The Librarian as Knowledge Broker: An Insight from “Communities of Practice & Social Learning Systems”

I’ve been participating in a pedagogy reading group at my university with some other first-year faculty and we recently read a seminal piece by Etienne Wegner called “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems.” In the piece Wegner gives a “social definition of learning” where “knowing … is a matter of displaying competencies defined in social communities,” e.g., in a community of cobblers, a community of academic philosophers, and so forth (226).  A cobbler, then, just is someone with a certain skill-set as recognized and defined by other experts within the community of cobblers.

Wegner also introduces a the concept of brokering knowledge between various communities of practice. She writes that

Some people act as brokers between communities. They can introduce elements of one practice into another … they stay at the boundaries of many practices [rather] than move to the core of any one practice (235).

I think this idea of knowledge brokering is interesting, and illuminates what librarians – especially information literacy librarians – are trying to do.

According to Wegner, knowledge brokering

can take various forms, including:

  • boundary spanners: taking care of one specific boundary over time;
  • roamers: going from place to place, creating connections, moving knowledge;
  • outposts: bringing back news from the forefront, exploring new territories;
  • pairs: often brokering is done through a personal relationship between two people from different communities and it is really the relationship that acts as a brokering device (235-236).

This seems like a not unreasonable understanding of what information literacy librarians do. For one thing, I walk the line between many communities of practice. We are trying to broker with various university faculty (to incorporate information literacy) and with other librarians (to, say, introduce information literacy or educational concepts into liaison areas). The goal is to incorporate elements of one community of practice into another. In this sense, information literacy/instruction librarians are not quite at the core of the practice of reference librarianship, traditionally understood. They’re much more of a generalist brokering between many communities of practice, and, although they do have a basic expertise, are perhaps less concerned with resources or tools than the traditional liaison.

Information literacy librarians are roamers, in the sense that it’s, quite literally, my job to make connections and move knowledge. I’m seeking to engage in personal relationships (Wegner’s pairs) with someone from a different community of practice (a faculty member outside of librarianship) to move knowledge of how to teach information literacy well. And, as we’ve written quite a bit about on this blog, there’s the element of information literacy librarians as outposts: we might, for example, read education literature and bring back information from that field to other librarians to discuss how to improve information literacy instruction. Or we might be the sole information literacy librarian on our campus, and we’re bringing back knowledge of other information literacy best practices to our library. In that sense, instruction librarians are knowledge movers: they’re comfortable moving within specific communities of practice.

Interestingly, this requires that the information librarian be more than a dilettante. As Wegner notes,

Brokering knowledge is delicate. It requires enough legitimacy to be listened to and enough distance to bring something really new (236).

So, e.g., when you’re trying to talk to faculty about “how students research,” you need to have enough knowledge for what you’re saying to taken to be legitimate. When you’re talking to other librarians you need to have enough knowledge of librarianship to be taken seriously by them in that area.  And the same holds true if the librarian is seeking to incorporate knowledge from the field of education into the practice of information science. It requires not simply a bit of knowledge here, or a bit of knowledge there, but, rather, an expertise in living on the boundaries.

Does this line up with other instruction librarians’ conceptions of what they do?

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1 Comment

Filed under Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel

One response to “The Librarian as Knowledge Broker: An Insight from “Communities of Practice & Social Learning Systems”

  1. Pingback: Serve the Servants: Do Academic Librarians Serve Faculty or Do We Have Some “Higher” Calling? | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

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