Category Archives: Just Thinking

Use this category for raising questions and thinking out loud or reflecting on writings for which there is no real specific topic.

Keeping Our Batteries Charged

Now that I’m in my second year as Chief Librarian, the questions about what I miss about my prior role as Instruction Coordinator come much less often. My answer is the same, though: I still miss teaching and reference, and the opportunities they offer to work with our students. I’d guess that’s common among folks with an instruction background who move to directorships — we’re no longer front of the house, actively working with patrons, to use a restaurant example (though we’re not really back of the house either, and some days it feels like we’re all over the house). We work for the students all the time, but that work can be behind the scenes and often doesn’t allow us to interact with students in the same way we did before.

It’s mid-semester, the library’s crowded, and my colleagues and I are busy, all working hard to make sure our students have what they need for their academic work. So of course that’s the best time to start on a new research project, right? In my quieter and ambitious moments at the beginning of last summer I thought “yes!” So here I am, hopping on the overcommitment train and speeding through the fall. (I’m not quite sure where this new, train-based metaphor is going — clearly I’ve exited the dining car — but it’s been a busy week so let’s keep it.)

My research continues work that I’ve done in the past to learn more about our students’ lived experiences: how, where, and when they do their academic work, and what tools they use, especially digital technologies. Which means that, among other things, I get to schedule interviews with 20 students on my campus to talk with them about what they do on a typical school day. It’s been tricky to schedule the interviews — we’re a commuter college so often our students only come to campus a few days each week, and my own schedule is typically on the meeting-heavy side.

But it’s worth the persistence (and many, many, many emails) to plan the interviews, even during one of the busiest parts of the semester (so many emails). Because it’s incredibly energizing to talk to our students. In the past week I’ve heard students praise the library’s carrels for distraction-free studying, explain how they take the (free!) Ikea shuttle bus to play basketball with their cousin after classes, show me a book from our library about electronic surveillance that they’re reading for fun, and tell me that they prefer to use a desktop computer for “real research” rather than their tablet. Our students and the work they do here at City Tech are inspiring and amazing, and just having the chance to listen to their experiences has been a surprising — and needed — source of energy for me this semester.

Keeping ourselves focused and recharged during the semester can be tough, and while there are lots of outside-of-work examples of self-care that are important, I’ve found it helpful to think on those every(work)day energizing opportunities too. What helps you recharge your batteries during the mid-semester rush? Drop us a line in the comments.

Versus / and / or: The relationship between information literacy and digital literacy

For years now, I’ve been working to both simplify and deepen how I think and talk about information literacy. These goals may perhaps seem at odds, but they feel rather complementary to me. Essentially, I’m trying to hone my ideas, language, and examples so that information literacy is both accessible and meaningful to my audience. I want them to recognize information literacy as something in which they are also (already) invested, as something that they also value and seek.

When I look back at that first sentence and see “for years now,” it gives me pause. Really?! It’s taken me years? Well, it’s not so surprising really. There’s always room for improvement, of course, but in part it’s that my own understanding of and work on information literacy is always growing and evolving. As is my understanding of my audience, too.

Recently, I’ve been trying to think more about digital literacy and its relationship to information literacy. Across higher education, momentum for digital learning continues to increase. My institution is no exception.

In a recently “expanded” definition, ACRL describes information literacy as: “the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.” While the tone of ACRL’s earlier definition (the “set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information’”) tended to be more procedural and mechanistic, both definitions highlight the critical thinking integral to the consumption and production of information.

So what is digital literacy then? In his book, published almost 20 years ago, Paul Gilster describes it as “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers.” For Gilster, the “most essential of the [core competencies of digital literacy] is the ability to make informed judgments about what you find on-line.” As part of “this art of critical thinking,” Gilster also includes among these core competencies reading skills, “assembling knowledge” from “diverse sources,” and search skills. For Gilster, digital literacy is essentially “literacy for the internet age.”

