The Pens of Blue Hens: Re-defining “Library”

By William Repetto

I’ve written elsewhere in defense of libraries. I’ve also used their services as an instructor before – Connelly Library at La Salle University in the English as a second language classroom and Warner Memorial Library at Eastern University in the composition classroom. I cannot say enough positive things about my experience as a graduate assistant at Falvey Memorial Library of Villanova University. I certainly never thought that I would see a day when “library” itself called for re-definition, certainly not as it has during the coronavirus pandemic. I found, however, that during our library session of ENGL110 with special guest speaker Assistant Head of Instructional Services Meg Grotti, we were calling for our students to do exactly that: re-define what’s meant by “library.”

The exercise that our du jour instructor Meg Grotti set up for us pertained to the course’s researched paper. The exercise was divided into two appropriately titled parts, “Part A: (Too Much)” and “Part B: (Too Little).” There was no middle section, or Part C, called “Just Right.” Part C’s conspicuous absence contains a powerful message: it’s rare in scholarship that you’ve got just the correct amount of information/data, and your thoughts are fully confirmed. The students were to fill out a matrix of questions that offered guidance for either narrowing down or expanding a topic. The worksheet covered such questions as, “what specific part of your research question/topic interests you the most?” and asked students to “critique your words… play around with these new terms mixed with some of those you started with.”

My group’s topics included food waste, children’s literature, and medicinal marijuana during the coronavirus pandemic. By filling out our matrices, we discovered that two of these topics required narrowing down and one required broadening up. Can you guess which? Irrespective, the exercise generated a conversation among my small TA group, a conversation of pedagogical import for research generally.

I started that conversation (drawing on the concept of the Burkean parlor) by saying that research can be a lot like walking into someone’s living room during a dinner party and trying to get caught up on the conversation, and my group quickly pointed out how, in the case of their topics, catching up on the conversations would require thinking geographically, psychologically, and across populations. From there, we dove into the particular work required to get caught up in an academic context; specifically, we highlighted the importance of keywords and finding the right database/journal.

The exercise, then, forced us to think both conceptually about research and practically about getting research done. The genius of the exercise runs much deeper, though. By showing what UD’s library still offers and the functions it still serves, the exercise taught us three important things about how to view libraries in a new light in a pandemic-stricken world.

First, when one takes a tour of a library or sits through a seminar on its various databases, the perception can arise that the library is this huge repository of answers, which you must learn to navigate in order to find the answers you want. By asking the questions of us that it did, however, the worksheet also asked us to re-think this perception. Instead of situating the library as a repository of answers, our exercise made it clear that the library is as much a repository of questions as a place to find answers. Now that I put it this way, it feels an obvious truism that I should have noticed in two years of working at a library or in inviting my previous class sections to the library, but it took a pandemic, and masterful curriculum from the UD library staff for me to recognize it–I hope my students picked up on it too!

Second, and this one I have recognized before, the exercise really highlighted how the library, more than a building and a digital space, is a collection of people. I cannot remember any of the other institutions I attended or instructed at offering such a personalized trip to the classroom. The worksheet, in reference to one of our class’ specific assignments, directed us to “Look at your topic as you wrote it in [Reading and Writing Activity] #5. Are there more sub-questions to this topic that might be useful to explore?” Connections to our course like this show how the library can be defined as a team of people whose scholarship and work support the learning of all the other various departments and groups that make up the university. Whether or not we get to re-enter the physical space of the library with regularity soon, we learned that COVID-19 will not stop our librarians from that part of their mission.

Third, we learned that in its present, mostly digital iteration, the library is still a safe space. As a graduate student, I know that I feel the pressure to be “right” all the time, and I remember, as an undergraduate, the pressure to be using the “proper sources” or finding material that would impress my professors. Grotti’s visit to our class, however, showed us that the library is a safe space for exploring where your opinions have gone off track or where the thought you’re having needs further refining. Even in the library’s, and indeed the world’s, current, mostly digital state, its databases and journals are still safe spaces to be wrong, to refine thoughts, and to ultimately challenge oneself.

I’m acutely aware that the above may seem an elaborate PR piece for the University of Delaware’s Libraries, Museums, and Press. I assure you, though, that these are my genuine reflections on library day in our class. My intention is to show the many ways that libraries can be re-defined during the pandemic. These lessons can be useful across types of libraries and certainly across campus communities. I wonder if it may be useful for scholars and librarians alike to return often to these new definitions when the pandemic subsides and library doors open wide again.

William Repetto is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Delaware. He is also a TA and writing center tutor. William earned his MA in English at Villanova University after completing a bachelor’s in history at La Salle University. He wrote three theses at La Salle covering frame narratives, the influence of American culture on Japanese cartoons, and The Adventures of Tintin. His master’s thesis gave a comparative reading of Wallace Stevens and David Foster Wallace to show how conceptualizations of spirituality versus religion changed over the course of the 20th century in America. While at Villanova, he also received an entrepreneurship award and small grant for his work on diversity and inclusion at their Falvey Memorial Library. William has formerly taught English composition classes at Eastern University and English as a second language classes at La Salle University.

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