Category Archives: Posts by Dani Brecher

The Language of Learning

A few weeks ago, I had coffee with my talented colleague Robin Katz, and we talked about teaching things, just like you might expect. I was struck then, and in a later co-consult with a faculty member, how Robin talked about “learning goals” for library sessions, and how that language choice really seemed to open the door to seeing librarians and course instructors in collaboration about the library session.

Now, of course, for those precisionists among us (I see you), there is a difference between “learning goals” and “learning outcomes,” and what we usually actually mean when we talk about the library session is outcomes, BUT:

  • I learned long ago (and probably many of you did too) that people get a bit less excited to talk to you when you start talking in the language of assessment, so I usually ask questions like, “What do you hope your students will be able to do after the library session?” instead of using the word “outcome.”
  • There’s just something about the word “goal” that really resonates: It’s aspirational, and encourages us to try new things. It gives us something collaborative to work toward, together.

And in a conversation with an instructor, it seems to me that the precise definition of terms doesn’t matter–it’s the outcome of the conversation that is valuable (see what I did there?).

Since that coffee, I’ve started incorporating the language of “learning goals” into my discussions with course instructors, and I think it’s making a difference. When I go back to plan my class, I do return to thinking about “outcomes,” but that’s for my own personal use.

All of this is just to say that I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the language that we use to describe what we do, and how we do it. Have you had any experiences like this, where a language change seems to have made a difference? I’d love to hear about it!

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Filed under Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Dani Brecher

Librarian in a Strange Land

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and I’m teaching an introductory STEM class using a lesson plan that I’ve used approximately one billion times before, asking students to located a scientific study based on reporting in the popular media (shoutout to my awesome colleague Cynthia Cohen for first introducing me to this idea). Each quarter, I switch up the article so that it’s current; this time, I choose one about how consuming chili peppers can potentially help you live longer. In this class, we looked at two reported pieces: one from The New York Times that was a bit light on details, and one from The Olive Oil Times that included a surprising amount of evidence from the study. I’m hoping to complicate the idea that source type is a foolproof heuristic for quality, expecting that the students will claim that the NYT is a better source because…it’s the freaking New York Times.

We begin our discussion by looking at the NYT piece. “What do we know about this publication?” I ask.

“It’s not reliable,” one student says. “You have to be careful because it can be biased.”

This catches me by surprise. I ask the rest of the class, “Do you think the New York Times is a reliable source?” The majority shake their heads. I’m taken by surprise (not only because we’re specifically talking about peppers here): In every instruction session that I’ve ever led, sources like the New York Times are held up as gold-standard sources, basically the next-best thing you could get to a peer-reviewed scientific study. And, today, suddenly, it’s not.

In the days leading up to the inauguration, with “fake news” becoming an everyday part of our cultural lexicon, Danah Boyd publishes a piece called “Did Media Literacy Backfire?“, where she posits that, as a culture, we have done too good a job of encouraging people to question information, especially information that does not jive with their personal experiences and networks. Boyd writes, “Media literacy asks people to raise questions and be wary of information that they’re receiving. People are. Unfortunately, that’s exactly why we’re talking past one another.”

I read this piece, and it feels right: My social networks are echo chambers, and when I see postings from the other end of the political spectrum, I doubt them more and more quickly than those that implicitly align with my worldview, ultimately true or not. I hear and participate in conversations about how social media is so distressing these days, and my corner of the Internet gets more and more homogeneous as those people who don’t agree either fall silent or unfriend. The echoes amplify, but I barely notice, and I have trouble imagining that there could be an inverse version of my world, but of course there is.

I appreciate the irony that I am validating the conclusions of this post on my own experiences.

One way to understand information (and media) literacy’s goal is to create wary consumers of information. In some ways, this project seems to have been a resounding success; in others, not, as this skepticism tends to come out more in certain contexts, and not at all in others. The project of information literacy feels like success in small ways (e.g., “My students can find peer-reviewed articles!”), but feels like failure once writ large. What happened?

My hypothesis is that we all took the concept of “evidence” (and, consequently, “good” information being rooted in evidence) for granted. And now, thanks to world events, we discover that a concept that we implicitly thought everyone understood the same way… well, we didn’t. And now we have to face that.

So what do we do now? In an analogy that seems more and more apt by the day, librarians and educators must be Vergils, leading learners through an informational hellscape. And to do that, we can’t rely on our old tricks, like CRAAP, because they presume an agreement about meanings of terms like “reliability.” We’ll have to break down these concepts, and build them up together toward a shared meaning. This is going to require empathy, and collaboration with our educator colleagues because this can’t be done in a 50-minute one-shot–it’ll have to happen over years, with consistent reinforcement, and librarians can’t own it alone. It’s going to need us to advocate for spending our efforts on more challenging material, like why someone might want to find a peer-reviewed study in the first place. If we live in a world where people question everything (or everything that doesn’t align with their worldview),then let’s help them think about the questions they’ll need to ask to interpret those sources.

