Some Thoughts on Creating Successful Library Assignments

PURPOSE-- Students often haven't a clue about the uses of a library. The younger ones think everything (truth being black and white) is online on the public Internet; the older ones are afraid to admit that they have gotten this far without learning some research basics. In addition to understanding why libraries are still relevant, a quick and dirty Information Economics 101, they also need to be reminded as to why research itself is important--or they won't exert themselves. Research means finding and reading a variety of viewpoint--the disciplinary discussions and scholarly arguments that define how a practitioner defines the parameters of the field. Reading outside of the textbook is a powerful way to show students that there are still places to explore, to argue about, and new ideas to be thought--knowledge is a progressive construction in which they can participate.

LOGISTICS--Libraries ARE incredibly complicated--I learn something new about the library and information sources every single day, but I have long experience and a cognitive framework on which to classify any new information. Students are still developing their own cognitive maps of "libraryness." They need to learn that some investigations are dead-ends, but too much frustration early on doesn't lead to great enthusiasm for research. So if the assignment requires the use of specific sources, maybe you can give the students a list of these places to look. If the assignment requires the use of complicated sources or in depth research, consider asking a librarian to do a session addressing the strategies needed to fulfill the assignment requirements. We are pretty good at addressing the issues they have. Please understand that it is difficult for us to address the same assignment in depth 30 separate times at the Reference Desk. We have found that students actually say that they feel empowered after leaving a library session that shows them how to do their own research. Only one out of approx. 20 says that he/she already knew how to find the information needed for the particular assignment.

FEASIBILITY-- While we have a reasonable collection, we may not have those things that are standard in your field. If you can, do the assignment yourself first to make sure that the necessary materials are in the library (not missing, not at the bindery, not at the archives, etc.). Students are often not familiar with sources or words that are obvious to us. If you don't have time to do it yourself, ask us to do the assignment first and we can let you know where to anticipate problems. Knowing the assignment also gives us a clue as to how to help students at the Reference Desk. Frustrated and bewildered students don't make for future library users. At the very least send us a copy of your library assignment.

VARIETY-- We ask that you don't ask a whole class to find the same information from the same source --it's too great a temptation for someone to check out the book, tear pages from a reference book, slip a journal into their bookbag, hide it, or copy from another student. A student may inadvertently (or advertently?) reshelve a book in the wrong place, causing grief for all who follow. Treasure hunts are out these days.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS-- Critical thinking and healthy skepticism are essential skills in every field of study and are particularly to be cultivated when dealing with information. At the Reference desk we try to encourage students to carefully evaluate the information they find as well as the sources the information comes from. To further that goal, encouraging more-seasoned students to find a variety of viewpoints beyond the simple binaries helps them develop a sense of the range of possibilities. Having them consider the rhetorical style and the audience for articles from magazines, newspapers, trade journals and scholarly journals expands their understanding of "information." Libraries are great places for assignments that require critical thinking

DIVERSITY OF SOURCES--Students need to know that there are different sources for different purposes--they don't know it intuitively. Essays in subject encyclopedias help set-up frameworks for paper topics; annotated bibliographies lead to well-researched papers; books cover issues in length and depth; academic journal articles are usually extremely focused; newspapers supply good anecdotal evidence as well as primary information; magazines and newspapers often support a particular political viewpoint.

LANGUAGE AND CLARITY--Many students have not encountered the terms: "scholarly journals", "empirical research", "peer reviewed", "refereed". They think a "search engine" is the same as an online library database, an index or catalog. They assume all abbreviations are searchable as such. They naively assume that the latest style guides cover all the citation problems that are possible in this electronic universe of information. Learning to research is a developmental process just as writing is--a process which can be helped along by actually teaching its specialized and often disciplinary language.

PLAGIARISM and PROCRASTINATION--Librarians frequently see students with obviously “acquired” papers trying to create or track down bibliographic entries. And we also get to see all those students who are just starting a paper tonight--one due tomorrow. Please speak to your classes very specifically about what plagiarism is and what you will do about it. Students - -and reference librarians--will benefit if term papers are progressive works. Students who are required to submit initial research topics and notes, an annotated bibliography, an early, middle and late draft, xeroxes of whole sources (or just pages from which quotes or paraphrases are taken) and/or a research log can neither procrastinate nor plagiarize. The whole research process is a core competency for a college graduate.

HELP

If you have any questions for us, would like assistance in developing or checking your library assignments, would like to request a library instruction session, can call or email me--
Jan Sauer. jsauer@jaguar1.usouthal.edu, 460-6045
or the Reference librarian who serves as the bibliographer/liaison to your department:
Business--Mary Engebretson 6-2825
Social Sciences & Communication--Kathy Jones 6-2829
Sciences & Technology--Amy Prendergast 6-2827
Humanities & Education--Jerry Wright 6-5986
Government Documents--Vicki Tate 6-2821 & Vickey Baggott 6-2820
Electronic Services and Mathematics & Statistics-- Kathy Wheeler 460-7938, 6-7938Check out the Library Instruction page with a link for the Library homepage or at:
http://www.southalabama.edu/univlib/sauer/