Using Stories to Inspire Curiosity in Research

Curiosity killed the cat, but a lack of curiosity is hurting research.  In a 2002 California public college and university report, librarians labeled this deficiency in incoming freshman:  students lacked a sense of curiosity in the research process (see article: Daly, Martha. “Are They Ready for the Next Step? Bridging High School to College.” Independent School Libraries: Perspectives on Excellence. Ed. Dorcas Hand. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited, 2010. 185-225. Print).

As a high school librarian, I observed this tendency of some students who, instead of diving into research, remain on the surface of topics, skimming the first screen of results or sampling two to three pages of a much longer journal article. These students are satisfied they found the “right answer” and abandon the search when they could be digging deeper.

Recapturing the “thrill of the quest” in research is a challenge, but I have found one approach to be helpful:  sharing stories of research “heroes.”  By heroes, I mean those inspiring stories of real people who confront challenges and develop strengths in character.  I began my career as an elementary school librarian, and I remember the delight in sharing biographies such as of the Olympic runner Wilma Rudolph, who battled physical disability (paralyzed limbs from polio) as well as racial prejudices.  Stories of heroes like Wilma Rudolph show qualities of persistence, hard work, and courage in the face of disappointments and challenges.

The following are a few examples of research heroes.  I hope these examples inspire you and your young researchers.   I also invite you to use this discussion forum to share additional hero stories.

Beautician Becomes a “Hair Archaeologist”

Janet Stephens, a Baltimore hairdresser, would often visit the art museum to view the busts of Greece and Roman noblewomen.  She was fascinated with the elaborate hairstyles of ancient Greece and Rome.  Historians regarded these intricately braided and high-piled hairdos as wigs.

Stephens examined the hairdos and felt challenged to try to duplicate the hairstyles. Though she could recreate the elaborate braiding, keeping the piled-up braids in place was a problem.   In reading translations of Latin texts that described the hairstyles, she discovered the term “acus,” which can be translated as “hairpin” or “needle and thread.”   Stephens tried a new approach, stitching the elaborate braids together to hold them in place.  She was successful and submitted her research, which was published in the Journal of Roman Archaeology.

Research Hero Qualities:

  • Fascination with a topic—in Stephens’ case, it was hairstyles.
  • Wonder—what if these hairstyles are not wigs?
  • Dig Deeper with Primary Sources—Stephens consulted translations of Latin text describing the creation of the hairstyles
  • Test the theory—Stephens tried to create the sewn, braided hairstyles
  • Communicate your research with an audience—published her article in a journal

(View article:  Pesta, Abigail.  “On Pins and Needles:  Stylist Turns Ancient Hairdo Debate on Its Head.” Wall Street Journal 6 Feb. 2013: n. pag. Wall Street Journal. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.)

School Textbook Photo Connects Teen to Slave Ancestors

slavery_smallerWhen Tennessean John Baker, Jr. was 14 years old, his curiosity was sparked by a history textbook photo of slaves at a Tennessee plantation, the Wessyngton Plantation.  He thought the slaves looked familiar and discovered that he was looking at a photo of his great, great grandparents.  Baker began a series of conversations with other descendents of slaves from the Wessyngton Plantation and accumulated these oral histories.  In addition, he asked his mother to take him to the Tennessee State Library and Archives, since he was too young to drive himself.  Baker continued his research through his adulthood.  On his way to work at the Radisson Hotel in Nashville, he would drop off a list of documents he needed scanned with the archival librarian and pick up the items on his way home.
(Photo of Slave Narratives display at Pope John Paul II High School)

His mother finally convinced him he needed to publish his voluminous research.  In 2010, Baker published The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation, and The Tennessee State Museum currently features a slavery exhibit based on his research.  One curator at the museum commented that Baker helped to “put a face on slavery”—create a sense of humanity of those enslaved.  Baker also visits schools and shares his genealogies and photos with students who can trace their lineage to the Wessyngton Plantation slaves.

Research Hero Qualities:

  • Begin questioning with a primary source—who are these slaves in the photo?
  • Conduct oral history interviews—What was the slave experience at this plantation?  Who were these slaves (their individual stories)?
  • Gather additional primary sources—documents from archival library (slave holder records of daily tasks/treatments/business of the plantation)
  • Compare the oral histories with the slave owner’s documents to shed light on perceptions/attitudes.
  • Communicate your research—published a book, inspired a museum exhibit, and shared research at schools.

Read more about John Baker, Jr. and the slavery exhibit:  Slaves and Slave Holders of the Wessyngton Plantation.

In closing, I am fond of a comment made by author Charles Frazier at the 2009 Southern Festival of Books.  Frazier, famous for the compelling Civil War tale Cold Mountain, was asked if he had a research librarian gather his historic information.  Frazier replied that if he gave a research librarian a list of things, he knew the librarian would return with all the sought-after items.  However, what he would not get would be the things he would discover had he done his own searching.

As librarians, we hope to instill this sense of curiosity and discovery in our own students.  The quest is the adventure!



4 thoughts on “Using Stories to Inspire Curiosity in Research

  1. Thank you for highlighting an important issue! I agree that students are not reading in depth, but more on the surface. infer from your post that part of the problem is the shear quantity of information which is now available. I wonder if we are doing our students (especially elementary school students) a disservice by presenting them with so many choices of websites when we set up our LibGuides or LiveBinders. While browsing articles on my “ScoopIt” feed, I read about The Right Question Network, and just joined this community. The founders of the network, Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, wrote the book “Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.” Curious if anyone else has used these resources.

    • Good point Bonnie. I think my blog for next month will be on beginning research by dialoging with a primary source first (thereby generating own thoughts and a path for additional research). I look forward to exploring the resources that you recommended.

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