Every morning, I wake up and am not sure how I will find the world. I question things I thought I knew (Sure, CNN is sensationalist, but is it really “fake news”?). I wonder if the work I’m doing will have any impact. I don’t presume to know how learners will respond to questions now. This new world requires humility.

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Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Library Instruction, Posts by Dani Brecher

Information Literacy Implications of “Algorithmic Bias in Library Discovery Systems”

In the not-too-distant past, my library adopted a new discovery system for our catalog access. Right away, my colleagues and I noticed weirdness: some keyword searches would pull up seemingly unrelated items (where a search through the bib record revealed no clues) or an exact title search would display the title we were looking for several items down. I’ve been stumped for why this is happening, and got no good answers from the vendor.

Which is why I’m super grateful for Matthew Reidsma’s recent, very excellent blog post, “Algorithmic Bias in Library Discovery Systems.” It’s long, but worth reading the whole thing. In fact, I’d say it’s a necessity for all librarians—go read it, I’ll wait.

Welcome back! So, to summarize: Reidsma tested Summon’s Topic Explorer function and discovered some odd, leading things, which are the function of how the tool’s algorithm works. For example, a search for “muslim terrorist in the United States” led to a Wikipedia result about “Islam in the United States”—a distressing conflation.

This is why it’s really *not good* for us to present the whole “Internet=bad, Library=good” dichotomy that is so easy to fall into. In many cases, the library search isn’t great either: the algorithms that run it are created by people, and are certainly not perfect, and may reflect the biases or simple not-thinking of the creator. So no matter what the tool is that we use to find information, that question of evaluation is critical: is this actually a reflection of what I was looking for, or does it take a leap (e.g., terrorists –> Islam)? And even if all of the results do seem related, we need to interrogate how they are being displayed: most people are only going to look at (maybe) the first ten results: do they represent a certain viewpoint? These problematic issues exist in ALL library discovery systems, not just open web products like Google.

When I go back to teaching in the fall, I’m going to be sure to teach evaluation outside of the context of a specific search engine—I want students to feel comfortable questioning all information they see, and not to elide that skillset because they implicitly trust that a certain search (i.e., the library search) is more reliable. If our job is to teach students to be critical consumers and creators of information, I’d say that it’s incumbent upon us not to take the easier path, but to surface the way these systems are constructed and the potential for bias and leading that such systems create. Many thanks again to Matthew Reidsma for his excellent article, that highlights the problematic nature of discovery systems.

How will you approach this in your teaching?

#questioneverything

For more related research on algorithms, you should check out Safiya Noble’s work on how commercial search engines represent gender and racial identity. It’ll make you stop in your tracks and rethink how you approach teaching searching. Promise.

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Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Library Instruction, Posts by Dani Brecher, The Library Game

Friday Quote

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

-Samuel Beckett

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Filed under On Being Human, Posts by Dani Brecher, Quotes

What We Can Learn From Preschool

This month’s copy of The Atlantic includes an interesting (and attention-grabbingly titled) article by Erika Christakis on “How the New Preschool Is Crushing Kids.” While I can’t vouch for the conclusions regarding early childhood education (though there are lots of outlets that have weighed in—Slate, a bazillion early childhood education blogs), I was struck by how many of the observations and conclusions rang true for me when thinking about library instruction, teaching, and higher education.

The crux of the article is this: Preschools have become more and more about “school readiness” and teaching kids academic skills before they get to primary school, and the curriculum has shifted away from exploration and play toward “accountability.” This all seems to be backfiring, as a recent study from Tennessee showed that students who attended preschool were performing worse than their non-preschool attending colleagues by the second grade, and had a worse attitude about school by the first grade. You can read the full study from Vanderbilt here.

Here’s the part of the article that really struck me:

…We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them. Sometimes, to be fair, what children take away from a conversation is wrong. They might conclude, as my young son did, that pigs produce ham, just as chickens produce eggs and cows produce milk. But these understandings are worked over, refined, and adapted….

Teachers play a crucial role in supporting this type of learning…Consider the difference between a teacher’s use of a closed statement versus an open-ended question. Imagine that a teacher approaches a child drawing a picture and exclaims, “Oh, what a pretty house!” If the child is not actually drawing a house, she might feel exposed, and even if she is drawing a house, the teacher’s remark shuts down further discussion: She has labeled the thing and said she likes it. What more is there to add? A much more helpful approach would be to say, “Tell me about your drawing,” inviting the child to be reflective. It’s never possible to anticipate everything a small person needs to learn, so open-ended inquiry can reveal what is known and unknown.

