The Stars Align

Academic libraries, Library Guides


I love those moments where the stars align, and students’ assignments match up perfectly with the collection and collection tools. This week the stars aligned when one of my favorite professors ended his English 102 class early and sent his students to the library to gather resources for their assignment.

Although I’ve never met this teacher in person, I think he’s pretty awesome. I call him Mr. Lit Crit because every semester he teaches his students to write literature criticism, guiding them through the research and writing of a very special type of essay. Literature criticism wasn’t part of the curriculum for anthropology students, but in the course of pulling resources for Mr. Lit Crit’s students, I’ve learned how to do literature criticism too.

Here at the library, we greet Mr. Lit Crit’s students every semester with reference books for dramatists, novelists, and short story writers. We have a thorough collection of “books you can take home” for each of Mr. Lit Crit’s favorite authors, and of course, reviews in our literature criticism databases. Last semester, I dusted off all of our HTML library guides for literature criticism and put them in a dynamic form, complete with links to each literature criticism database, catalog records for circulating books, and select literature criticism pieces. Talk about learning–once denizens of terra incognita, by the end of that process the Literary Reference Center and Critical Insights collection were my buddies, and I knew the names of each of Bloom’s gazillion and a half series.

This semester, Mr. Lit Crit added a twist to his usual assignment and gave the students the option of doing a literary biography for a shortlist of authors, all of whom were present in our literature criticism guides. It was simply wonderful: a dozen students arrived at once, but myself and the one other librarian at the desk were able to identify what resources the students needed, print them off a guide, direct them to the sections containing the biographies, and let them explore while we helped the next wave of students. Many actually did come back for help finding additional resources, or at least directions to the photocopier or circulation desk. In one quick library visit, these students learned where the library was, how happy the librarians are to help, and how our resources are exactly what they need for their project. They were not frustrated by the disconnect between what the teacher wanted and what exists in the collection. We were not frustrated trying to use a vague assignment to ferret out what the teacher wanted the students to do. I even got a chance to test drive the guides, rectifying inconsistencies between guides for different works by the same author and beefing up biographical sources for some of our less-studied authors.

Experiences like this, where the research stars align, make me want to run to the nearest department offices and ask each and every teacher what research project they’re assigning next so I can tell them how the library is here to give them the research they want. Course readings, dictionaries, handbooks, films, it’s theirs. I want to tell them all about Mr. Lit Crit, and how they, too, can take all the time they used to spend booby-trapping their assignments for plagiarism and inappropriate Google use and instead use that time to have the students work with the library. By and large, students want to do bad work, and don’t need to be smacked on the knuckles for not researching properly: they simply need to be shown how to do it right. And teachers, when you come to the library look for me, because I’ll be right there, in the line of librarians queuing up to help.