Major congratulations are in order for my friend and co-blogger, Kevin Michael Klipfel, who is starting a new gig this week at USC as the Instructional Design and Assessment Librarian! A little over a year ago, Kevin and his wife moved to Los Angeles to live out their SoCal dreams, and now Kevin will be joining one of the great SoCal university libraries, and I couldn’t be more happy for him. Can’t wait to see what you do in this new position, K!
Category Archives: The Library Game
This piece is cross-posted on the Facet Publishing blog, our UK publisher for Learner-Centred Pedagogy: Principles and Practice. Many thanks to Sinead Murphy for asking us to write this piece and publish it on our blog as well.
If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined. – Seymour: An Introduction, J.D. Salinger
Four years ago last month, we walked across the stage in the Great Hall of the Carolina Union at UNC-Chapel HIll, freshly minted librarians, both about to move to California to start our first professional jobs, ready to lay some information literacy knowledge down on our future undergraduates. Those two years in library school were incredibly formative for us, as we tried to absorb everything we could about teaching, reference librarianship, and the profession as a whole. We became friends working together at UNC’s Undergraduate Library reference desk, chatting about how we could get students engaged in our instruction sessions and make sure they actually, like, you know, learned things.
The more we talked and read and taught, the more it felt like there was something missing from the information literacy literature we were reading: A focus on the individual learner, as a unique person with individual experiences, interests, and needs. While there are certainly exceptions to this statement, so much of what we read was about specific strategies for teaching specific content, while what we felt we needed was a step before that: What are the underlying principles that can make people invested in learning and able to learn, whether at the reference desk, in a one-on-one consultation, or an instruction classroom? Our experience as readers largely echoed that of librarian David Maxfield, who wrote in an article in College & Research Libraries in 1954 (!) that claimed that “conventional reference work does not always place so much emphasis upon the library patron as an individual person as it does upon library materials and bibliographic techniques.”
A year after graduation, we attended a LOEX conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Terry Doyle began his keynote presentation with the assertion that, as educators, it is our professional responsibility to understand how students learn and then apply this understanding to our work. This idea of focusing on the learner, and not the content, is known as “learner-centredness.” Doyle’s position that being learner-centred was not optional, but instead a kind of professional obligation, struck us as exactly right (see “Education Training for Librarians”). And we wanted to read something that was framed this way for librarians, focused on the individual learner, so badly that we…wrote a book like that.
Our central question in writing a book on learner-centred pedagogy for librarians was: How can we teach information literacy to real learners – embodied existential beings with passions, loves, hates, and sources of life meaning that extend beyond understanding Boolean operators – so that they are engaged with information literacy outcomes in an authentic way? How can we make information literacy really matter to learners?
We turned to literature in education, counseling, psychology, and (yes) library science where others grappled with similar questions, and ultimately concluded that the core aspect of learner-centredness is a practice of empathy: the question what is it like to be a person learning something? is central to our learner-centered approach. That also led us to redefine information literacy in a learner-centred way as involving learners using information to think well about questions that matter to them.
So, practically, how do we go about this? In our book, we point to five main aspects:
- Engaging people’s curiosity, interests, and personal experiences in an autonomy supportive rather than controlling learning environment
- Applying ideas about how people learn from evidence-based literature in learning science
- Developing meaningful relationships with our users (even in the briefest of interactions!)
- Providing learning experiences that help to develop a growth mindset about the research process
- Using technology wisely as a potentially useful tool to help learners use information think well about things that matter to them
…with empathy as the overarching framework that connects them all. This central idea, that who we are as people matters as both learners and educators, is both based in the current scientific literature, but also has a timeless quality that we believe will make it relevant for library practitioners for years to come.
