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Class Request Tool

A new web platform facilitates object-based teaching by easily connecting instructors with collections and librarians.

Rowena He, (center ) Lecturer on Government, uses archival research materials from the Harvard-Yenching Library to teach students about the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Rowena He, (center ) Lecturer on Government, uses archival research materials from the Harvard-Yenching Library to teach students about the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.January 20, 2015—Houghton Library has seen a 200% rise in demand for object-based teaching with its special collections since 2000, a trend that is mirrored to some degree across the University and educational institutions around the country.

“Teachers and students are hungry for the experience of working with objects, touching them, handling them, seeing their markings,” said Rachel Howarth, associate librarian for public services at Houghton Library.

While the dramatic increase in demand was welcome, it challenged existing workflows. The staff looked for a solution to facilitate object-based teaching with special collections, and when they didn’t find one, they didn’t get discouraged.

Instead they got entrepreneurial, and the result is a web platform whose deceptively simple, function-derived name, Class Request Tool (CRT), belies a new kind of vehicle for collaboration and bespoke curriculum support.

In a few minutes, instructors can place an online request for a custom course session featuring special collections materials from over a dozen Harvard libraries and archives, and soon, the Harvard Art Museums will begin scheduling class visits to the galleries via the platform.

Instructors don’t even need to know which location or objects they want; teaching curators and librarians are notified about an incoming request via email and can accept it, forward it to partner repositories or collaborate to create a unique approach for a multidisciplinary curriculum.

“There are lots of pockets of knowledge [across the University’s many repositories], and staff can make connections between pieces of their collections. CRT gets all of the people who might be able to play a role working together,” said Emilie Hardman, Houghton’s metadata and special projects coordinator, who was part of the team shepherding the idea to production.

Partnering with the Harvard archives and special collections community to build and refine the CRT was key for success, according to Rachel Howarth: “Transparency and inclusiveness have changed the nature of this process. Everyone can see [who is welcoming in classes] and everyone is invited to be involved.”

While CRT was conceived as a request management tool, iterations during the development and scaling process brought more capabilities online than availability management; all operational considerations are covered and basic curricular info is gathered up front, allowing the first interaction between instructor and library staff to be focused on the goals at the heart of teaching.

“Why—not when or where—should be the first thing we should be talking about!” said Hardman. “We’re not a factory, and the tool facilitates boutique arrangements. Now we can get to the substantive considerations first because we’ve gotten the administrative out of the way.”

And CRT can be set up and get running fairly easily. Changes can be made in a simple interface without knowledge of code. Repositories tailor their offerings: Houghton posts a schedule, and the University Archives can facilitate curatorial experience by offering exhibition space. Instructor feedback forms help shape future programs, and raw data, as well as packaged reports, can be downloaded for analysis.

Feedback from teachers has been extremely positive. The speed and ease of use, along with the convenience of a 24/7 open system (something many instructors take advantage of in the wee hours), is frequently praised.

The project was initially submitted as a proposal to Library Lab and funded in 2012; from that launch pad, the project was selected to scale up under the oversight of the Scaling Innovation Initiative, with additional development work and support from Library Technology Services.

The team partnered with software company Atlas Systems, contracting them to create a CRT add-on for Aeon, their special collections circulation system.  The add-on that enables this connection has been made freely available to all Aeon users. Now centrally supported by Library Technology Services, the CRT platform is currently undergoing final touches on a development upgrade sponsored by Houghton Library.

The Class Request Tool code is downloadable on GitHub for free and open use and adaptation.