Library Services, Summer 2016: Too Much to Know?

| October 3, 2016

A significant part of our work in library services involves helping users navigate the oceans of information they find themselves confronting in their academic lives.  Through in-person consultations, in-class instruction sessions, blog posts, and resource guides, our objective is to suggest ways that students can manage what is essentially the unmanageable proliferation of material potentially relevant to their research.  I suspect that many of our patrons find the plethora of resources and approaches so daunting that they reflexively turn to search engines like Google Scholar (actually an estimable discovery tool, despite its bad press among some instructors) rather than try to determine which subject-specific academic databases may be most germane to their research.

It’s a truism that the late twentieth century saw the dawning of the Information Explosion, but as AnnToo Much to Know M. Blair writes in her thought-provoking book Too Much to Know:  Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2010), “Early modernists, including myself, have argued that the Renaissance experienced information overload on a hitherto unprecedented scale, drawing a parallel with our experience today.”

Because I’ve been thinking about how the library’s Learning Theater can be employed to dramatize the research process in ways that will engage and immerse our audience, our users, in a dynamic and interactive virtual experience, I’ve been drawn to an obsolete use of the word “theatre,” as provided by the Oxford English Dictionary:  “A book giving a ‘view’ or ‘conspectus’ of some subject; a text-book, manual, treatise.”  That is (in my reading), an encyclopedia of sorts, a work designed to enable the retrieval of information on a subject by means of the structure of the work (in the case of the Learning Theater, the physical space) and the organization of what’s being presented (in the case of the LT, the text of the production, the play-script for instructional presentation).

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Fold-out engraving from Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale (Naples, 1599), the earliest illustration of a natural history cabinet.

I’ve also begun to think about the metaphor of the “cabinet of curiosities”; the Wikipedia entry states that “Cabinets of curiosities (also known as Kunstkabinett, Kunstkammer, Wunderkammer, Cabinets of Wonder, and wonder-rooms) were encyclopedic collections of objects whose categorical boundaries were, in Renaissance Europe, yet to be defined. Modern terminology would categorize the objects included as belonging to natural history (sometimes faked), geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art (including cabinet paintings), and antiquities.”  The Wikipedia article also quotes the scholar Francesca Fiorani who, in a review of The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine:  The Kunstkammer and the Evolution of Nature, Art and Technology, states:  “”The Kunstkammer was regarded as a microcosm or theater of the world, and a memory theater. The Kunstkammer conveyed symbolically the patron’s control of the world through its indoor, microscopic reproduction.”*

Frans_Francken_(II),_Kunst-_und_Raritätenkammer_(1636) (1)

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636.

It would be grandiose, and would otherwise misstate the case, to suggest that the Learning Theater will aspire (or should aspire) to be the means to mount or stage exhaustive, all-inclusive, encyclopedic representations of the universe of information–to suggest that that universe is controllable orin fact reproducible.  But I find it intriguing to speculate on the potential use of the space as a museum of sorts, where interesting and compelling artifacts of knowledge are exhibited, and unexpected and entertaining aspects of the research process are enacted, i.e., acted, ideally ultimately by all participants in the performance (in all senses) of the play (in all senses) of teaching and learning.

To return to the pre-Learning Theater library:  the research topics and fields of study on which we consulted with our patrons were as always illustrative of the diversity and complexity of work being done at the College.  These are some examples from Summer 2016:

  • Archival research via OCLC FirstSearch/WorldCat.
  • Humane education.
  • Workplace learning, specifically learning in private equity organizations; the role that informal learning places in the PE workplace; how the PE business model may foster or inhibit opportunities for learning.
  • How to create an institute:  program planning, training, and funding.
  • Ongoing research on spirituality and education in an adult learning context.
  • A general overview of research techniques and resources/databases available for study in applied linguistics.
  • Post traumatic stress disorder and adolescence.
  • Assistance for a student in the English INSTEP program preparing to do a literature review.
  • Assistance for a CU alumnus who had written a reflection on academic service-learning and was looking for a peer-reviewed business journal the focuses on education.
  • Seeking content in PocketKnowledge on Grace Dodge, the Kitchen Garden Association, and the Industrial Education Association.
  • Resources for reviewing the literature on novice superintendents.
  • Help with finding literature on how compliance officers (either titular or de facto) in higher education incorporate new guidelines and protocols while adapting to an increasing workload and keeping up with the complexity and multitude of regulations.
  • Assistance with a literature review on on the topic “learning analytics improve student self efficacy.”
  • Research on the question of why some teachers can adapt to technology and others not:
    technology innovation and success in secondary/high school classrooms.

Finally, the number of basic but crucial transactions of various kinds that took place in our existing physical and virtual spaces during Summer 2016 are as follows:

  • Senior Librarians and Services Associates answered 1,234 in-person and phone reference questions.
  • We responded to 473 queries submitted via the library’s email Support Request service.
  • We provided 17 research consultations with individuals or small groups during the Summer.
  • Librarians presented 5 course-specific library information sessions, either in library spaces or in the classroom, for a total of 63 attendees.

*Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 1 (Spring 1998), pp. 268-270.