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“Unabridged” Helps Students Build Research Skills

Graduate students from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences dive into a master class in library research. 


The week of January 9-13, a cohort of 25 FAS students spent their afternoons in Lamont B-30 for a January@GSAS master class in library research. They dipped their toes into a range of databases and search strategies, reflected on their own note-taking and content management practices, explored archival and manuscript materials, tackled thorny copyright questions, learned about a “deliberate practice” approach to becoming an expert, and much, much more.

“Unabridged,” as the master class is now called, began as an experiment in January 2016 (under the name “Whole Hog”). The idea was to organize a workshop around everything FAS graduate students need to know to prepare for a lifetime of academic research, with a focus on general skills and concepts as much as on resources specific to Harvard or to the library. The five sessions aim to cultivate resourceful, creative researchers by building participants’ overall awareness of the research life cycle as well as the confidence with which they explore new resources and draw on expert assistance.

The program has proven extremely popular: a long wait list for January 2016 prompted a repeat offering in March. Anticipating the need for a scalable, sustainable program, the organizers regrouped over the summer to prepare for a redesigned January 2017 offering sponsored by Services for Academic Programs. A newly added application process did not diminish student interest: by mid-December there were over 60 applications for just 25 spots.

Most participants were somewhere at or before the point of writing their dissertation prospectus, with many having just completed their first semester of graduate school. They represented a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds from across the humanities and social sciences, such as psychology, education, anthropology, American studies, classics, and government. During breaks, the Lamont café buzzed with conversation as participants compared notes and shared advice over refreshments.

The organizers are in the midst of assessment. Early feedback is overwhelmingly positive. All of the respondents thus far agree that the workshop increased their skills and taught them things they will put to immediate use and would not have learned anywhere else. Participants noted particular appreciation for getting specific answers to their questions, being prompted to finally install Zotero, and learning about so many resources they hadn’t known existed. Recommendations for future offerings included a request to assign more homework and several pleas to spend even more time on content management.

Over 20 Harvard library staff members shared their expertise, along with representatives from the Peabody Museum, Arts & Humanities Research Computing, and the Bureau of Study Counsel. Past participants have cited the number and variety of staff as a highlight, and this year’s feedback continues to praise the opportunity to learn about the “accessibility of Library staff,” and get “really helpful one-on-one advice.” Since the program emphasizes experiential and peer learning, one important staff role is that of the “table coach,” who sits with a small group of participants and coaches them through hands-on activities by answering questions, offering suggestions, and helping troubleshoot.

One participant wrote simply, “Amazing workshop!!! Really enjoyed it, and so glad I took it.”

See for more information about the structure of the sessions, worksheets and handouts, and participating staff.

By Odile Harter, Research Librarian, Harvard College Library – Academic Programs

Published on January 25, 2017.