Introducing library resources in the art history classroom
Guest author: Amy Ballmer
Students can feel unmoored and overwhelmed when given a research assignment. How can you help students become confident researchers and critical thinkers about information? Clarity of the assignment and available support are key to student success in most realms, and research is no exception. Luckily you don’t have to teach research skills on your own – librarians at your college are available to come into the class (or have your class go into the library) to teach students how to find the information that they need. Seriously – a librarian will do this for you, all you have to do is ask. There is likely a librarian assigned to the art history department which means they are familiar with the subject matter and the relevant resources. What follow are a few additional tips for introducing library resources in the art history classroom.
– Find out who your art librarian is. Include her contact information on your class syllabus and research assignment. Include a link to the library’s art history subject guide in your online course environment.
– Show students five or fewer resources to use to find information. They can get overwhelmed by all of the options available to them through the library and the open web and will also benefit from a demo of how the site or database works and is best searched. Useful resources include:
- Museum websites. Frequently museum web sites include detailed information about objects including owner, exhibition, and publication history. They may include bibliographies for additional information as well.
- Library catalog. Library catalogs are not easy to search, especially for students who grew up using the easy search mechanism of Google. Students are also more reluctant to utilize resources that require them to go somewhere (like the library) to fetch the info. Who can blame them – instant access to information is great! However, it is important for them to be reminded how many art history books and exhibition catalogues are available offline only. This is also an opportunity to introduce them to works of collected essays, exhibition catalogs, and artist files.
- Library databases. Access to article databases will vary from library to library, but a few top notch art focused databases are Art Full Text, Art Bibliographies Modern, Bibliography of the History of Art, and Oxford Art Online which is the online version of the Grove Dictionary of Art. Showing students how to search these sites – and what to do if they only have access to a citation, not the full text of an article, is a useful exercise.
Other things worth keeping in mind:
– Give students class time to do research. This can include taking them to the library or bringing print materials into the classroom for them to use. Having them work on their research in your presence can help clear up any confusion they may have about the assignment and will give you an idea of their level of research expertise.
– Try out the assignment yourself. Does the library have the materials you are asking students to get? How “upper level” are the articles you are finding in the database you recommend to students (scholarly articles can often be too scholarly for a beginning student of art history)? Where did you stumble in your research for the assignment? How can you help students work through these barriers to information?
Research skills and information literacy are taught most effectively through modeling by experts (you) and supported practice. The more guidance students receive during the research process, whether from their professor or their librarian, the more confident they will feel while doing their research. The more confident they feel about their research abilities, the more selectively they will choose their sources and, one hopes, the more critically they will assess the information. Don’t let the learning begin and end with the art they are writing about!
Addendum: Here’s a basic AHTR template for a handout explaining research resources that you may have gone over in class/may use class time to explore.