All posts by rhalpern

What I Gained With My MLIS

As my Facebook and Instagram feeds are flooded with graduation photos, it’s time to reflect on my education, now that I graduated with my MLIS almost exactly a year ago.  In the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the MLIS curricula, and for good reason.  Education is expensive and job outlooks are bleak; it makes sense that we need to re-evaluate this investment.  I’ve been critical of our degree myself.  But as I’ve read many posts questioning the value of our degree, I’ve tried to take stock of the 2 years I spent in school and consider how some of my more theoretical courses have made me a better librarian.

I am a strong believer that students need to be realistic about what to expect from a graduate degree.  Only getting practical, task-based skills is not the point of our education.  I agree that our classes should offer meaningful, thoughtful assignments we can include in our portfolios and should be testaments to our employable skills, but they should primarily give us the necessary conceptual tools to be innovative, creative professionals.  In other words, theory matters; having a strong foundation in theory is one of the things that separates librarians from other library staff.  Now that I’m a year out of my education, and a year into my professional career, I’ve reflected on some of the more theoretical courses I took in school and how they’ve helped my career so far.

Digital Media Collections: this class was, probably, intended for students who wanted to go on to do video or multimedia curatorial work.  In this course, we explored the idea that collection design is a form of argument, expression, and experience.  We learned how to figure out a purpose and audience for a collection; how to best select, organize, and describe items in a collection; issues of copyright, fair use, and creative commons licenses; and how to best present our digital media collections.  The final project was building our own video collection on a certain topic. Though I have never worked with digital media collection building, or even print collection building, this class gave me the skills to:

  • thoughtfully consider how to best organize and present resources in instructional Lib Guides;

  • determine who my potential audience(s) is/are when developing instructional workshops;

  • plan library resources and services in ways that are commensurate with open access and/or fair use principles;
  • articulate some assumptions database and search engines make when organizing and structuring results, which helps me aid students on the reference desk.

Classification Theory: this class was intended for theory nerds like me (I can only assume).  In this course, we explored different classification systems and investigated how classification can be a political act.  The final project was a critical paper.  Though I am a self-professed theory buff, the knowledge gained from this class has been instrumental in my contributions to developing an information literacy curriculum in my university.  Among other skills, this course has helped me:

  • articulate the differences in classification and retrieval systems.  I use this articulation to help students better understand why they get the search results they get and when they should look to the open web or databases;

  • implement a critical pedagogy in my instruction; this class helped me to understand how some students can feel marginalized by traditional search engines and classification systems.

Social Media for Information Professionals: potentially the most wishy-washy course on the schedule that semester, I took this course because it fit the best with my courseload (honesty, right?)  In the class, we read McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Massage” and other mass media theorists, particularly as they relate to the concept of “value added”.  The final projects were a presentation on how an information organization would use a social media site of our choice (I chose Pinterest) and a critical paper.  As a librarian, I’ve used the theory to:

  • co-develop a social media plan for our library’s marketing and outreach activities;

  • think critically about if, how, and when we should adopt particular social media for the library to have the most impact on our mission

Undoubtedly, some of our programs need to do a better job of knowing what it wants to be.  Some schools are more professional in nature, and do a great job of offering quality “core librarian” courses, like reference, instruction, cataloging, and archiving.  Students who work full-time, or have children, or would otherwise not be able to gain much practical out-of-the-classroom experience are some types of students who would be a good fit for these programs.  At the same time, there is a lot of professional experience to be gained from more theoretical or non-traditional library school courses.  As is often the case, we don’t always know what we’ve gained until we’ve needed it.

Have any of the classes you took in grad school been surprisingly useful in your career?  With the benefit of hindsight, what do you wish you had or hadn’t taken?  Leave a comment or tweet your thoughts to me @beccakatharine.

Information Literacy at the Reference Desk

I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in a challenging and stimulating project: developing an information literacy curriculum for my campus.  If it seems like a long time coming–it is.  While my library has consistently been providing reference and instruction services to our students for a long time, its only been recently that we’ve had to develop a serious curriculum to justify our efforts.  As our university is busy with reaffirming of our accreditation and we’re faced with the usual budget crises, the time came to be able to legitimize our services and collections with an information literacy curriculum.

