Learning the Library, Teaching the Library

by Stephen Lehmann

The library teaches itself--or not? At least until recently, students and faculty understood the library to be a fundamentally transparent system that stored and made available a self-contained body of texts. Occasionally faculty or librarians would see a need to teach the library, but more often than not they assumed that students would learn to do research by doing it, just as their teachers and their teachers' teachers had done.

Of course The Library as one physical space has long been a fiction: The crumbling of the library's famous walls began at the latest with the advent of union catalogs and efficient interlibrary loan operations in the late 1930s, and "serious" researchers have long understood the local system to be a gateway to a worldwide network of libraries. But if the model used to be incomplete, by now it has a status roughly equivalent to that of long-playing records, slide rules, and dial phones. For this there are many reasons, the most obvious being a technological transformation of information storage and retrieval that requires an infinitely more complex and sophisticated mediation on the part of students and faculty. And though today's students come to the University with native fluency in their use of technology--most of them having learned to wield a mouse and manipulate digitized icons long before they could give shape to letters, or read them--this technical ease and comfort does not, on its own, get them very far with structures of complex information systems. So, too, the dissolution of the canon in the humanities, the growing importance of images and film, the ongoing proliferation of publications in every conceivable format, and the softening of once-firm disciplinary boundaries have blown apart core collections and with them the student's ability to rely on a finite and relatively contained body of texts in any area of study.

What is a student to do?

Though the library offers tours, one-on-one consultations, and sessions on specific resources or topics, we know from experience that students learn most when specific class assignments drive instruction in library resources, when the library piece is more clearly a means than an end. Only then does it become a purposeful activity with a meaningful goal, rather than an ultimately self-referential exercise in ingenuity. A famous exception is Haverford College's Seminar on Historical Evidence, in which every Haverford junior spends a semester working closely with a single, previously unstudied document from the Library's own Special Collections Department and identifying an unknown object (examples: cornhusker, tourist art from an African airport, elephant bell) using the widest possible array of texts and research tools. (The document portion of the course is described in an article by Margaret Schaus and her colleagues in AHA Perspectives, v. 29, no. 5, pp. 16-18, May-June 1991; the entire course in C&RL News, v. 51, no. 9, pp. 825-831, October 1990).

Increasingly, Penn faculty--themselves not always able to keep up with the rapidly changing nature of information provision--are working with librarians to integrate instruction in the finding and evaluating of information into their courses and developing assignments one of whose heuristic benefits is the ability to navigate a complex system of resources efficiently and critically. Some examples:

  • A history class used a wide array of the library's primary sources to assemble a collection of Civil War soldiers' letters that would be better than the ones currently available.
  • In an undergraduate Urban Studies class, students, with the help of their professor and a librarian, used microhistory sources--such as Sanborn fire insurance maps and other real property atlases, decennial census printed reports and manuscript population censuses, and countless city directories available in print, microform and electronic formats--to track a single Philadelphia site over three different time periods from the nineteenth century to the present.
  • Honors history students are exploring electronic library research tools in a hands-on session in the library, followed up by continuing library support--in the form of a course-specific library web page and one-on-one consultations with the librarians--as these students write their senior theses.
  • Students in a Wharton undergraduate class, Multinational Management, create and solve their own "minicases" by using Lippincott's large collection of full-text electronic sources. A case concerning trade practices, for example, might have a student pick a topic such as maritime piracy, and conjecture how it might apply to a hypothetical or even a real company.
  • In a class on community nursing, students were required to compile neighborhood community assessments, drawing in part on demographic and socioeconomic statistics, counts of business establishments and other institutions, and descriptions of health conditions and access to public transportation. Van Pelt reference librarians wrote a Penn Library web page linking and describing individual web sites with factual information useful for the profiles. The web page was demonstrated in class not by Penn librarians, but by Nursing School technicians.
  • Now being planned is a graduate course on fakes and forgeries that will draw on the rare printed and manuscript resources of Van Pelt's Special Collections Department.

Three years ago Penn history professor Drew Gilpin Faust gave a talk that was subsequently published in this space. Entitled We Are All Teachers; We Are All Learners, it eloquently makes the case for an institution that "fully dedicate[s] itself to the ideal of integrated and interdependent teaching and learning." As an extension of the classroom, the library has a critical role to play in realizing this ideal.

This is the fifth essay in the 1998-99 Talk About Teaching series, a joint project of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

Mr. Lehmann is Coordinating Bibliographer of Humanities at Van Pelt Library.

For information on library instructional support, contact Patricia Renfro, Director, Public Services, at 898-7091 or

Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 25, March 23, 1999