Indeed, we believe that this view of learner-centeredness is not a trend, but a way of approaching librarianship that can change over time, as our scientific and psychological understanding of what it means to be a person learning something evolves. While the specific answers to the central question of this book may not always be the same, as long as librarians continue to monitor and engage with the current literature on motivation and the science of learning and follow where the evidence takes us, the basic framework that we present here will continue to apply. As we strive toward a fully learner-centered practice of librarianship, we would consider a practical success to be expressing these interests and views to others, both within and without the library. Building community around this approach is a powerful way to transform our work and to practice an existential form of librarianship: we are learner-centered educators because we decide that is what we are. As you go forward and adapt these ideas for your own contexts, we hope that you will share your ideas and continue to enrich and expand the profession’s understanding that who we are as people matters for how we teach, how we learn, and how we engage with information and each other.
Great Articles in Library Science: “Lab-Integrated Librarians: Engagement with Unreachable Researchers”
Our friend Alex Carroll recently published an article with his North Carolina State University colleagues Bertha Chang and Honora Eskridge that I think is really great and wanted to draw our readers’ attention to. The paper, “Lab-Integrated Librarians: Engagement with Unreachable Researchers,” outlines a novel way that their team of STEM librarians has been able to embed themselves in live, authentic research situations at engineering students’ moment of information need. Rather than waiting for the engineering students at NC State to come to them, these librarians engaged in a learner-centered outreach project where they actually joined the research work groups of engineering faculty and students, thereby allowing them to assist with research questions students had in real time. I highly encourage you to read the entire paper, as I think it’s inspiring for how subject liaisons can work with their stakeholders in dynamic, learner-centered ways.
Though there are many things I think we can learn from this article, there’s two points that happen to strike my own fancy; both transfer to lots of contexts aside from those specifically discussed in the article. One of the things I think is most interesting about the article is how clearly it demonstrates the openness and willingness of faculty members to collaborate with librarians on novel approaches to connecting with students for the purpose of facilitating successful research experiences. Over the years I’ve had many experiences, either hearing things anecdotally or having other librarians say to me directly, something to the effect that their experience with faculty is that they aren’t interested in substantial pedagogical support from librarians aside from the usual one-shot on pointing and clicking. For example, early on in my career I had several colleagues tell me that all this pedagogy stuff I was talking about was well and good – it’s interesting and all that – but faculty won’t want to hear it. This was, quite literally, the exact opposite of my experience to that point and it usually only took expressing a basic interest in pedagogy, collaboration, and evidence-based approaches to research instruction in order to initiate pretty robust campus collaborations.
So I really was interested in the authors’ statement that initiating this quite substantive collaboration was much less complicated than one might think:
Getting into research groups was surprisingly easy – in each case it simply involved asking the principal investigator, explaining why we wanted to do it, and what we were hoping to learn.
This resonates directly with my own experience. I’ve typically found that if you approach a faculty member about a teaching strategy, approach, or intervention that you think can help support and improve their students’ research – especially when you can articulate pedagogical reasons drawn from previous literature, research data, or data you’re hoping to collect that seem to indicate that this will be so- it’s exceedingly rare that they aren’t interested in collaborating with you in a meaningful way. As the authors of this paper point out, literally all you have to do is ask.
A second point I really appreciated and wanted to draw attention to is the authors’ response to a question that people are often wont to ask whenever someone presents them with a new teaching idea: “But how does it scale?”
I know this question is supposed to, like, sound smart and all, but it’s never particularly seemed that way to me, and I think the authors get at the underlying reasons for this nicely in the following passage:
One question that many will ask is, does a program like this scale? The answer is that it doesn’t, because it isn’t meant to. We do not see this program as a service — library services (instruction, access services) attempt to scale to the whole campus population. Embedding in research groups is more akin to statistical sampling or user research methods, a means of getting some data on what users are doing that can help inform decisions and policy on library collections and services. Viewing this initiative as a needs assessment, rather than a service, informed our decision to use ethnography for capturing our impact. While our ethnographic methodology does not provide empirical measurements of whether we are altering our researchers’ information seeking behavior, it captures how services can be offer through this model of engagement, while also providing us with authentic needs assessments of our communities without subjecting our users to time-consuming forms or surveys.
