From Julie Grob, Digital Projects and Instruction Librarian, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.

Like most instruction librarians, I typically teach one-shot classes at faculty request, although my classes focus on the rare books that are held in Special Collections. In the fall of 2006, faculty member Dr. David Mazella, an eighteenth century scholar in the English Department, contacted me with a different kind of instruction request. He was interested in doing more to enhance undergraduate research skills, mirroring the goals of a new Quality Enhancement Plan for the campus called “Discovery-Based Learning: Transforming the Undergraduate Experience through Research.” Dr. Mazella was designing a pilot course that would coalesce around the ideas of inquiry-based learning, undergraduate research, primary source materials, and information literacy. The course would parallel research he was doing for a book project called 1771: A Geography of Feeling. Students would read books from the year 1771 that were related to four key cities – London, Edinburgh, Philadelphia, and Kingston, Jamaica – and then do independent research using rare books and journals to develop their own lines of inquiry related to those texts. Dr. Mazella believed that such a course would require the ongoing contributions of a librarian.

I was eager to take on the challenge of working with Dr. Mazella on the 1771 course, which he would be teaching for the first time in Spring 2008. What was particularly exciting was that I was not being asked just to suggest places where library instruction sessions might be slotted into an existing course, but to help build the information literacy component of the course from the ground up. We decided to schedule four visits to the library during the semester, one in which students would learn database searching skills and three in which they would work on assignments utilizing eighteenth century materials in Special Collections. During the planning period, I combed our existing collection to find relevant materials, and applied to my library for a Micro-Grant that allowed us to purchase $2000.00 worth of rare books and journals geared specifically to the course. I also worked with Dr. Mazella on developing Special Collections assignments, in some cases proposing the actual construction of the assignment. One suggestion I made was that we should create worksheets with questions to be answered that forced students to immediately become involved with the materials, thus reducing their anxiety over handling old and rare items.

Once the course got rolling, the advantages of the faculty/librarian semester-long collaboration model became apparent. For one thing, it offered me the opportunity to do assessment after the first Special Collections instruction session. I posted a link to a SurveyMonkey questionnaire on the courseblog, and received valuable input that I used in planning the next Special Collections visit. Dr. Mazella and I were also able to build on earlier library instruction sessions and plan a more complex assignment for the final visit. Previous Special Collections assignments had required that students examine one item in depth, and conduct research on that item using databases such as MLA, JSTOR, and Project Muse as their homework. But during the final visit, we asked students to identify a keyword in the rare book they were perusing that they could use as a stepping off point for their database searching. One student who was examining the slave autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, chose the keyword “agriculture” from the text, which led her to an exploration of how Jamaican slaves worked with sugar crops and livestock. By selecting keywords directly from eighteenth century texts, students were able to draw a direct connection between primary source materials, database research, and the development of new lines of inquiry. Both Dr. Mazella and I were pleased with the outcomes of the course, and “1771” will be offered again next spring.