Many libraries are re-examining how their collections shape, form or erase our perceptions of the past in the light of recent events. This is something that librarians are very aware of – avoiding censorship and discrimination when acquiring books is part of library training. This account of a workshop held in the Taylorian last year shows how students can assist librarians and influence decisions on acquisitions and the visibility of collections.
On 13th February 2019, the Taylorian Library hosted a workshop for attendees at Veronika Schuchter and Miriam Schwarz’s open seminar on Afro-German women’s writing. This was part of a wider programme of events, ‘Länder der Dichterinnen und Denkerinnen’, which celebrated female writers and thinkers of the German-speaking countries, the programme title playing on the time-worn and exclusionary designation of Germany as ‘Land der Dichter und Denker’.
Around twenty undergraduate students were joined by Miriam Schwarz, Veronika Schuchter, Nicola Thomas and Emma Huber, Subject Librarian for German at the Taylorian Institution library.
The session began with Veronika Schuchter, who introduced students to the idea of the politics of citation via a handout with extracts from texts by Beverly Weber and Sara Ahmed, along with a bibliography for further reading. Veronika explained that who and how we cite the work of other scholars is an important part of inclusive and politically-aware academic practice: making sure that the scholarship of women and people of colour is recognised and amplified.
Emma Huber then spoke about the role of the Taylorian collections in enabling students to access academic research by an appropriate range of authors and critics. She explained how the Taylorian subject librarians use a combination of their own specialist subject knowledge and recommendations from the scholarly community to build their collections, and that student recommendations form an important part of this. Librarians at the Taylorian and college librarians welcome suggestions from students for items to acquire, and in this way students have the power to influence what is studied in Oxford, and how it is studied, by making suggestions which expand the range of voices represented in library holdings.
Nicola Thomas then introduced the hands-on part of the workshop. She gave students a choice of assignments to tackle in small groups. One group focused on auditing reading lists for canonical topics within German studies, to see how varied the range of perspectives on offer was, and whether it could be expanded. For example, does the library hold texts which will expose students to feminist approaches to Goethe’s Faust? Is ‘difficult’ modern poetry, like the work of Paul Celan, presented on reading lists as the sole preserve of male scholars?
Another group worked with a list of texts, primary and secondary, about Afro-German and Black German women’s writing. They checked whether key texts from this list were held anywhere in Oxford, and whether copies of key texts (by May Ayim, Audré Lord and others) were easily accessible and given due prominence.
A third group focused on their college library holdings, cross-checking with the Taylorian collections to see whether it would be helpful to make texts by women writers and scholars more widely available by suggesting that copies of key works were acquired by college librarians.
Tutors circulated during these group-work sessions to talk with students about their experiences of studying German and how they felt about the range of perspectives and approaches on offer, and how their experience of using the library had shaped the way they thought about who writes and reads German-language literature. This generated lots of thoughtful and interesting discussion. Students came away with increased confidence to make suggestions to librarians, at the Taylor Institution and in college, and a new critical awareness of the politics of citation, librarianship and academic teaching and learning. Above all, it was heartening and enjoyable to see students willingly engaged in researching and accessing library resources, developing a sense of the library as a shared resource in which they are important stakeholders.
Staff at the Taylor Institution Library found the concept of this workshop fascinating, as nothing in this format had been held before. Students gained a range of information skills, such as using catalogues and databases effectively, as well as how to navigate the library. They were also encouraged to view the collections with a critical eye, and engaged with library staff about the collections. These sorts of interactions are invaluable and it was a great opportunity for both students and staff. Students made several recommendations of books the library should purchase, which the library is now acting on. Book suggestions were made for other libraries as well, so the workshop had wider benefits.
The library is very grateful to Nicola Thomas, Rey Conquer, Veronika Schuchter and Miriam Schwarz who initiated the workshop and shared their findings with us. They were instrumental in setting up Expanding German Studies, which aims to develop a database of texts in or about German culture (films, prose, drama, poetry and critical work) written by or about under-represented and historically marginalised groups, with the aim of helping to expand and diversify the German Studies curriculum across the UK.
Dr Nicola Thomas, formerly of Queen’s College, now Lecturer in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary, University of London.
Emma Huber, German Subject Librarian, Taylor Institution Library