More recent definitions continue in the same expansive vein. ALA’s Digital Literacy Task Force describes digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, understand, evaluate, create, and communicate digital information, an ability that requires both cognitive and technical skills.” Cornell University explains it as “the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.” UK non-profit JISC defines digital literacy as “those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society. Digital literacy looks beyond functional IT skills to describe a richer set of digital behaviours, practices and identities. What it means to be digitally literate changes over time and across contexts, so digital literacies are essentially a set of academic and professional situated practices supported by diverse and changing technologies.”

Digital literacy is sometimes coupled with media literacy, as in Renee Hobbs’ Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan for Action: “the term ‘digital and media literacy’ is used to encompass the full range of cognitive, emotional and social competencies that includes the use of texts, tools and technologies; the skills of critical thinking and analysis; the practice of message composition and creativity; the ability to engage in reflection and ethical thinking; as well as active participation through teamwork and collaboration.” The Journal of Digital and Media Literacy states that “broadly defined, digital and media literacy refer to the ability to access, share, analyze, create, reflect upon, and act with media and digital information.”

I could keep going. Variations abound, but their essence stays constant. Digital literacy is not a checklist of skills. It’s far more than knowing how to operate a computer or a particular application. Instead it’s about critical thinking and reflection, social and cultural contexts, and identity. Rather familiar territory, no? So is digital literacy just information literacy in a digital only environment? Most definitions seem to at least acknowledge their connection. In library-centric spheres, information literacy tends to be presented as the larger category of which digital literacy is a part. But the reverse seems to be the case in other realms.

Why does this matter? I’ve written before that librarians are translators and that our “unique position affords us opportunities to reach across divides of perspectives, stakeholders, and disciplines.” I’ve also written before about honing how we both communicate and listen in order to connect, find common ground, and seize opportunities. So when I wonder if digital literacy is just information literacy in a digital only environment, I do not mean to diminish or disparage. Instead, I seek to highlight points of intersection, alignment, and overlap. If we’re not talking about precisely the same thing, we’re certainly on the same page. I think it will serve us all well to recognize the difference in our language, but the similarity in and continuity of our teaching and learning goals.

What’s your take? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Somewhat Off-the-Cuff Thoughts About the Print Vs Ebook Debates

I opened the paper this morning to an article discussing the continuing fight for market share between print books and ebooks. In a headline sure to lure in every librarian and avid reader — The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead — the New York Times reports that:

E-book sales fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers, which collects data from nearly 1,200 publishers. Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.

It’s a decent article, though to my mind it glosses over many of the issues around print books and ebooks that librarians are well aware of. The reading landscape is complicated — it’s less a matter of either, or and more both, and. We see it at the Reference Desk when some students are happy to have access to an ebook on their device, while others wrinkle their noses if they find a book that’s only available electronically and ask if there’s any way we can get them the hard copy. In my library our printing statistics are through the roof as students print thousands of pages per week; yes, some of these pages are their assignments or journal articles, but some are ebook chapters too.

Ebooks can be troublesome, frankly, even for those who want to use them. As a library user and a librarian and an avid reader, I’m highly motivated to sign into multiple platforms at my university’s library or the public library to be able to read books on my phone or tablet, but the barriers can seem very high to novice ebook users. Alycia Sellie’s recent article in Urban Library Journal notes the trials and tribulations that students in her library experience when they want to use ebooks (among other topics), frustrations which often “makes them dislike the libraries that offer them.” And even those who are extremely digitally savvy may not embrace ebooks. In my house, with an n of 2, I read both print and ebooks (and the paper newspaper), while my spouse, a software engineer, reads only print books (though the newspaper on his phone).

While I do think the Times article doesn’t delve as deeply into the complexities of print vs. ebooks as it could, I’m glad to see it, and especially glad to see that physical bookstores are seeing a boost in print sales. I also hope that folks who have input into the future of libraries — politicians, funders, etc. — take note before issuing proclamations about the death of print books. The public libraries in my city are booming, and they are full of print books, as are all of the K-12 public school classrooms in NYC that I’ve ever been in. My son, who just started high school, reads only print books at home (his choice) and in school, though he did receive one of his textbooks on CD this year. Kids of all ages read lots — for school and for their own interests — and they may not have access to devices that make it easy for them to read ebooks. I think we’ll be living in our both, and hybrid print/digital book world for a while yet.

