The “Hidden” Incentives of Teaching with Special Collections

By Michael Taylor

Photograph of Michael Taylor.
Michael Taylor. Photograph courtesy of Michael Taylor.

Several years ago, I began educating myself about stocks and investing. The guidebooks advised me to consider not only a stock’s valuation, but also its record of paying a strong dividend—money that shareholders get simply for owning a stock, even during economic downturns. Dividends accrue and, in time, make up a significant portion of overall returns. Remembering to take them into account is crucial to evaluating one’s success as an investor.

Library work, it later occurred to me, has some parallels. Though harder to measure than quantifiable stock dividends, our work brings bonuses that may seem small in themselves but, as a group, merit attention. In a recent article for RBM, I explored this idea in the context of special collections exhibitions, posing the question, “If you curated a major library exhibition and no one came to see it, would you have wasted your time?” The purpose of the question was to shift focus from visitor attendance, commonly seen as the main indicator of success, to the many ways that exhibitions benefit library staff, library collections, and library operations. Collectively, these hidden incentives add to the appeal of exhibition development and help justify the resources that go into it.

The scenario is easily adaptable to teaching with special collections. Picture this: A course instructor has contacted you and arranged for you to speak to her students about a topic that is well represented in your library’s collections. You spend a whole week writing up a stellar lesson plan. Hours go into selecting materials, doing background reading, and corresponding with the instructor. The students arrive—and, for whatever reason, things just don’t “click” that day. As the class is leaving, you wonder whether everything you shared with them simply went in one ear and out the other. It’s frustrating but happens sooner or later to teachers of all levels of experience. In situations like this, I try to remember a basic rule of investing: don’t overreact. Identify what went wrong and do what you can to prevent it from happening again, but also take a holistic view and think creatively about why the class might still have been worth the time and effort that went into it, despite not being perfect. For me, that involves recognizing that although student learning is naturally the most important outcome, it is not the only way a class can be successful, in much the same way that a stock can remain flat in price and yet still turn a profit because of dividends. Even when a class goes well, as the vast majority do, this is a good reflective practice to follow.

For me, that involves recognizing that although student learning is naturally the most important outcome, it is not the only way a class can be successful, in much the same way that a stock can remain flat in price and yet still turn a profit because of dividends.

Start by asking whether you or other library staff got something out of the experience that can be applied to future class visits. What did you learn about the course topic? Did you familiarize yourself with resources you did not know the library had? How did the knowledge and perspectives of the course instructor and students add to your own understanding? Also consider what general skills staff developed by participating in the class, such as confidence in public speaking, the ability to lead dialogues around sensitive topics, and flexibility in teaching people with different levels of knowledge or groups of different sizes.

In preparing for class sessions, library staff often gain insight into aspects of librarianship other than teaching. For example, identifying materials for a class presentation or activity might cast light on logical areas for collection development. Frequent usage of materials by students, moreover, can help make a case for acquisitions funding, thereby supporting research. Ideas for exhibitions sometimes grow out of class visits. So, too, does the ability to tell a good story, an essential skill with implications for everything from working with donors and advocating for resources to writing grant proposals, blog posts, and press releases.

From the perspective of reference services, teaching with special collections pays dividends in that it requires staff to be adept at answering questions about local holdings. An attractive bonus of co-teaching is that it doubles as a form of reference training whereby senior staff, or those with specific subject expertise, share knowledge with colleagues. Converting class notes or checklists into reference guides for use in the reading room is a further example of how to get extra mileage out of one’s work in the classroom.

The seldom-seen benefits of teaching with primary sources extend to technical services, too. In my own experience, the process of locating materials that pertain to a course topic, coming up with things to say about them, and/or developing an accompanying activity has sometimes shed light on ways to improve catalog records and finding aids. Likewise, browsing for items to show has guided me toward misshelved books, folders out of order, and materials needing conservation. For digital services, promoting and drawing attention to resources your institution has digitized can be counted among the payoffs of bibliographic instruction. Regular usage of a collection might also give ideas for materials to consider digitizing and provide data to support it.

Photograph of Michael Taylor with a group of students.
Michael Taylor with a group of students. Photograph courtesy of Michael Taylor.

Library classrooms are a site where learning occurs on more than one level. Yes, students learn about course content. But at the same time, faculty, administrators, donors, and community members learn about the library’s larger role. How do collections contribute to teaching? How does the library advance big-picture objectives like attracting and retaining great faculty and students, supporting extended education, and demonstrating a commitment to diversity? Has the library’s narrative about the value of its collections and services changed significantly in recent years? Questions like these are answered, in part, through the act of teaching.

Another key way that teaching helps library staff accomplish multiple things at one time is by fostering relationships. Even a single class visit can open the door to faculty being involved in collection development, fundraising, outreach, public programming, and more. Students who visit the library as part of a class may later seek out jobs and internships working with the collection or become ambassadors for the library in some regard. As for donors and community groups, teaching with collections is one way for a library to show that it is excited about the things they collect or the causes they care about. It is also a chance for special collections staff to build relationships with colleagues elsewhere in the library.

As a strategy for helping library staff grow as professionals, there are clear benefits to teaching with collections. Leadership qualities that it develops include the ability to establish objectives, explain the importance of library resources, rely on others’ expertise, solicit different opinions, and implement aspects of a strategic plan. Additionally, engaging with collections in the classroom provides material for professional presentations, articles, and other achievements that might help someone earn tenure or move into a higher position. Even if that is not a requirement or concern, standing in front of a class and simply sharing one’s passion for a subject sustains the feeling of excitement and enthusiasm for historical documents, a feeling that can be crowded out by the more mundane aspects of library work.

These and other incentives to collections-based teaching, while not hard to see, are easy to overlook. Reflecting on how they contribute to overall “earnings” helps articulate the value of library instruction. If nothing else, it raises awareness of the far-reaching impact of the work we do—and of the wealth of knowledge we stand to build with every class we teach.


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Michael Taylor is Special Collections Librarian at Western Washington University, where he coordinates and promotes the use of primary sources in campus curricula and offers classes based on collections.

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