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The City as a Muse: Study Abroad Research and Embedded Librarianship

The City as a Muse: Study Abroad Research and Embedded Librarianship
Librarian Bill Gillis and Paris students pose in front of the renowned Left Bank Shakespeare and Company bookstore

The GW Libraries’ research librarians are constantly exploring new ways to collaborate with university faculty across campus to advance student research skills. As subject matter experts, these skilled librarians have specialized expertise in the sources and research approaches of specific disciplines. A recent innovative collaboration embedded one of our research librarians in GW’s study abroad program to facilitate discussions of how, why, and where students can undertake valuable scholarly research.  

In two recent study abroad courses, ‘Paris: Modernism and the Arts, Then and Now’ and the London-based ‘Fan Pilgrimages and Media Tourism,’ research librarian Bill Gillis was invited to partner with faculty to enhance the academic experience and aid in developing creative and comprehensive research.  Gillis traveled with the classes and provided guidance on student research through formal research salons, or guided seminars, as well as through more casual discussions about research, which served as ‘immediate debriefs’ following site visits, performances, or lectures.  At the end of each course, students wrote papers based on research questions that they developed during their time abroad.  As the embedded research librarian for these courses, Gillis continued to be available via email, Skype, and chat as students completed their final papers.

While many students have completed study abroad programs, including an embedded research librarian in the courses adds a new layer.  Most students surveyed had incredibly positive reactions to the added component, most notably in relation to the depth of their research.  As one student commented, “Bill Gillis challenged me to ask odd-angled questions as the first step in my research, and delve deeper into the ‘why’ and ‘what if’ than the mere ‘how.’”  Other students emphasized about Bill Gillis’s ability to facilitate a better understanding of research, specifically of sources. He described sources as guests to a party, and the importance of only inviting the ones who have something to contribute.  These sources can also lead students into a different research direction. One student noted, “A great tip from Bill was that sometimes you can just take a moment and accept that your focus shifts in the research process. It’s okay to change what you were initially looking for because research is supposed to inspire.”

The addition of embedded librarians in study abroad courses not only enhances the research component of the programs, but could also change the way students and library patrons view research librarians.  In the post-program survey, one student noted, “Librarians are known for being aloof and, in my experience, that stigma tends to discourage kids from asking questions and therefore stunts the success of their research. So, if we are comfortable with and confide in our research librarian, I believe we are more likely to seek him or her out. I know that I frantically asked Bill for some quick advice about my paper, and he quickly responded back to me with a very detailed and informative email that addressed everything I asked and more.”  Another student said, “I’d like to express my gratitude for the experience, because now when I need direction in my next research project, I know I can consult a research librarian at GW for assistance. That is priceless. Thank you.”

With the success of these study abroad courses, there are now plans to apply this model to courses on the Foggy Bottom campus, as well. Dr. Katherine Larsen, Adjunct Assistant Professor in GW’s University Writing Program, and Bill Gillis are in the process of developing a course on fan tourism.  According to Larsen and Gillis, “Using what we learn in London, our experiences with study abroad will inform the development of a class to be taught locally that draws on the rich cultural history of sites within the District of Columbia. We envision such a course focusing on the multiple ways in which we construct meaning around the ‘sacred spaces’ of political/historical/pop culture significance.”


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