Introducing library resources in the art history classroom

Image source

Image source

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.

2 responses to “Introducing library resources in the art history classroom”

  1. Dana Howard says:

    I love the clarity with which you lay out the role of the librarian and library in the art history research project. One thing I would like to add is the use of the images as a research tool.

    If students first check Artstor for images of what they are beginning to study, they will often find that they will understand the sources they will later encounter in the research process more fully. By first looking closely at specific images related to their topic, students can better hone their research questions. In addition, looking at Artstor gives students reliable metadata to help them find the institution that houses the work of art (so that they might visit their website, as you suggest), the proper and alternate spellings of the artist’s name, according to the Getty Vocabularies. Artstor often provides crucial context for a work, like images of the artist at work in the studio or QTVR panoramas of the architecture a student might be studying. In addition, Artstor can provide the image and close-up views of the work for the written paper as well as the information for correct citation.

    Full disclosure: after years of teaching with it, I now work for Artstor.

  2. First of all, love the image used for this post! It reminds me of Luis Camnitzer’s 2001/2011 “Window.”

    I do computer/research labs in conjunction with VoiceThread class projects–and ALWAYS make sure to invite an Art Reference Librarian to join us. Some teachers are wary of using class time for this sort of activity, but the questions that come up, and the teaching and learning that takes place during these labs very often turns out to be the most valuable of the entire semester. I respond to research problems in one way, librarians respond in other ways: we work as a team. Having access to a Librarian WHILE they are working on their projects is inviting, it very often turns out to be productive, and students are more likely to work with librarians on future research projects.

    Also, students are not the only ones who benefit! I learned about Zotero from the librarians that I brought into computer labs in order to work with students. Now, I’m turning that around and teaching Zotero to students as a part of my class–with the assistance of my friends in the library, of course.

    Thanks, Amy, for your wonderful post.

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