Make Your Librarian Love You

I’ve often said that librarians are the most under-utilized resource of any college or university. At one of the schools I’ve taught at, they actually went begging to faculty to be invited in to do things with students. At most of the others, they frequently advertise their services to faculty, hoping that some of us will take them up on their offer.

The usual use of librarians for a research methods course is in teaching students how to find materials for a literature review using library databases. That’s a pretty standard need. But for methods classes that also incorporate qualitative methods, I’d like to suggest a second use for your librarians: teaching a hands-on class on primary source interpretation using materials from the school’s special collections or school archives. Special collections and archives, and the librarians who staff them, are incredible resources for students to get a hands-on experience with primary sources. Usually the librarians are able to find a topic of interest to political science students – the politics of admitting various groups to the school, or of changing a building or school’s name, or relationships with the surrounding community during periods of high student activism or other social stress. If your school has special collections, even more interesting activities may be available – my class got to explore primary source items in a special collection donated by returned Peace Corps volunteers from the 1950s and 60s.

Getting to handle real archival materials – complete with gloves in some cases, and strict instructions on handling the objects and documents – was a highlight of the qualitative methods section for many of the students. Primary sources became real, and they got practical experience in using them for research. One of the objects, for example, was a diary, and the object guide the librarian had prepared asked the students to read between the lines of what was written.

Special Collections & Archives doesn’t have to be relegated only to the research methods course, either. Depending on the resources available at your school, they may be able to customize an activity for substantive classes on civil rights, higher education politics, or any of a host of other topics. I encourage you to talk with your librarians about what their resources are and what you and they might be able to put together. Working with newspaper articles drawn from microfilm to gather data about local unrest during the civil rights era, for example, could be useful even for an introduction to American Politics class. What kinds of unrest were observed? Who was involved? What side were the protestors or demonstrators on? A US Foreign Policy class might look at the relationship between local deaths in Vietnam and the tone of news coverage.

More broadly, this activity helped build bridges between my part of the university and a previously under-utilized part of the library, Special Collections. Prior to my class’s visit, only history classes came up there – and even they visited irregularly. No methods class from my department had ever been to Special Collections for a session; now they visit regularly. It’s increased the value to the university of having a special collections unit and shown students the value of archival materials. They get to DO qualitative research with primary sources rather than simply read about it, and that’s always a win in my book.