Rethinking the Library

Rethinking the Library

This trimester, I’m teaching an upper-level research seminar on Reproductive Justice in the U.S. Since 1973. It’s required me to engage in some creative thinking on the fly – something I did not anticipate ahead of time. But I quickly realized that a chronological dive into reproductive justice issues wasn’t going to work for my students given that many of them were taking the class as a cross-listed Gender and Women’s Studies elective, and hadn’t taken a History methods course before. Beyond that consideration, many students were educated at high schools with under-resourced libraries (there is one librarian in my town’s K-12 school district, for example, and that’s not unusual), and the workings of our library were something of a mystery to them.

I needed to teach my students how to identify and find a whole range of sources from multiple locations, because many of them had never had the opportunity to search beyond Google before. Through no fault of their own, some of my students didn’t know what a call number was, and didn’t know how to use the call number to track down a physical book. They’d never experienced the joy of a serendipitous discovery while scanning a bookshelf. They weren’t sure how history-specific databases worked, and didn’t know Google scholar existed. I had to get them from this point to writing a fifteen-page original research paper in ten weeks. (We’re presently on week five.)

I decided that on Tuesdays we’d focus on content – on excellent books and articles that could demonstrate the enormous range of issues connected to reproductive justice – and that on Thursdays we’d focus on skills. The first order of business for skill day was to decamp to the library.

I didn’t simply tell students how to research. Instead, I designed a worksheet with a series of challenges on it, ranging from using the library catalog to find a book and pulling it off the shelf, to finding primary sources and learning how to cite them in Chicago style. There were lots of steps in between. I had the invaluable help of my department’s library liaison, Laurie Sauer, who worked alongside me to trouble-shoot, check work, and frequently walk people to the stacks to show them how to find what they were looking for.

Here’s the work sheet (all links are specific to the Knox system, but here’s the Chicago Quick Citation Guide, from which you can navigate to the full guide within your own library system):


And here’s the cool thing: people got excited about research. Students would go to find their book in the stacks, and come back with two others they liked even better, amazed that such books existed. I showed several students how to click on the Library of Congress subject headings in the library catalog to discover all the other books on a given topic, and one student audibly gasped. We talked about using synonyms when searching for titles, and how to hit the sweet spot in searching so that we didn’t search for so limited a term that it seemed like no books existed. We ordered things from I-Share (ILL between all the libraries in Illinois) and ILL itself. And repeatedly, students had to cite the things they found, learning by trial and error how to use Chicago, getting better every time.

Crucially, this was not our only skill day. Since then we’ve worked on thinking through the differences between primary and secondary sources; deconstructed an essay to figure out how historians organize their thoughts and applied what we learned to short-cuts for reading; used the SOCC method to analyze different primary sources; written out five bibliographic entries for the hardest-to-cite sources they had and peer-edited them; and last week they turned in a two-page bibliography for their project. Today we’re having a workshop day where everyone brings something to read or works on writing, and I’m available for one-on-one conversations about anything that’s challenging or confusing.

We’re not going to hit a comprehensive survey of reproductive justice issues in this course. But each student has picked a topic that really interests them, and is doing a deep, dive into that subject as one way to think about reproductive justice at large. We keep asking Big Questions on Tuesdays – about justice, race, gender, citizenship, eugenic thinking, law, community, poverty, and the state. But Thursdays have become my favorite day – the day that people apply those questions to something new.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking the Library

  1. As a retired academic library director, I applaud you!!! These are things that many faculty don’t do, and students are cheated out of these experiences. It would be wonderful if administrators everywhere (from Pre-K through college level) could read this and understand the importance of supporting libraries with finding and staff.

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