Amanda Brown and Deborah Hollis

University Libraries

Over the course of the spring semester we assessed seven different undergraduate courses that came to Special Collections at Norlin Library. Our goal was to gather information on how our department was used as a teaching and learning resource. While our primary assessment instrument was pre- and post-visit online survey, we also experimented with using a paper-based survey at the end of a class session as well as distributing only a post-visit online survey.

The courses we surveyed were: Writing about Art (4 sections: WRTG 30074-003, WRTG 1150-087, WRTG 3007-015, WRTG 3020-097), American Literature before 1865 (ENGL 3655), Introduction to Women’s Literature (ENGL 1260), Dialogue of Art and Religion (LIBB 1500), Readings in Medieval and Renaissance Italian Literature (ITAL 3160), Masterpieces of Spanish Literature to 1700 (SPAN 4150), and History of Modern Science (HUEN 2120-3).

For Writing about Art, Women’s Literature, and Italian Literature, the visit to Special Collections was tied to a major class assignment and as a result, the assessment goals for these three classes differed somewhat from the assessment goals for the other four courses.

The objective of the class visit to Special Collections for Writing about Art was for students to identify a photographer for the assigned paper due mid-semester.  Librarians used the surveys to find out whether one or two visits to our department were effective for the students’ to choose a photographer and effectively complete the assignment. We were interested in learning, e.g. did using a collection of photobooks help the completion of their assignment?  Or, did students find that electronic resources worked well to complete the assignment. Major findings from the surveys from this course were that:

  • The students would like two visits to spend time with the photobooks.
  • Many students realize how much information a photobook contains about a photographer and his/her work.  Many see how the artists sequence their work to form a cohesive narrative that is not duplicated on any web sites.
  • Many students realize that the photobooks provide more of the photographer’s work and the Web offers only a slice of the artist’s body of work

The objective of the class visits to Special Collections for Women’s Literature and Italian Literature was for students to select a rare book for a semester-long assignment. The assignment had students analyze both the text itself and the book as artifact, and the class sessions for these two courses introduced students to aspects of the history of printing and book production. Surveys were designed to gauge what students were able to observe about the physical and visual properties of their book-artifacts and what resources students found most useful for completing their assignment. While responses to questions designed around the first objective did not yield as much information as we would have liked, questions geared towards the second objective produced an interesting and positive finding. The most frequently given response was that Special Collections faculty and staff were the most useful resource. In order to address the first objective more effectively in the future, we have discussed evaluating the students’ final assignments.

For American Literature before 1865, Dialogue of Art and Religion, Masterpieces of Spanish Literature, and History of Modern Science, the visit of Special Collections was meant to introduce the students to our holdings and give them an opportunity to spend time with rare books, manuscripts, and/or works of art. For all of these courses, a major finding was that the visit altered or added to the understanding of course content for most students. We learned that the visit could provide more historical context for students, make what they had read or learned back in the classroom seem more “real”, or provide a greater appreciation of literature, art, and/or intellectual achievements.

For Dialogue of Art and Religion, Masterpieces of Spanish Literature, Women’s Literature, and Italian Literature, we found that a major take-away for the students was that they learned for the first time during their visit that we existed and that they could use our resources.  This was very useful for us to learn, as we now know we need to increase efforts to advertise in order to increase use of our resources by undergraduates.

For Dialogue of Art and Religion, it was clear that students had very little idea of how to find material in Special Collections before their visit (card catalog and Rocky Mountain Online Archive in addition to Chinook), but students in this class had an increased awareness of the importance of using the card catalog for our holdings after their visit.

For American Literature before 1865, the majority of the survey respondents were English majors who had been to Special Collections with other English classes before.  This was a positive finding and one that we did not anticipate.  This finding supports that Special Collections has a strong relationship with the UCB Department of English. 

In addition to learning more about how time spent in Special Collections benefited students, we also made discoveries about what does and does not work well for Special Collections surveys. We learned that:

  • We get one shot at getting a good response rate for online surveys. One survey is enough and this should be the post-visit survey.
  • The post-visit survey is the most valuable to us in fulfilling our main objective of assessing how we are used as a teaching/learning resource.  Our pre-visit questions gathered information on year in school, major, whether or not students had visited before, whether or not they knew how to find material in our collection, and whether or not they knew what a primary source was. The findings from the pre-visit surveys, however, did not significantly alter how we conducted the class session.
  • We receive a better response rate with e.g.  three or four questions.
  • Paper surveys at the end of class yield a better response rate than an online survey sent out after the visit.


With the lessons learned from our assessment efforts this past semester, we look forward to continuing with survey usage in future semesters and gathering more information about student learning in Special Collections.




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