WSU History Professor Katy Whalen has been named the 2022 recipient of the WSU Libraries’ Excellence Award.

The award recognizes a non-library WSU faculty or staff member who has shown consistent support for the WSU Libraries. Recipients are chosen based on encouraging students to use the libraries; personal use of the libraries; personal support of or contributions to the libraries’ collections or services; interaction and cooperation with library faculty; and service on library-related committees.

The Excellence Award program began in 1980, honoring C. Gardner Shaw of WSU’s Department of Plant Pathology as the first recipient. Some 35 faculty and staff have received the honor.

Katy Whalen

Champion of information literacy

Corey Johnson, WSU instruction and assessment librarian and one of Whalen’s nominators, has worked with Whalen for 10 years through the Roots of Contemporary Issues Program (RCI). Whalen, also RCI’s assistant director, has regularly scheduled multiple library instruction sessions per term throughout her RCI tenure, Johnson wrote.

Whalen’s students engage in a unique monograph finding and analysis activity, where Johnson plays the satisfying role of wandering the history section stacks of Terrell Library to help locate books, wrote Jen Saulnier Lange, online learning librarian and award co-nominator with Johnson. “She is always very engaged in the sessions and every term tells her students that the ‘book finding’ day is her favorite of the entire semester.”

In addition to being a proponent for library instruction, Whalen incorporates information literacy into her classes and assignments. She reinforces students’ academic library literacy and source analysis with public library use, requiring them to go to Neill Public Library, identify primary sources, and search for secondary sources.

“Katy not only requires students to explore and use libraries for their assignments, but she also instills the value of libraries and their role in lifelong learning by providing extra credit to students who sign up for a public library card,” Johnson and Saulnier Lange wrote.

Engaging students’ natural curiosity

Whalen and her colleagues in the RCI program collectively teach over 4,000 students each year, with a core goal of helping students acquire information literacy skills.

“Because I value libraries so much, it’s nice to know that librarians appreciate the effort I make toward making undergraduate research so central to my own courses,” Whalen said of receiving the WSU Libraries’ Excellence Award. “My hope is that my efforts have university-wide impact to the degree that my students will gain some proficiency in navigating library databases, which will aid them to do research in any of their classes over their time here at WSU and will hopefully mean they become repeat users of the libraries.”

Whalen said the key to students gaining and practicing information literacy skills lies in tapping into their own natural curiosity. “In my view, it’s curiosity that prompts us to ask critical questions about the world around us—and to sometimes make personal connections to the subject matter before us—and in the field of history, questions about how those realities came to be. And if we can apply that very human quality of curiosity to asking research questions, we can begin to think about the ways in which some questions force us to dig deeper, to go beyond a superficial understanding, and produce complex answers.

“It seems to me that the curiosity that is inherent in critical thinking and information literacy is something that must be developed over a lifetime and is transferable to any college course, any profession or job, anytime we read a piece of news, are on social media, or watch a movie or television show,” she said. “If taught well, students never master critical thinking, and there is no limit to the information literacy they gain.”