Teaching Humanities Reference

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.


10 thoughts on “Teaching Humanities Reference

  1. Your list of requirements for a humanities reference librarian is good.
    As an online reference librarian, I answer both types of questions–in-depth and superficial. Ready reference may have never been as important at the college level as it is in the public/school worlds.
    These are the issues I generally encounter as a reference librarian:
    1) Clients at every level are only partially literate about quality resources, especially if they’ve spent a lifetime Googling and using the first 10 sites that Google presents as their only sources.
    2) Students don’t know about different approaches to internet searching–e.g., using Infomine or a visual search engine.
    3) Students are unaware of the pathfinders/research guides librarians have created for different topics.
    4) Research guides are not equally good and sometimes are arranged in a confusing manner (e.g., literature databases being listed under English),
    5) Only a few research guides provide strategies for specific research questions (e.g., explaining how to find case studies within different business databases)
    6) Students no longer understand the concept of indexes; they expect everything to be available full-text online, including all books they might need to access
    7) Students lack the patience to become proficient users of more than one database; thus, they may get stuck using the MLA International Bibliography database or JSTOR because it worked for one research project, even though they aren’t the best resources for a new project
    8) They lack a basic understanding of Boolean operators and keyword searching
    9) They don’t understand that different databases may use different terms, and that a keyword search will produce different information than a subject search (I find the free online version of ERIC to be useful in teaching those concepts)
    10) When it comes to research strategies, they have trouble brainstorming alternative search terms or, as you put it, “different avenues of exploration, different ways of conceiving the question depending on what resources we find.”
    11) Before they’ve completed *any* research, students may be so set on a topic that they refuse to narrow or broaden it.

  2. Greetings, fellow teacher! I’m teaching collection development through LEEP in the spring. You’re already intimidating me with the depth of your analysis here…

  3. I have no idea if this is in any way useful to you, but when I took Humanities Reference (at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2004), we spent a lot of time doing show-and-tell in the graduate library reference section. A LOT of time. Just looking at and talking about the books, what they were useful for, what kinds of finding aids were included in the books, etc. Obviously that won’t work in an online class, but maybe you could find an analogue. There really wasn’t anything that could take the place of actually going out and touching the books.
    Also, the final assignment for that class was perhaps the best assignment I’ve ever been given: the professor essentially said, “go out and learn something, and then tell me about it.” (Using, one presumes, humanities reference materials.)

  4. Greetings, fellow reference librarian!
    Very good ideas all around; I think you’ve hit the core competencies for all reference service so you should have a good basis to move forward with your course design. It’s interesting that I think you could just do a search & replace from humanities to, say, engineering and it would still mostly make sense with probably surprisingly few modifications.
    For example, “The capacity to read and understand scholarly books and articles in the humanities” would have to be something like “The capacity to get the gist of and evaluate the relevance of various types of engineering documents, including scholarly articles, technical books, standards and patents.”

  5. Most of the issue Jude has pointed out are ones that vex my students (I teach scientific prose to pre-health undergrads, so searching is a big deal!) — and as John commented below, you could plug virtually any discipline in and these are the issues students need to deal with. I’d add one more — though have never figured out exactly how to do it! Students also need to have an understanding of some fairly basic tech terms and procedures. I begin with a lesson that asks a series of pretty straightforward questions, ex: What are the save options on this page? What types of documents can you open? Who is the publisher? What are the sharing options? I do this from a print screen so they don’t get lost in doing these things (could easily incorporate this into an online lesson). I’ve not yet had anyone in any class who has been able to answer more than 1/2 the questions, even when working in pairs. From there I discuss process strategies for searching and selecting (e.g. “for the first 30 minutes, just identify via title and abstract potential papers, send them to self, but don’t start reading yet!). These are the sorts of strategies that precede or surround searching and the ones I would get the second-most questions about (after “How come I can’t find anything?”:-)).

  6. My one suggestion to add to all of this would be to be sure that you emphasize the importance of being aware of Special Collections resources in one’s own library. SpeColl reference tends to be more specific (eg. Do you have any dime novels with pregnant characters in them?), but it’s important to at least be minimally aware of strengths and weaknesses in SC in one’s own library so that you knwo when to refer patrons to that department–particularly when dealing with “hidden collections” that aren’t in the OPAC or major databases, but are rich resources that are available to patrons in some manner on-site.

  7. Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad to know others think I’m somewhat on the right track, and I appreciate the specific advice.

  8. I might add a few more skills to the list…
    * the need to fully understand how learning about a new topic and searching for it are now intertwined as part of the same dynamic process.
    * the ability to teach re-findability, which partly relates to teaching how to set up a workflow to accurately move references from initial discovery to final paper.
    * the ability to help a student acquire an affordable paper copy of a book, outside of the usual library channels.

  9. Wayne –
    If it’s not too late – you may want to discuss how to build a humanities reference collection, how to make weeding decisions, what the major review sources are… the kinds of practical things that were never covered in my Humanities coursework at Pitt. A library school student interviewing for a job in academia should know to mention Choice in an interview, but should also be aware that subject specific academic journals review resources, just someone working in public libraries should know that Library Journal has a reference books section. Students should have some knowledge of the variety of collection development tools out there, and the limitations of each review source.
    It would also be interesting to discuss how to manage a collection budget, to have a philosophical discussion of when to buy print/when to by electronic, and to have a broad overview of the various models of purchasing some major reference sets.
    Can you tell I’m back to working with budget spreadsheets?
    Good luck with the course!

  10. Welcome to the LEEP program! It is a great place to teach – excellent tech support and thoughtful, engaged students.

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