Category Archives: Information Literacy

Starting from the bottom and teaching my way to the top

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jessica Kiebler, Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College.

My journey into the world of librarianship started with my failure to get a job as an elementary education teacher. I’ll never know if that was due to the over saturated job market or my newbie skills, but one would think that with my undergraduate degree in elementary education, I would be ready to take on library instruction like a fish to water. However, I was never truly confident in front of 30 screaming children so while the transition to libraries wasn’t surprising, getting a job as an instructional librarian was a bit daunting. So if I didn’t want to teach, then how did I end up in an instruction position at an academic college instead of a public reference librarian? Good question. After five years as a librarian and one year in my current position as a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College, I decided to reflect on my journey from uncertainty to confidence.

You have to start somewhere

More than a year after graduating with my MLIS, I began working as a solo librarian at a small nursing college that needed a librarian to create their library. Yes, create a library from nothing but shelves, an ILS and a computer. Thankfully, the Director of Education had purchased hundreds of books before I had started and I began the task of cataloging them and organizing the physical space. Not only was I in charge of reference, maintaining the collection and all policy creation but also designing an instruction program. It was an amazing opportunity to learn but also very intimidating in my first professional position without the assistance of a mentor or experienced librarian. I took everything I had learned from my MLIS program and my undergraduate pedagogy courses and combined it with my own research to create a basic instruction program to show students how to use the library resources. The resulting lessons were basic but worked for the limited time and prior knowledge of the students.

Smarter, not harder

As any educator knows, the best lesson plans can mean nothing if an instructor does not have classroom presence or presentation skills. My lack of confidence showed through to my students so while my lesson plans were well written, my pacing and poor question prompting did not create a cohesive experience. I was also dealing with a short amount of instruction time combined with a student body who had little to no computer skills. This made getting experience in teaching actual information literacy very difficult because my classes became so much more about getting students to access the library website or about how to navigate a browser. As it became evident that this was not isolated to my first few cohorts, I had to start teaching smarter, not harder. I made notes about common issues students were having so I could create visual aids that would be on the screen while I walked around and assisted. I made time in my lessons for the common computer questions since I knew they would distract students from learning the steps to get the resources they needed. So while I thought these initial problems were distracting me from teaching, it was actually helping me to learn the constant juggling act that is teaching.

Frequently, I would be ready to move on from the initial login process (our students needed to login to the library website to access any resources) and a student would come in late or say they needed help because they had missed the instructions. In my first months that would have thrown off my thought process and I would have paused the whole class to assist. I learned from my mistakes by preparing the classroom beforehand with login information on the board so students could troubleshoot on their own or with the help of a fellow student. I no longer let those distractions keep me from moving on to my next thought or stall the class. Having a fellow librarian or mentor may have helped me make these progressions faster, but doing it on my own gave me the confidence that I could conquer anything. The challenges of working with limited time and support also forced me to get creative and create resources outside of the classroom that I could use to support students in accessing the library. Since we didn’t have LibGuides, I used free tools like Google Sites and LiveBinders combined with physical handouts and a YouTube page of screencast videos. These aids were incredibly helpful to students who felt they couldn’t absorb everything in one session or who needed a refresher later.

While I made steps to improve my lesson plans each term, I felt unable to move past the limitations of my environment. I updated slides, made handouts clearer and created more effective examples but I wasn’t moving towards a more engaging classroom experience. I felt stuck in the rut of assessing with the same handout and seeing the same issues with student responses month after month. I was proud of what I’d accomplished on my own but knew that I might need some guidance to improve even more. I just didn’t know how much more I would come to learn.

Joining the A-Team

In April 2014, I was hired as a Reference/Instruction Librarian at Berkeley College where I currently work. After two years at my previous position, I knew I was capable of standing in front of a classroom, delivering a lecture, and walking students through technical assistance but I wanted more. I was now working at a college with many majors and would be instructing in the schools of Liberal Arts and Health Studies on much more than just how to access the library website. Would I be able to craft effective, engaging lessons on information literacy objectives? Would I be able to deliver these lessons with confidence? My imposter syndrome was on high alert in my new position.

