On the subject of my subject

My name is Sarah, I’m the subject librarian for architecture at Cardiff University and since 2010 I’ve attended, of my own volition and in my own time, lectures at the Welsh School of Architecture. Here’s how and why…

The lectures

In 2008, after much extolling of the virtues of information literacy to academics, I succeeded in introducing into a module entitled Architecture since 1940 an assessed annotated and critical bibliography exercise, preceding first year students’ first essay

My appalling sketch of an iconic building from notes made during the Architecture since 1940 lectures

My appalling sketch of an iconic building from notes made during the Architecture since 1940 lectures

submission. It quickly became apparent that some underpinning knowledge would help my marking of students’ work. Students’ claims that source material analysed “an iconic building” would be easier to assess if I knew something about the architect.

Though I believed from the outset that lecture attendance would go beyond mere knowledge acquisition, allowing me to better integrate within the School and understand and meet its needs, what I’d not anticipated was quite how valuable and enjoyable the experience would be. So much so that, since attending Architecture since 1940 lectures in 2010I’ve also attended Issues in Contemporary Architecture, a third year module, which I chose because I felt I would enjoy the broad, sometimes multi-disciplinary, nature of the subjects it covers, Cities and Landscapes, a second year module, which starts the process of contextualising the build and makes heavy demands on the library with an extensive reading list and Architecture from Pre-history to the Industrial Revolution, a first year module, which I chose because I knew little of the formal architectural properties it examines.

Professional development

I work part-time, so attend lectures in my own time, adjusting my working hours in order to attend. Because of this flexible approach to my working week, line management support has been crucial and I formally acknowledge my lecture attendance in my appraisal documents.

Lecture attendance has encouraged me to diversify my professional development, which has enhanced my understanding of how best to support the School.  I’ve attended a training day on Building Regulations intended for construction professionals, accompanied a student heating, ventilation, and air conditioning visit, assisted at a Royal Society of Architects in Wales annual conference and participated in some Twentieth Century Society architectural events.

Learning to teach

My more publishable observations on others' teaching

My more publishable observations on others’ teaching

A more obvious benefit to my professional development has been the opportunity to observe others teaching.  I’ve valued the chance to see architecture lecturers at work, to observe their reliance on the visual representation of information and see how informal the lecture process can be.  This has directly impacted on my own teaching, as I’ve attempted to teach in a style more compatible with the School’s.


Collection development

Recommended reading for one module, collected during lectures

One module’s lecture notes, including recommended reading not on reading lists

Attending lectures confirmed my suspicions that lots of reading material is recommended during lectures, supplemental to formal reading lists. In the case of the Cities and Landscapes module, which has an unusually extensive reading list, attending the lectures gave me a better appreciation of how the sheer breadth of knowledge imparted has necessitated this extensive reading list.  It also helped me understand the odd fluctuations in student demands for texts, as I witnessed lecturers setting students’ informal assessments.

Student experience

I’ve gained some insight into how architecture students learn.  This insight led to some dalliance with Performance Based Learning techniques, to more informal delivery of teaching and to a better appreciation of student workload.  And hearing some of the subject-specific language they encounter, I’ve attempted to employ that vocabulary where feasible, to suggest a synergy between School and Library.

Staff engagement

Attendance at lectures has often resulted in an improved relationship with academics. Some now seek my advice on what texts to best set for student reading. More frequent, though not as warranted, are requests for feedback on the content and teaching style of modules. Viz,

Great to have feedback Sarah…I do sometimes feel like I am speaking into the void. […]  If you can see anything that I could improve please let me know.

If nothing else, the experience of attending lectures has offered witness to the extent to which some academics suffer the same anxieties as me about the relevance, interest or style of delivery of material.

Student engagement

Attending lectures has increased my visibility among students.  Most are unquestioning that I should be attending lectures.

Lovely architecture student demonstrates sketching in Dublin

I got paid to go abroad and watch students sketch. Lovely.

My first attendances at lectures signalled enough of an interest in architecture that I was invited to accompany the first year undergraduates on their week-long study visit to Dublin in March 2011.  This was an excellent opportunity to further engage with students, to discover a little better how they were taught, how they learned and what motivated their architectural interest.


Stourhead Gardens, which I viewed differently following a lecture on their construction

I visited Stourhead Gardens with a friend following a lecture on the Gardens. My poor friend was subjected to all sorts of facts.

Personal development

And, finally, I attend architecture lectures because I enjoy it.  I’m learning about buildings and I’m visiting places, such as Stourhead Gardens and Wells Cathedral, with fresh eyes.

The future

Next year the structure of the undergraduate curriculum is changing and I’m unsure whether I’ll be able to so easily slot lectures into my working week. But I’m very keen to do so. Do you think I should? Or am I deluding myself that attending architecture lectures is a valid part of my role?

At least one person I know agrees with my assessment of my experience… This blog post is adapted from a short presentation given at the 2013 ARCLIB conference in the University of York. Subsequent to this presentation one colleague felt encouraged to investigate attending lectures in their own institution, “with a view to improving the Library’s support for new undergraduates”. I hope they find it as rewarding as I have.


3 thoughts on “On the subject of my subject

  1. I think that building rapport with people you are training is vital and I think students can find it very hard to relate to the ‘LIBRARIAN’. I think that by improving your visibility in this way, they see that you *are* actually interested in what they do, and *do* know what their lectures are like and what sort of things they are given to find and read. You gain valuable knowledge about what they are taught and how they are taught. This will enable you provide them with just in time and relevant training – all vital to creating a memorable learning experience. Which in turn will mean they get better marks. I think it means that the academics in the school really do know who you are and that you are more visible to them as well and by attending lectures you are showing them that you care about the students and the subject. This will enhance your reputation with them and mean they are more likely to get in touch when they need help or are putting together their reading lists/need you to teach. Again invaluable. Sounds to me like a perfect way to enhance your liaison, your subject knowledge and your teaching.

    *AND you gets to learn exciting stuffs.*

    It’s such a shame that demands on time/resources etc mean this isn’t possible everywhere.

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