Why History Students Should Take Library Science Classes

Daniel K. Blewett | Feb 1, 1995

"A library… is the delivery room for the birth of ideas—a place where history comes to life." Norman Cousins, American Library Association Bulletin, October 1954

After working for almost a decade at the reference desk in large and medium-sized academic libraries, I have come to share the conclusion of others that history students, particularly graduate students, while perhaps skilled in evaluation and writing, are sadly lacking when it comes to information-gathering techniques.1 To correct this deficiency, graduate students should consider coursework in library science as a minor field of study, or even as an additional master's degree (as I did at Indiana University, in Bloomington). The knowledge gained in these courses would greatly assist students in their later library research efforts.

Scholars do of course possess much knowledge about the information sources in their particular field, and the libraries or archives that they regularly use. Their own specialized knowledge about a particular field can sometimes be greater than that of librarians or archivists, who have to know about a wider range of sources and techniques. But usually this helpful knowledge is gained only over a long period of time and in an unorganized manner. The incredible variety of new reference tools compounds the problem of knowing about and effectively using these resources. By taking library science classes, the history graduate student will be successful in obtaining more useful knowledge, in a more logical manner, and in a shorter amount of time.

Some history departments have joint programs with library schools of other institutions; Loyola University of Chicago has an arrangement with Rosary College whereby students can attain master's degrees in both public history and library science. While not every institution of higher education has a library school readily available, such an option should be pursued where practical. Basically, courses in library science, as in other academic disciplines, can teach a student two things: the theory/information and technique. One has to understand the theory before being able to execute the technique effectively. The broadest conceptual area that librarians deal with is that of information, which is why many library schools are formally named "School of Library Information Science."

Conceptualizing the Science of Information

This concept means more than just facts or narrative, which can be learned through books and classes. It is also more than books, journals, tapes, or computers; it is how the information is arranged and how to access it. Information science classes discuss the different types of information, along with how information is produced and disseminated by a scholarly or a haphazard process. The structure of the universe of knowledge is delineated and made clear. This is not the same thing as being able to interpret sources and place them in their historical context, which is correctly the responsibility of the history professor to teach, but it should aid the student in making intelligent choices and value judgments.

The next step is to learn how the universe of knowledge is logically classified on an intellectual basis. Although it may not be clear at first glance, much work over the last century has gone into organizing the various types of information into some form of standardized format, so it will be easier for many different people to communicate and understand. The point to be made here is that there is usually a general, logical system to information, libraries, and reference works. When one understands the basics of that system, one should be able to apply it to a number of research situations or institutions, and the details and exceptions can be filled in on a case-by-case basis.2

Once one has mastered the structure of information, one can turn to the various theories of learning, which are affected by the way information is organized. This of course gets into the fields of psychology and education, other subjects that graduate students might also investigate. From such teachings students should become aware of how to use the library to conduct research, and how to adjust their practices to become more efficient scholars. It is possible that some of these improved research methods could then be passed on to fellow students by example and word of mouth, thereby raising the quality of a larger group. If such theories and examples are communicated effectively, students may keep them in mind when they become faculty members. This might provide future professors with more ideas about how their own students are using the library and conducting research. I have observed that some professors expect that their students will have adequate library expertise, when actually their level is barely enough to get by. With this insight and knowledge of learning behavior, a professor, in conjunction with a librarian, could construct a library research exercise that not only exposes students to new historical methods, but also has them learn new and better ways of locating useful material.3

Discovering Immediate Utility for Research

Many of the classes offered by library schools have a direct application to students' research needs. A course on reference books introduces the student to many important titles for subjects such as statistics and biographical information. This forces the students to look up answers on their own, rather than to rely on a librarian to do all the work. Such a course also teaches one how to examine a question or problem, break it down into its various components, and devise a search strategy to identify and use reference tools. A course on the bibliography of the social sciences will have a section on history reference sources, an area which is expanding constantly. Some institutions offer specialized courses on the bibliography of narrow topics or regions. (At Indiana University the library school offers courses on Slavic and Latin American bibliography.) Since government publications are so important in historical research, yet so frustrating to locate, a course on this type of material can only have a positive effect on a student's knowledge and research ability for using these types of materials.4 All of this can open the student's eyes to the wide range of resources that exist.

Modern technology makes up an increasing part of education, libraries, archives, and historical research, so the computer classes offered at library schools would be a real benefit to the student. These classes for the most part do not concentrate on the technical aspects of programming a computer, which is left primarily to the computer science department. Instead, the classes focus on how computers may be used to better organize and access information. The computerized literature searching class can introduce the student to the wide world of online and compact disc databases. The basic computer command structures and Boolean search logic taught in class should enable a student to conduct more efficient searches on the computer systems available at the home library, as well as to understand electronic systems available elsewhere. Students are introduced to OCLC and RLIN, national online library databases, which are great sources of bibliographic data.5 In addition, many libraries are now offering workshops on how to use the Internet computer system, which provides access to thousands of library, government, and private databases.

Most library science departments offer courses on archives and manuscripts, and these would fit in very well with similar offerings in the history curriculum, particularly public history programs. This would be excellent training for new scholars not only because archival work is important in historical research, but also because many historians go on to work professionally in archives or museums.

