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TL v61n4: The History Laboratory: Service Learning at Cleveland State Community College Library
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 61 Number 4



The History Laboratory: Service-Learning at Cleveland State Community College Library


Sarah Shippy Copeland

Records Catalog Coordinator and Adjunct Instructor of History

Cleveland State Community College Library


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Presented at the 2011 TLA Annual Conference 


Cleveland State Community College (CLSCC) is a small junior college within the Tennessee Board of Regents system. The school serves approximately 3000 students (2000 FTE) from Tennessee’s mountainous southeastern counties: Bradley, McMinn, Meigs, Monroe, and Polk.  45% of students follow a general transfer program in the arts and sciences [1]. Library collections and services target students in the general transfer and nursing programs because they are the heaviest users of the campus library.

Two recent events have motivated the librarians at Cleveland State Community College to collaborate with the Department of History on a service-learning course. The first was the development of a campus Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), required by the 2004 Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) accreditation process. Cleveland State’s QEP focuses on increasing student engagement, and the QEP committee identified service-learning as a possible pedagogical tool that promotes student engagement and investment in the learning process [2]. The librarians felt that participating in the QEP was an imperative given their role as instructors.

The second event was the release of the Tennessee Board of Regents Strategic Plan for 2010-2015, which emphasized promoting external partnerships and fostering student engagement [3]. Although the Strategic Plan does not specifically identify service-learning as a means of achieving these priorities, it does support the goals of Cleveland State’s QEP. Neither the TBR Strategic Plan nor the CLSCC Quality Enhancement Plan required librarians to change their academic support services. Nevertheless, the staff at Cleveland State Community College Library saw an opportunity to support the goals of both institutions through the development of a service-learning course, the History Laboratory.   Moreover, this program could serve as a model for other academic libraries in Tennessee.

What is service-learning?

Service-learning is a pedagogical method that combines abstract knowledge with exposure to real-world problems through carefully designed community service projects in order to create a richer, more nuanced learning experience. Other benefits of service-learning include increasing student engagement, offering hands-on experience for students, and developing community relationships [4].

Although service-learning has gained wide acceptance as a pedagogical method, librarians have been slow to incorporate service-learning into their instruction and services. The literature on service-learning in academic libraries is relatively sparse; most articles on the topic describe service-learning projects of limited scope and duration [5].

The Southeast Tennessee Digital Library (SETDA)

The librarians at CLSCC saw an opportunity to create a service-learning course by building on an existing project, the Southeast Tennessee Digital Archive, or SETDA. SETDA is a digital library of historical images contributed by individuals and cultural heritage institutions throughout the CLSCC service area. It is a collaboration between the CLSCC Library and Department of History

SETDA grew out of an assignment in Professor Bryan Reed’s American History course. Reed asked students to interview a family member for an oral history project; he encouraged students to collect photographs that illustrated events described in the interview. Reed noticed that these photographs shared several characteristics: interesting content, educational value, and that they were “hidden” in private hands. Many of the photographs were also fragile. Reed was concerned that the content of these photographs be made accessible to educators and the public before they deteriorated. He asked the CLSCC Library to purchase a content management system that would organize digitized images and make them available on the web. With the purchase of CONTENTdm, a user-friendly digital library platform, the Library and the Department of History embarked on a partnership to develop a web-based library of local history resources, the Southeast Tennessee Digital Library.

SETDA contributions are digitized using the best practices developed for Tennessee’s state-wide Volunteer Voices digitization project. SETDA’s policy limits the collection to items representing people or places in southeast Tennessee, or that are owned by a cultural heritage institution within the region. SETDA is currently limited to photographs. In the future it will expand to include videos, oral histories, texts, and links to other web resources. 

CLSCC Library and Department of History built on the momentum of the Volunteer Voices project to recruit local cultural heritage institutions – libraries, historical societies, museums and archives – to participate in the SETDA initiative. CLSCC Library provides partner institutions with access to the CONTENTdm system, training, technical support, leadership, and student assistance with digitization and description through the History Laboratory. SETDA partners contribute collections for digitization, ideas to strengthen this collaborative venture, and mentorship to students in the History Laboratory course. In addition to its leadership role, CLSCC also contributes images from its own archive. All partners work together to provide broader access to local history resources.

At this time, SETDA comprises 780 digital objects contained within seven collections. Three cultural heritage agencies in addition to CLSCC have contributed collections to SETDA: the Cleveland (TN) Public Library History Branch, the Museum Center at 5 Points (Cleveland, TN), and the Polk County Historical and Genealogical Society Library (Benton, TN). Private individuals have permitted 115 digital objects to be scanned and included in SETDA.


