November 16, 2017

The Amazing Library Titles Race | Programs That Pop

Felicia Smith“The Ass Is Dead! LONG LIVE the Ass!” Do I have your attention?

Good. That is the point of a library instruction workshop game that requires students to unscramble a book title, then search the catalog to find the item’s location and retrieve it from the shelves.

Stanford University Libraries (SUL) supports the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) by offering introductory, one-shot classes. During the first hour, librarians lecture and demonstrate search techniques and then allow hands-on practice for the last 50 minutes of the ­session.

Kathleen Tarr, a PWR instructor, and Felicia Smith, her class librarian, chose to create an Active Learning exercise similar to the Amazing Race reality show. The aim is to make the library experience engaging, fun, and memorable. Smith compiled a list of weird book titles that students are amazed to find in the SUL collection. The women then created an Amazing Library Titles Race, adding an interactive component to the lecture-only portion.

The starting gate

  1. Teams of two or three students are given individual race sheets, color-coded to ensure that at least one title is located in the East Wing and one in the West Wing. We pair students so they can help each other navigate the building layout, a source of confusion and frustration for newcomers.
  2. All teams have to record the same start time, using their official SUL pen. Each racer is given a customized pen to ensure that every participant receives a prize—and because a lot of students do not carry pens.
  3. Book titles are scrambled on the race sheet. This is for fun but also because patrons don’t always have an exact title but rather a general idea of what they want. No more than three words are scrambled because the purpose of scrambling is to challenge students, not spend a lot of time on this part of the activity. They have to unscramble their titles, then search the catalog (preferably on their mobile device), retrieve the books, return to the classroom, and record their finish time. The fastest team wins an SUL temporary tattoo.
  4. If the catalog shows a green check mark in the record, indicating that it is available, but the item is not on the shelf, students are instructed to take a photo of the shelf where the book should have been.
  5. Once they return to the classroom, students conduct a show-and-tell of their titles and vote on the most amazing book. Since this class teaches rhetorical skills, the exercise allows them to make convincing arguments. The team with the most amazing cover wins a prize.

First place results

The timed nature of the race makes it feel like a game and feeds their competitive spirits but, most important, keeps the class on schedule. Students need reminders not to run in the library, a lot still “walk really quickly.” All teams are generally back before the 15-minute time limit; most within ten minutes.

On one occasion, one team returned at the time limit without their book to avoid disqualification. As instructed, they took a photo of the shelf where they believed their book should have been. After the lecture portion of class, during their hands-on practice time, Smith took this unsuccessful team to the correct section. “Oh, we were in PN 500s, not PN 50. We learned the hard way so this will stick!” they said. That “aha moment” was the entire point of the activity.

Expanding upward

The first race took place in October 2014, for first-year students in PWR. Since that time, upper-level PWR instructors have incorporated the race for sophomores. Librarians visit the classrooms for PWR refresher workshops, so the PWR race was shortened, because the students are not going to retrieve their books. This allows for the addition of titles located in the branch libraries, for example a book titled, “The Law Is A Ass” (pictured).

In April, Smith experimented with her sophomore PWR class by starting the race outside of Green Library near a fountain. This allowed students to enjoy the weather and scenery while they used their mobile devices to conduct the searches and follow along during the lecture portion. Then the students entered the building to race.

The overall goal is to get students engaged in the library workshop and to reduce their expressed anxiety about retrieving material from the stacks. One instructor collected her students’ impression of tracking down books before their workshop. The most typical answer was “scary.” In contrast, their very vocal impressions after the race were almost unanimous: “fun” or “definitely not scary anymore.” One student said the West Stacks are “weird,” and the teacher replied, “Weird is better than scary.” ­Exactly.

Felicia A. Smith is the Head of Learning & Outreach Services at Stanford University Libraries, Palo Alto, CA

This article was published in Library Journal's September 15, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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