While it might have worked for me before (although slowly), I didn’t want to rely on my own persistence to improve. I contacted our Information Literacy Coordinator and discussed my concerns about my own teaching: “I’m nervous about trying new assessments. I’m not familiar with these classes. And how do I incorporate information literacy into a database lesson?!” He said not to worry and that it would come with practice. I had the core skills necessary and I could see some sample lesson plans that were already created to get used to teaching in this new environment. Having these road-tested lessons did help my confidence a bit but I still struggled with pacing myself and being comfortable with the silence that can follow when you ask a room of students a question. I knew if I wanted to improve I had to once again find a way to learn from my mistakes.

Tools for success

One tool that helped me more than I thought possible was creating an instruction journal. Immediately after each classroom session, I wrote down all of my impressions from my teaching:

  • How many students were there?
  • What did I teach?
  • What did I do well?
  • Where did I slip up?
  • Were there interesting interactions with students?

Getting those ideas and feelings out on the page created a place for me to archive them so I could go back and improve and also a way to reflect on what could have been better. Since I frequently teach the same courses, I would read through the journal before similar sessions and prepare myself to practice certain skills. This helped me to focus my energy on what needed work and just do what I knew how to do for the rest. I don’t share my instruction journal with anyone so I feel confident in writing whatever feels natural for me and to really be critical (or complimentary!). It’s also a great tool to go back to for yearly evaluations so I can find places where I excelled to point out to supervisors. I also made notes on any fun things I might want to try in the future once I felt comfortable with meeting the basic course objectives.

Finally, success

Finally, I had an instruction success that felt like the culmination of my 5 years of work. While doing outreach to English faculty to plan instruction, a new professor suggested a scavenger hunt lesson which she had done at a previous institution. The concept reminded me of a recent article I had read about creating “stations” for students for a library resources lesson[1]. I crafted a lesson geared for our library – from objectives to rubrics – and the professor loved it so we scheduled a session. On the day of the class, I pored over my notes to make sure I had the sequence of events down. I was sure I would mess up some part and have to backtrack. But I was wrong. I focused my energy on the skills I knew were my weakest – pacing, not being scripted or attached to a Powerpoint, giving students prompts if they aren’t quick to answer my questions – and the session was a success. Students not only completed my worksheet, they did so with thoughtful answers and even made insightful comments in our post-instruction discussion. It was a rewarding experience that I hope to continue.

Final reflections

I have now been a librarian for 5 years. I still have not conquered imposter syndrome (many librarians say they never do) and I know I can still improve my instruction skills. But I’ve learned that you don’t always need formal instruction to take on new skills. So much of my journey was done by coaching myself and learning from others – librarian bloggers, education authors, fellow librarians, my own students, and my own mistakes. I also relied on my fellow team members to help me work through ideas I had for future lessons which always bolstered my confidence. I sometimes felt like asking for help would make it seem like I wanted to take my colleagues’ ideas – especially as the newest member of the team. But when you work with a real team, they’ll understand when you’re looking for guidance and not hand-holding. I frequently felt so inspired by their work that it was easy to come up with my own ideas for lessons and assessment. You may also feel like asking for help means that you aren’t qualified to do your job but asking for help means you are willing to do the work to do better. I feel much more confident in the classroom these days and have even created engaging lessons that I’m proud of. Those pep talks and failures can show you that there’s so much more ahead than behind you.

[1] Fontno, T. J., & Brown, D. N. (2015, February). Putting information literacy in the students’ hands: The elementary learning centers approach applied to instruction in higher education. College & Research Libraries News, 76(2), 92-97.

Attempting to complicate students’ news consumption

“Anyone who isn’t confused doesn’t really understand the situation.”  –Edward R. Murrow

This past semester, per usual, a faculty member who teaches political science at my institution asked her students to read and watch the news. My colleague incorporated, as she normally does, discussion of current events into class time. The presidential primaries and accompanying media circus in the spring proved especially engaging for the students. The resulting class discussions were often productive, raising important questions and issues about government and politics. Yet the discussions also sometimes revealed students’ challenges with news consumption. Students, for example, seemed to bring information and perspectives to class that were mostly confirmations of what they already thought. Students were usually quick to label partisanship, but otherwise often missed bias in the media. Students sometimes seemed unable to tease apart reporting versus commentary.

These behaviors and challenges are likely not a surprise to most educators, especially librarians. Nor are they unique to college students. Many of us grapple with news consumption ourselves. How could we not, in this age of information overload? We are swimming (or is it drowning?) in a sea of information. To keep our heads above water, we skim just the headlines, we visit the sites or apps we’re most accustomed to, we rely on the stories that turn up in our social media feeds. These practices might make the wide and deep information ocean more easily navigable, but limiting our exposure in these ways can strengthen our confirmation bias and subject us to further filter bubbles.

