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A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

Librarians and History Instruction: Getting the Most Out of the One-shot Session

Alexandra Simons

History, Political Science, and Government Documents Librarian, University of Houston

A recent discussion on H-HistBibl—the H-Net list for the Study and Practice of History Librarianship—asked two questions related to the American Historical Association’s Tuning Project [1]: how do history subject librarians teach research classes, and what is the most accurate way to describe the nature of the activity, for example, information literacy or research methodology. Because I have been thinking about these questions myself and reading up on history instruction [2], I replied with insights based on my experiences over the past five years as the history, political science, and government documents librarian at my university. My response, which I have expanded on here, focused on two broad areas, collaborating with instructors and planning class sessions.

Collaboration with Instructors
To get the best results from an instruction session, especially one that is less than an hour long, the librarian and instructor should meet at least one week prior to the class, either face to face or via email, to decide on what the research component(s) of the class will be. The syllabus should be available; otherwise, the instructor should provide a basic outline of what needs to be covered. This allows the librarian to look at not only the scope of the class and the resources being used (textbooks, articles, primary and secondary resources) but also what is expected from students during the quarter or semester, i.e., annotated bibliographies, mid-terms, final papers, or other assignments. It is also important to learn how many students will be attending the class.

Some things to be aware of as you are planning research sessions:

• Instructors often use the same unrevised syllabus year after year (I have found this to be especially true for history classes), and therefore may not be aware their library has new databases, digitized special collections, journals, government documents, and other materials. Periodically emailing updates to the department about new library resources is helpful, especially when new primary document databases are acquired, but don’t assume professors and support staff will read them. Many instructors leave my research sessions “amazed” at the library’s resources, especially those in electronic formats. Also, let your faculty know about any relevant digitized collections now provided free of charge online by universities, museums, and other institutions worldwide. Occasionally, students report that their instructor won’t let them use online resources, so check with the professor to learn whether they mean the use and citation of Google and Wikipedia are not allowed, or if library databases and credible websites are acceptable. The professor should then convey that clarification to all the students.

• Library sessions are often scheduled by instructors, before consulting the librarian, for the first or second session of the class. Many of us have found the most effective instruction sessions occur after students have chosen their topics and are ready to begin the research. If the class is taught too early in the semester, students often forget most of what the librarian has discussed. If instructors are flexible and can change their syllabi, try to persuade them to hold library sessions later in the semester, closer to the actual research need.

• Find out if there is an online component to the course, i.e., Blackboard or another online course content system being used. If so, check to see if library resources, such as LibGuides, can be uploaded. I have designed many course-specific guides using LibGuide software, and they are a real enhancement to the one-shot session, especially if timed to the actual start of research. Students are more likely to remember and use the resources if they are easy to access. Adding a chat widget and providing your contact information allows students to work with you throughout the semester. LibGuides has built-in analytics too, which help track the use of resources you’ve put in the guides. However, you may still want to provide printed handouts with selected resources and tips on research methods used during the session.

• Working with an assigned liaison from the history department, usually an assistant professor, will help you communicate with the department as a whole and let you know what’s going on with research and other initiatives. Make it a mutually beneficial relationship by keeping the liaison updated on library resources and collection development, and emphasize your willingness to conduct research classes. Just don’t get drawn into department politics!

Planning the Class
Now that the basic preparation has been done, how do you design your class? It’s best to start by knowing your audience. Are they freshmen in a survey course? Are they juniors and seniors in upper-level capstone classes? Are they grad students researching very specific topics? Planning your class is much easier when you know the resources you’ll need to focus on.

For students new to the university, an introduction to the library website, catalog, and classification system will probably take up most of the class time. There may not be much time to teach information literacy skills, but if you have prepared a LibGuide for basic history research, you can teach from it. For example, if you have the database “Academic Search Complete” on your guide, you can show the students how to do basic searching, and how to use tools such as faceting, full-text retrieval, citation, etc. Suggest that students bookmark the guide, and let them know you are available for face-to-face, email, or chat consultation during the semester. If you do have time before the class is over, and the classroom is equipped with computers, let the students do some searching on their own and circulate around the room. I have found that students welcome individual help.

For upper-level and graduate classes, it is helpful to have course-specific online guides. For grad student sessions, I make classes informal, just asking the students to let me know what they want to focus on. This gives us time to look at specific resources, citation tools, and search strategies. Again, let the students know you are available outside of the class for consultation. Most importantly, bring as much energy and enthusiasm as you can into both your collaboration and your classroom.

Teaching is one of the highlights of my job and I have learned that faculty and students really respond when I’m clearly engaged in the subject matter and can demonstrate knowledge of the relevant resources and the skills to use them.


[1] AHA. (2012). Tuning the history discipline in the united states. Retrieved 7/23, 2012, from

[2] Kitchens, J. D. (2012). Librarians, historians, and new opportunities for discourse: A guide for clio's helpers. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

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