Field Tripping: Class Time in the Campus Library

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            In previous blogs (May 3rd and May 18th) I shared my thoughts about conducting research with first and second-year students in history classes. This week I’d like to offer suggestions as to what students need to gain from library instruction and what faculty can do to be part of this learning process.


          Let’s be honest: the average first or second-year undergraduate is not generally excited about doing research in a library even when I tell them we are taking a "field trip." Most, in fact, believe that research can be conducted just as effectively through a Google search. Helping our students to learn the value of evaluating academic sources versus web “hits” is critical. Here are some steps faculty can follow, in partnership with your college’s library professionals, to make class time in the library both efficient and productive.  


Step One: start with a discussion of what makes a source appropriate for a college-level history paper. While there are countless resources available to students via web searches  students do not always effectively discern the good versus the bad source. Thankfully, there are many publications available on the web for faculty to share with students as they learn to evaluate sources. Your college librarians may have already created such a document but if not, check out these resources from the University of California Berkeley and the University Libraries at Virginia Tech. Bottom line: I tell my students that we would not be spending our limited time in the library if the best sources for their work were just a Google-search away. Library instruction is the perfect time to provide students with concrete examples of the countless academic resources not readily available on the web.


Step Two: address the basics first. Do not assume that the students know how to conduct even the most basic search. With the help of a knowledgeable librarian the basics can be covered quickly, enabling students to move on to the tougher questions such as what steps to take if the book is not available on campus or what to do if he/she has never borrowed a book from any library. Every time I go to the college library with a class a student comes to me with the latter quandary. The first few times I brought a class to the library for research I (wrongly) assumed that everyone had patronized their public library from their earliest days of schooling as I did. In my experience many students arrive at college having never located a book on library shelf. College students are not alone in this behavior and while there are many reasons (see, for example, this article in The Atlantic) whatever the cause we as faculty must remedy the situation early on in college students’ academic careers if they are to successfully complete their degrees.


Step Three: be part of the process, literally. I am fortunate that my college has a classroom designated for library instruction. Before the semester starts I reserve the room and schedule instruction time with a library professional. I make it clear to the students that the time spent in library instruction is class time: attendance will be taken, assignments will be explained and started there and then, and students will be responsible for the materials covered. As part of this planning I discuss with our librarian how much time the students will need to conduct their research and I make sure that we allot time for them to get to work independently and ask questions. Some of the most meaningful minutes I spend with students during the semester takes place in these library meetings. Often it is the first time that I am able to speak one-on-one with individual students. I ask them to show me what they have uncovered so far with their research and what kinds of challenges they are facing in the early stages. Facial expressions and body language often reveal to me who in the room has never conducted research before this class meeting. I also encourage students to help each other. Without fail there are members of every class who have had some library instruction in the past. Encouraging students to speak to their neighbors helps to break down the feelings of isolation and intimidation present as students begin their projects.


          Final Step: keep a sense of humor. Watching undergraduates struggle through the early phases of library research can be frustrating. I always hope that my assignment will make perfect sense to the students but sometimes, try as I might, my vision falls short. Being flexible with the realization that something I intended for them to do might not work as planned is critical to the process.


So, after all of this thinking and planning, do my students think that research is “fun”? Probably not. They do, however, share with me throughout the semester their gratitude for the time we spent in the library because they recognize that in their history class they have learned valuable skills that will translate into future academic success no matter what subjects they choose to study. And at the end of the day, this gratitude is enough for me.

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.