Vol. IV, Issue 2, December 15, 2005
A Successful Credit Course in Library Instruction
Beth Macleod, Reference Librarian, Park Library, Central Michigan University, firstname.lastname@example.org
For more than 30 years, librarians at Central Michigan’s Park Library have taught Library 197 – Introduction to Library Research, a popular 1-credit course on how to find research materials. We currently offer 10 to 12 sections in the fall semester and 7 to 10 sections in the spring, with a cap of 25 students per section; most of these sections fill.
I always assumed that such courses were common, but librarians at other institutions often express surprise at the success and longevity of the course and ask how we manage to attract so many students, especially since Library 197 is not a required course for most programs.
Library 197 is just one part of our bibliographic instruction program. We also do one-shot sessions for individual classes and last year we added an online tutorial, P.L.O.T. (Park Library Online Tutorial) to our website (based on TILT from the University of Texas). We view the tutorial as an alternative, not a substitute, for the traditional course. Enrollment in Library 197 has decreased slightly in recent years; this could be attributable to a variety of factors such as the Web, the newly-established First Year Experience program, or the P.L.O.T. tutorial.
Many CMU students come from communities with very small libraries and are initially intimidated by the size of the building and its collection. Even though we are now dealing with students who have grown up with access to the Internet and increased dependence on the Web, many appear to appreciate the option of acquiring research skills in a traditional classroom setting.
Here, in a nutshell, is what we do and how we do it.
Library 197 is a 1-credit course that meets twice a week for 50 minutes (Monday-Wednesday or Tuesday-Thursday) for the first eight weeks of a 16-week semester. Each section is capped at 25 students.
Years ago, when the library submitted the course to the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee, there was much discussion over whether such a course was needed—after all, many assumed, students should know this stuff already. So why make it a credit course? In this respect the debate was similar to more recent discussions of the merits of implementing a First Year Experience program. Library 197 was approved, however, and is listed under “Library” in the university’s course offering guide.
Colleges and universities attempting to establish a similar course today would probably encounter similar discussions. Ironically, however, the proliferation of new information technologies has made the research process more, not less, complex; so it might well be easier to convince doubters today than it was in the early 1970’s. On the other hand, many today would say that research is easier now – everything is on the Web and so the course is less necessary. The riposte to this argument is that the Web is indiscriminating, and students need to learn how to do more than Google.
Staffing has seldom been a problem. Most reference librarians at Central Michigan University teach one section of the course each semester. Librarians in other areas of the library may also teach a section if they wish to do so, and as workloads allow. Some semesters we have more potential instructors than sections, which means that reference librarians have an occasional semester off from teaching.
The course is labor-intensive. During the eight weeks it meets, instructors spend an average of 8 hours a week on grading, writing or revising assignments and quizzes, and preparing class lectures. Obviously, the first semester one teaches is the most time-consuming.
Some non-reference librarians who have taught the course recently are the archivist in the Clarke Historical Library, the head of collection development and a systems librarian. All report that, in addition to providing a change of pace, teaching the course gives them an opportunity to see things from a student perspective, which has value in their other library work.
The course is intended for freshmen and sophomores, although it is open to students in other classes. The emphasis is on the practical rather than the theoretical. Instructors are encouraged to avoid using professional jargon whenever possible.
One section of the course is limited to students enrolled in the university’s honors program.
We use a mediated classroom with 28 computers arranged in a U-shape around the periphery of the room. Many instructors use the first part of the class period to explain one or more concepts and the last part to assist students with a related assignment, either using the computers, or moving to a particular area of the library.
Each librarian is responsible for covering a core set of topics, although he or she may choose the order in which to present them, and may stress different things. The documents librarian, for example, might devote more time to his specialty, or an archivist might spend more time on the Clarke Historical Library. Each instructor, however, must cover the following subjects:
A typical syllabus divides the course into three units. The first covers the online catalog and related topics such as Boolean searching; the second covers periodicals and periodical databases, and the third covers the Web. (Again, the order varies with individual instructors; some, for example, start with the Web.)
Most instructors require a combination of assignments, quizzes and a final project. A final project commonly requires students to choose a subject and gather materials on that topic from a variety of sources. For example, a student could be required to find books, popular and scholarly articles, a newspaper article, a web site and, depending upon the individual instructor, a government document, and a reference source on their chosen topic; list these in a bibliography using the style manual of their choice; and annotate each item. Students are encouraged to choose a topic that has been assigned as a paper in another course.
All instructors have access to a collection of teaching materials—sample syllabi, assignments, quizzes and handouts. Instructors are encouraged to use and contribute to the collection. This is one time when plagiarism is encouraged, since it is time-consuming to create such materials and there is no reason to re-invent the wheel.
Publicity, Marketing and Recruiting
There are a number of ways we get the word out regarding Library 197.
(a) Word of mouth.
It is very common for one student to recommend the course to a friend, roommate or sibling.
(b) Student mentors/students.
CMU has student mentors who tour new students around the campus each summer and help them register for classes. We make sure that the Library 197 Coordinator does a presentation for these mentors each spring, describing the course and extolling its merits. The mentors are then encouraged to recommend the course to incoming students.
(c) Student mentors/parents
The student mentors also do presentations for parents, whose suggestions have actually been known to influence students’ decisions when registering for classes.
(d) Faculty advisors have also been helpful in promoting the course. Advisors in the athletics departments routinely encourage student athletes to enroll.
(e) A few programs have made Library 197 a requirement, such as Human Environmental Studies, Social Work, and Journalism.
(f) Some library departments have made Library 197 a requirement for students working in the library. Some students have already taken the course when they are hired; others take it as they begin their jobs.
Library 197 has obviously evolved over the years. Online catalogs, electronic databases, and Web evaluation have replaced card catalogs, Readers’ Guide, and lists of reference books. But the need for the course has remained a constant and it is an important component of our instruction program.