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Library Instruction Program

HPNL provides course-customized library instruction for all the disciplines we serve (History, Philosophy, Religious Studies, and any course in any discipline using newspapers in the curriculum). Contact Professor Celestina Savonius-Wroth for more information. Any instructor teaching a course involving historical research or the use of resources found in HPNL can request a customized library session for the class. Instruction sessions cover print and digital resources, and research methods tailored to the course content. To request a library instruction session for your class, contact Professor Celestina Savonius-Wroth.

NOTE: Please allow us at least two weeks advance preparation time; requests with less than two weeks’ notice cannot normally be accommodated. Most instructors request sessions early in the semester, so the earlier you place your request, the more likely it can be scheduled when you need it.

The HPNL has developed a series of research guides, course guides, and tutorials to support our instruction program.

HPNL’s instruction program is underwritten by the assumption that researchers are not autonomous, information-seeking subjects. That is to say, researchers do not seek information to fulfill independently existing “needs”. Rather, existing discourses constrain in advance and even elicit those “needs”. Library instruction in the HPNL seeks to help students understand how researchers construe and articulate their information needs, and how they then formulate strategies for meeting those needs. Our library instruction program therefore emphasizes that, from the very beginning, research is conducted within and through discourse communities. For most undergraduate students, the primary method of accessing those discourse communities will be published scholarship, although other examples, like list-serves, web-sites, and conferences might also be important.

Our model of library instruction uses Kenneth Burke’s famous “unending conversation” metaphor:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.1

This well-known passage has been cited by many as a conceit for academia and scholarly communication: academia is like Burke’s parlor, in which there are many ongoing conversations. A student has just entered the room, and he or she is free to join any conversation. However, when he or she approaches a group, he or she first listens to see what is being said. When he or she finally chooses to speak, he or she tries to contribute to the conversation: to avoid repeating something that has already been said, but also to avoid saying something completely unrelated.

A problem we commonly encounter with undergraduate students is the prematurely focused  research question: the student begins with a very specific topic around which there has been little previous “conversation”. One objective of our instruction program (G1.T4 from the ACRL’s Objectives for Information Literacy Instruction), therefore, is to ensure the student “understands that the initial question may be too broad or narrow to investigate effectively”.

This approach is not only pedagogically sound, but also likely to make the student’s research experience a lot easier.  Publishers produce and libraries acquire material that clusters around existing discourses.2 Some of the Adam Matthews collections are good examples of this (e.g. the thematic research collection 300 Years of Madness). We also, however, don’t want students uncritically to accept what these collections have to offer. Libraries, as both research environments and collections of discourse, are apt to produce the very questions they would purport to answer. It is, therefore, appropriate to question which voices and perspectives are not represented in the collection, but we should also recognize that in order to interrogate the collections in this way, the student must first engage with existing discourses, because we cannot know which perspectives have been excluded without first consulting the literature to identify the perspectives that have been privileged.


1. Kenneth Burke. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1941): 110-111.

2. To use a research library successfully, students must understand the concept of discourse, because libraries are organized by discourse. See E. Wyndham Hulme’s description of literary warrant in: “Principles of Book Classification,” Library Association Record 13 (1911): 354-358, 389-394, 444-449.