When a first-year student in my colleague’s class last semester asked her for suggestions on where to go to get news, it gave my colleague pause. Sure, some quick suggestions for selected websites or apps could help that student, and perhaps others, engage with current events. But the student’s question prompted my colleague to think more deeply about students’ news consumption behaviors overall. Where and how were students getting their news, she wondered? How did they approach the news they consumed? She informally surveyed students in her courses to get a sense of their habits and perspectives. When she reached out to me to ask if we might work together to help students engage with news on a more regular basis and in more critical ways, of course I said yes. Now we’re aiming to connect students to reputable news sources, but we’re equally if not more concerned with developing their practices and capacities as news consumers and critical thinkers.

I’ve been exploring a number of news literacy resources for inspiration. And there are, indeed, plenty of inspirational projects already: the Center for News Literacy, The News Literacy Project, Why News Matters, and News Literacy 2016, to name just a few. And there are guides aplenty with lists of links to diverse news databases and sites, plus checklists with criteria for evaluating sources for accuracy and authority. But my colleague and I want to focus more on the important questions that can help students reflect on and shape their behaviors and attitudes about accessing and consuming news. We’re trying to distill those complexities into a simple and accessible (read: short) resource guide. Some of the organizing prompts we’ve been brainstorming so far include:

  • Why does news matter? – An understanding of the role of news in society; Motivation to seek news
  • How does news work? – An understanding of how news systems operate and make money; An understanding of who makes decisions in how news is prioritized, reported, produced in different systems
  • Finding (and diversifying) news – Identifying and selecting news sources; Developing a news consumption habit by integrating news into existing media/device usage; The impact of personal news choices on the diversity of information and perspectives encountered
  • What does “bias” even mean? – An understanding of bias as more than liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican; An understanding that “every source is biased and subjective and be able to contextualize such biases”; Considering what information and perspectives are left out of news; Considering the impact of tone, style, language, etc. on audience perception of news; Considering how personal beliefs and experiences impact individual perception of news
  • Cultivating a questioning attitude – An understanding of confirmation bias; Checking for corroboration/verification; Practicing using the lens of news production systems’ and authors’ practices and motives to examine news sources (Ashley, Maksl, and Craft published some helpful prompts in their News Media Literacy scale.)

I imagine this is a topic near and dear to the hearts and minds of many ACRLog readers, so I’m eager to hear your take. What news literacy work have you been doing? What are your favorite examples of news literacy guides and resources? What do you think are the most important news literacy concepts, questions, and tools for students? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Critical Information Literacy for First-Generation College Students

Last week, I re-read James Elmborg’s seminal article “Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice” as part of a homework assignment for an upcoming ACRL Immersion workshop. Every time I read it I engage with the text from a different perspective, and I always learn something new. It had been over a year since my last reading—during which I completed my first year as a reference and instruction librarian—and critical librarianship feels less theoretical and more intuitive to me now. In other words, as I read the article through the lens of my first year experiences, I reflected on the practical applications of critical information literacy in the classroom, behind the reference desk, and in the development of asynchronous materials.

After reading the article, I thought about all of the times I have messed up during an instruction session—not pushing back on instructors who insist that a librarian’s “job” is to present a laundry list of skills-based concepts during a thirty-minute one-shot session, making assumptions about students, and neglecting to discuss the lack of alternative ideas in the traditional peer-review process. But I also reflected on the aspects of critical information literacy that inherently have been part of my philosophy since day one, such as focusing on student-centered learning, admitting (and explicitly stating) to students that I am not an expert, and telling students “I don’t know, maybe we can find an answer together” when stumped by a question. Most important, this reading of Elmborg’s article spurred me to think more pedagogically about my work with first-generation college students (FGCS).

Critical lens. If we perceive education as a “profoundly political activity” and value librarianship as guided by a “student-centered educational philosophy,” then thinking critically about who our students are is arguably one of the most important parts of our jobs (p. 193). At my institution, approximately fifteen percent of the student body consists of FGCS, which equates to approximately 6,000 students. Expecting FGCS to seamlessly assimilate into the traditionally white elite sociocultural environment of a large private university (like mine) is negligent at best. There are many campus stakeholders who understand this and work with FGCS from the beginning of orientation week to them help navigate the social, cultural, political, and financial waters of my institution. But, there is still so much work to be done, especially within the realm of library instruction.

