". Portal: Libraries and the Academy. 4 (1): 123. doi:10.1353/pla.2004.0020. hdl:1802/2822. S2CID 62616318.
  7. ^ Stevens, Charles H.; Canfield, Marie P.; Gardner, Jeffrey J. (1 January 1973). "Library Pathfinders: a New Possibility for Cooperative Reference Service". College & Research Libraries. 34 (1): 40–46. doi:10.5860/crl_34_01_40. hdl:2142/38905.
  8. ^ a b Sinkinson, Caroline; Alexander, Stephanie; Hicks, Alison; Kahn, Meredith (2012). "Guiding Design: Exposing Librarian and Student Mental Models of Research Guides" (PDF). Portal: Libraries and the Academy. 12 (1): 63–84. doi:10.1353/pla.2012.0008. hdl:2027.42/89875. S2CID 62732271.
  9. ^ Kuntz, K. (2003) Pathfinders: Helping Students Find Paths to Information. Multimedia & Internet Schools. Vol 10(3) http://www.infotoday.com/MMSchools/may03/kuntz.shtml
  10. ^ Harbeson, Eloise L. (1972). "Teaching Reference and Bibliography: The Pathfinder Approach". Journal of Education for Librarianship. 13 (2): 111–115. doi:10.2307/40322211. JSTOR 40322211.
  11. ^ Little, Jennifer J. (26 February 2010). "Cognitive Load Theory and Library Research Guides". Internet Reference Services Quarterly. 15 (1): 53–63. doi:10.1080/10875300903530199. hdl:20.500.12648/2563. S2CID 62177231.
  12. ^ Wang, H. and Hubbard, W.J. (2004), “Integrating electronic pathfinders in digital libraries: a model for China”, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, No. 3334, pp. 618-25. as cited in Vileno, Luigina (7 August 2007). "From paper to electronic, the evolution of pathfinders: a review of the literature". Reference Services Review. 35 (3): 434–451. CiteSeerX doi:10.1108/00907320710774300.
  13. ^ a b Jackson, William J. (1984). "The user-friendly library guide". College & Research Libraries News. 45 (9): 468–71. doi:10.5860/crln.45.9.468.
  14. ^ Pendell, Kimberly; Armstrong, Annie (3 June 2014). "Psychology guides and information literacy". Reference Services Review. 42 (2): 293–304. doi:10.1108/RSR-10-2013-0052.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i WARNER, AS 1983, 'Pathfinders: a way to boost your information handouts beyond booklists and bibliographies', American Libraries, 14, pp. 150-151, Library Literature & Information Science Retrospective: 1905-1983 (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost, viewed 27 November 2015.
  16. ^ Nuttall, Harry D.; McAbee, Sonja L. (19 April 1997). "Pathfinders On-Line". College & Undergraduate Libraries. 4 (1): 77–96. doi:10.1300/J106v04n01_10.
  17. ^ Kapoun, Jim M. (21 April 1995). "Re-Thinking the Library Pathfinder". College & Undergraduate Libraries. 2 (1): 93–105. doi:10.1300/J106v02n01_10.
  18. ^ De Sarkar, Tanmay (3 June 2022). "Access, organize and communicate: the strategic use of browser plugins in libraries". Library Hi Tech News. 39 (7): 19–23. doi:10.1108/LHTN-04-2022-0049. S2CID 249295110.
  19. ^ a b Hemmig, William (March 2005). "Online pathfinders". Reference Services Review. 33 (1): 66–87. doi:10.1108/00907320510581397.
  20. ^ a b c d Vileno, Luigina (7 August 2007). "From paper to electronic, the evolution of pathfinders: a review of the literature". Reference Services Review. 35 (3): 434–451. CiteSeerX doi:10.1108/00907320710774300.
  21. ^ a b Thompson, Glenn J.; Stevens, Barbara R. (1 May 1985). "Library science students develop pathfinders". College & Research Libraries News. 46 (5): 224–225. doi:10.5860/crln.46.5.224.
  22. ^ a b Koskiala, Sinikka (1981). "Library Pathfinders Come Alive". Journal of Education for Librarianship. 21 (4): 345–349. doi:10.2307/40322698. ISSN 0022-0604. JSTOR 40322698.
  23. ^ Prentice, Katherine A.; Gaines, Julie K.; Levy, Linda S. (28 January 2009). "New "Starting Points" for Resources by Subject". Medical Reference Services Quarterly. 28 (1): 88–97. doi:10.1080/02763860802616110. PMID 19197747. S2CID 23965221.
  24. ^ Oelschlegel, Sandy; Luhrs, Jennifer; Lindsay, J. Michael (2 January 2017). "Transitioning Technologies: Pathfinders of the Future". Journal of Consumer Health on the Internet. 21 (1): 1–10. doi:10.1080/15398285.2017.1279920. S2CID 78471807.
