TALK ABOUT TEACHING
The library teaches itself--or not? At least until recently, students and faculty understood the library to be a fundamentally transparent system that stored and made available a self-contained body of texts. Occasionally faculty or librarians would see a need to teach the library, but more often than not they assumed that students would learn to do research by doing it, just as their teachers and their teachers' teachers had done.
Of course The Library as one physical space has long been a fiction: The crumbling of the library's famous walls began at the latest with the advent of union catalogs and efficient interlibrary loan operations in the late 1930s, and "serious" researchers have long understood the local system to be a gateway to a worldwide network of libraries. But if the model used to be incomplete, by now it has a status roughly equivalent to that of long-playing records, slide rules, and dial phones. For this there are many reasons, the most obvious being a technological transformation of information storage and retrieval that requires an infinitely more complex and sophisticated mediation on the part of students and faculty. And though today's students come to the University with native fluency in their use of technology--most of them having learned to wield a mouse and manipulate digitized icons long before they could give shape to letters, or read them--this technical ease and comfort does not, on its own, get them very far with structures of complex information systems. So, too, the dissolution of the canon in the humanities, the growing importance of images and film, the ongoing proliferation of publications in every conceivable format, and the softening of once-firm disciplinary boundaries have blown apart core collections and with them the student's ability to rely on a finite and relatively contained body of texts in any area of study.
What is a student to do?
Though the library offers tours, one-on-one consultations, and sessions on specific resources or topics, we know from experience that students learn most when specific class assignments drive instruction in library resources, when the library piece is more clearly a means than an end. Only then does it become a purposeful activity with a meaningful goal, rather than an ultimately self-referential exercise in ingenuity. A famous exception is Haverford College's Seminar on Historical Evidence, in which every Haverford junior spends a semester working closely with a single, previously unstudied document from the Library's own Special Collections Department and identifying an unknown object (examples: cornhusker, tourist art from an African airport, elephant bell) using the widest possible array of texts and research tools. (The document portion of the course is described in an article by Margaret Schaus and her colleagues in AHA Perspectives, v. 29, no. 5, pp. 16-18, May-June 1991; the entire course in C&RL News, v. 51, no. 9, pp. 825-831, October 1990).
Increasingly, Penn faculty--themselves not always able to keep up with the rapidly changing nature of information provision--are working with librarians to integrate instruction in the finding and evaluating of information into their courses and developing assignments one of whose heuristic benefits is the ability to navigate a complex system of resources efficiently and critically. Some examples:
Three years ago Penn history professor Drew Gilpin Faust gave a talk
that was subsequently published in this space. Entitled We Are All Teachers;
We Are All Learners, it eloquently makes the case for an institution
that "fully dedicate[s] itself to the ideal of integrated and interdependent
teaching and learning." As an extension of the classroom, the library
has a critical role to play in realizing this ideal.
This is the fifth essay in the 1998-99 Talk About Teaching series, a joint project of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
Mr. Lehmann is Coordinating Bibliographer of Humanities at Van Pelt Library.
For information on library instructional support, contact Patricia Renfro, Director, Public Services, at 898-7091 or email@example.com.
Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 25, March 23, 1999