To articulate our mission, content, pedagogy, and assessment of our services and collections, we had to first take inventory.  To do this, we developed and implemented a citation analysis project.  First, we identified 3 sections of a required course in our most popular academic program.  For the face-to-face section of the course, we delivered a standard information literacy session that covered keywords, Boolean operators, and other database-specific skills.  For the online section, I developed an online guide that covered the same topics and I participated in a discussion forum where I answered specific questions.  THis section also, independently of our suggestion, required that each student meet with a librarian for a reference session.  The final section was our control group where no workshop was given.  We then analyzed the final papers of each section and applied a rubric that measured how well the students cited their sources and integrated them in their papers.

The results of our analysis gave us a lot of great insight into how we can improve our workshops, the topics the students need more help with, and how to better promote our collections.  The most interesting result, though, was the revelation that regardless of any other intervention, the students that came to meet with a librarian did better on their final paper than those who did not.  To put another way: reference interactions are just as an essential component to information literacy instruction as one-shot lessons.

I”m not sure why this surprised us so much, but it definitely did.  Perhaps because we unconsciously equate information literacy with in-class workshops, or because we’ve seen a steady decline in amount of reference transactions, or perhaps just because we weren’t the ones to suggest that students be required to see us, but in any event we learned an important lesson to consider our entire range of services when assessing information literacy.  I recently completed a Library Juice Academy course in critical pedagogy where we learned that information literacy instruction happens everywhere, in all aspects of our work.  We gave examples of how we practice a critical pedagogy in our collections, in our campus committee work, and, of course, in our classrooms.  But none of us considered how the work we do when a student comes to us with a reference question is essential to our pedagogy praxis.  Indeed, the kind of personalized attention we give a student during a reference interaction is the perfect time to bring that student a little closer to information literacy.

Now that we know the significance a personalized reference interaction makes, we’re brainstorming ways to systematically incorporate them into our work.  Perhaps we can suggest professors strongly encourage their students to bring their research topic to us as a requirement of the assignment.  Or, we could set up a discussion forum in our classroom management platforms for online or hybrid classes.  Finally, we could consider a roving reference program to meet students working around campus.  What has worked for your library?

When thinking about our work as librarians, it’s essential to consider all aspects of what we do and to start to engage with creative ways to promote information literacy.  The reference desk is an interesting place to start.  In what surprising locations does information literacy live in your library?  Leave a comment or tweet me @beccakatharine.

Building a Pedagogy

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about pedagogy. To tell you the truth, throughout graduate school I thought very infrequently about pedagogy, assuming that even as an instruction librarian, something as theoretical as pedagogy would be outside of my professional bounds. Though the instruction course offered at my university did touch on the aspects of designing an information literacy curriculum, it was a far cry from being a course in pedagogy. In fact, as librarians, we often become so overworked in our day-to-day tasks of making sure our resources and services are accessible, we can forget that first and foremost, we are educators. And like any highly skilled educators, having a strong grounding in pedagogy is essential to our job.

Pedagogy is, simply, the art of education. It is how we teach, how we connect students to the curriculum, and how we position students to be learners. Pedagogy is the beating heart of the teaching professions. I come from a strong social science background, particularly one poised to challenge and investigate systems of the status quo. I spent all of my undergraduate years studying the prison industrial complex from a gender perspective and my favorite courses in library school were on the politics of classification and knowledge production. Not surprisingly, then, I tend to frame my own librarian practice within a framework of social progress and have only recently begun to consider how to use this framework in library instruction. Yes, I want my students to be skilled in information seeking, but I also want them to be willing and able to think critically about information and the politics through which it’s produced. I take my pedagogy cues from the likes of Freire, hooks, Zinn – in other words, I want my students to be rabble rousers.

I am extremely lucky to be part of an institution with which I share these strong social convictions. My university’s commitment to social justice and radical learning is at the core of all it does, including its library instruction. I, along with the library director, have recently begun developing a comprehensive information literacy curriculum for the library. How can we reframe the ACRL Information Literacy Standards to a more critical perspective? We always have and will continue to have the one-shot in-class library workshops, but we are starting to strategically envision what skills and concepts we want to consistently deliver. In addition to the traditional keyword-forming, full-text finding skills, how can we give students the skills to think critically about the information they both find and can’t find? How can I open the discussion about the problematic nature of academic publishing? Where is the room for this agenda? It’s a lot to fit in the 50-minute one-shot.

