Friday, 31 October 2014

The basement stacks

It was the summer of 2010 and I was in my final few months of my MA in Librarianship at the University of Sheffield, spending my days grappling with research methods and data analysis as I wrote up my dissertation, and my evenings working as a shelver in the Western Bank Library there. This had been the main research library before the fancy Information Commons was built, and had a lovely spacious sunny reading room, along with several floors of old-fashioned windowless basement stacks, tightly packed with shelves of journals. Part of my role as the library closed for the night was to go downstairs and switch off all the lights and lock up the doors on the little staircases between the basement floors. It was quiet and very dark down there with all the lights off - you had to take your phone with you to use as a torch - and neither I nor the other shelver liked doing this, so we would take a floor each and try to get it done and over with as quickly as possible.

One night I had switched off the main lights, and there was only one dim light in the middle of the shelves left to go. I was walking down the aisle towards the yellowish glow, when I noticed the book trolley sitting at the end of it. It was oh so gently gliding from side to side, back and forth, the creaking of the wheels audible in the otherwise silent room. There was no one else around.

I was seized with a sudden urge to run, and without any further thought I left the light and turned and legged it up the aisle towards the exit, with an overwhelming expectation that something was going to reach out from the shelves and grab me. But nothing got in my way and I made it out and upstairs to the evening sunlight.

No one else I've spoken to since has experienced anything like that down there. I don't know if I believe in ghosts. There may well be a rational explanation for the moving trolley, and that would demonstrate the amazing power and complexity of the human mind - that I was certain that something was wrong and that I was in danger. That tapping into human fear, that writers and filmmakers who create horror play on.

Whatever it was, I haven't ever forgotten it.

Happy Halloween.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Teaching first-year undergraduates about plagiarism

At the beginning of this term I was asked to take over the seminar slots for the first year Sport and PE students during the third week of teaching; two hours in which I would teach the students how to use the library resources, how to reference, and how to avoid academic offences such as plagiarism and collusion. I did something similar last year, and had found it difficult to keep the students engaged over the two hours on what can quite honestly be dry topics. So this year I decided to try some new things to add some more interactivity and liven the session up a bit, and I remembered a plagiarism exercise I had heard about at a Library Camp. This came from a school librarian and I'm afraid I didn't write down her name - if you're reading this, please contact me so I can credit you! - and I adapted it slightly for use with first year undergraduates.

About halfway through the seminar I handed out pieces of scrap paper and asked the students to write down the best thing that had happened since they'd been at university so far. After some looks of bemusement they all managed to write down something (I emphasised that neither I or their tutor would read it!) and I asked them to swap their piece of paper with someone else, then to write their name at the top of the paper they'd received, and to count up the words on it. I then asked for the highest word count, and gave the holder of the piece of paper with it a chocolate. Each time, this person looked baffled and said "but I didn't write it", to which I replied "but it's got your name at the top!" - and then the students realised what I was getting at!

I was worried that it wouldn't work; that either the students would twig straight away and would see the whole exercise as childish, or the opposite, that they wouldn’t realise what I was getting at, but it actually worked pretty much perfectly in each seminar – the students appeared a bit taken aback by it and then realised what I was doing at exactly the right point in the exercise. I think it also worked really well at that halfway point in the session; after the “finding books and journals” bit that they would be expecting, doing this exercise shook the session up, got the students doing something different, and added an element of unpredictability which was also humorous too; the students gently laughing at the rightful owner of the chocolate missing out (I did actually give them one too eventually!), and also much hilarity ensuing when they read each others’ answers to the question I had set!

I will definitely use this exercise again with first-years (hopefully their by-then second-year peers won’t spoil the surprise before I get to do it!).