  25. ^ Aaron W. Dobbs; Ryan L. Sittler; Douglas Cook, eds. (2013). Using LibGuides to Enhance Library Services : A LITA Guide. Chicago, [IL]: American Library Association. pp. 3–4. ISBN 9781555708801.
  26. ^ Del Bosque, Darcy; Morris, Sara E. (2 January 2021). "LibGuide Standards: Loose Regulations and Lax Enforcement". The Reference Librarian. 62 (1): 1–22. doi:10.1080/02763877.2020.1862022. S2CID 233464244.
  27. ^ Bowen, Aaron (10 August 2012). "A LibGuides presence in a Blackboard environment". Reference Services Review. 40 (3): 449–468. doi:10.1108/00907321211254698.
  28. ^ Mahaffy, Mardi (2013). "Student Use of Library Research Guides Following Library Instruction". Communications in Information Literacy. 6 (2): 202–213. doi:10.15760/comminfolit.2013.6.2.129.
  29. ^ Ouellette, Dana (2011). "Subject Guides in Academic Libraries: A User-Centred Study of Uses and Perceptions/Les guides par sujets dans les bibliothèques académiques : une étude des utilisations et des perceptions centrée sur l'utilisateur". Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science. 35 (4): 436–451. doi:10.1353/ils.2011.0024. S2CID 58107235.
  30. ^ a b Jackson, Rebecca; Pellack, Lorraine J. (Summer 2004). "Internet Subject Guides in Academic Libraries: An Analysis of Contents, Practices, and Opinions". Reference & User Services Quarterly. 43 (4): 319–327. JSTOR 20864244. as cited in Vileno, Luigina (7 August 2007). "From paper to electronic, the evolution of pathfinders: a review of the literature". Reference Services Review. 35 (3): 434–451. CiteSeerX doi:10.1108/00907320710774300.
  31. ^ Bagshaw, Anna; Yorke-Barber, Phil (3 December 2017). "Guiding Librarians: Rethinking Library Guides as a Staff Development Tool". Journal of the Australian Library and Information Association. 67: 31–41. doi:10.1080/24750158.2017.1410629. S2CID 169011130.
  32. ^ Dahl, Candice (1 May 2001). "Electronic Pathfinders in Academic Libraries: An Analysis of Their Content and Form". College & Research Libraries. 62 (3): 227–237. doi:10.5860/crl.62.3.227.
  33. ^ Courtois, Martin P.; Higgins, Martha E.; Kapur, Aditya (June 2005). "Was this guide helpful? Users' perceptions of subject guides". Reference Services Review. 33 (2): 188–196. doi:10.1108/00907320510597381.
  34. ^ Gardner, Sarah; Ostermiller, Hillary; Price, Elizabeth; Vess, David; Young, Alyssa (10 November 2021). "Recommendations Without Results: What We Learned About Our Organization Through Subject Guide Usability Studies". Virginia Libraries. 65 (1): 6. doi:10.21061/valib.v65i1.624. S2CID 243997222.
  35. ^ Hjørland, Birger (August 2002). "Domain analysis in information science". Journal of Documentation. 58 (4): 422–462. doi:10.1108/00220410210431136. as cited in Vileno, Luigina (7 August 2007). "From paper to electronic, the evolution of pathfinders: a review of the literature". Reference Services Review. 35 (3): 434–451. CiteSeerX doi:10.1108/00907320710774300.
  36. ^ Neilson, J. (2004), “Electronic subject guides in literary studies: a qualitative content analysis”, unpublished Master of Science in Information Science, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, available at: https://ils.unc.edu/MSpapers/2996.pdf as cited in Vileno, Luigina (7 August 2007). "From paper to electronic, the evolution of pathfinders: a review of the literature". Reference Services Review. 35 (3): 434–451. CiteSeerX doi:10.1108/00907320710774300.
  37. ^ Logan, Judith; Spence, Michelle (January 2021). "Content strategy in LibGuides: An exploratory study". The Journal of Academic Librarianship. 47 (1): 102282. doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2020.102282. S2CID 228919300.
  38. ^ Brazzeal, Bradley (July 2006). "Research guides as library instruction tools". Reference Services Review. 34 (3): 358–367. doi:10.1108/00907320610685319.
  39. ^ Khailova, Ladislava (17 May 2022). "Developing and incorporating impactful library research guides for online and hybrid learners". Creating Inclusive and Engaging Online Courses: 103–119. doi:10.4337/9781800888883.00019. ISBN 9781800888883.
  40. ^ Paschke-Wood, Jeremiah; Dubinsky, Ellen; Sult, Leslie (21 October 2020). "Creating a Student-Centered Alternative to Research Guides: Developing the Infrastructure to Support Novice Learners". In the Library with the Lead Pipe.

Further reading[edit]