In the spring, I’ll be doing two things I never thought I would do: teach online and teach in a library school. I’ll be teaching arts & humanities reference online for the University of Illinois’ Graduate School of Library Science. I took the same class myself about eleven years ago when I was in library school at Illinois, but I think things have changed quite a bit since then.
I’m writing not to make a news announcement, but to run some ideas by you. I know many of you do humanities reference at some level, and quite possibly teach it, and I would love to have your opinions on some ideas I have (comments or emails welcome). I’m not going to divulge some of my specific ideas about what I want to do with the course, because even though I have the basic outline already formed, I’m still tinkering with specifics. Instead, I would love your advice about the principles governing it.
When I was in library school, reference courses were heavily driven by reference questions that had specific answers. Ready reference might be too slight a term to cover some of these, but they were still mostly factual queries that could be answered if you knew the right obscure or standard reference work to consult. The days of ready reference have passed, though. I remembered only one specific question from the course I took, and I remember it being difficult to answer because only one relatively obscure reference work addressed it in any detail. I Googled that question recently, and the top result was a Wikipedia article–complete with citations–giving a fairly good answer. I almost never field factual questions from students anymore, and this seems to be the trend with most librarians I talk to.
So first of all I think humanities reference has changed from being question-driven to being project-driven, at least in colleges. From students at all levels, I’m asked not for answers to questions, but for strategies of research. It seems crucial for my work not just to know that X database or Y book might cover a field or have an answer, but to be able to map a research strategy for a specific research question or project. Do you find that to be the case?
Sometimes this is a simple matter. "Search MLA for some secondary articles on your novel." But usually it’s much more complex, and might involve searching databases in various fields, thinking about various ways to approach the topic, different avenues of exploration, different ways of conceiving the question depending on what resources we find, etc. This is especially true as the students engage in interdisciplinary work.
To do this requires a lot more than the ability to search databases or know where to find answers or isolated secondary literature.
The requirements below are a bit jumbled, but my hypothesis is that to provide good humanities reference, a librarian should have:
- Knowledge of the organization of information in the various humanities
- Familiarity with the essential reference tools and indexes
- Basic understanding of scholarly communication in the humanities
- Familiarity with the ways scholars in different disciplines approach sources or use information
- Some knowledge of the digital humanities
- The ability to guide research projects, not just answer questions
- A conceptual understanding of research projects in the humanities
- The capacity to read and understand scholarly books and articles in the humanities
If you’re a humanities reference librarian, does this sound right based on your own work?
I realize different environments require different levels of skill and knowledge. I’ve done most of my humanities reference in what amounts to liberal arts colleges at the undergraduate level, and I’m sure it’s different answering basic questions at a community college or helping high school students research their essays. However, a course in humanities reference should prepare library school students to work with undergraduates in the humanities at a minimum. I would think the reason for taking a specialized reference course would be the hope or expectation of having a good understanding of the field, rather than a cursory glance that would be useless in practice, and in my opinion this knowledge (at least at a basic level) is necessary.
So far I’ve thought of a number of specific ways in which to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to do good reference work in the humanities, but would be grateful for any advice you have to offer.