I am in no way the first person to think about this. Many, many books have been published on this topic and continue to be published. And, indeed, many of the student-centered, critical strategies involve very few bells and whistles. A few ideas that have left me inspired:

  • include critical reading skills in every workshop. As simple as that! It is as important as knowing how to properly cite a resource or construct a search term.
  • Have students search for articles on a purposefully controversial topic, like the link between autism and vaccines. Have them note what information is in the peer-reviewed literature, what stance it tends to take, the methodologies it tends to employ, and where alternatives may exist.
  • Show students how to find and use open-access journals and repositories. The few times I’ve done this, I’ve vetted these sources to ensure they are of high quality and repute (and explain that I’ve done so, using which criteria).
  • Change the way I organize my lessons. Instead of PowerPoints, I try to structure the lesson according to student suggestions and examples.
  • Leave the more traditional information literacy skills to Lib Guides and other digital learning objects. I’d rather spend my precious face-to-face time on the more nuanced aspects of information seeking and point them to videos and other online resources to do the more mundane tasks, like how to find full-text.

Where do you draw your pedagogical inspiration? Does your library have an comprehensive information literacy curriculum? Share your thoughts, resources, and inspirations in the comments section, or tweet me @beccakatharine.

Professional Jurisdiction

One of the many things I love about my position is that I’m one of only 3 librarians.  This means I have a fairly liberal allowance for things I can get away with, professionally speaking.  If I want to create my own outreach events, my boss invariably says “Go for it!”  If I want to create video tutorials to teach students how to retrieve full-text articles from our databases, the idea is met with “How soon can you make it happen?”  In other words, I’m not bound by the same position-specific job roles other librarians in large institutions may have.  I’m the outreach, reference, systems, emerging technologies, and instruction librarian all at once.

One of the challenges of this position, though, is navigating my professional jurisdiction.  My institution is very small (less than 1000 enrolled students) but we pride ourselves on spectacular support services.  We have Master’s-degreed writing and math tutors whose schedules are always full; we librarians spend most of our days meeting one-on-one with students for research consultations or conducting information literacy workshops.  But every so often, we’ll be presented with a unique student need and not know who to defer it to.  Unlike most of my first year librarian counterparts, I typically interact with students much older than myself: the average age of a student at my university is 38.  This means that some of our students are behind the technological curve and need some help catching up with basic computer skills. Is this the job of the academic librarian?

Public, and likely community college, libraries offer several classes a month in basic computer literacy skills.  They offer courses on setting up Email, Internet 101, and basic office software.   In addition to teaching these necessary computer basics, the courses might also cover more “high concept” topics like internet privacy and the politics of the publishing industry.  Typically, though, academic libraries do not offer these types of courses; maybe because the average college student is a digital native, or maybe because the university is in a city with a robust public library where the librarians can refer students with this need.  So when I began noticing a real need for technology support I couldn’t find many academic libraries to use for models.  For some reason, computer literacy workshops just don’t seem to fit in the library’s purview.

The library as a concept and place is in flux.  The needs of our students, the format of our collections, and the media through which we interact with the campus are all changing.  This means that as librarians, we’re always challenged to say one step ahead: to try to figure out how to best utilize our limited budgets and resources to meet the needs of visitors, students, faculty, and colleagues.  In this case of my campus, maybe this means taking on some of the more basic computer training.  Did I get my Master’s to teach classes in Microsoft Word?  No, not really.  But I did get my Master’s to facilitate a love of auto didacticism and self-sufficiency and life-long learning in my community.   However, I don’t want to lose the value of libraries by being a “one-stop-shop” or step on other campus department’s toes.  The question that remains on my mind is, given the changing demographics and needs of campus communities, where do library services begin and end?

Has your library faced a similar challenge?  How do you navigate where the library’s professional jurisdiction begins and ends?  Leave a comment or respond via Twitter, @beccakatharine.