Amazing "Library Titles" Race for library instruction

April 9, 2015
Felicia Smith
Amazing Library Race

“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, search the catalog to find its location, and retrieve it from the shelves. “The Rebellion of The Beasts: Or, the Ass is Dead! Long Live the Ass!” is a sample title.

Stanford University Libraries (SUL) supports the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) by offering library instruction workshops that include a walking tour of the library as well as an introduction to library resources. These library workshops are designed to support PWR’s objective to guide students in developing analytical and research-based argument skills. The library workshops are usually just a one-shot class that lasts 1 hour and 50 minutes; this is the duration of most classes.

Kathleen Tarr, a PWR instructor, was assigned Felicia Smith as her class librarian. During their initial planning sessions Kathleen suggested having students do a competition similar to the popular television show The Amazing Race. Felicia was happy to help create a non-traditional approach to familiarize students with the, admittedly confusing, library layout. The race replaced the traditional walking tour. There is still a quick walk-through of the building to point out areas of interest as well as to make sure students understand where to go during the race. They began by identifying their goals and objectives for their Amazing Race. Due to time constraints, the race was limited to the main library where the workshops take place. 

The brainstorming session involved ways to use Active Learning Techniques with a Game-Based approach, to make the library experience engaging, fun, and memorable. The next discussion was about ways to make the race both relevant to the library and the Amazing Race concept. The librarian recently created a highly successful book exhibit that showcased library books with “Weird Titles,” that she hoped readers would take interest in. This display required constant replenishing because so many titles were indeed checked out. The final piece of the planning fell into place when they agreed to create an Amazing “Library Titles” Race.

Race Goals:
The first stated goal of the Amazing “Library Titles” Race was to create a list of books that students are “amazed” to find in Stanford University Libraries’ collection. It is a good thing that the library does not censor and it is an even better thing that we own so many books with profanity in the titles.

A secondary goal was for student teams to retrieve books from the shelves. This allowed students to go into the “scary” stacks in pairs and actually retrieve material. By pairing students, they were not alone and could help each other. Additionally, each pair was given one title located in the East Wing and one in the West Wing. This ensured that the students went to both wings of the library. The library layout is a source of great confusion and ultimately frustration for newcomers so the buddy system helped.

The timed nature of the race made it feel like a game and fed their competitive spirits but, most importantly, kept the class on schedule. They needed repeated reminders that running is not allowed in the library. However, a lot still “walked really quickly.” Interestingly all teams were back by the 15-minute time limit; most were done within only 10 minutes. One team returned at the time limit, to avoid disqualification. As instructed, they took a photo of the shelf where they believed their title should have been. During their hands-on practice portion of class, the librarian took this unsuccessful team to the correct section, and they said quote, “Oh we were in PN five hundreds, not PN fifty. We learned the hard way so this will stick!” That “aha moment” was the entire point of the activity. It was apparent that they were in the wrong section because they had photographed the call numbers of books on the shelf, where they thought their book should be; the picture showed that they were in the wrong shelving range.

The book titles were scrambled, not just to add a bit of fun, but because sometimes patrons do not have an exact topic but rather a general idea of what they are looking for. No more than 3 words were scrambled because the purpose of scrambling is to challenge students but not spend a lot of time on this part of the activity. Each racer was given a customized Stanford University Library pen (to ensure everyone received some sort of prize). Logistically this was needed because a lot of students do not carry pens.

Another advantage of the race is that this allows a break in the library lecture material. A final advantage is that the race adds an interactive component to, what was traditionally a lecture-only portion of the class. Typically, during the first hour of the workshop, librarians lecture and demonstrate the search techniques and then allow hands-on practice for the last 50 minutes of class.

Race Overview:
Teams battled in a race to locate books in the East Wing and West Wing of Green Library.

Teams of two (or three) students received individual race sheets that were color coded to ensure that at least 1 student’s title was located in the East Wing and their partner’s title was located in the West Wing.