In fact, it’s never possible to anticipate what anyone, regardless of age, needs to learn, so this focus on inquiry-based learning and encouraging conversation and reflection on a topic is critical no matter what age we are working with.

For example, when I’m working with a student and they find a peer-reviewed article, I have basically two options in the way I talk with them. I could say, “Excellent work. You found a peer-reviewed article,” and basically end the conversation there. Or I could say, “Tell me about the article you found and how you know whether it’s relevant for the assignment,” which will get them to reflect on their process, consider whether the article is (in fact) appropriate for what they are doing, and potentially highlight any problem areas (e.g., “Because I found it in EBSCO” does not demonstrate deep understanding of evaluation).

So while academic librarians work with a different population and a different skill set, we can take many of these lessons from preschool and apply them to our own work: conversation-based sessions, a focus on inquiry, working with other students to solve problems. As we’ve discussed on this blog before, there’s a huge body of empirical data pointing to the efficacy of these methods, and this article was a great reminder of how this is key across the field of education.

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Filed under Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Dani Brecher

If You Give a Librarian a Cookie…

I’ve always loved to bake. When I was in high school, I would make a dozen kinds of Christmas cookies every year, pack them up in colorful Tupperware and ribbons, and give them to friends, family, and teachers. In college, I’d bake drop cookies or cupcakes for the weekly newspaper copy editors meetings. I was always the friend who baked something for a party. At my first job in NYC, I’d bake sweets at home, tote them to Manhattan on the Q train, and set them out in the staff break room. I loved it so much, I started a blog. Baking was the way that I showed people that I appreciated them.

When I got to library school, I continued on my baking streak. Oatmeal raisin cookies to trivia night, chocolate chip cookie bars to my job, cupcakes for student ALA meetings. But then, one evening, I was attending a networking mixer (so: already terrible), and a classmate went around the group of library school students, introducing us to…someone I don’t even remember, but it seemed important at the time. But I *do* remember how the introductions went:

“This is X, she works in Special Collections and is going to be an archivist.”

“This is Y, he’s going to be an awesome instruction librarian.”

“This is Z, he’s a great storyteller and is going to be a children’s librarian.”

“This is Dani. She bakes cookies.”

…And that was the last time I baked cookies for anybody in a remotely work-related context.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think the person meant anything by it, and nobody seemed to notice the incongruity in the introductions. But I did, and what it told me that I was being read as less serious than the other people I stood in that circle with. It felt lousy, and distinctly gendered.

In the 2.5 years that I’ve been at my job now, I have never baked anything to take into work. When I want to show my appreciation for my co-workers through food, I stop and pick up donuts, cookies from Trader Joe’s, chocolates. But nothing that comes from my kitchen. And I don’t bring in food very often—more likely now, I’ll just tell someone that they’ve been awesome. I’ve been afraid that people will stop seeing me for my work, and start seeing me as…library mom?

One day, I picked up Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, and, flipping through, something caught my eye. “Don’t feed people,” Frankel said. And especially, don’t bake cookies yourself. It will “sabotage” you in the workplace, and people will see you as Betty Crocker.

This plays out all over the Internet. Here’s an article from Forbes in 2012 about how most experts say that baking is self-sabotage for women.

Here’s Ask a Manager on the issue. tl;dr: she presents other “masculine” traits in the office, so baking isn’t going to undermine that. UM WHAT. So if  I’m “blunt, assertive, kind of a hard-ass, and not a sugar-coater,” then I can make all the brownies I want; if not, not? And if I’m not a manager, can I bake without potentially sacrificing my climb up the library ladder?

All of which is to say: I’ve bought into this for a long time now. But I’ve been thinking a lot about librarianship and management and gender recently, and I think I’m about ready to call BS.

Baking is just one example, but what other parts of ourselves do we have to deny in order to be taken seriously in the workplace? Is it worth it? What does it mean to elide parts of yourself so that you aren’t just described as “the girl who bakes”? At what point does my work speak for itself and I don’t have to worry about this anymore?

It seems like it probably never ends, and giving into this way of thinking is letting traditional gender perceptions control us, even while we are explicitly trying to buck them.

So: can you be a kickass instruction librarian and respected by your colleagues and bring in the occasional pecan bar? Or whatever other traditionally gendered personality trait (some other fun ones from Frankel: needing to be liked, not needing to be liked, holding your tongue, decorating your office, HELPING) makes you feel like you, a human being? It’s not about the cookies, yo. And I’m over it, and it seems like the way to change this is not by giving into it.

Have you experienced this? How do you deal with it? I hope you’ll share in the comments!

EDIT: Many thanks to Keri Cascio, who let me know about the #libleadgender conversation going on–started by an excellent article by Jessica Olin and Michelle Millet at In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Looking forward to joining in future conversations!