Digging Into My Non-Library Past

Like many academic libraries, library faculty at my college and university are required to have a second graduate degree in addition to the ML(I)S. I came to librarianship after a couple of other careers, and one of the things that attracted me to the field (and to academic librarianship specifically) was the opportunity to use some of the knowledge and skills I’d picked up in my prior work, especially in research, teaching, and instructional technology.

Those skills could be gained during graduate study in lots of different disciplines, though. My prior graduate work is in anthropology, and specifically archaeology. I spent 8 years in a graduate program to get my MA and PhD, and sometimes I find myself wondering, what does that have to do with librarianship?

Anthropology in the U.S. typically takes a four-field approach, in which cultural anthropology, archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology are all in the same department (this is not necessarily the case outside the U.S.). As an anthropology major in college and at the beginning of my graduate studies I was required to take courses in all four fields, and while I sometimes felt that a non-archaeology class was less relevant to my immediate interests, I appreciated being exposed to the full range of the discipline. Close and distant observation as well as listening to others’ experiences are important aspects of all four fields of anthropology, and the opportunity to explore ethnographic methods has been especially useful to me in both my daily practice as a librarian and in my research on how students do their academic work in the library and elsewhere.

What about archaeology? Digging up remnants of the past, cleaning and refitting what we find, using drawings and photographs to record the site — that couldn’t be more different than librarianship, right? But since I’ve become a librarian I’ve been thinking more on the similarities than the differences. To be somewhat reductive, archaeology is using what people have left behind to try to answer the question “what happened here?” It involves looking at objects – tools, garbage, etc. – as well as structures, roads, and other traces of work and life. A circle of soil that’s a different color and texture than the surrounding soil might be a post hole, where a log that held up the roof of a house once stood; broken and sawed bones could be the remains of a meal.


I ask that question in the library, too: what happened here? What did students leave behind — books on the desk? the remains of a meal? (always a challenge for us) rearranged furniture? Two or three kickstools clustered in the stacks around an electrical outlet suggest students using them as seats while they charge their devices. Sometimes I take a picture of an unusual situation or innovative solution to a problem, like this photo taken during finals week last semester of a student who brought their own extension cord to reach an outlet and made a handy sign to warn other library users not to trip on the cord. (Access to outlets is definitely an issue in our library.)

I also ask what’s happening in the library as a whole. How do the different parts — our facilities, services, resources — work together for the benefit of our patrons? When the group study area is buzzing with conversation in the late afternoon, is there enough space on the quiet floor for those who need silence? Figuring out how students use the library often involves observing people in physical spaces in addition to the things they leave behind, but like archaeology we can use our observations to puzzle out both “what happened here?” and “how might things happen differently?”

I’m sure I’m not the only one to consider what my extra-library experience brings to my library practice. What does your additional academic experience, either undergraduate or graduate, bring to your academic library work?

Still Lost in the Academy: The Importance of #L1S and Other First Generation Initiatives

Disclaimer: This post is only about my experience as a first generation student. My experience is not truth. While I try to highlight some research done on this topic and point to others’ reflections, it’s worth stating that first generation student’s experiences are as diverse as they are.

Sometimes I get comfortable. I start to think that I have “made it” (whatever the hell that means), that I finally have some level of comfort with the academy, that I can speak the language of academia, that I can honor where I come from while still fitting in where I’ve worked so hard to be. And then I realize just how naïve I am.

A lot has happened in the last few months to bring me back to this topic. Kelly Kietur recently wrote a brilliant blog post entitled “HOT TAKE: class feelings and lis,” where she names her feelings of never belonging as being a “perpetual outsider”. This really resonated with me and pushed me to think about and reflect upon my recent experiences and how they relate to my first generation student status.

I just moved to a new institution, Davidson College, to start my journey as a new professional. The transition has been smooth sailing, mostly because of the awesome team that I have here. Still, Davidson is a very prestigious, selective college (the class of 2018’s median ACT score was a 31, which is 5 points higher than my best) and it has been difficult for me not to psych myself out about being in this environment. Davidson also recruits brilliant faculty that have degrees from other highly prestigious institutions. I often find myself doubting my ability (more on this later) to connect with them in a meaningful way or even have an in-depth conversation with them.