One of my favorite quotes from Elmborg’s article underscores the barriers that schools (and the libraries within them) need to overcome when reaching out to FGCS:

“Rather than define these students (those outside of an idealized student body) as ‘deficient,’ we might ask whether schools and curriculums themselves are a large part of the problem, especially when they become conservative protectors of traditional, authoritative knowledge and cease to respect students as people capable of agency and meaning-making in their own right. Indeed one of the primary challenges for contemporary education is to find ways to make it possible for all students to succeed, not just those socially preselected for academic success” (p. 194).

So what does this mean for library instruction, which is the primary way that many students at my institution connect to the library? We must first assert our roles as educators. This not only helps us to gain more trust and authority from disciplinary faculty, but it grounds our fundamental purpose. As an educator, my most vital missions are bridging the gap between student and teacher, and breaking down the traditional role of educators as authoritative figures that perpetuate the banking cycle of neoliberal education. And for students whose parents or guardians did not attend or did not complete college, this endeavor becomes even more pressing.

I make my first attempt at chipping away from these traditional roles by telling students that the classroom facilitates a conversation, not a lecture. I also tell students to call me by my first name (sometimes students become visibly uncomfortable with this prospect), and do NOT introduce myself as some sort of expert – because I am not. Yes, those letters behind my email signature represent Master of Library and Information Science, meaning that I completed the necessary coursework to gain the degree. But I explain that they probably know more than I do about many types of information, such as social media, and they bring unique sets of experiences to the table. If I am an expert, then they are, too.

I also try to do my very, very best not to frame one information source as “better” than the other. Rather, I frame the discussion around the purpose of the information, and the power structures inherent in information privilege. These ideas help all students feel comfortable in the classroom, not only “those socially preselected for academic success” (p. 194).

Critical literacy and academic discourse. Elmborg posits that literacy events take many forms in higher education – lectures, debates, essays, etc. – and range from formal to informal (p. 196). These events function, on one hand, as a method of imparting standards in the community and, on the other, as a way of academic exclusion, i.e. they determine “who belongs in college and who does not” (p. 197). The stakes are high for all students, but especially for FGCS, whose families and friends may never have taken part in the tacit and explicit political and academic underpinnings of the college.

Many of my institution’s FGCS student task force’s conversations have revolved around this point. Office hours are a primary point of contention among our FGCS. If you do not have a family member or peer to initiate you in the structure of college, how do you know office hours are important and, in many cases, crucial for academic success? You do not. Similarly, several FGCS have expressed discomfort, at the least, and embarrassment at most, at the suggestion of going to the Writing Center or contacting a librarian for research help. These are institutionalized processes inherent in the politics of student success in the academy. Critical information literacy means that I, as an educator, take one-shot sessions as an opportunity to underscore the importance of office hours. I explain what the Writing Center does and encourage students to reach out if they need further assistance. If a student is reluctant or grappling with a particularly tricky research question, I remember their name and follow up with them after class. This provides no quick solution to the issue, but it starts the conversation. Critical information literacy means reflecting, challenging, and changing traditional academic models (tenure processes, peer-review, etc.) But what else can librarians do as educators to challenge academic exclusion?

Critically examine what we ask students to do and how we ask them to do it. Elmborg recently participated in a panel at the American Library Association Annual Conference panel Authority Is Constructed and Contextual: A Critical View. I live tweeted much of the presentation and continue to reflect on what Elmborg said about thesis statements.

CritLib copy

Thesis statements are so, so hard for me; often, I do not know what I am really trying to say until I have worked out some of the mechanics behind the argument. I do not have any real solution here for how to teach such complex work, but applying critical information literacy means being cognizant of the tremendous tasks we are asking students to do. Thesis statements *are* hard!

One of my favorite critical information literacy articles is Michelle Reale’s “Critical Pedagogy in the Classroom: Library Instruction that Gives Voice to Students and Builds a Community of Scholars”. During a library instruction session in a course titled English 299: Interpreting Literature, Reale engaged students in an activity to help them develop and interpret topics through a critical lens. Reale role-played the exercise with the course instructor to demonstrate how asking simple questions about feeling, meaning, and subtext lays the groundwork for employing critical theory to student’s assigned texts. Students who were working with the same text were paired together and then began replicating the exercise, conceptualizing their partner’s text to develop topics and possible keywords for database searches on critical theory (pp. 84-85). This preliminary exercise could lay the foundation for helping students develop thesis statements. Talking about their ideas with a peer yielded much more success than merely lecturing on thesis statements alone. Such an exercise helps transform the traditional power dynamic from teacher to student, to student to student and student to teacher. The exercise made critical theory more accessible.