The success of SETDA and the History Laboratory relies on several characteristics of OCLC’s CONTENTdm product, therefore I am including a brief discussion of its benefits and limitations here. CONTENTdm is a tool for organizing and presenting digital objects on the web. It offers a very simple client, with features for streamlining workflow such as metadata templates, batch processing, and a thesaurus builder. CONTENTdm is optimized for the Dublin Core metadata scheme, which facilitates metadata entry by students and others unfamiliar with metadata. Uploaded items and description are added to an approval queue, which allows the CONTENTdm administrator to review all contributions before publication to the web. Digital objects may be grouped into collections; we have used this feature to group objects by contributing institution. The collections may be synchronized with OCLC’s WorldCat and indexed by search engines to increase searchability. In sum, CONTENTdm offers a vehicle for easy description, easy organization, and easy integration into existing resource discovery platforms.

CONTENTdm has several significant limitations. The system offers neither preservation nor migration tools, both of which are essential for a true digital preservation program. CONTENTdm also requires item-level description, which is a time-consuming departure from current archival practice. SETDA’s goal is to promote access to materials, therefore these limitations do not severely hamper Cleveland State’s project.

In fact, CONTENTdm is a good fit for SETDA because it is so simple to use. Its features for streamlining workflows have the added benefit of making description easy for inexperienced users. These characteristics are especially important for our SETDA project because students use it in CLSCC Library’s service-learning course, the History Laboratory.

The History Laboratory

In addition to providing a unique service-learning experience, the History Laboratory fulfills two objectives for SETDA: increasing the number of digital objects ingested and augmenting existing metadata. CLSCC students provide the labor for digitization and ingest. Our partner institutions value these services because many lack the funds and staffing to develop their own digitization projects.

Bryan Reed and I designed the History Laboratory, which debuted in Fall 2010. I am the primary instructor, as I have qualifications as a librarian, historian, and CONTENTdm administrator.  This one-credit course requires students to attend 4 class meetings and complete 20 hours of service-learning at a SETDA institution. For homework, students keep a log of service-learning sessions and a journal where they reflect on their experience weekly. Their final project is to upload a minimum of 5 digital objects and accompanying metadata to CONTENTdm. The course is capped at 10 students.

We designed the History Laboratory to complement CLSCC’s traditional history curriculum, which is based on classroom lectures and research essays. It is an optional hands-on methodology class where students experience a sampling of skills used by historians. The History Lab does not contain any narrative elements; instead, students are charged with researching facts about the photographs, assembling a narrative, determining significance, and publishing their findings to SETDA. We established five learning outcomes for students in this course:

  1. Demonstrate appropriate handling of historical documents.
  2. Digitize historical documents using best practices.
  3. Describe digitized documents using the Dublin Core metadata scheme.
  4. Publish digitized materials to the Southeast Tennessee Digital Archive (SETDA) using CONTENTdm.
  5. Describe the public role of institutions charged with preserving historical materials.

Furthermore, the course addresses two information literacy goals that the CLSCC librarians value highly: exposing students to information agencies and providing innovative information literacy instruction. Regarding the former, the course exposes students to several types of cultural heritage agencies. Regarding the latter, it gives them the opportunity to be the creators of information that will be used by teachers and researchers. Students are empowered to take on the role of expert. When forced to take on roles other than information consumer, they understand information literacy concepts from a new and very different perspective.

The History Lab requires five hours of classroom instruction, spread out over four class meetings. I introduce essential skills and ideas at the point of need; therefore the class meetings are spread unevenly across the semester. We purposefully front-loaded the semester so that students were not as tempted to put off work because the History Lab is “just” a one-credit course.

The following sections will introduce the design and pacing of the course:

Class Meeting #1 (1 hr.)—The first meeting is an orientation session that takes place before the semester begins. We discuss the syllabus, expectations, and the details of how service-learning works. I provide a general introduction to cultural heritage institutions, explaining what these institutions do, why they are important, and how they are organized. I also cover proper handling of historical documents (including a hands-on demonstration) and a review of types of photographs. Students sign up for their service-learning assignments.

Class Meeting #2 (1 hr.)—The second meeting takes place during the first week of classes. To give students an appropriate background, we discuss reasons for digitization and major concepts, such as file types. Students learn the scanning procedure. I introduce them to basic archives management tools, such as creating an accession number. Bryan Reed reviews the primary resources available to students for the research component of the course.

Service-Learning Hours (2-hr. blocks over 10 weeks, total of 20 hours)—Students complete their 20 service-learning hours on the site of their assigned cultural heritage institution. During these hours students get to know their information agency and digitize photographs from assigned collections.  They research the photographs so that they can write appropriate summaries and description for uploading to CONTENTdm. Students keep a research notebook with annotations, leads to follow, and other important information about each item they digitize. Research worksheets are available to guide students in determining what information they need to find. Ideally, students complete their digitization and research by Week 10 of the semester. 