In any case, the primary goal of this effort has always been community building, which involves developing relationships one-by-one. To put it more plainly, relationships don’t scale [KMK emphasis].
There’s a number of things I like about this passage, but let me start by saying that what I appreciate about this passage is the idea that lack of scalibility is not synomymous with lack of quality. In fact, I think that in many cases it may actually be the opposite. I think that most good reference or instruction with fundamentally be characterized by individual encounter: our ability to tailor our instruction to a unique individual or group’s needs. For example, it takes me way longer to read a particular syllabus, read that classes’ specific assignment, and design a tailored instruction session with a unique modeling scenario for each a particular class I teach, than it would to do a generic “demo” for the class. But the former is good pedagogy that gets me invited back, integrates me into students lives, and helps me build relationships with other faculty, whereas the latter almost always bores students and makes us seem much less relevant to faculty. In other words, the demo scales, but it’s not really the kind of things that’s worth scaling. In short, I’d much rather librarians spent a ton of time doing “non-scaling” things (whatever that means, exactly) that are quality, than doing generic demos and then spending the next ten hours making a lib guide.
A second thing I really like about this passage is the importance of relationships for information literacy instruction and curriculum building. In our new book Learner-Centered Pedagogy, Dani and I devote an entire chapter to the research on the importance of positive student-teacher/librarian relationships for effective learning.
The same is true for collaborating with faculty. Just like we want to be student-centered in our practices, we want to be faculty-centered in our collaboration. That is, we want to build relationships of mutual trust with faculty members, by giving them innovative methods for helping them do the thing they care about and enlisted us to do: help students improve their research. When we can demonstrate our effectiveness in achieving this goal, it’s been my experience that we can take projects to a large level of “scale.” And my opinion of that has always been the following: as a manager, info lit coordinator, or just a person trying to teach info lit, I’d always rather devote librarians time, resources, and creative energies toward personalized teaching that makes a real difference to students, than do things of “scale” that take very little librarian time and resources but that … don’t really work all that well. So though this point is not necessarily central to the outreach done in this particular article, I think their response to this possible objection makes a very important point that is worth paying attention to.
At any rate, these are just my takes on the article – I encourage you to take a look at it. I think there’s a lot to learn from it (and a lot that ties into Dani’s previous discussion of teaching librarians as well).
[H]appy people don’t believe that life is good because they’re just lucky. They don’t believe that they’re mere reeds in the winds of fate. Rather, happy people believe that they can influence what happens to them in the future, and they tend to take responsibility for the important events in their lives.
“What Are Happy People Like? the Characteristics of Happiness.” Positive Psychology 101, Philip C. Watkins, Springer Publishing Company, 2015.
“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”
“To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves–there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.”
-Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect“
This summer, my department is in the midst of an organizational transition, as we move from a traditional, disciplinary-bound reference department to a “Teaching & Learning” team. I’m excited to undertake this work alongside some really amazing colleagues (and you can bet your buttons that we’ll be writing and presenting on this process in the future), but this context is (for now) only to set the stage for why I’m thinking about the question in the title of this post.
As I’ve been thinking about what a library department of teaching and learning looks like, I’ve been considering what makes someone a teaching librarian (as opposed to a librarian who happens to teach, or a teacher, or some other category of educator). What are the qualities that are unique to this group of professionals, that position us to engage in the work of information literacy instruction?
I started by looking at ACRL’s recently released Roles and Strength of Teaching Librarians, which is pretty useful for thinking about qualities that teaching librarians need to have in order to be successful in their work. There’s a nifty little graphic in the report that shows the various roles that a teaching librarian may need to embody:
Hats off to the committee who put together this report, as it’s helped me to think through goals for a teaching and learning department, and areas where we might need to grow. I certainly self-identify with most (if not all) of these roles, but it still didn’t really help me get at the librarian part of the teaching librarian equation. Basically, if my professional identity is about being a librarian (hint: it is), then how can I view my role and strengths as an educator more explicitly through that lens?
