Library Reports
Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College

The assignment is simply to use the library throughout the semester to help you understand and assess the reading. Take this broadly so that it includes the texts, issues, theories, and figures in the course, as well as any part of their context. I will not assign topics to study or sources to consult. You pick what interests you. Start where you find yourself: what did you find intriguing, difficult, suspicious, or important? What would you like to follow up on?

Write a short (2-3 page) description of some of the ideas you found most illuminating or thought-provoking in your browsing/research on that text, position, or person. The syllabus says how often and when. Give full, standard bibliographic citations of the pieces that you write about. If a particular question guided your browsing/research, put that in too.

To do the assignment in the right spirit, you should be visiting the library routinely to find scholarship that clarifies difficult passages in the reading, answers background questions, or deepens your understanding of a fascinating idea. Hence, you should usually have seen much more than you need to write up for these reports. You should never have to rush over to the library the night before the due date to find something to write about.

I welcome your own analysis and exposition, but in this assignment they are secondary. Give 2-3 pages to the views of others whom you discover in the library. If you want to keep writing in order to give some of yourself as well, then by all means do so.

As with regular papers, aim for depth over breadth. Summarize one work in some detail rather than two or more superficially.

As with regular papers, cite the text by page for every important claim about the author's position.

Don't forget that you know a foreign language, at least to some extent. Even if you cannot read without a dictionary, consider using what you know.

Because one rationale of the assignment is to become comfortable using the library, please confine yourself to Lilly Library. Do not use inter-library loan for this assignment.

For the same reason (and others), dictionaries, encylopedias, or web surfing may get you started, but you should eventually consult books, book chapters, and/or journal articles. You may write on a full-text article you find on the web only with permission.

Library reports will not be graded, but must be handed in. I may require a rewrite for library reports that are too scanty or that do not go beyond encyclopedias (or Magill's summaries, etc.). The assignment is ungraded so that you will relax, not so that you will go limp. Write with clarity and precision, as usual. Assume that your audience has not read the works on which you are reporting.

(I will comment briefly on your library reports, but too briefly to justify use of email or tape evaluation. Save these options for more substantive papers.)

See my generic hand-out for details on paper mechanics and lateness.

You may use your library reports, if relevant, in any of your papers for this course.

Optional additions

  1. Evaluate the position taken by the author of one of the pieces you've read. Or evaluate part of it.
  2. Ask a really good question or two (or 10 or 20) about the position taken by one of your authors. Posing sharp questions can be a wonderful, liberating experience, especially if you don't have to answer them.
  3. Use what you've found to argue for a conclusion about one of our assigned authors, texts, or topics.
  4. Find two articles that disagree with each other on a narrow point, or an article that disagrees with one of our assigned authors. Frame the issues of the controversy from both sides. If you have time and inclination, begin to adjudicate the dispute.

This assignment should be enjoyable and empowering. The point is to help you feel comfortable answering your own questions in a library. If you can be comfortable, then perhaps you can be adventuresome. If you can be adventuresome, then you are becoming intellectually autonomous. That is why I use this assignment in a philosophy course. When you are at home in a library, you can learn anything —on your own, when you want, what you want, free from all would-be authorities.

Here are some of the ways that you can use this assignment. You can extend class work to cover related topics. You can complement primary sources with secondary sources. You can go beyond me, find other interpretations of our texts than mine, pursue questions and topics I left off the syllabus, or discover new perspectives on our material. You can find support for emerging questions, objections, and theories of your own. You can shed light on difficult passages in the reading, or follow up clear passages that are too interesting to leave alone. You can see who influenced whom, how a philosopher's successors responded to his/her views, how a philosopher's life or times may be reflected in his/her work, or how a figure or movement of interest to you is related to the work in class. You can look at how the "experts" interpret a text that you have already read closely. You can see the range of views on an issue, and how the profession works over material, uses argument and evidence, or deals with disagreement. You may start with a definite question and answer it, or you may browse and find things of which you never dreamed.

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A. Copyright © 1997-2002, Peter Suber.