February 25, 2011
By Jeff Young
What if a reference librarian was assigned to a college course, to be on hand to suggest books, online links, or other resources based on class discussion? A media-studies course at Baylor University tried the idea last semester, with an “embedded librarian” following the class discussion via Twitter.
At the start of each class session, the professor, Gardner Campbell, asked the 11 students to open their laptops, fire up Twitter, and say hello to their librarian, who was following the discussion from her office. During the hourlong class, the librarian, Ellen Hampton Filgo, would do what she refers to as “library jazz,” looking at the questions and comments posed by students, responding with suggestions of links or books, and anticipating what else might be helpful that students might not have known to ask.
“I could see the sort of germination of an idea, and what they wanted to talk about,” she said, noting that it let her in on the process of students’ research far sooner than usual. “That was cool for me,” she added. “When I work with students at the reference desk, usually they’re already at a certain midpoint of their research.”
When the class was discussing the work of the science-fiction author Clifford D. Simak, for instance, she tweeted a link to his archives at the University of Minnesota.
“One of the students said, ‘Hey, is there anything like that for Rilke?’,” Ms. Filgo said. “He was all excited. I don’t even think he knew of the idea that a library might collect an author’s papers.”
Mr. Campbell, who just left Baylor to take a job as a professor and e-learning administrator at Virginia Tech, said one moment, in particular, made the experiment worthwhile. The students were discussing a rare book by Theodor Holm Nelson, a sociologist who coined the term “hypertext.” The book, Computer Lib, is really two books in one, with an unconventional layout that tries to simulate linking among segments and marginal comments that Mr. Nelson said would come as text was increasingly stored on computers.
Ms. Filgo tweeted that she had something for the class. Then she grabbed a copy of Computer Lib from the library’s shelves and walked over to the classroom. She had never actually met the students in person, so they were surprised when she appeared with a copy of the book to pass around, as they were still discussing it.
“There was apparent magic to it,” Mr. Campbell said. “It made that class unforgettable.”
Ms. Filgo said she would try it again, but she worries that it would be difficult to expand the effort to a wider number of classes. “It took out three hours of my workweek,” she says. “The question is how can you scale this up?”