Using Library Experts Wisely
Today’s librarians bear about as much resemblance to the tight-bunned owlish matrons of 1950s films as laptops do to manual typewriters. They're more like the wizened sexton of a sprawling church, the guy with the giant ring of keys who unlocks every door, closet, and coffer. Library specialists routinely direct us to data bases, DVDs, digitized archival material, recordings, hidden stacks, and journals we had no idea even existed. I am in awe of their expertise.
So why wouldn’t we want to take our research and writing classes to the library to meet its human resources? Well … one reason is that there’s little in life that's as watching-paint-dry-dull as the traditional "library orientation" talk. You know — the one that samples all of the library's finding aids, touches on the difference between authoritative and unreliable sources, mentions the standard reference works in a field, and breezes through a list of specialized sources that no one will remember, let alone use. In many cases it’s the same colloquy you heard when you were an undergrad, except the directions for using the card catalog don’t involve actual cards anymore.
After years of frustration, last spring I gave up on the orientation. In my mind it created three types of the students: the half who tuned out, a quarter who burned out from information overload, and a remaining quarter who insisted they’d already heard the sermon and didn’t bother to show up. More frustrating still were two post-chat patterns: one group of students routinely asked me how to do the very thing they had just been taught, and a second group never applied any of the library skills necessary to conduct their research.
Librarians are generally blameless in this. If we get a spiel out of the 1950s, it’s because much of the time we provide information no more specific than "I’m teaching [Your Course Name Here] and my students need to do research." From such slender threads it's difficult to fashion much more than a library sampler.
Last spring I decided to try making a library specialist an ongoing part the writing seminar. I got in touch with Dave MacCourt at the University of Massachusetts library, the specialist assigned to my department, and we met for lunch. I don’t recall Dave’s exact words when I apologetically told him that I wanted to ditch the standard orientation for my writing class, but they were something to the effect that he had been waiting for years for someone to say that! We munched, brainstormed, and hammered out a work-in-progress whose basic premise was: do less, but do it more often until less became more.
I told students that, for their research, they had to master four distinct but interlocking things: "sell it, know it, think it, show it." Yeah, I know; don't give up my day job for a hip-hop career, but it sticks in students' memories. Phase one was up to me. Within two weeks students had to craft a formal proposal justifying the project they wanted to do. This meant that they had to define the project (roughly) and do a down-and-dirty search to make sure it could legitimately be researched. Mini lectures and peer group brainstorms got most students on track, mostly by whittling big ideas down to realistic one-semester topics. One student, for instance, began with the idea of designing a "green" building plan for all of New York City, but ultimately decided it was more rational to investigate what would be involved in making a single campus building eco-friendly. Another pared down an investigation of the viral advertising phenomenon to an analysis of how just one company uses it.
Students generally begin research projects with great enthusiasm, but their first impulse is to cruise the Internet to assemble the sort of anecdote-laden rhetorical argument that’s become the white noise of American discourse. It’s our job to help them match what they believe about a subject with what the experts in their disciplines know (or theorize). Here’s where Dave jumped in big time. Our class assembled in the part of the library where many of the journals are housed. Dave gave a 10-minute talk on the importance of journals, how to find them, and how to differentiate an academic journal from a mass audience publication. He gave each student his card and invited students to email him. Then I followed with an assignment: students had to locate a journal germane to their field, read an article, and review it. (I taught students how to write one in a follow-up class.) We set students loose in the library and mingled. I redirected most of the students approaching me with questions to Dave, because I wanted them to see him as a co-expert.
My next assignment was a conventional one: assemble a working bibliography. For the first time in quite a while I began to see journal articles show up from the start. And, yes, I told them their bibliographies had to have some old-fashioned pulped tree products (aka “books”) as well as websites. Unsure where to turn? "Ask Dave."
A few weeks later it was database day. Same deal — to the library for a quick explanation of what they are and why they’re essential. This time Dave asked each student to state their project and offered initial thoughts of a database they might want to consult. After about twenty minutes it was “Go forth and find thee a database.” This time the accompanying assignment was titled “Why My Database Rocks, and Why it Wobbles;” in other words, assess its strengths and weaknesses. The follow-up was to e-mail Dave with the name of the database they consulted, tell him why it was “wobbly,” and ask him to suggest others. (These exchanges were copied to me.)
We also had an archive day, which took students to a part of the library where few had ventured before. I also did the usual things for a writing seminar — evaluating sources, short analytical assignments, progress reports — but around midterm students turned in a major piece of writing: a formal prospectus that updated their original proposal, discussed secondary literature, put forth a working thesis, laid out a working outline, and identified major research questions. The latter were there because it was time for students to “think it” — to attack the problem as others in their field would do. When queried about where to turn on questions outside my bailiwick, my standard reply was — you guessed it — “Ask Dave.”
After midterm I convened roughly a third of the classes in the library. By then students had specific problems they needed to address — those at levels of complexity that no introductory orientation could possibly anticipate. My role switched to that of coach, sounding board, content-checker, and occasional cheerleader, and Dave’s to being, well, the sexton who directed them to various research doors and helped them unlock them. I was amused when astonished students advised that they had “found a book that was really useful” on the library shelves! For me, though, the two highlights were listening to students discuss their consultations with Dave, and observing how much he got into the projects. Dave was part of the process, not just the guy who gave the orientation and disappeared. OK, I lied; the coolest thing of all was that all 23 papers were pretty decent and several of them were exceptional.
No more orientations for me. If nothing else, students learned the importance of seeking out experts. Dave and I have some bumps to smooth over for the fall class — mostly related to timing, emphasizing non-Web materials, and writing mechanics — but I was delighted by how well this went. I can’t emphasize this enough: contact your library specialists. You’ll be surprised by how glad they are to take out their key rings in the service of something specific.
[Postscript: The experiment I described above was done in a mandatory writing class that was not specific to a particular major. It’s much easier to apply similar approaches within a major, and some readers of this site probably already do so. I observe, however, that few professors — me included — utilize library specialists as wisely as we could. My personal challenge is to rethink lessons I’ve led on my own as collaborative projects that more explicitly incorporate library experts.]