No Experience Required

Students researching in the SCPA Reading RoomStudents come to DePaul to learn.  Faculty don’t expect students to know the content and processes that will be assessed in finals week when students walk into their classrooms on the first day of the term; that first class session starts a journey and a progression.

The same process of discovery and growth applies to individual research in Special Collections and Archives.  Students aren’t expected to know how to find, request, and handle rare and valuable primary source documents and books before they come into the Special Collections Reading Room. Our role as educators in the library is to help students develop the skills and confidence to use archival materials, specialized books, maps, and artifacts.  Sometimes these objectives are best met in an instruction session designed for a particular course, but other times an individual student may have an interest that intersects with our collections.  Please feel free to send that student to Special Collections and Archives, no experience or prior instruction required.

Special Collections and Archives recently partnered with the Library’s EDGE team to learn how novice, first-year undergraduate students feel about visiting our Reading Room. Without identifying themselves as part of the EDGE team – just as DePaul students – they came into the Reading Room to request two items.  As new researchers without a registration form on file, each student was given standard paperwork and had the procedures and policies explained to them.  The students had a few tasks to complete, some that modeled research behavior and others that asked them to review and reflect on our policies and processes, and their experiences.

The results of this exercise suggested that students perceive only minimal barriers (psychological or procedural) to using our materials, and noted just a few things that were initially confusing, including the required bag check, the length of the registration paperwork (1 page), the absence of a self-service scanner, and the detailed policies surrounding reproductions.  However, students noted that while the policies and procedures were distinctive (“weird,” according to one student) they also acknowledged that these rules served a purpose after they used the materials in the reading room. Student comments included:

“…made perfect sense.”

“…any initial confusion made sense when I saw how delicate the materials were.”

“I was not expecting to have my coat and bag checked, though in retrospect I should have since this area of the library is about caring for old books.”

We also learned that students preferred to have instructions explained in person, rather than following the written documentation themselves.  While many staff knew this intuitively or anecdotally, having direct feedback from students has reinforced supportive staff behavior during the registration process, encouraging us to more consistently offer to go over the form verbally.

While Special Collections and Archives has established relationships with History and English (50% of all instruction sessions last year were with these two departments), the EDGE team is more varied, with only one History student.  The other EDGE students hail from the College of Computing and Digital Media, Psychology, Public Policy, and Biology.  Their disciplinary diversity did not hinder them in navigating the reading room.

Special Collections and Archives is happy to work with you, your class, or individual students, regardless of discipline.  Our preliminary collaboration with the EDGE students has shown that while our policies are different – and more restrictive and prescriptive than the general library – students are quickly able to understand, adapt, gain confidence, and engage with our amazing materials.

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