Across Divides: Librarian as Translator

Editor’s Note: We welcome Jennifer Jarson to the ACRLog team. Jennifer is the Information Literacy and Assessment Librarian and Social Sciences Subject Specialist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. Her research interests include information literacy and student learning pedagogy and assessment, as well as issues regarding communication, collaboration, and leadership.

A few weeks ago, I facilitated a few discussion sessions with faculty at my institution who had participated in a recent information literacy study.  Together, we reviewed and interpreted some of the more significant themes of the study’s findings.  We discussed, for example, evidence of students’ competencies and sites of their struggles, our teaching and learning goals and the gaps between our goals and our realities, and so on.  As we identified areas of students’ disconnects, some faculty began to identify a disconnect of their own.  We need help, they said, to better understand conventions and ways of knowing outside our own disciplines.  We recognize that disciplines view and value source types differently, for example, or cite differently, but we don’t know how and why.  As the discussion continued, faculty described wanting to better understand the perspectives that students from different disciplinary backgrounds are bringing to their classes.  In core courses within their departments, faculty described comfort with their own disciplinary traditions, of course, traditions in which their students are becoming knowledgeable or are already well-versed.  Yet, in the increasingly interdisciplinary areas of our evolving liberal arts curriculum — first year seminars and cluster courses, to name a few — faculty described feeling a little more at sea.  So deeply steeped in their own disciplinary traditions, they asked for a little help interpreting other disciplines’ points of view and the varying research approaches through which students might be passing on the way to their classes.

This request — for librarian to operate as translator — is not unfamiliar territory.  We librarians frequently work as translators, as interpreters.  In fact, it seems rather like our home turf.  Facility with different ways of knowing and organization is our wheelhouse. Decoding those schema and perspectives for our different user groups is a language in which we’re fluent.  We interpret our users’ needs when we engage in a reference interview.  We translate their needs into search strategies to best fit database structures or into relevant subject headings in a catalog.  We interpret for students an assignment’s purpose or their professors’ expectations.  We interpret for faculty points of research/information literacy confusion and difficulty commonly experienced by students.  We decipher for users the elements of citations and clarify their means of access.  The librarian-as-interpreter (or perhaps we should say negotiator?) paradigm holds in navigating relationships between faculty and student, faculty and faculty, discipline and discipline, and information resource and user.  It’s in my sphere of public services that I’ve given this topic most thought, but the librarian-as-translator trope doesn’t end there.  The parallel surely continues in cataloging, systems, web design, and beyond.

So what is it about librarians that situates us in this role?  And serves us well in it?  It’s the nature of our work itself, no doubt.  By working with our users, we see through their eyes.  It’s the philosophies and values at our profession’s core (Ranganathan, anyone?), however debated our philosophies might be.  With deep respect for our users and our resources alike, we aim to bridge the gaps between them.  It’s the nature of our location, at the intersections of so many points in our information ecologies and our campus landscapes.

Access to these points — these viewpoints, these skill sets — is not something to take lightly or ignore.  Our unique position affords us opportunities to reach across divides of perspectives, stakeholders, and disciplines.  At the same time, we must take care to evaluate our neutrality in such a position; we must recognize the role we play and our responsibilities in these acts of translation.  With an ear tuned accordingly, we can bring a diversity of voices to our varied campus tables.

What are you hearing?  For whom and how are you interpreting?  I would love to discuss your thoughts in the comments…

3 thoughts on “Across Divides: Librarian as Translator

  1. Thank you for this post! I think it offers a much more appropriate description of current work in academic libraries than the awful “librarians as gatekeepers” analogy that’s long overstayed its welcome.

    In my daily practice my most common “interpretive” interactions are between
    * students and faculty or students and subject material (via research consultations)
    * librarians and web services staff (in my role as library web developer)
    * librarians and faculty (in my role as a departmental liaison)

    It’s sometimes difficult to remember the best approach for each situation, and I will admit my translating has gotten a bit jumbled at times, but I still think librarians are, as you stated, uniquely poised to work as effective interpreters!

  2. Thanks for making the connection/comparison between the gatekeeper and translator analogies, Veronica. I love that.

    I took a look at your Librarian Design Share site. What a great idea. And in keeping with this theme of translation, too. Our effectiveness in design facilitates our effectiveness in translation. Thank you for your work on such a great resource.

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