Jun 15, 2007

"Taking it Where They're At": The Origins of an “Anatomy of a Call Number”

A real challenge at our small seminary college library is getting students from their rooms (and their computers) to the stacks. I don't think this is just a 21st century problem. I think this is a problem that has plagued libraries for a long time. Students avoid the library. This was true in the days of paper as well as in the days of 0's and 1's.

Maybe the particular challenge for libraries today is that often, students feel that the library is obsolete (as well as the print materials it holds) and would rather do all the research from the comfort of their dormitory room: where one can access the library catalog, review online databases, or more generally, scan the web for trenchant articles on a particular topic. While it is more than possible to find resources that one needs without ever stepping foot in a library, what is missing in this “grab and bag” approach to research is the skill to effectively find what you are looking for; most students think they know how to find the most accurate and authoritative source for their research without understanding the fundamental of library research. Because as librarians we know that the current trend tends to keep students from interaction with librarians and the library, I felt the need to take an approach of “where they’re at” to give students the skills to become better researchers.
When a student does come into the library with a call number in hand, especially new college students, usually what get is the “deer in headlights” look. At the reference desk at our small seminary college library, looking for that book that they desperately need for the next day’s assignment, they are lost in the stacks. Or, on a tangential note, when the power goes out, and all we have is “paper,” the students have no idea how to browse Dewey to find what they want. It is a joyful day when our director gets to take out her trusty Sears List of Subject headings to instruct a student “how to find a book”.

Students do not know how to use the Sears book of Subject headings because do not have the information literacy to navigate the Web (studies have shown that students do not know how to use online databases, or even worse, they do not know what they are). And there is not a librarian at their computer desk to show them, even if they can instant message a librarian or send an e-mail. Because of this physical absence from the library, and also absence from guided research, and the delusion students have of their own research acumen, I have noticed, working as a library assistant, that students do not understand basic principles of how a library is organized. Or, if they do, the librarian language to describe how the library operates differs from the students’ own understanding of how a library operates. Phrases like “Dewey Decimal System” and “library catalog” are sometimes lost on them. A student would look at me, and ask, “I just want to know where the philosophy books are”. Can you get me this article?

And, even professors, do not always know how to use the library’s resources to supplement their own courses. I attribute this to what I call, the “Barnes and Noble” mentality. It is a product of the erroneous mentality that the library patron is a customer and the library is supposed to fill instantly the customer's needs.
There is a resistance, oftentimes, in gaining lifelong learning and information literacy skills. So, thinking about this problem, I brainstormed ideas to use where they’re at (at their computer consoles) to reach students as a guide to get what they need but at the same time introduce students to tools to enable them to become better, life-long, researchers. One way to do this was to use a schema I devised, “the Anatomy of a Call Number” and to duplicate it and propagate as many ways as I could for student use: as a photocopied handout, on the web, on iTunes, on Facebook, and even as a quicktime movie.

Because I noticed students were lost to the geography of a call number, I came up with a graphic to introduce students to how to read a call number and understand it. This is not a novel idea. Many libraries have on their websites Call Number tutorials that guide a user on the basics of library organization. And the notion, “an anatomy of a call number,” is not novel to our specific library. But, I noticed, many of the tutorials I found on the web were not designed for college students nor where they clean and easy to follow. I needed a “one page” graphic that I could then break down into subsequent parts.

I was first inspired by Aristotle. In his book the Categories, he lays down principles of organizing knowledge into hierarchical degrees. From general to specific. And also specific to general. Aristotle thought that you could organize all knowledge from the most general to the most specific, deductive reasoning, or by specific to general, inductive reasoning. By using the rudiments of deductive logic, Aristotle, claimed, for example, one could go from the most general categories, like “living things” down to animals, then to mammals, then to whales, then to, giraffes, to dogs, and cats, and humans. One could also inductively surmise that knowledge about Faith and Reason is also related to the broader picture of Theology and by extension belief. This system proved to be a highly successful manner in the West to organize knowledge, even to the present system of organizing animals into Phyla and Species. In a similar manner, a library organizes itself based upon this Aristotelian means of nomenclature and organization.

Because our program is geared to philosophy and to the humanities, I thought using a philosopher that students had already studied in their curricula to illustrate how the library organizes itself was a useful way to not only reach where they are at, but also to show how the library acts as an interdisciplinary mediator between academic disciplines. Once, the students could grasp that what they are learning in their philosophy courses was related to the way in which the library organized its knowledge, I figured this would increase their interest in the library and also teach them how to apply the theoretical concepts that they have learned in the class room.
Because, we use the Dewey Decimal System at our small college library, I came up with a one sheet handout that I called “Anatomy of a Call Number”. It shows how the alpha-numeric “call number” is not merely an arbitrary placeholder. It represents the books placement within an hierarchy of knowledge. To show this, I broke down one call number,
(The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck) to show how the call number reflects The Grapes of Wrath not only as a novel shelved next to the other Steinbeck novels, but how it is placed within Contemporary fiction (813.54), which is placed within 813 (American Fiction), which is placed with 810 (American Literature) which is placed within 800 (Literature). Placing these handouts at the reference desk, and taping them to the stacks, the idea was that it would aid students in teaching them basic library literacy at the point-of-contact-level. While helping students “find a book” we could use the handout to illustrate how the call number in the catalog corresponds, hopefully, to the placement of the book on the shelf. And, most importantly, we could relate the act of locating the book on the shelf, to the philosophical quest for knowledge, something they were already learning in their coursework.
While the handout worked, to some extent, the library staff looked for more ways to introduce library literacy skills to students, “where they’re at”. Like I said, in the beginning, students are in their dormitory rooms, using their computers. Or they are using the library computers. Because we have an online OPAC, students usually look up the books they would like to use for their research, then they come to the library, to get their material, and then they leave. Realizing this, we decided to use the Internet and the local school intranet as a way to stream library resources directly to their rooms.
Obviously, the library web page seems to be an advantageous place to post information literacy resources, like our “Anatomy of a Call Number”. But, we thought, the students do not check the library’s web page like they check their MySpace or Facebook profiles or listen to iTunes. So, we started to stream the library to those online locations and applications on the Internet and on our local intranet.
We first set up an iTunes application in the library that was connected to the school intranet. iTunes has a feature called “Sharing” where a user can rip music and audio files onto his or her computer, download them into their iTunes file organizer and set up a sharing folder that other users, who are also using the same Internet access point (in our case, our seminary college campus) can also listen to and use without actually possessing the actual files on their computers.
iTunes makes its fairly easy to not only store pdfs, files, and audio files, but also to stream these electronic resources right into students rooms. Through a very easy interface and set-up, we started a Rouquette Library streaming share that anyone on the local intranet, using iTunes, would see on their own screens, and could access. This includes audio books that students in our curriculum would use, as well, as library resources, including the original “Anatomy of a Call Number”. We are even in the process of making the original analog document into a quicktime movie that breaks down the call number into its anatomical parts.
We also realized that we could stream library resources through other internet hotspots that students frequent, like Facebook. By setting up an account on Facebook, the library has been able to stream library resources to students, where they are.
So, the handout I had created, “An Anatomy of a Call Number” has gone through various permutations from a one page handout, to a mutimedia presentation to a quick time movie, as you can see in our Poster Session.

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