Why Even Bother With the Library?

My job has me working lots with first year students and I’ve been in heavy-duty instruction mode the past couple weeks working with large numbers of students new to the university. The sessions tend to be the usual stuff: developing inquiry questions, evaluating information, and maybe a little bit of searching. One thing I notice myself doing more and more, though, is trying to create a problem context where I organize the session around an intellectual problem that ultimately leads to (I think) an interesting answer to the question, “Well why even use the library at all?”

Why do I do this?

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Friday Quote

Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London, asking questions. One was, “What’s your alma mater?” I told him, “Books.”

[...]

I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.

-Malcolm X

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Interesting Post on Reversing the Model of How Students Learn the Research Process

Kelly Dagan has an extremely thought-provoking post over on her blog on flipping our standard models of how we teach students to do research.

So, drawing on a suggestion from one of her faculty, instead of a process of research where students

(1) (a) develop a research question (b) search for information on that question (c) evaluate sources and (d) synthesize those sources into an original research product, we would have students, instead,

(2) (a) Learn to read one scholarly piece and understand that piece really well  and then (b) later do all the other hard stuff, like searching, synthesizing, and so forth, once they’ve become more sophisticated in college.

I’m, of course, a (1) man from way back, and my knee-jerk response is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater,  but I think this post brings up some really interesting issues, especially since, as we all know, (1) ain’t very easy for expert researchers, much less incoming freshmen. Maybe something like (2) would be a useful approach for working with new students if we brainstormed on it bit more, or incorporated it more into (1).

Check out Kelly’s post where she explains this all much better and has good diagrams as well!

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Friday Quote

BEE Tweet

BEE Vice

Photo of Bret Easton Ellis courtesy of Vice.

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What Librarians – Not What Libraries – Do

Library consultant Marcus Banks (former Director of Library/Academic & Instructional Innovation at Samuel Merritt University), has some nice comments on a piece I previously wrote for Ethos, that add to the discussion of “what librarians do.” An excerpt:

Klipfel documents the universal experience academic librarians have, in which most people have no idea what we do. Jokes about dusting the books, card catalogs, and the Dewey decimal system run amok. Claims that the job must not be stressful because you get to read all day are plentiful. And the widely shared belief that Google is steadily ending the need for librarians is always implicit and often explicit.

The trouble is that our profession is inextricably tied with a building. No libraries, no librarians. Whatever the root cause of this belief–public library signage that emphasizes print books, or entrenched stereotypes about librarians and what we do–the result is that people have no idea that librarianship was an intellectual discipline long before it became a “service-oriented profession.”

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No worries. Because it’s what you do with the stuff you find that really matters. What is worth reading? Who makes scurrilous claims? What are the implicit biases and where are the strong arguments in any given text? Librarians are the best people on campus to sort out these claims–they trade in-depth subject knowledge (which many librarians have too, of course) for a sense of the gestalt and how all subjects hang together. With no axe to grind, the librarian can and should be the queen of campus.

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Serve the Servants: Do Academic Librarians Serve Faculty or Do We Have Some “Higher” Calling?

Many faculty members complain that their students treat them as though education were on a service model: I (the student) paid for a product (my education) and you (the professor) are here to serve me. So, serve me!

Quite understandably, we might think, many faculty don’t like this. They believe that educators have a higher calling than to serve in a capitalistic sense. What is this higher calling?  To teach students to think critically. To get them curious about the pursuit of truth. You know, to educate.

This is interesting, I think, when we think, as academic librarians, about our working relationships with faculty. Many of us are “liaisons” to various departments (for example, I’m the “philosophy librarian” at my university). Some of our roles are more nebulous, such as “information literacy coordination” or “Undergraduate Success Librarian”, where we’re often working with large first year courses in, say, English or Communication. What’s interesting about these working relationships (as opposed to, say, semester-long librarian-led information literacy courses) is that librarians are, in some vague sense, dependent on these faculty.

One reason for this, of course, is that we “serve” the research needs of students and faculty in these areas. For example, if faculty need books, we order them, and if students or faculty need assistance with research, we help them. It’s our job and it’s pretty much as it should be.

Things start to get more difficult when we think, as I and many others do, that our job is to teach information literacy, and that one really good way to do that is to embed our instruction within specific course research. I think about this a lot, because I think that one difficulty that comes up in practice is that there’s librarians who have a strictly “service” oriented approach to working with faculty: (a) if it wasn’t requested by a faculty member, it’s not their job to teach it, and  on the other hand (b) if it was requested by a faculty member, it’s not our job to suggest something else.

I see this all the time during questions I’ve gotten when presenting in various platforms and I don’t believe in either premise, yet I continue to see both (a) and (b) having an enormous impact on our work as librarians. It’s really led me to believe that our self-concept has a huge impact on whether we’re serving our students’ best interests. And this is the important thing.

Let’s just take the simplest example of that.

Suppose a faculty member requests that you show their students “the databases.” “Just show them the databases and how to cite stuff.” No assignment, that’s the request.

Now, we know that this is bad practice: if our goal is to teach information literacy, this doesn’t even come close to providing students with the deep critical skills we can offer them that will facilitate their ability to interpret the world around them. And it’s not even an effective way to teach databases. What the students will probably end up learning is that the library is boring.  I don’t blame them.

I realize that I take for granted many librarians having the professional self-esteem to suggest things like “I’m happy to offer your class instruction! Is there some kind of research assignment in the class that the students have? We could focus the session on the skills they’ll need to complete their assignment. I’ve found that students really find this valuable.” (Or whatever). But I’ve never personally had a faculty member object to something like that. Nor has any librarian I’ve ever known who has tried.

Now, of course, most requests will be more sensible than the example I gave. But I think it’s important to remember when thinking about such requests that adopting a servant mindset puts us in a bad position as educators. Librarians, as knowledge brokers, do inhabit a somewhat strange and unique position in the academy, in the sense that many of us don’t have our “own” classes. I think this is a large part of the servant mindset. As my friend Alex Carroll recently put it to me, it can create, in many librarians, a real need to be liked by faculty: “If I suggest other things they won’t like me, and if they don’t like me they won’t invite me to their class.” I think that probably both those claims are false. I have no idea what any faculty member on my campus feels about me personally but many certainly seem willing to work with me, and I suspect the reason is that they must think something I’m doing is important for their students to know.

That, I think, is the “higher calling” of librarians: to serve your students’ interests as an educator. This isn’t to say that you don’t collaborate with faculty in the best possible sense as a colleague. Of course you do. That should be too obvious to be mentioned. But I think we should think less about “serving” faculty  and think more like educators and faculty about how we can help students develop information literacy skills. If we do that in the same way that other faculty think about teaching their subjects, the rest will follow. The importance of information literacy will be self-evident.

Like Drake says: “Know yourself, know your worth.”

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Friday Quote

My kids are starting to notice I’m a little different from the other dads. “Why don’t you have a straight job like everyone else?” they asked me the other day.

I told them this story:

In the forest, there was a crooked tree and a straight tree. Every day, the straight tree would say to the crooked tree, “Look at me…I’m tall, and I’m straight, and I’m handsome. Look at you…you’re all crooked and bent over. No one wants to look at you.” And they grew up in that forest together. And then one day the loggers came, and they saw the crooked tree and the straight tree, and they said, “Just cut the straight trees and leave the rest.” So the loggers turned all the straight trees into lumber and toothpicks and paper. And the crooked tree is still there, growing stronger and stranger every day.

-Tom Waits

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