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Reflection: Curiosity and Play in the Hyperlinked Academic Library

For me, the heart of this week’s readings on the Hyperlinked Academic Library was Rempel and Deitering’s (2017) investigation into the lack of genuine curiosity in first-year students’ compositions for their writing classes. I currently work in a public library and I’ve noticed that curiosity is in abundance here. Children, teens, and adults browse and flip through materials that are of interest to them. They explore nearby books on the shelves. They ask for similar reads at the information desk based on what they’ve read before. Patrons wander in and out of programs that spark their interest. There’s a certain freedom to explore and investigate in public libraries that seems to be dampened in college or academic libraries.

Students, however, come in with a mission, usually to find and hit their quota of resources for a paper. When I interned at a local community college library, I definitely performed reference interviews with students similar to the ones described in Remper and Deitering (2017) – those trying to find tried and true topics and resources that would hit all the requirements for their class. While students may want to explore a topic, the notion that there isn’t enough information out there, or the topic is too avant garde, or (perhaps most significantly) the fear that whatever they want to investigate won’t meet the instructor’s standards are all limiting factors to student curiosity. Something may spark their interest, but these limiters make it difficult (and anxiety-inducing, as the authors mention) to stray from the beaten path.

How, then, can libraries help bring students back into the realm of curiosity, to reinstate the “play” element of the library environment that is so prevalent in public libraries?

Work with instructors

Let’s face it – the impetus for many students to enter an academic library is usually a class assignment. Encouragement to explore, therefore, must first be established within the classroom. Librarians should be “working closely with the faculty and GTAs who teach first-year composition to develop ways to reward students for taking intellectual risks and engaging in exploratory research” (Rempel & Deitering, 2017). If we can remove the fear of failure and a bad grade, and instead replace that with reassurance that exploration will not be punished, students will be more willing to investigate topics and ideas that truly resonate with them. For the more difficult subject matters, librarians and instructors can make themselves and other resources available to help with the research process, whether that be through reference interviews, office hours, library instruction, or the “conversations” Mathews (2015) describes in his article. In this way, we can help de-emphasize simply pleasing the instructor, and instead nurture curiosity.

Create avenues and tools for discovery

The library must also have a hand in exposing students to new ideas they may not encounter otherwise. OSU’s aggregator of easy-to-read press releases about recent research projects and discoveries (Rempel & Deitering, 2017) is an example of this, as is Copenhagen University Library’s Digital Social Science Lab for data exploration (Lauersen, 2016), the salon- and Socratic-style “conversation” programs discussed by Mathews (2015), and the high-tech interactive spaces designed by Snohetta for the North Carolina State University (NCSU) (NCState, 2013). Many of the readings this week touched on the idea that patrons create their own knowledge as well. All of the above mentioned innovations help start discourse and discovery, and help students on their way to learning how to participate in a research community, reason through a research problem, and ultimately produce their own findings and understanding of the topic they’re studying.

Rethink physical spaces

I was incredibly impressed with the Hunt Library and have been since it was initially introduced in the earlier modules of this class. It’s the epitome of the idea of “re-introducing play” I mentioned above. It’s a literal adult playground filled with collaborative spaces that allow you to draw all over the glass walls; create, display, and share ideas; and experiment with technology and your own creativity. While not all libraries will have the budget to implement what NCSU has done at Hunt, the fundamental principles can still be applied on a smaller scale. What are the principles of exploration and discovery? Is it bouncing ideas off of other people? Let’s create common rooms with multiple ways to visualize each others’ ideas, or creating programs and avenue for students to speak with each other, experts, faculty, etc. Is it creation? Let’s think about software and hardware that promote bringing ideas into reality (e.g. animation software, 3D printers, others?).

There’s a niche here, I’m sure, for academic librarians to study how young adults and adults explore the world. We hear a lot about children learning and exploring, but that doesn’t (or at least, shouldn’t) stop as we get older. From that, we can determine how best to configure our spaces to encourage those behaviors, and thus encourage curiosity and play.



Deitering, A. & Rempel, H.G. (2017). Sparking curiosity – Librarian’s role in encouraging exploration. In the Library with a Lead Pipe. Retrieved from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2017/sparking-curiosity/

Lauersen, C. (2016, March 8). Towards Rubicon: The academic library and the importance of making a choice [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://christianlauersen.net/2016/03/08/towards-rubicon/?utm_content=buffer42d5d&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Mathews, B. (2015, May 27). The evolving & expanding service landscape across academic libraries [Blog post]. The Ubiquitous Librarian. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/blognetwork/theubiquitouslibrarian/2015/05/27/the-evolving-expanding-service-landscape-across-academic-libraries/

North Carolina State University. [NCState]. (2013, July 30). The Hunt Library story [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Okr78MUrImI


  1. Hi Ashton,

    I was also impressed by Rempel and Deitering’s article. It saddened me because I’ve seen that phenomenon of young college students being afraid to adventure to the margins of their imagination in order to comply with an assignment. I agree it’s important for librarians to try to work with instructors to open the parameters of their assignments. I imagine the instructors grow tired of seeing the same topics turned in over and over, as well.

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