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.”
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.
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.”
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.
Since a post I recently wrote for Ethos: A Digital Review of Arts, Humanities, and Public Ethics on “Librarianship: A Philosophical Investigation” is getting a strange amount of attention over there, I thought I’d re-post (a heavily revised version of) a piece I wrote sometime last year, when the blog was still very new, detailing some of my views on an approach to librarianship based on engaging with students as human beings, which I’ve called “authentic engagement.” It’s based, in large part, on my reading of humanistic therapist and educator Carl Rogers (whom I’ve posted about before). This post fills in a lot of the details for the views I briefly outline over at Ethos, and some of the motivations behind them.
Sometimes people struggle to make life meaningful. Because of this, counseling often has as its aim the restoration of meaning for the individual in distress: the task of the therapist is to help the client take responsibility for making choices that will once again make their life meaningful. This parallels a good portion of the educational experience for many students. Indeed, students often find themselves in an educational context in which their schoolwork is not meaningful to them. They are alienated from school because it does not connect with who they are on a personal level. It does not interest them. Psychologist and philosopher of education Carl Rogers summarizes the point nicely:
nearly every student finds that large portions of his curriculum are for him, meaningless. Thus education becomes the futile attempt to learn material which has no personal meaning. Freedom to Learn, p. 4
Can librarians make a difference here? Is there some teaching strategy, or attitude, or approach to librarianship that can help students make their educational experience meaningful? Can librarians help students take an interest in their schoolwork? Can they, in effect, serve as existential counselors to their students? I think they can … in both one-shot instruction sessions and at the reference desk. Continue reading
[E]ducation is not about making a living, but making a life. A deep, spiritually meaningful life. It is a time for exploration and discovery. You’re right. Every day after my students graduate, the world will be demanding its pound of flesh from them. There will be pressures placed on them to compromise, to put their values aside and do things the established way, the way that makes money, the way that makes for worldly success. That’s why a university is such a special place. It is their one opportunity to do something for truth. Not for money. Not to get ahead. Not to curry favor with someone. Not to please anyone but themselves. It is a special time of life, a unique opportunity to go as far as they can, to dig as deep as they dare into the meaning of life. It is a time to study their hearts and souls and not worry about the ridiculous, wasteful, stupid things the world wants them to care about. To go to school to try to build a resumé, or to learn secrets about how to get rich or famous is to waste this glorious opportunity to break free from that oppressive system. The only right reason to go to school or to make art or to study art is to begin to understand truths the world suppresses and denies, and eventually to be able to share your understandings with others in acts of love and giving.
-Ray Carney, from “The Difference Between a Career and a Life.”