March 18, 2018

Into the Stacks…And Back | Not Dead Yet

It’s that time of year again: school is starting in a few days. I’m booking orientations and classes for my areas of liaison (which include Freshman Seminars, the Center for Jewish Studies, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations), so I’m looking forward to meeting a whole lot of new, bright-eyed students and having the privilege of introducing them to the riches of our library system (which knock my socks off, as well as theirs).

I’ve tried many different methods for teaching library resources to students over three decades of library teaching, but there’s one method in particular that seems to evoke a strongly positive response from both the students and the faculty for whose course I’m teaching the library class. What is it? Getting them into the library stacks.

Yeah, I know—old school, old as the hills, and books? Huh? Not even ebooks? What am I, crazy?

Yep, crazy like a fox. Because the not-so-straightforward process of actually finding a book on the shelf is about as interactive and dynamic as a learning experience can get. Let me give you some background.

Admittedly, I’m teaching in Widener Library, which with its 4 million-plus items and its 50 miles of shelves is not your average library. Neither are the 10 levels of stacks, along with the three levels of stacks in Pusey Library, which you access via a tunnel (see what I mean by not-so-straightforward?). The fact that we have two classification systems, Library of Congress and the Old Widener system (since we pre-date the Library of Congress) is something that’s not unheard of—many libraries use both Dewey and LC—but it does add to the deciphering process for a student seeking a book. And matching a call number to a specific place on a library shelf can be an intimidating experience for a freshman, no matter what library they’re in. They usually have to go outside their comfort zone, in a place they may not understand very well, and using methods and spaces with which they’re not familiar.

Given that, I often introduce students in a Freshman Seminar library class to Widener with a quick tour, emphasizing the researcher’s route to getting an item on the shelf, and noting to them that there will be a test—of sorts—after we’re done. That note tends to make them perk up and listen.

After the tour I usually take them to a library classroom; show them our library catalog, HOLLIS; as well as an online library research guide to other resources; and then I hand out copies of HOLLIS records for books in the various areas covered in their course. This, of course, takes some legwork on my part: I have to locate books that are in the stacks and on the shelf before the library class and print out the HOLLIS records. It takes a bit of time, but is well worth it—as you’ll see.

With the book record print-outs I give them a copy of the Widener Call Number Locations Chart, quiz them just a bit to make sure they can decode it, and then send them into the stacks to bring back the book to the library classroom. This quickly becomes a competition among the students, of course, which raises the stakes for them, but it is also a potentially collaborative exercise, since many of the books are in the same areas and the students consult each other for tips on locating the call numbers.

So back they come to the library classroom, triumphant in their quest, some with descriptions of what took them longer than others (which helps to underscore ways to maneuver in the stacks), some with descriptions of how they found similar materials on the shelf and had to hunt hard for the exact call number they were seeking. And of course, this is a great entrée into talking about browsing and much more that they can do to find relevant materials in the stacks.

At this point in the library class, if the faculty member is in the room (and they usually are for these freshman seminars), they may then guide a discussion of how each student’s book fits into the context of the course, making connections to the research the students will be doing over the length of the term. Sometimes, when students are already working on a research project, they trade the books among themselves to match their respective projects. My agenda for the class is getting the students into the library stacks and excited about finding the kinds of materials their professors want them to use. In a library the size of Widener, my agenda is also to make freshmen comfortable with coming into the library and actually using it. A little success goes a long way in creating active library researchers, just as a single failure can discourage a newbie from going on to do more. I try to make sure every student has some kind of success (and learning experience) in these library classes.

In many cases I’ve had students come back to me asking for other library assistance or for help on another course. And the LibGuides help enormously (I am a devout lover of LibGuides).

So am I being old school with this? Maybe so. It’s a teaching method that works well in my situation. I would dearly love to hear how others are orienting new students to their libraries. If you don’t want to comment here, please send me an e-mail at And happy start of term to everyone!

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Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.

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  1. Bonnie Barnes says:

    Hi–I teach library skills to 7th grade boys at our college preparatory school, and I’ve done the exact same thing. It’s hands-on, and after seeing juniors and seniors trying to go to the shelf to find a book by the ISBN, it became apparent that they needed this practical exercise. I’m glad to see that it makes sense at Harvard, too! We have a few kids who end up there from time to time.

    • Hi Bonnie,
      Thanks for posting this! I am getting responses via e-mail, phone, and in-person from quite a number of colleagues who are doing this now, especially with newer researchers, and who echo what you and I both say about the hands-on value of this practical exercise. So I’d glad to know I’m not alone in this, and very glad to hear that you’re doing this with 7th graders at your college prep school — they’ll be steps ahead of the rest of the freshman when they get to college!
      Thanks again, and I’d love to hear more about what you’re teaching the 7th graders.
      Best wishes,

  2. Received an interesting note in response to this column and, with the writer’s permission, am including it here. Thank you for writing, Frances, and for letting me post your comment!
    Hi, Cheryl,

    I just read your column in the Oct 1 LJ. I’ve been doing this kind of thing with the developmental, bridge and GED classes at our community college, but honestly it had not occurred to me to do this with the “college-level” classes. Our library has under 120,000 books and only 2 floors, but I do think it’s great to get the students into the stacks and have them be successful in finding something. The activity is especially good for our GED students who often don’t want to sit through a long lecture, and who look overwhelmed when I tell them the library has 2 floors and we don’t use the Dewey Decimal system.

    Thanks to your column, I think I’ll begin doing this with some other classes as well!

    Frances Drone-Silvers
    Information Services Librarian
    Parkland College Library
    Champaign IL