Class Meeting #3 (2 hrs.)—The third meeting takes place around Week 9 of the semester. In this extended meeting I introduce students to the process of turning their research into “description” (a euphemism for metadata). I use a comparative activity with two familiar databases, Flickr and WorldCat, to demonstrate how structured data facilitates retrieval. We discuss the importance of considering multiple audiences when brainstorming keywords. Finally, I prepare them for CONTENTdm by comparing it to Facebook, whose photo albums are a very simple example of the process of uploading and describing (i.e., tagging) photographs in a database. This seems to make CONTENTdm much less intimidating to our freshmen and sophomores. I also teach them the mechanics of uploading content to CONTENTdm and provide students with a simplified data dictionary to guide their data entry. (See Appendix A.)

Before the third class meeting, I spend approximately 30 minutes per student preparing individualized projects and templates in CONTENTdm so that students only have to focus on the major issues of description. After the two-hour class, students work independently to upload their photographs and description. Their work is submitted to the CONTENTdm approval queue, where I review their work for errors in description and Bryan reviews their research for accuracy. Students are allowed a revision week before they must resubmit their objects and description for final approval. At this time, I tweak the submissions as necessary, add Library of Congress Subject Headings, and approve them for final publication to the web.

Class Meeting #4 (1 hr.)—The fourth meeting takes place during the final week of classes, just before exams. It is a time to celebrate the students’ work and to allow them the opportunity to learn from each other’s experience. Students give five-minute presentations on the aspect of their experience that they found most interesting. We close the semester with a class discussion reflecting on the service-learning experience and the process of “doing history.”


CLSCC has now offered the History Laboratory for two full semesters; therefore, it is possible to provide a preliminary evaluation of the course. First, let us review briefly some challenges we have encountered. The most challenging aspect of the course is that it is offered to junior college students, that is, freshmen and sophomores. Some of the situations that arose suggested that too much independence was expected of students who had not yet become acquainted with the expectations for college-level work.  Student learning proved to be heavily dependent on individual motivation. Another challenging aspect of the course is that it has required a greater investment of the instructor’s time than the typical one-credit course. The course materials took more time to put together because each student was working with a different collection at a variety of SETDA partner institutions. It was impossible to save time by cribbing lectures.

On the whole, the successes of the History Laboratory outweigh the challenges. Offering a service-learning course has brought several benefits to CLSCC Library, including increased attention and support from administrators, maintaining the library’s relevance on campus, and forging new roles for the college’s librarians. Having a librarian teaching a credit-bearing service-learning course has highlighted the librarians’ potential to contribute meaningfully in cross-disciplinary courses. The college has responded positively to the library’s expanding community partnerships. Moreover, the benefits of offering the course have extended beyond just the library. The research component of the course has reinforced the narratives discussed in the traditional classroom setting. The History Laboratory has provided a valuable service to area cultural heritage institutions that contribute to SETDA, as they often lack the resources to digitize and describe their materials. And lastly, the most valuable aspect of this course is that it requires students to become familiar with a variety of cultural heritage institutions. 

From the perspective of the Cleveland State Library, this last success – introducing students to the role of libraries, archives, and museums in society – is the most important. Nearly every student who has completed the course stated that they did not realize that these institutions made such interesting and significant collections available to the public. Before taking part in this class, the students did not know that such collections existed. Several students stated that they look forward to continuing to take advantage of such resources after they complete the History Laboratory. 

Despite my primary charge of teaching the basics of the historian’s craft, the most rewarding part of the History Laboratory is introducing the students to institutions that many have never heard of. They leave the course recognizing the social and research value of museums, archives, and historical societies.

Every institution and individual that has invested in this project – the CLSCC Library, the Department of History, the SETDA partner institutions, and the students – has benefited from their participation. 

Appendix A

Simplified Data Dictionary Handout


  1. Cleveland State Community College. (2010). Fact book 2010-11. Retrieved July 13, 2011, from
  2. Cleveland State Community College. (2005). Student Involvement: A Key to Learning: Quality Enhancement Plan for Cleveland State Community College.  Retrieved July 13, 2011, from
  3. Tennessee Board of Regents. (2010). Charting the Course: The Tennessee Board of Regents Strategic Plan 2010-2015.  Retrieved July 13, 2011, from 
  4. Eyler, J. (1999). Where’s the learning in service-learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  5. Barry, M. Blog, Service Learning Librarian.



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