Add me to the chorus of voices objecting to the idea that the library could possibly be dead. It got better!

I’ve just spent (can’t bear to add up the number) hours putting together a library scavenger hunt for my students in undergraduate Chaucer. It involves finding out what’s in particular ranges of call numbers, finding a hard copy of an essay that is not in J-STOR or otherwise available electronically, looking up people we read about in volumes of the calendars of Close, Fine, and Patent Rolls, studying pages of facsimile volumes, and using several reference works, two of which are not available electronically; one is, and I want students to write about the different experiences of using hard copy or electronic version. They’ll work in teams, and each team has a different set of questions. In a week, we’ll have a class discussion to put the jigsaw pieces together; as we used to say in the seventies, everybody has a piece of the truth.

On Friday, I took a quick non-scientific poll of my two sections, asking what they have done in the library. They study there; they get food in the cafe (and one works there); they use reference works; they have asked reference librarians for help; they go to the writing center; they check out books. Of electronic databases, they are most familiar with J-STOR, but some have used LION and the MLA database. At least one has figured out how to get articles not otherwise available via inter-library loan; I demonstrated for everyone else how you do that. All have used the OED, since I made them do that recently. I showed them a few other databases. I don’t know how much they’ll retain, but perhaps they’ll remember to check out the database page again sometime.

One of the questions on the write-up of the scavenger hunt will be to propose a topic for a research paper that uses several of the resources from the hunt. They won’t write the papers; I just want to see whether leafing through actual books will spark some creative ideas. One of the fabulous things about using hard copy is the serendipitous discoveries. When you go straight to quoniam, you miss quamquam and quisque.

Perhaps you thought, given my attitude to old Specula, that I’d be knocking the library over the head. But I distinguish between institutions and individuals; my floor space is more limited than the library’s, and actually, after one of the comments on that post, I regretted not having made some effort to find a vampire bookseller (how?) in case someone wanted ten years’ worth of Speculum. Personally, I can’t bear to let the place where I live approach the state of my hoarder-dad’s piled-up house, but professionally, I think it’s important for libraries to hold on to hard copies of everything, even if they have to be stored off-site.

We’ll see how the scavenger hunt goes. My students seemed enthusiastic at the prospect, though this may just be delight at having a change of venue for a week. I haven’t done this with undergrads before. Grads in Introduction to Bibliography and Research Methods have hunts that combine electronic and hard-copy research. Some returning students need intensive instruction in electronic media; some younger ones need physical-library remediation; everyone complains about the parts they think aren’t necessary. It’s all necessary, I say. Anyway, I hope I haven’t made the hunt too hard for the undergrads. As is so often the case with me, I’m after the serendipitous “aha” moments, hoping that even as two different questions on the list illumine each other and some literary issue from class, that there will be other discoveries that help with questions I never thought of, perhaps questions from other classes.

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One thought on “Not dead yet!

  1. In my opinion, a library without any books would be a very sad place indeed. As you point out, libraries are so much more than simply their collections. Thanks for mentioning the Rolls series. It prompted me to do a quick catalogue search at my own uni library, and I discovered they actually have a print edition of the Patent Rolls I may need for an upcoming research project, and which I expected I'd have to interloan.

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