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Library Assignments in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Are your students cursing you behind your back? Want to know why? That library assignment, the one meant to inspire the next generation of academic prodigies has, instead, produced frustration and despair. Students often encounter problems when assignments are designed without due consideration of the terminology, technology and collections found in 21st century libraries. Effective library assignments enable students to develop analytical skills, contextualize their research and engage meaningfully with the scholarship in their discipline. This pathfinder will offer some suggestions for creative library assignments. The examples are only meant as a jumping off point, they would have to be tailored to your course and expanded with proper instructions. The assignments listed below are meant to help your students:

In addition to these suggested assignments, you may want to consider bringing your class in for a library workshop. Here's how to arrange for an assignment-based library workshop and/or course specific instruction please. Alternatively, if you want some quick feedback on a library assignment you've designed, please contact the subject librarian in your area.

Exploring the Research Process

Content isn't all that counts - students also need to familiarize themselves with the process of doing research. In fact, learning how a particular discipline organizes itself, what the major themes are and who the main players are, is a critical academic lesson. Reflecting on how best to find information for a particular need, or on a particular topic, is skill that will be useful for a lifetime. The following assignments should help your students to appreciate the intuitive, evaluative and time-consuming (!) aspects of conducting research. Examples are listed from easier assignments to more advanced.

    • Browse the shelves at call number range X and pick out 3 books that catch your eye. Summarize the main themes of the titles and come up with a thesis statement for further inquiry into this area of interest.
    • Create a birthday card for a family member or friend using a mix of headlines in newspapers and magazines from the day you were born (to teach searching for primary source material).
    • Choose four journals from a particular field. Analyze the format, editorial policy, content, audience and style of the different periodicals.
      Choose a topic and evaluate 6 websites which cover that topic. At least one personal, one government, one non-profit and one commercial site must be included.
    • Evaluate based on accuracy, comprehensiveness, currency, authority, style, bias and comment on the different kind of sites.
    • Select a topic and compare how that topic is treated in two to five different sources (e.g.. an encyclopedia, a book, an article, a website, a bibliography etc.)
      Compile a pathfinder or research guide that outlines the major resources (e.g.. encyclopedia's, keywords to use, periodical indexes) for finding material on a particular topic.

Sharpening Critical Thinking

Critical thinking these days is....well critical. Libraries go beyond their four walls and are truly gateways to the whole universe of information. Students need to be able to make sound judgments about the content and value, as well as the biases, inherent in the information sources they choose to use. The assignments below should help your students to sharpen those analytical skills! Once again, the examples are ordered from easier to more difficult.Choose a topic and find three articles from scholarly journals and three from popular magazines and/or newspapers. Compare the differences in style, format, content and bias.

  • Compile a bibliography of 10-12 sources. Choose 5-6 sources and write an evaluative annotation that explains why you think this would be a key source to use.
  • Pick a topic and research it with a resulting bibliography of 8-12 sources. Given the reading you have done write three exam questions that you think would test a person's knowledge of this topic.
  • Read an editorial from a newspaper on a topic of interest to you. Find facts to either support and/or refute statements which are made in the editorial. Alternatively, find 3 political cartoons and do the same.
  • Create a Course description for a topic of your choice. Compile a course kit of 8-10 readings which you think would help students taking your course. Write an introduction to the subject being covered in the course kit.
  • Pick a topic and research it in the literature of the 1960's and 70's, for the same topic look at the literature in the 1980's and 1990's. Summarize the findings and comment on the changes in perspective that have occurred over time.

Progressive Skills Building

    There has been a lively discussion lately about the pros and cons of using the research essay as an assignment. Surely say its defenders such an essay is a rite of passage and the mark of a true academic. The nay sayers point out that the average 1st and 2nd year student doesn't have the skills to properly handle such an assignment, leading to poor outcomes and frustration all round. As a way to mediate between these two extremes consider breaking the research essay into a number of different steps, with time built in for feedback along the way.
    Step One : Choose a topic and compile an annotated bibliography of relevant material.
    Step Two : Compose a thesis statement and write an outline of your essay.
    Step Three : Write a draft of your essay.Step Four : Edit and write final version of the essay.