The Provenance of Your Knowledge

Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. Photo credit Eric Allix Rogers.

Last Friday, I and two colleagues visited the University of Chicago to attend the 6th Biennial Kathleen A. Zar Symposium. The focus of this year’s gathering was exploring the different ways that librarians, non-library faculty, and administrators can collaborate to help undergraduates engage and succeed in meaningful research experiences during their college years. Most, but not all, of the speakers were from academic libraries. Lots of institutions were represented and it was a delight to see some folks from Miami University (my first archives gig) presenting on first-year research program.

The highlight of the program was a panel on undergraduate research featuring Univ. of Chicago folks, including Christopher Wild and James Sparrow. My colleague, Steve Oberg has also written about the symposium and this particular panel.

…students must understand the “provenance of their knowledge” and this understanding “only comes from [traditional] library research.”

Wild cautioned against using analogies like the library as the “laboratory of the humanities.” These sorts of comparisons privilege a particular discourse around knowledge and research and should be avoided. Sparrow emphasised that students must understand the “provenance of their knowledge” and this understanding “only comes from [traditional] library research.” He pointed out that digitization is a key part of the library’s role in the preservation and dissemination knowledge. Sparrow also noted that digital texts both “presuppose” that folks can be “hooked” in the same ways that print and physical objects and give the biggest boost to folks who already “know and have experienced knowledge and scholarship in a particular way.” In short, novice researchers (i.e. undergraduates) are most disadvantaged in a digital-only space while experienced researchers are most advantaged.

Sparrow and Wild offered some ideas that teachers can use in helping students to understand the “provenance of their knowledge.”

  • Present students with a corpus of materials that have been pre-selected but not completely mined as the basis for a research project.
  • Create a course that is built around an exhibit (online or physical) in which all student work feeds into the final exhibit.
  • Make sure that we remember that “genuine” student research need not be publishable nor completely original. Students need space to practice and explore.

These are all ideas that will make student learning more rich and can be the basis for fruitful collaboration between librarians and classroom instructors.

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