We need to break stereotypes and back off of our own assumptions about this group. FCGS should not be synonymous with the word poor – all FGCS do not come from low-income families. Three out of five FCGS do not complete a degree within six years. More than a quarter of FGCS leave school after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher income second-generation students. Even knocking down a common definition for FGCS is contentious. Lots of work remains to be done, but a commitment to critical information literacy for FGCS is an important first step.

None of these ideas are revolutionary, and I am far from the first person to write about their own reflections of Elmborg’s article (many of those reflections are cited in Eamon Tewell’s article titled “A Decade of Critical Information Literacy: A Review of the Literature”) or critical information literacy. But critical information literacy is crucial not just for FGCS – it is for everyone. The onus is on librarians to completely re-examine our purpose – are we educators? Is our professional identity tethered to being considered “experts”? Are we committed to agency – both our institutional agency and our student’s (especially marginalized groups) agency in the academy? How can we effectively operate in the tension between theory and practice in our daily work? In the ten years since Elmborg published the article, are we any closer to answering these questions?

References:

Elmborg, J. (2006). Critical information literacy: Implications for instructional practice. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), 192-199.

Reale, M. (2012). Critical pedagogy in the classroom: Library instruction that gives voice to students and builds a community of scholars. Journal of Library Innovation, 3(2), 80-88.

On “Everything”: Reflections on working in a field that is all-encompassing

Everything is information. Even some physicists and philosophers believe that information might be the basis of reality itself. According to a physicist quoted in a PBS blog post, one can imagine a universe without matter or energy, but one cannot imagine a universe without information. Hegel, the philosopher, also famously stated, “The real is the rational, the rational is the real.” If the rational is what we can know, and information is defined as what we can know, then reality itself is information insofar as it is knowable. (Of course we may able to know more than just information, and I’ll elaborate upon that in Part I of this post.)

“Everything is information” is a predominant maxim in librarianship. Ever since library school, with the antelope-as-a-document example we learned, it is clear: librarians are all about this statement. A simple syllogism can then tell us, then, that librarianship focuses on everything having to do with everything. (If everything is information and librarianship focuses on everything having to do with information, such as the research lifecycle, then librarianship focuses on everything having to do with everything. Or, to be a little less meta, just everything!) Of course it may be more complex than this, depending upon definitions and grammatical nuances, and I am no logician. But the focus of our profession is all-encompassing.

In this post, I would like to run with this idea…see where it leads – a sort of thought experiment. I will do that in Part II of this post, and will ask: what are the implications of working in a field where the focus is everything? Yet, first I would like to address some of the problems with the maxim and present a preliminary critique of it. For Part I of this post, I will ask: Does Everything is Information take into account our lived experience? What place does knowledge have? My first draft of this post left out the distinction between information and knowledge, and some of my colleagues pointed this out to me. Now upon further reflection, I think this distinction is critical, because it throws into question the notion that Everything is Information and does a better job of accounting for lived experience.

Part I

Everything is Information suggests information is all there is, but what place does knowledge have, then, in reality? Does Everything is Information take into account the full range and types of human experience?

Along with Tony Stamatoplos, I am co-chairing the ACRL Anthropology and Sociology Section 2017 Program Planning Committee. We are hoping to propose a panel that will incorporate such a critique. We want to focus on non-textual information, on the lived experiences and physical/material realities of social activists, the kind of non-textual information they produce, and what role libraries can/should play when it comes to this kind of information. So of course the panel will address the distinctions between information, knowledge, and human understanding. We are hoping to invite Richard Gilman-Opalsky, a political philosopher, to be on a panel, along with an archivist with experience in this area and hopefully an activist who is on the ground. Gilman-Opalsky’s forthcoming book, Specters of Revolt – touches on some of these ideas, as well as how revolt is a form of philosophy that takes place from below as compared to philosophy from above, which characterizes the work done by scholars. While I have to wait for the book to be released, I know that Gilman-Opalsky challenges Thesis 11 from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Gilman-Opalsky believes that activities that change the world are already a form of philosophy. Gilman-Opalsky sees activism as a form of philosophy that is better than philosophy from above in many ways, because of its “collective, experimental, creative, and humanist dimensions” (Richard Gilman-Opalsky, personal email). His work points to the inherent rationality of revolt as well as the historical context of different movements, as revolt makes a lot more sense when understood within the context of surrounding events and root causes. Indeed, sometimes the absence of revolt is actually what is irrational, as revolt can be the most sensible response to a particular reality.

