X Marks the Spot (in the University Library)

Passing by College Ready Writing last week, I was suddenly reminded of one more bit of pre-term homework: devising a set of new footnote treasure hunts.

Like Dr Skallerup, and many many others, I have often struggled to help my students gain confidence in using the university library. If an essay question could not be answered through a simple search on JSTOR or Google, many (though by no means all) of my first year students became frustrated and oddly creative in their search for bibliography entries. Year after year, I was presented with three-item bibliographies, two of which were from the 1920s and wholly inappropriately for use as secondary sources.

Last year, inspired by The Great History Conundrum, a wonderful games-based skills programme at the University of Leicester, I devised a footnote treasure hunt for my students to complete during the first week of term.

At the end of the first seminar, I separated my students into pairs and gave them the following handout:

For next week’s seminar, you and your partner will need to answer the following question:

One gentleman wrote to another on 29 August 1791. How did the recipient die?

In order to answer this question you will need to follow the trail of footnotes below. First, find The British in the Americas in the university library and examine footnote 7 on page 88. This will lead you to another source. In that source, turn to page 206 and examine footnote 6. Continue until you find the source listed in step 9. From there you should be able to answer the question above.

In addition to answering the question, you should present, at the start of next week’s seminar, a list of all the sources in standard bibliography format. Formatting guidelines can be found in the History Student Handbook. Whichever team gets closest to answering the question will be awarded a small prize. In the event of a tie, whoever has the best formatted bibliography will be declared the winner.

All sources have multiple copies available. Do not check out any of the sources listed. If all copies are checked out during Week 2/3 the competition will be cancelled.

  1. A. McFarlane, The British in the Americas, 1480-1815 (London, 1994), 88 n.7.
  2. Page 206 n.6
  3. Page 751 n.2
  4. Page 404 n.12
  5. This author wrote another book with a similar name 14 years later.
  6. The first source listed under the Suggested Reading for Chapter 5
  7. Page 155 n.1
  8. Page 8 n.14
  9. Page 63 n. 19

The goal of the exercise was to introduce students to the various parts of the library, including the collapsible stacks of hard-copy journals, as well as the process of examining the footnotes of general narratives in order to find more detailed works. The second half of the exercise simply offered them practice with (and feedback on) formatting a bibliography. The exercise took me approximately 1 hour to create.

95% of the groups were able to follow the trail to #9 and about 80% managed to answer the question correctly.

When I asked why they thought I made them do the exercise, they felt that it provided them with

  • A familiarity with the library
  • The ability to use the collapsible stacks “without getting squashed”
  • A familiarity with the online catalogue. The 5% who failed to get to #9 did not know how to search for journal articles in the library catalogue.
  • An understanding of how to use footnotes. The 20% who failed to answer the question did not know how to find the full citation when only a short citation was given.

Although “the ability to create a bibliography” was not given by students, the tie-breaking exercise impressed upon most of them the importance of it.

None of the students complained about their pairings, though one seminar group did abandon the pretence of pairs entirely and worked together as a group of 12. There was only one case of a book going missing but, as it was merely misshelved, this was quickly rectified.

So successful was the exercise, I have been asked by my head of department to create additional versions of the hunt and to administer it more widely. Thus, I am off to the library to devise this year’s set of maps. Although I cannot, for obvious reasons, share the answers to my maps online, I am happy to forward them to any interested individuals via email.

The prize, in case you are wondering, was a mini-Cadbury chocolate. When I didn’t offer another competition the following week, several students complained.

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