School librarians in K-12 institutions are often explicitly “teacher-librarian” positions, and the Australian School Library Association has a nice breakdown of how those different identities play together. Librarians in these roles (both in the U.S. and elsewhere) typically are required to have training in both education and librarianship–something that academic librarians generally do not, which explains the emphasis in the ACRL document on developing competencies related to teaching and instructional design.
After sitting with this for a few weeks, I’ve come up with a few thoughts on what the specific strengths of teaching librarians might be, and I’d love to hear your ideas too.
- We understand the organization of information and hierarchies of knowledge. Basically, this is the bread-and-potatoes of the library school curriculum, and I’d argue the most important part of having an MLS. All those cataloging and metadata classes? Those ideas are transferable across disciplines, which means that we can usually figure out how information is structured in any given database (with enough time) and help people find the stuff they need with a little librarian magic. Sometimes, even people immersed in a discipline don’t quite understand how or why information is organized in these repositories. Shedding a light on that is what we do.
- We understand the pedagogy of research. On a broad level, we understand what goes into the research process across a variety of disciplines. Librarians contributing to a reference service or leading library instruction have seen hundreds of research assignments–some excellent, some not-so-good. After a few years on the job, we can spot assignment pitfalls from a mile away, because we’ve seen how a large number of people approach this process. I’d argue that even if we don’t have formal pedagogical training, most librarians have some sense of what works and what doesn’t in student research assignments. The challenge is to tease out that knowledge and apply it to our work as educational partners.
- We’re really good at asking questions about things we know very little about. A.K.A. the reference interview. Most people don’t have this skill, because it’s uncomfortable to admit that you don’t know about something and ask a zillion questions to get to the precise knowledge you need to help someone find what they are looking for. But that’s what we are trained to do as reference librarians, and we can put that skill to work in thinking about consulting on research assignments, which could lead to interesting opportunities involving the collections, or a more scaffolded assignment structure, or something equally exciting. Bonus: This is also a student-centered approach, because students might be nervous or afraid to ask questions about something that’s unclear in a research assignment, but we can use our positionality to ask those “stupid questions.”
- We continually bring a beginner’s mind to our work. Again, because that’s the basis for reference. Librarians are trained not to make assumptions, and we can use that same mindset for approaching research assignments, thinking about what students might already know (and what might be confusing), etc.
Of course, we also have idiosyncratic expertise in research tools, disciplinary knowledge, etc. based on our individual unique experiences, and I want to acknowledge those as well.
The more I think about it, the more I think that reference experience (or perhaps a general ethos of reference?) is crucial for the role of teaching librarian. I don’t know that we have to “do” reference, but many of the ideas and approaches that we cultivate in that sphere seem entirely important for teaching work.
What do you think? Are there other things that you would add to this list?
Our book, Learner-Centered Pedagogy, which has been available for pre-order for a little while, is now going to be officially released by ALA and begin shipping on June 22. And if you’re going to be at ALA annual, the ALA store will have some copies for sale.
Both Dani and I now both have copies in our hands, and we must say that we’re extremely pleased with the book. ALA took really great care with the cover, layout, and presentation of the book. We’d like to thank everyone involved, and give special thanks to our acquisitions editor at ALA, Patrick Hogan, for supporting the project, and for the high and somewhat unusual degree of autonomy he gave us over the book.
The book is something we worked really hard on, writing it mostly at night and in our free time, and it’s crazy to see something of this scope go from its initial stages to come to fruition in an actual, published book. We both really put our selves into it, and feel proud to have written an evidence based book that puts students first in our instruction and practice of librarianship.
If you’re interested in ordering a copy, you can use the following code to get $5 off our purchase if you acquire the book directly from the ALA Store:
COUPON CODe: LCPP17
I’ve gone ahead and pasted the text of ALA’s Press Release for the book below ( and if you’re so inclined you can see the whole thing here).
Just to be yourself is enough.