What’s special? International students’ perceptions of Special Collections.

During February-March 2016 I developed a project for my PG Cert in Academic Practice, focused on how international students perceive the special collections drop-in sessions that we carry out every week at Chelsea College of Arts Library, University of the Arts London. The library holds an important collection of artists’ books, multiples, rare periodicals and ephemera dating back from the historical Avant-gardes to the present day, and it is at the centre of many teaching, learning and research support activities that librarians offer to students, from foundation to PhD level.

The aim of the Wednesday drop-in session is to support both academic research and practice-based work; they are open to anyone. Students attending fall into two broad categories: those who come with ideas, usually in connection with a specific project, and those who wish to have a general overview of the collection (usually students who missed their initial induction). In the first case, the librarian helps to identify material that may be of interest and discusses it with the student; in the second, a broader selection is offered. These drop-ins are popular, average attendance is 3-4 students per session. Their one-to-one structure allows for a more personal and hands-on approach than in other, more structured sessions, and for more of a two-way conversation to develop.

I was particularly interested in the international students’ views, partly because I teach an increasingly diverse student population, but also because I was an international student myself until recently, and I am aware of the issues you face when you are learning in a second language and in an unfamiliar context. Surveying international students’ views would allow us to change our approach to promotion, content, delivery, etc. if needed, and to become more inclusive. This kind of project had never been carried out before.

Asking international students’ views

Firstly I prepared a paper questionnaire which I handed to students after each session. On a total of eight questions, four were open ended, and the rest were multiple choice. A total of 6 students filled it in, over the course of four Wednesdays. This was not a bad result, if taking into account that I was only targeting international students, and that the average number of attendees for the drop-in session is 3-4.

A couple of questions are worthy of a specific mention here: firstly, how did the students get to know about the session? It was interesting to see how word of mouth from other students and tutors were the main source of discovery. The library poster and Moodle, both used for promotion, don’t seem to be at all effective.


Also, interestingly most of the respondents had attended a session before:


To my slight surprise, the language was not perceived as a barrier to understanding: this was good news for us.


Alongside the questionnaire, I organised a focus group. This was attended by three students, from Japan, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Two were 3rd year BA Fine Art, one was MA Graphic Design. The session lasted one hour and was audio recorded.

The focus group generated interesting comments and I was able to pick out parallels with the questionnaire results.

  • None of the students were sure what the Special Collections drop-in sessions were. One student said he vaguely remembered hearing about them.
  • All agreed that the sessions should be advertised better: a bigger poster, more email reminders.
  • A suggestion was made to change the name of the sessions, as “special collections” suggests library/archive related content: student said she would be more interested to attend if it was called “artists’ books” session or similar. “Drop-in” makes another student think of a quick session about how to access/use the books. If it is perceived as a “library thing” students aren’t interested. One student called it “intimidating”.
  • All the students found the special collections induction they attended “inspiring”.
  • The language was not perceived to be an issue.

Finally, I set up a survey monkey questionnaire (with the same questions as the paper one) and sent it to about 750 students via Moodle. These were the students from the courses I support, fine art and graphic design. I had a 4% response rate from my target audience of international students. Although this very low and therefore non-conclusive, I was able to pick out interesting answers that echoed some of the points already raised in the paper questionnaire and the focus group.


The majority of respondents had never attended a drop-in session:


Half of the respondents had never heard of them.

However, they were perceived to be useful:


And the language was not perceived as a barrier:


Some early findings

In conclusion, the data from all three methods of enquiry show that yes, the drop-in sessions are useful, once the students know that they exist. Those who attended found them useful, “inspiring”, and those who are made aware of what they are say that they’d be interested in attending. We are doing a good job at complementing the courses’ content with our sessions, and we have good relations with the course teams as plenty of successful seminars and workshops take place. Our language is not perceived as challenging by international students.

My results also show that most of the students attending are either postgraduates or third year BA, so going forward, the library team could do a bit more research on this. And can we do more to attract first year students, if indeed we can demonstrate that they don’t attend? For example, we could involve the year one tutors and “sell” the drop in session to them in the first place, as results of my survey point to the fact that the students find out about the sessions by word of mouth mostly.

Other main points that emerged, and we are acting upon, are:

  • The need to promote our sessions better. Can we involve the students themselves to design a better poster and promotional logo? We are currently exploring this option.
  • The suggestion to change our vocabulary. “Special collections” doesn’t appeal to students. Since my report was submitted, we have replaced the old definition with “research skills” for some of our courses inductions next academic year. The plan is to continue on this path and monitor how using different vocabulary will affect attendance of the Wednesday sessions.

Ultimately, the aim of my research was to find out if our approach is inclusive: we are already doing well in this respect, and we are taking further steps in this direction. My plan going forward it to continue exploring this topic by carrying out further research and monitoring of international students perceptions of special collections sessions.

Contributor: Alessia Borri, Assistant Academic Support Librarian, Chelsea College of Arts (University of the Arts London)