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Learning about Instruction from Subject Librarians

The past week has served as a clear and present reminder of the value of having subject librarians who are committed to helping students in their disciplines engage with and even contribute to the scholarly work of their chosen areas of study. Partially prompted by a desire to train our new librarian, and partially driven by our constant refrain of “wouldn’t it be nice if we could meet and tell each other about what we each do with our students,” my department met three times between last Thursday and today to do a little show and tell. Over the course of those 6 hours, we showed each other key resources in our areas, walked through pieces of lessons that we’ve developed, talked about common challenges and triumphs, and even did mock instruction sessions for each other. I learned so much.

I had never considered the value of surgical videos in the life of a materials scientist. I love the idea that when you read anything from a record in an index to an article or a book, you have to think about reading instrumentally as well as reading for comprehension. There are always clues to new research topics or subtopics, new search terms, and even information about how the search tool or topic or disciplinary discourse is structured. Reading instrumentally involves paying attention to all these things. I had no idea that we’d just acquired an archive of opera videos and another of dance videos, each of which let you search through rich metadata, create playlists of clips, and turn on a variety of subtitles. I learned a metric brainload about ICPSR, WDI (both online and off), and other key data sources, and how these get used in our curriculum. For example, did you know that Earth Trends is useful for way more than environmental research? I didn’t. But it turns out that in order to study the environment you have to study a bunch of other things, too, so Earth Trends ends up being a kind of statistical compendium. And it cites its sources, so you can figure out who’s publishing data on your topic. And I learned a lot by listening to our History librarian talk about the role of book reviews in research, and how teaching book reviews is a great way to introduce students to concepts like scholarly disagreement or how individual works fit into the broader universe of disciplinary conversation.

I showed a few things, too. I showed my “subversive handout” and my work on teaching scholarly attribution, the problem of controlled vocabulary for my students (since they have to work with the MLA International Bibliography, which relies so heavily on it’s thesaurus), and my lower-level work with students who need to learn about combining terms when performing searches.

Beyond learning really interesting and cool things, though, I was struck by the fact that even though we spend so much time working together, talking together, and sharing strategies with each other, that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of our individual stores of subject expertise. We rely on this structure of shared general knowledge backed up by deep subject expertise all the time. For example, I can sit at the reference desk and know that I can help a student get started with research in an unfamiliar area, but that I can (and frequently do) refer that student to the subject librarian for more in-depth help if we have to go beyond my own ability to be of any use. And in instruction sessions, the librarian that deals primarily with upper level social science students relies on the fact that I tend to work with a lot of lower level students, and that I give those students a grounding in some of the basics. We absolutely rely on the fact that we don’t each have to know everything and teach everything, and that our colleagues will be there for us when we get in over our heads with unfamiliar research areas. So our differences really do serve the student population as a whole.

And I feel like I’ve become a better librarian simply by being surrounded by subject specialists. I know more about how to find data and statistics than I did before because I’ve been able to watch our data librarian at work. I’ve learned (and stolen shamelessly from) our History librarian and the way she guides students through the process of finding and using primary sources. And the similar things could be said about any one of the other librarians I work with.

Published inIn My ClassroomLibraries and LibrariansTeaching and Learning


  1. Steve Lawson Steve Lawson

    Ugh. Feeling like a mollusk. We need to take the time to do this at my institution. We talk about it, we do little practicums, but we don’t really go far enough to learn how each other think and solve problems.

  2. Iris Iris

    Oh, we’ve been talking about doing this for a long time, too. Like, the whole time I’ve been here. Don’t feel too molluskish. But do do do push to get it done soon! It’s well worth the effort of finding the time.

  3. […] few years ago at a kind of instruction in-service we held in my department, my coworker Kristin talked about a way of reading that she was beginning […]

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