The first step required all teams to record the same start time using the official Stanford Libraries pen.

The next steps were to unscramble their titles on their race sheets, search the catalog (preferably on their mobile device), retrieve the books from both the East and West Wings, return to the classroom, and record their finish time. The fastest team won a Stanford University Libraries temporary tattoo.

If the book had a green checkmark indicating it was available, but was not on the shelf, they took a photo of the shelf where the book should be. Photography in the library is not allowed otherwise.

The last step was to have a show and tell of their titles and vote on the “most amazing book.” This class teaches rhetorical skills so this allowed them to make convincing arguments. The team with the most amazing cover won a special prize (either a SUL library tattoo or a silly gift, like a button, whistle). All participants won a library pen.

Order of Activities for the 1:50 Library Workshop:
1)    Walking tour of Green Library, highlighting the West Wing and the East Wing.
2)    SearchWorks demonstration after the walking tour.
3)    Amazing “Library Titles” Race began after the SearchWorks demo.
4)    Database demonstration after the race ended.
5)    In-class hands-on practice (final hour of class).

Required:
Instructions were printed on the race sheet handout for each team member.
Prizes (SUL pens for everyone, SUL tattoos for winners*silly gifts, like a button or a whistle).

*May be a $5.00 campus Café gift card. If winners get a real prize, the librarian can imitate the television show’s host, “As the winners of this leg of the race you won a trip to the campus Café.”

The first race took place in October 2014. Since that time, other PWR instructors have incorporated the race. Each instructor has special requests for their classes. For example, Clara Lewis, another PWR instructor, requested that the librarian include titles related to her class topic of Hate. It was difficult to find funny or weird titles dealing with that topic, but surprisingly not impossible. “The Pope is not Gay!” is a sample title on the class topic.

PWR (2) classes are for sophomores and these have much different format options for “refresher” library workshops. Librarians tend to visit the classrooms for PWR (2) library workshops or sit outside of the classroom and do individual consultations. So one version of the race took place in the PWR (2) classroom and was shortened because the students were not going to retrieve the books. This allowed for the addition of titles that are located in the branch libraries, for example the book titled, “The Law is ‘A’ Ass.”

Most recently, the original instructor agreed to experiment with her PWR (2) class by starting the race outside of Green Library near the fountain. This allowed students to enjoy the weather and scenery outside. This also allowed students to use their mobile devices to conduct the searches and follow along during the librarian’s lecture portion. Then the students entered the building to race, in teams.

Classes were given evaluation forms to make adjustments for logistics.  The main goal was 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 retrieving books in the library before their library workshop. The most typical answer was the same one from past focus groups, “scary.” Nevertheless, their very vocal and expressly stated impressions after the race were almost unanimous, “Fun” or “Definitely not scary anymore.” Both are vast improvements. One student said the West Stacks are “Weird” and the teacher replied that, “Weird is better than scary.” Exactly.

It was very interesting that as soon as the students returned, not one of them picked up their mobile devices, phones, or laptops. They all just starting reading the books and showing classmates funny sections. A few actually went to check out their books before class ended. They wanted to read the books! They were intrigued that so many were not in English, but had English profanity in the titles.

Another student said the stacks used to intimidate him, but not now. He then said that he was heading back into the stacks to find a book on his topic because he had so much fun looking for the funny title.

A different student said she would have been back sooner but she took time to browse the shelves near the book that was on her topic, and she couldn’t wait to return to browse for more.

Yet another student had already read the book on his race sheet. The teacher handpicked that race sheet because when the librarian gave the instructor the list of titles, the instructor knew that student was researching that topic.

Another student complimented the librarian on her “Fantastic book choices!”

Lastly, the funniest exchange was when a student showed the librarian that they took a Snapchat of their book, the librarian said aloud, “Oh that is great,” but secretly wondered, “Whatever a Snapchat is.