All of this is to say that “Everything is Information” is a gross reduction of “everything” that discounts the full range of human experience insofar as it leaves out knowledge and understanding. Certain things – physical, material realities, cannot be reduced to text, or even to bits. To reduce some things – experiences, perhaps – to text or to bits means they will be compromised somehow. Something is lost in the translation. To go with the example of activism, it is an embodiment of rationality, the result of history, a reaction to systemic violence and racism, for example, as well as the expression of various affective states stemming from prior experience. It is oftentimes an expression of anger and desire – desire for a better world free of injustice. None of these things can be reduced to information.

Yet we can have knowledge about activism. We observe it, have an awareness about it, and even participate in it. We understand it. We know it on a deeper level than we know, say, mathematical formulas, because it has to do with human experience, which is very complex.

In spite of this fixation on this maxim, we actually do take knowledge into account in librarianship, as well, as a part of the research lifecycle, which includes a deep understanding of information in order to be able to communicate it to others, and that is necessary for the whole field of scholarly communication. We cannot communicate well what we do not understand ourselves. Yet in librarianship, sometimes it seems that we minimize the importance of knowledge or understanding, valuing information and evidence more highly. With scholarly communication, the focus seems to be on the transmission or dissemination of information, not knowledge or understanding. At this point, I am merely speculating as I haven’t thoroughly examined these ideas in order to make an informed critique of the place of knowledge in librarianship. I wonder what such an examination might reveal?

Part II

Back to Everything is Information, a thought experiment. What does it imply for us? I will also take into account that librarianship covers knowledge and understanding as well, not just information. We do truly cover everything! What are the implications of working in an all-encompassing field?

First, there is this idea that as our focus is information, we gather, process, comprehend, understand, and create information that is about information. This is very meta, and I think as human beings who are rational, sensing, thinking creatures we have a need for this meta aspect to thought that is provided by our field. We have a need to think about and ask questions about what information, knowledge, and understanding are – in order to fully engage with them, experience them, and create new knowledge (although Plato would disagree with that last bit – there is no new knowledge!). Speaking of Plato, just as philosophers point to the human need to think about reality, so we, as librarians, point to the human need to think about information and knowledge. Insofar as we facilitate these processes, our field – and thinking about everything – will never go out of style.

I also think this means as librarians, we really have opportunities to be creative and think outside the box. There are many different ways to think about information and knowledge, and thus many different ways to think about our field. Especially with information literacy instruction, there are all kinds of ways we can rethink the meaning and practices within information literacy. For example, information literacy also includes literacy – reading and comprehending information. This type of skill certainly crosses the distinction between information and knowledge, as to read deeply and comprehend a text is to have knowledge of the content or topic of the text. On this basis, I developed a critical reading workshop to help undergraduates learn skills in reading dense theoretical texts. These are skills that are important, yet often left to classroom instructors who in most cases probably can rarely take the time to teach such skills. As experts in information literacy and literacy, we are perfectly positioned to do so. This example, too, points to this idea that as information professionals and librarians, we need to challenge ourselves to think more deeply about the information/knowledge distinction, and what constitutes knowledge, because students learn from us, as well, how to arrive at a place where they actually know something. We don’t just look at the evidence when we teach information literacy. Even evaluation and formulating a research question require some degree of knowledge, and we assist with these activities.

Finally, the fact that librarianship is very meta also means that the library means different things to different people, and serves different roles for different people. The library isn’t everything to everybody, but it is something to everyone. That is a good thing, but it also can be a point of confusion and contention, especially between librarians and those outside the profession. The broadness and narrowness of our field (as etymologically, it is simply a place for books) sometimes means that the importance of the librarianship is minimized or discounted, but librarians will always be tasked with providing a space where “everything” can be explored, a space where the mind grows – where the real is the rational – a space where we can gather the evidence or information, contemplate it, and experience knowledge and understanding. This is profound.