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Filed under On Being Human, Posts by Dani Brecher, The Library Game

On Where I’ve Been

Well, it’s been a while since I wrote on this blog, and rather than just come back and start posting without addressing that fact, I want to spend my first post back talking it.

Earlier this year, Maria Accardi launched a new blog called Librarian Burnout. The blog provides a space for librarians (beginning with academic librarians, but now encompassing more than that) to build a community and support around this shared experience, and to feel less alone in their individual institutional context. I recently encountered the Librarian Burnout blog, and it really got me thinking about this post, this blog, this job, this year–I’d highly recommend it to anyone who reads Rule Number One.

So, was burnout my problem? Yes and no, but it certainly gave me a framework to think within.

Let me start by saying that creating Rule Number One has been one of the things I’m proudest of so far in my librarianship career. Kevin and I set out to just make a space where we could talk about library instruction and being new librarians in an honest and personal way, and I think we’ve done that. We’ve been blown away by the response, and that feeling of community that’s grown up around Rule Number One–other librarians interested in talking about the same issues in a similarly open way–has been so rewarding to find. Even if it was totally by accident, this blog has opened some doors for the two of us, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything–there’s been so much good, but then there’s also been some less good.

Two things happened a little over a year ago: First, some librarians who I very much respect but hadn’t talked to in a while let me know that they didn’t think what Kevin and I were doing on this blog was a good idea–that it was unprofessional in some way and that we should be careful not to burn bridges (and implied that I had already done so). This scared the crap out of me, frankly, especially since I didn’t (and still don’t) understand how what I’ve written here could be construed in that way. And since I couldn’t figure it out, it made me nervous to write anything, because what if that next post is the career-ender, and I just couldn’t see it? So I would start writing, and then panic, and then nothing would happen. Other, equally respected colleagues and friends told me that it was nothing to worry about, but it was just so hard to believe them–why would someone give that kind of warning unless they knew something I didn’t? It took a long time, but I’ve made my peace with this, which is why I’m telling this story now: That comment may have come from a place of good intentions, but it scared me and it seemed like there was no way to fix whatever it was I’d done. I let that comment shut me up, and I’m sorry I did that–it was antithetical to what we had set out to do here, which was to be real about librarianship and share what we’d learned or are learning and hope maybe it resonated with someone, somewhere.

Here’s what I think now: As a community, I agree that we have a responsibility  to say something when we think someone is doing something damaging to themselves or the profession, but I think we have a further responsibility, especially to new practitioners, to tell them how they might change what they are doing and not resort to scare-inducing rhetoric like, “Librarianship is a small world.” I’ve found that librarianship both is and isn’t small, but if it is indeed that much of a village, then isn’t that a reason for us to help build each other up? We’re all we’ve got, and silencing doesn’t help us move forward. So I’m done with that.

Second, also about a year ago, my department got reorganized and I stepped into a position with more responsibility. I was (and am) super jazzed about this development: I have significant agency in helping to determine the direction of instruction in my library (and recently, research services as well), I’m able to work on a variety of cross-departmental teams with sharp co-workers, and my role has shifted to be more externally facing. I love the gig, but like many other librarians’ experience, these new duties are on top of things I was already doing. The learning curve has been steep, and figuring out how to negotiate how to get everything done (and done well) has been a challenge. I come home  tired every day and ready to think about anything BUT librarian-ing. A lot of good personal things happened in the past year, and I still did professional things I’m proud of with various colleagues (shout-outs to Char Booth, Natalie Tagge, Alex Chappell, Kate Crocker, and of course Kevin Michael Klipfel), but I do feel creatively drained. Blogging felt like the proverbial camel’s straw both in terms of brain power and some kind of disastrous professional consequence. But I’ve realized that this blog is important to me, because of that community I’ve found through it.

This past weekend, I went to Minnesota to attend my first LITA Forum. It’s a different crowd than I normally see, but I found so many commonalities in experience with the people I talked to. I must have talked to 9 metadata librarians: none of them do the same thing. Everybody feels overwhelmed in some way. Everybody hits that budgetary or bureaucratic wall. And that was a helpful reminder and perspective that, as librarians, there is a commonality of experience, and sharing that makes it a more welcoming profession for all. We’re spread out in libraries around the country and the world, and sometimes it feels like nobody else could possibly be going through the same things…but they are. So thank you, LITA Forum, for helping me to remember that, and to remind me that informal spaces like blogs (like Accardi’s), chats in the hallway at conferences, and Twitter are so critical for community building.

All of which is to say, that I’m ready to write on this blog again–to finish some of those neglected, half-started posts and to engage in a dialogue with other librarians who do similar work or think about similar things and to be supportive of one another. So you keep doing you, and I’ll keep doing me. Hopefully we’ll find something to talk about, here on Rule Number One.

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Filed under On Being Human, Posts by Dani Brecher, The Library Game