Academic Exchange Quarterly Winter 2011 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 15, Issue 4

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Information Literacy in Art History   

Rhonda L. Reymond, West Virginia University

Beth Royall, West Virginia University

Reymond, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Art History, Division of Art and Design, College of Creative Arts, and Royall, M.L.I.S., is Creative Arts Librarian, Evansdale Library



Information literacy instruction was seamlessly integrated into a senior art history seminar at West Virginia  University.  Two course learning outcomes were based on the ALA Information Literacy Standards.  The information literacy projects utilized communication tools from the low-tech (paper yes/no cards) to the high-tech (course management software).  Student feedback indicated increased confidence with the research process.  The synergistic assignments aided students in creatively engaging in research.  By achieving advanced literacy competencies students produced research projects of consistently high quality and several executed original research. 



The 2009 West Virginia University (WVU) Libraries Information Literacy Course Enhancement Grant facilitated curriculum integrated instruction through a summer stipend allowing for advanced planning of a new art history senior seminar course. An Art History Professor and Creative Arts Librarian collaboratively designed and embedded eight weeks of information literacy instruction into the fifteen-week course.  The planning resulted in sequential, graded library projects incorporated into the art history content.  This paper includes background on the information literacy program, explains the role of the art historian, describes the course, and the history of prior library and division collaborations; it addresses the course projects, emphasizing the sequential progression and tight integration between course subject and library skills; and concludes by examining how the assignments met the student learning outcomes and the benefits from the perspective of the librarian and the faculty member.


Literature Review

Information literacy and library instruction continue to be areas of active inquiry for art and art history librarians and faculty, and this is reflected in the literature.  A recent article with an overview of information literacy best practices and their application to art and design schools specifically is Walczak, Reuter, and Sammet’s 2009 “A Program for Introducing Information Literacy to Applied Art and Design Students.”[1]  Haras’s 2010 chapter “The Art of Evidence: A Method for Instructing Students in Art History Research,” relates visual literacy to information literacy and provides a model for assignments combining observation and research.[2]  The course enhancement project described below was inspired and informed by examples of active learning techniques and embedded librarians.  A recent article on library instruction and active learning, including a literature review, is Ross and Furno’s 2011 “Active Learning in the Library Instruction Environment.[3]  Recent articles on embedded librarians and collaborative teaching models include Wilkinson and Cairns (2010), Carlin (2009), and Xiao (2007).[4]





The libraries at WVU began the Information Literacy Initiative in 2007 with the goals of unifying library instruction activities into a formal educational program and providing defined information literacy objectives for foundational, intermediate, discipline-specific, and expert student-researchers to promote learning excellence.[5]  Information literacy, according to the American Library Association (ALA), is a set of skills “requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.”[6]  The five standards that have been adopted by the ALA are: 1) defining and articulating the need for information; 2) accessing information effectively and efficiently; 3) evaluating information and its sources and synthesizing it to construct new concepts; 4) using information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose; 5) understanding economic, legal, and social issues surrounding information and its technologies and using information in an ethical and legal manner.[7]     


The Information Literacy Course Enhancement Program (ILCEP) and an accompanying competitive summer research grant was developed to fund collaborations between academic librarians and teaching faculty to substantively integrate information literacy standards into five courses selected annually.[8]  The library objectives include: strengthening student research results and preparing them for greater academic success; fostering collaboration between instructors and librarians; implementing syllabus enhancements to include information literacy-based learning outcomes and information literacy active learning assignments within the discipline; encouraging instructors to include the full range of the WVU Libraries’ resources, expertise, and services in course-planning and delivery in courses with research expectations.[9]


The art history and art foundations professors have a long-standing relationship with the Creative Arts Librarian and classes typically meet with her once a semester to review library resources and skills for research projects and class presentations.  The ILCEP grant provided an opportunity to integrate information literacy skills into a new senior seminar.  The objective was to design a learning experience that developed advanced information literacy competencies in third and fourth-year undergraduates and first-year graduate students to ensure they are equipped with advanced-level competencies for the senior or graduate thesis and for life-long learning. 


The seminar topic, Great International Expositions of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, emphasized art history and visual culture, but it was also conceived to be interdisciplinary.  Because the art historian’s role is to interpret and communicate the meaning of visual culture, and the current state of the field is very interdisciplinary as scholars often study the social, political, religious, and economic background that informs the context of both the making and the reception of an object, it is essential that art historians possess advanced information literacy competencies in order to conduct research within a wide range of disciplines.  To emphasize the importance of attaining advanced literacy information proficiencies, two of the six student learning outcomes for the course were directly related to these objectives: 1) students will determine their information needs, access that information, evaluate it critically, and synthesize it in an ethical and legal manner in order to construct new knowledge which they will communicate both verbally and in written form; and 2) they will become more self-reflexive and conscious of themselves as learners with the goal of becoming more self-directed. 


Course Projects

Information literacy content was concentrated in the first eight weeks of the fifteen week course.  During the first three weeks activities were designed to refresh library skills.  Central Michigan University’s Research Readiness Self Assessment (RRSA) was administered to give students an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of their research skills; students posted descriptions of at least two research tools (indexes, catalogs, databases, search engines, etc.) to an online discussion board; and an in-class online ‘treasure hunt’ tested information access proficiency.  For this last assignment students were paired up and each team was charged with identifying as many resources as possible on the topic of the week.  Students e-mailed citations from databases, when this option was available, or copied web links and opening paragraphs into a text document, which they e-mailed to the librarian.  While the class discussed the week’s readings with the art historian, the librarian tallied the ‘treasure hunt’ results, which were announced at the end of the session.  The first-placed team relied exclusively on Google, discovering a complete online bibliography for the 1855 Paris Exposition. In the following class, the students engaged in a short discussion of bias and its application to research, then teamed up to evaluate some of the websites they had identified during the treasure hunt.  Each team completed a worksheet based on California State University at Chico’s CRAAP Test.[10]  Besides making students more conscious of the quality of their internet resources, this evaluation exercise brought out the strengths and weaknesses of web search engines versus subscription databases. 


Skills of accessing and evaluating information were reinforced through a two-part book review project.  During the third week, students were tasked with finding at least twenty-five reviews of five books the instructor selected on world’s fairs.  They were to record and evaluate keywords, limits, databases, and other information that yielded the best results.  For the second part of the project, continued in the fourth week, the class was divided into groups, assigned a book, and asked to read all the reviews they had previously found.  Each individual wrote a review of the reviews.  In the fifth week each group led a discussion circle and compared their observations while the rest of the class listened and interacted with the discussant group.  The goal was for students to: understand how reviews varied, identify biases, assess what type of information can be learned from a review, and determine what makes a good review (not how good the book actually was).  The instructor wanted students to consciously engage in metacognitive thinking so they would have a model for asking similar questions to evaluate their own resources. 


The next project strengthened the students’ evaluative skills and introduced them to the ethics and legality of copyright issues.  Students read “Copyright Basics” published by the U.S. Copyright Office, a chapter from Permissions, a Survival Guide, and an article on the intellectual property and patent law that was created to facilitate the Great Exhibition of 1851.[11]  With these readings as a foundation, class time was used to assess student understanding through a short quiz.  Each student was given a set of green “yes” and red “no” cards.  They held up an answer to such questions as: Is it legal to take an image from a museum website and use it in your research paper?  If an article is in the Public Domain, can you legally post it on your public webpage?  This quiz segued into a discussion of the copyright issues likely to impact an art historian’s work.  Discussion also focused on the contrasts between copyright infringement and academic dishonesty.


By week five, students had generated preliminary bibliographies and were refining their research topic.  To facilitate this, they were tasked with creating a concept map.  To begin, students were required to find appropriate background articles in Grove Art (Oxford Art Online) and highlight search keywords. Students matched each keyword with a term from the Library of Congress Subject Authorities, the Art Abstracts database, and Getty’s Art and Architecture Thesaurus and added these to their terms list, as well as ideas, thumbnail images, sketches, maps, key works, and anything else that would help them determine what they might include in their paper. 


The course instructor developed a detailed “Introduction to Concept Maps” handout that gave visual and textual examples of five different types of concept maps, links to online resources, and a detailed grading rubric that provided guidelines and made expectations for the concept maps clear. Key points stressed in the handout were that concept mapping can help one to: construct and present complex information visually; see new connections between ideas one already has; connect new ideas to knowledge one has; generate new ideas from seeing knowledge displayed in a visual way; and organize knowledge in a structure that allows for new information to be easily integrated.  The three steps outlined to start building a concept map included: 1) brainstorming, which included the term generating exercises; 2) organizing and creating hierarchies; and 3) laying out information to visually comprehend relationships and adding connecting explanatory links via arrows and text. 


Written explanations and illustrations were included in the handout for each of the five categories of concept maps: spider, hierarchy, flowchart, systems, and picture.  Students had to determine which format worked best for their topic and make a physical map.  Suggestions to help students begin the process included writing and sketching on sticky notes for flexibility of placement.  The directions emphasized highlighting their original ideas, connections they made between concepts, and connecting their ideas to the expositions and themes discussed in class. 


The final class project with the librarian was designed to expose the students to databases outside those commonly used in art history.  19th Century Masterfile, American Periodical Series Online, British Periodicals, and Reader’s Guide Retrospective, among others, built on an earlier discussion of primary resources and digital archives, and showed students the online possibilities for nineteenth and early-twentieth century newspaper and magazine articles.  Comparison of their concept maps with the libraries’ subject index to databases revealed the usefulness of Historical Abstracts, Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals, ATLA Religion Database, Sociological Abstracts, etc.  Generating keywords and search terms for the concept maps helped students think outside of disciplinary boundaries.  The instructor and librarian plan to move this exercise earlier in the schedule so the keywords and subject terms uncovered in these databases can be incorporated into the concept maps.



These synergistic assignments helped achieve the student learning outcomes related to information literacy.  Generating keywords and subject terms for the concept map helped students to determine their information needs.  The RRSA, posting and discussion of research tools, ‘treasure hunt’, analyses of reviews, interdisciplinary searches, and building the concept map all aided students in accessing information.  One student reported, “during the semester there was a certain type of information that I needed to access and I had never had to search for it before now.  In taking this class I was able to learn the most effective way for finding information that I needed.” In another evaluation a student noted, “I feel as if I can take more . . . charge in doing research and I know I have improved my skills at finding information.  I also feel as if I can find more reliable sources.”  Another wrote, “this process has allowed me . . .  to consider alternative sources in my research . . . that I may not have considered prior.”


The “yes” and “no” cards worked well to determine if students could evaluate how to use material in an ethical and legal manner, while the CRAAP test, analysis of reviews, and construction of concept maps expanded upon their previous understanding of evaluating resources and helped them practice their skills.  In the discussion subsequent to administering the CRAAP test, one team reported that, although they themselves had selected the website during the ‘treasure hunt’, it was a poor resource. Another student observed, “I am much more critical about the research I decided to utilize.”  Most of the students, including the graduates, revealed they had never thought about reading the reviews in a critical manner to assess the quality of books or to get more information on a subject.


Creating a concept map helped students synthesize information.  As they organized information in a visual format they created hierarchies that showed how certain concepts built upon others.  The visual arrangement of material facilitated seeing connections between sub-topics, as well as areas that needed to be filled within their proposed theses.  Through the process of creating the concept map three students realized they needed to adjust the focus of their topic well before beginning the first draft of their paper.


The concept map was also the most significant means of highlighting gaps in current scholarship and previously unrecognized relationships that generated new knowledge.  Creating the map led many students to engage in a feedback loop as they saw new connections and began to expand and refine their topic.  As one student declared, “The course has helped me to do original research and to piece together information to make an original statement”. 


The students also communicated the content of their concept map in written, visual, and verbal formats and justified its form by explaining how it worked conceptually and formally, what problems they encountered and the outline for their paper.  The students produced a wide variety of concept maps, including at least one in each of the five categories.  Two were computer generated; most were hand-labeled; a few included images; one flowchart was color-coded; one map was inscribed over an illustration of a colonnade with a triumphal arch in a hierarchical format; some were on standard copy paper while others were on poster board.   Two students reported that making the map helped them easily produce an outline for their paper while another wrote, “Before having taken this class I would begin my research by just jumping into the topic.  Now I found that making the concept map really did help me to create my outline.  In turn, the outline helped me to stay focused on my paper.”  Three students reported that they found the exercise so helpful that they used the technique in another class.   



The major benefits for the librarian were pre-planning and integrating the library instruction into the course content.  The course enhancement grant provided a context for developing a complete and rigorous plan well in advance of the course start date.  This gave planning time to closely integrate the information literacy goals into the first eight weeks of course content, along with class time for hands-on practice, and the opportunity to think and talk about some of the whys behind the hows, and what the concepts mean in the broader view of research and careers.


The intellectual property/copyright discussion and the concept mapping were the most rewarding for the librarian.  These are topics and skills often addressed in library instruction, but seldom with the depth or active participation observed here.  This model of collaboration has proven to be the most sustainable time-wise.  It provided the benefits enumerated above, while not carrying time-intensive grading responsibilities or requiring that the librarian attend every class session. 


Benefits from the art historian’s perspective include having time to meet in-person with the librarian throughout the summer and collaborate between meetings through Google Documents.  An expository syllabus with a detailed discussion of assignments was not only used to formulate the student syllabus, but also served as a script to clarify how each assignment worked and who was responsible for implementing each section, making for seamless team teaching. 


By integrating information literacy sessions while creating the course, nothing was subtracted from the course content, but on the contrary, it greatly enhanced the quality of the research projects. Although the sophistication of the projects may be due in part to the advanced-level of the course, the new research techniques and resources enhanced the process.  On the whole, students went beyond reporting information and expanded the conceptual framework of their topics, looked at the gaps in research, asked questions that required more diverse sources, and were not bound by materials or ideas generated in the early stages of the research process.  Many of the students did indeed become more self-reflexive and self-directed learners.  As one student concluded, “this process has allowed me to think more creatively about research.”  Six of the students in this course were enrolled in the senior/graduate capstone the following semester.  All six used techniques learned in the senior seminar for their thesis projects and were able to determine their needs, access the information, evaluate it critically and synthesize it; five were able to construct new knowledge by convincingly formulating and arguing original theses. 



The extensive collaboration between the creative arts librarian and art historian fostered by the WVU ILCEP not only met all the library objectives for the program but also aided in fulfilling the student learning outcomes of the seminar course that were based on ALA information literacy standards.  As students attained advanced-level competencies they advanced to concept-driven approaches to research rather than being restricted by skill proficiency.  One result of the transparent emphasis on information literacy process objectives was that students engaged in metacognitive thinking as researchers and consequently monitored and evaluated their own progress.  They took ownership of their learning, and as our survey results and observations revealed, they gained confidence as researchers.  The integrative learning strategies and the ability to adapt them for their own needs that the students developed are essential for life-long learning.     



[1] Walczak et al., “Introducing Information Literacy to Commercial Art and Design Students,” 193-203.

[2] Haras,"The Art of Evidence,” 263-64.

[3] Ross and Furno, "Active Learning," 953-970,

[4] Wilkinson and Cairns, "Life Beyond the One-Shot,”; Carlin and Damschroder,              "Beautiful and Useful,” 168-83;  Xiao and Traboulay, "Integrating Information Literacy,” 173-92.

[5] West Virginia University Libraries, “The Information Literacy Initiative at West Virginia University                Libraries,” last modified October, 2011,

[6] American Library Association, Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education,                2002,

[7] American Library Association, Information Literacy,

[8] WVU Libraries, “The Information Literacy Initiative,      

[9] WVU Libraries, “WVU Information Literacy Course Enhancement Grants Sponsored by the WVU                Libraries and the Office of the Provost,”

[10] Meriam Library California State University, Chico, “Evaluating Information—Applying the CRAAP                Test,” last modified September, 2010,              CRAAP stands for: currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose.

[11] U.S. Copyright Office, “Copyright Basics,” last modified August, 2011,        Bielstein, Permissions, a Survival Guide; Purbrick,                “Knowledge Is Property,” 53-60, .



Bielstein, Susan M. Permissions, a Survival Guide: Blunt Talk about Art as Intellectual Property. Chicago:     University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Carlin, Jane A. and Cindy B. Damschroder. "Beautiful and Useful: The Book as a Learning Object: Using an Honors Seminar as a Forum to Explore Information Literacy and Critical Thinking." College & Research Libraries News 70, no. 3 (2009): 168-83.

Haras, Catherine. "The Art of Evidence: A Method for Instructing Students in Art History Research."  In The Handbook of Art and Design Librarianship, edited by A. Gluibizzi and Paul Glassmann, 263-64.  London: Facet Publishing, 2010.

Purbrick, Louise.  “Knowledge Is Property: Looking at Exhibits and Patents in 1851.” Oxford Art Journal 20, no. 2 (1997): 53-60.


Ross, Alanna and Christine Furno. "Active Learning in the Library Instruction Environment: An Exploratory Study." portal: Libraries and the Academy, 11 no. 4 (2011): 953-970.

Walczak, David A., Diane l. Sammet, and Monika E. Reuter. “A Program for Introducing Information Literacy to Commercial Art and Design Students.” Communications in Information Literacy 3, no. 2 (2009): 193-203.

Wilkinson, Lane and Virginia Cairns. "Life Beyond the One-Shot: Librarians Teaching a for-Credit Course." Tennessee Libraries 60, no. 3 (2010).

Xiao, Judy and David Traboulay. "Integrating Information Literacy into the Graduate Liberal Arts Curriculum: A Faculty-Librarian Collaborative Course Model." Public Services Quarterly 3, no. 3-4 (2007): 173-92.