“Playable, not just performable”: Telling the story of information literacy

I was reading Carrie Brownstein’s book, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir, a month or two ago, and a particular passage grabbed me so much that I keep going back to it. If you don’t know Carrie’s work, the short version is that she’s an indie rock/punk icon (best known for her band Sleater-Kinney) and more recently an indie comedy star, too (of TV series Portlandia fame).

Early on in her book, Carrie reflects on the massive stadium-size concerts she attended as a girl. Seeing Madonna and George Michael live was awe-inspiring and set her young adolescent heart and mind alight. She describes “witnessing” the “spectacle” of these events: “The experience … was immense; the grandiosity was ungraspable, it was the Olympics, it was a mountain, it was outer space.”

But Carrie’s story is not just about watching and witnessing; it’s about becoming and making. Which brings me to the part I really love (the underlining is mine for emphasis):

Yet the music I was hearing and the concerts I was witnessing were also mystifying and inaccessible. It was the ‘80s, and much of what I loved was synthed-out pop and Top 40 music, more programmed than played. The music was in the room and in my body, yet I had no idea how it had been assembled or how to break it apart.

This, I thought to myself, is exactly what I mean when I talk about information literacy. Carrie’s reflection continued as she described how she bought her first guitar and started going to punk and rock shows at smaller venues (again, the underlining is mine for emphasis):

Here I could get close to the players themselves. I could see how the drums worked with the guitars and bass, I could watch fingers move along frets and feet stomp down on effects pedals, I saw the set lists taped to the floor, and sometimes I was close enough to see the amp or pickup settings. I observed the nature of the bands, their internal interactions, their relationships to one another, as much as I listened. It seems obvious, but it was the first time I realized that music was playable, not just performable–that it had a process and a seed, a beginning, middle, and end. Everyone who plays music needs to have a moment that ignites and inspires them, calls them into the world of sound and urges them to make it. And I suppose this form of witness could happen aurally; perhaps it’s as easy as hearing an Andy Gill riff or a Kim Gordon cadence and knowing intuitively how that all works. Then you form those sounds yourself, with your own hands and your own voice. Or maybe you see it on a video, in footage of a musician who finally translates and unlocks what you thought was a mystery. For me, however, I needed to be there–to see guitarists … in the wholly relatable attire of threadbare T-shirts and jean shorts, enact a weird nerd sexiness, strangely minimal, maximally perverse. I could watch them play songs that weren’t coming out of thin air or from behind a curtain. I needed to press myself up against small stages, risking crushed toes, bruised sides, and the unpredictable undulation of the pit, just so I could get a glimpse of who I wanted to be.

It was in the small clubs with small bands, up close and personal, that Carrie could not only experience the music and witness the final product in all its glory, but also figure out how the music was constructed. And better still, how she could construct it, too. I’m not suggesting information literacy has the allure of music shows, large or small. Ha! Instead, I’m saying that I recognize in Carrie’s reflection the power of uncovering process to enable an individual’s participation and agency that is also at the core of information literacy. Her story serves as an illustration of the disconnects that students experience and why it’s important to help them uncover, develop, and articulate process. To see the “mystifying” final product (of scholarly research as published in a journal article or book, for example) is impressive and edifying, but for many is a closed door. To instead understand how something (again, that research) is made–to see its final whole, but also the pieces that make it up and the process of its making–is to open the door to one’s own potential participation.

A few months ago, I posted about some activities I used with students to “dissect” articles. Through these guided activities, we explored how sample articles (one from a scholarly journal, one from The New Yorker) were constructed. The most immediate goal was to help students parse these samples to see how authors use and synthesize sources and to what effect. Dissecting the sources broke open the elegant final products such that students could better see their component parts. By “decoding complexities that can sometimes seem a mystery and make research and writing feel insurmountable,” then, the goal was to set students up for constructing their own work, helping them recognize their own potential participation. Not quite the blood and guts of the pit at a punk rock show, but still a developmental and empowering step in its own right.

I’ve put Carrie’s story to use a few times in recent weeks, most notably in conversation with faculty about assignment design and pedagogy. The anecdote’s resonance was apparent in their faces and in our conversation. It occurs to me that this is, at least in part, the kind of thing I meant when I wrote about “writing it better” over a year ago. I’m calling to mind now some of the disappointing moments when I attempted to show others the breadth and depth of information literacy as I see it, but my message fell short or our connection was missed. Compelling examples, stories, and metaphors go a long way to helping us all recognize our common ground. How do you effectively tell the story of information literacy and its power? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments…