Print This Issue

March 25, 2008, Volume 54, No. 26

The Learning Partnership

Marjorie Hassen, Director for Public Services, University of Pennsylvania Libraries


For several years librarians have maintained an active role in supporting the History and Sociology of Science department’s foundational course, Health and Societies. Taught initially by Janet Tighe and currently by David Barnes, the course includes a multi-faceted research component with a focus on global perspectives. The research segment, designed  collaboratively by Dr. Tighe and the Libraries and further refined by Mr. Barnes, brings subject-expert librarians together with groups of students to research intensively the socio-cultural dynamics of health and disease in various regions of the world. The course is a model of scholars and information professionals pulling together to enrich the academic experience of students and to tackle a problem that faculty and librarians are noting with increasing frequency: the difficulty undergraduates have in developing effective search strategies and in evaluating the information they find. 

This trend is born out in an increasing number of studies. One of these, the Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, a project commissioned by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), compiles survey data on information-seeking behaviors of the current generation of students. Among its conclusions: “Information literacy [research competency] of young people has not improved with the widening access to technology.”1 To those of us who work closely with undergraduates on their research assignments, this is a familiar story. Easy, online access to a bewildering array of resources dulls the discernment of students and masks the reality that research is a complex activity—something many of us are slow to assimilate under the best of circumstances, and many now find overwhelming. Students work more independently on their research-gathering now than even five years ago, but the disintermediation of the process, often exacerbated by faculty and librarians failing to work collectively, can impact the quality of student papers and make research a frustrating activity. An in-depth, anthropological study of undergraduate research behavior performed at the University of Rochester2 , calls attention to the deep intertwining of research and writing and argues that student academic outcomes can be appreciably enhanced by strong alliances between faculty and librarians.

The nature and benefits of these alliances will develop incrementally as our communities come together around the information literacy problem and other issues affecting the quality of undergraduate learning. At Penn, where I have participated in such efforts for more than five years, it has been exciting to see just how creative and forward-thinking the partnerships can be. With increasing regularity, subject-specialist librarians work with faculty in developing integrative tools for courseware, in incorporating research skills into assignments, and in designing instructional events calibrated to disciplinary methodologies, course themes, and individual class topics. Librarians devote hundreds of hours each semester to students in individual research consultations, providing assistance in locating, evaluating, and synthesizing information. And more recently, the Libraries have taken an active part in supporting instructional technology, in our role as host of the Blackboard courseware service, and the use of new media, since the creation of the Weigle Information Commons and its Vitale Digital Media Lab.   

The variety of teaching and learning collaborations between Penn librarians and faculty is quite broad, but I would like to call attention to a few cases I consider emblematic of future directions for one of the University’s most vibrant partnerships—a partnership that contributes to the integration of resources and talent, as expressed in the Penn Compact, and to national aspirations for the education of young scholars. 

Collections, Teaching, and Learning: Creative Integration
Primary source materials are the Libraries’ stock-in-trade, but their impact on learning outcomes, like many formative aspects of the academic experience, can be hard to decipher. This fall, one faculty member succeeded. For his Art of Eating & Life writing class, Thomas Devaney organized a student project around the Libraries’ Chef Fritz Blank Collection. This multi-faceted trove of cultural insight into the relationships that tie together food, society, and industry in the second half of the 20th century provided the raw materials to engage the students in the excitement of discovery and research, as well as in thinking creatively about food, culture, the writing process, and the nature of collecting. These materials served as a laboratory for Mr. Devaney’s students, who worked closely with the texts and librarians to draw out the many layers of meaning locked in primary sources and develop their research in narrative exercises.

Integrating into the Core Curriculum
While much of our collaboration with teaching has focused on specific courses and projects, the Libraries have found opportunities to work at the school level, developing methods to incorporate information literacy needs into the core curriculum. Case in point: the Penn Engineering Information and Communication (EIC) Program, a joint effort of the SEAS faculty, administration and Library staff. As a curriculum-integrated program, the EIC addresses essential research skills for the school’s undergraduates. By the end of this academic year, the program will be incorporated into 13 classes and will engage close to 1,000 students. When fully implemented, the EIC will provide instruction and support to three required classes in each of the six SEAS departments: one in the freshman year, another in the sophomore or junior year, and a capstone senior design course. In this way, librarians provide targeted instruction to ensure that students develop these critical skills as they progress through their respective disciplines.

Support of Special Programs
Special, focused programs comprise a growing area of library/faculty engagement.  The McNair Scholars Summer Residential Research Institute and the PennCAP Pre-Freshman Program are two instances. In each, librarians join forces with instructors to provide topic- or discipline-based assistance to students over the course of their residencies. The rewards for staff who participate in these efforts are numerous, but none is more gratifying than the exclamation heard last summer, “I wish I learned this years ago, it changed my life.” The intensive nature of these experiences draws students easily into the research process, and the experience is often a transformational one for these most junior of Penn scholars. 

The Library as Classroom
Over the past two years, the Libraries’ Weigle Information Commons has worked closely with faculty to rethink the traditional boundaries between library and classroom, between information and learning.  It is very much a work in progress, but already Penn is a model in this arena for institutions around the country. At its core, the Commons is a triangulated collaboration, an umbrella for various academic support services, such as writing and learning resources, for new technologies, and for information training. Louise Krasniewicz’s Anthropology and Cinema class is the Commons in a nutshell. This semester 80 students, under the Libraries’ guidance, learned basic multimedia skills using iMovie and Photoshop, and applied the technology training to video, comic book and poster creation, all in an experimental context that helps to define the relationships between image and idea, information and persuasion. 

Student Research and Publication
A natural connection between the Libraries and the dissemination of student research is flourishing through our open-access institutional repository, ScholarlyCommons@Penn. Three student journals are currently hosted by ScholarlyCommons: the Penn McNair Research Journal, the Journal of Student Nursing Research (JOSNR), and CUREJ, the College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal. Each of these publications showcases undergraduate research by some of Penn’s most promising students and provides an opportunity for wide exposure and discovery.  Noteworthy for the breadth of its topics, CUREJ stretches the boundaries of traditional research with artwork, photographs, and video and fully exploits the benefits of an online repository. 

The Libraries have a vision of a student-centered learning environment that drives much of our planning. We recognize the shared nature of this vision—that strengthening the linkages among teaching, learning and information has fundamental importance to undergraduate education. So, while the mission of the Libraries has always been to place information within easy reach of our communities, that mission is increasingly dependent on our ability to foster community itself. 


2. Nancy Fried Foster and Susan Gibbons, eds. Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester (Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2007). http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlpubs/downloadables/Foster-Gibbons_cmpd.pdf



Almanac - March 25, 2008, Volume 54, No. 26