Opportunities in Research Internship

Internships are also frequently available at nearby research collections, and students should be encouraged to take advantage of them. These programs can provide students with useful and interesting practical experience that greatly supplements academic texts and course lectures. I received an excellent introduction to the kinds of materials that can be found in archival files, and how they are methodically (if slowly) processed, when I was an intern for a semester in the manuscripts division of the Lilly Library at Indiana University. A second internship with the history bibliographer at the main library was an education in the criteria and routines of book selection at a large academic library, and the problems of dealing with companies and other library departments. The variety of publishers and materials available (monographic, serial, electronic and the like) and the volume of mail coming in are amazing. Nor should one forget the number and variety of student jobs that are available at libraries. At Loyola University libraries, as at many institutions, graduate history students are employed at the reference desk to provide routine assistance, while referring the more difficult questions to the librarians. (While in library school, I worked for over two years at the main reference desk of the Indiana University library.) This is an excellent way to learn how to use a multitude of reference tools to find information. Many student workers have commented to me that they wish they had known about these library resources and techniques when they were conducting earlier research projects.

These internships are valuable not only for the information that directly applies to historical research, but also in learning how the library bureaucracy functions. The library is, after all, the historian's laboratory, so one should know how to use it well. Since library operations can sometimes be very confusing and frustrating to faculty and students, exposure to these activities should allow them to better appreciate the physical conditions, organizational structure and procedures, work load, and other difficulties that library staff have to deal with, and why there may be mistakes or delays in acquiring and processing materials. As Karl Weintraub has pointed out, in these days of limited financial resources it is vital that both sections of academia understand the demands, procedures, and limitations of the other; who better to do this than one who has been trained in both sections?6

In conclusion, it should be seen that graduate students in history would greatly benefit by taking some classes in library science. Their practical as well as intellectual abilities would be improved. Also, a degree in another subject field may offer an alternative employment option in these troubled economic times. However, it should be noted that taking such classes is only possible if a student has enough time and money, and if there is a library school in close proximity. Nevertheless, where possible, faculty members should investigate the course offerings of the local library school.

More important for their future as historians, such classes can teach students about the structure of knowledge and important titles in a particular subject area, theories of learning, and the techniques of research in libraries. The increasing interdisciplinary nature of research in academics requires one to be able to locate and understand unfamiliar material in different formats. The learning of both theory and technique in library science courses should allow students to discern the arrangement of any library or reference tool, and to use it to the fullest extent desired. This acquisition of a broad base of knowledge can only lead to better students, teachers, and scholarship.


1. Robert P. Swierenga, "Bibliographic Instruction in Historical Methods Courses: Kent State University, "The History Teacher 17, no.3 (May 1984): 391-92; and Philip D. Jordan, "The Historian and the Contemporary Problem of Bibliographic Techniques," American Documentation 10 no. 4 (1959): 267.

2. For a short discussion of the problems of the classification of historical knowledge, see Donald Owen Case, "The Collection and Use of Information by Some American Historians: A Study of Motives and Methods," Library Quarterly 61, no. 1 (January 1991): 66-68.

3. The importance of the faculty role in students' use of the library is discussed in Larry L. Hardesty, Faculty and the Library: The Undergraduate Experience (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1991) and Bruce Morton, "U.S. Government Documents as History: The Intersection of Pedagogy and Librarianship," RQ 24, no. 4 (summer 1985): 475,477. One interesting study even suggests that there is a positive correlation between faculty who publish often and their views that most students require more training in library skills; see Marcia L. Boosinger, "Associations Between Faculty Publishing Output and Opinions Regarding Student Library Skills," College and Research Libraries 51, no. 5 (September 1990): 471-111. The topic of faculty-librarian teaching cooperation is discussed in Sonia Bodi, "Collaborating with Faculty in Teaching Critical Thinking: The Role of Librarians," Research Strategies 10, no. 2 (spring 1992): 69-76 and Melvin J. Tucker, "Comments on Cooperative Instruction: The SUNY at Buffalo Experience," The History Teacher 17, no. 3 (May 1984): 404-8.

4. For more about historians and government documents, see Steven D. Zink, "Clio's Blindspot: Historians' Underutilization of United States Government Publications in Historical Research," Government Publications Review 13 (January/February 1986): 67-78; Peter Hernon, "Information Needs and Gathering Patterns of Academic Social Scientists, with Special Emphasis Given to Historians and Their Use of U.S. Government Publications," Government Information Quarterly 1 (1984): 401-29; and Patricia Reeling, Mary Fetzer, and Daniel O'Connor, "Use of Government Publications in an Academic Setting," Government Publications Review 18, no. 5 (1991): 489-515. This last study concludes that instruction in how to use government document reference tools leads to greater use of government publications by patrons. This belief can easily be expanded to include all types of history materials.

5. See Joyce Duncan Falk, ''Computer Assisted Reference Service in History," RQ 21 (summer 1982): 342-64; John D. Klier, "Computer Usage in Advanced History Courses," History Microcomputer Review 5, no. 2 (fall 1989): 49-53; and Joyce Duncan Falk, "OCLC and RLIN: Research Libraries at the Scholar's Fingertips." Perspectives 27 (May/June 1989): 1, 11-13, 17.

6. Karl J. Weintraub, "The Humanistic Scholar and the Library," Library Quarterly 50, no. 1 (January 1980): 35.

Daniel K. Blewett is reference librarian and bibliographer for history and political science at the Elizabeth M. Cudahy Library, Lake Shore Campus, Loyola University of Chicago.


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