In addition to adjusting to Davidson, I’ve spent a lot more time with my mother recently. A few weeks ago she volunteered to help me move everything I own down to North Carolina, which was not an easy task, given that it was almost one hundred degrees for most of the move. Even just this one act illustrates my mom’s thoughtfulness and generosity. She has taught me things about the world that you can’t learn in a classroom. She continuously keeps me grounded but still ambitious. Yet being with her for almost a week reminded me that we always have to remember where we come from. She mispronounced words that are in my daily vocabulary now. She asked me a lot of questions about flying because she hadn’t been on a plane in over a decade. She talked about the physical work she had been doing and her fear of not having a real plan for retirement. I say these things not to embarrass my mom or ground sweeping statements about those without post-secondary education but simply because I think they illustrate what sparked my reflection. Does pronunciation really define how I feel about my mom? Of course not. But here I’m reminded of one of Maria Accardi’s more recent insights on her Library Burnout blog:

I think that the impulse to compare yourself to others in order to improve your mindset or make you feel grateful is not always the most affirming mental move to make, but thinking about my life in terms of my mother-in-law’s life has certainly informed and enriched my perspective, because while I do feel marginalized in some areas of my life, I also exist on multiple axes of privilege.

I value every minute I get to spend with my mom. But every minute also reminds me that I’m often playing make-believe, trying to pretend that I fit into academia and the poverty that I come from or, worse, that I have finally found my true place in the academy and that I should be ashamed of where I started and who I “left behind”. These feelings often create a sense of guilt that can be unmanageable.

To top it all off, I have also been working on the first draft of my first peer-reviewed publication. Kelly describes publishing in a journal as “daunting and almost impossible,” which I agree with. As I read more and more articles for my literature review, I find so much of the LIS and education literature inaccessible. These are articles about development, international forms of open access, the digital divide, and critical and inclusive pedagogy and I have trouble understanding a lot of it. Why write an article if the people that you are writing it for/ about can’t read it?! Ellen MacInnis recently tweeted something I think everyone claiming to do “radical” research needs to read:

So what’s my point? Why am I writing about this on ACRLog? I believe that we still have a lot of work to do in LIS, both in supporting and nurturing new LIS professionals that come from a first generation background and in creating academic library services that support first generation students broadly. In addition, I often see a lot of conversations focused on either the financial or academic hardships that first generation students face. These usually talk about retention in terms of scholarships, grants, or work study or the availability of academic support structures like remedial courses or tutoring. These conversations are vital to the success of first gen students. But I think that the social and emotional challenges that first generation students grapple with sometimes take a back seat to these more “tangible” problems, even though addressing them is just as important to actually retaining students. Further, if students are feeling guilty, angry, abandoned, and alone it is likely to affect their academic success.

For Ourselves

There are LIS professionals that identify as “first generation,” whether that means being the first person in their family to go to college or graduate school or the simply someone that is currently part of a different class than the one they were raised in. How can we, as first generation LIS practitioners, support each other? How can our colleagues learn more about the challenges we face?

This work has already been started! Cecily Walker (@skeskali) has started to collect feedback from self-identified first generation LIS folks about what support they need. As a result, she moderated a Twitter chat on June 1st where first gen LIS professionals discussed the challenges they face, how their experiences with class have informed their work, and what “coming out” to colleagues looked like. Cecily explains why she finds this work important on her blog.

I’ve had two revelations recently that I’d love to see the LIS community discuss more.

Several years ago, Teresa Heinz Housel wrote an article for the Chronicle entitled “First-Generation Students Need Help in Straddling Their 2 Cultures.” In the article, she describes her experience realizing that a new status didn’t change the disconnect she felt while in the academy:

After I accepted a faculty position, I wrongfully assumed that the old cultural demons would be gone. If anything, cultural isolation can increase up the career trajectory. Dinner parties, intellectual competition, and expectation of education as a right rather than a privilege underscore academic values.

I continue to learn and re-learn this. Earlier I described this feeling of “making it,” of feeling secure in academia. I am constantly realizing that being a first generation student actually means realizing again and again that I am different. I have profoundly different experiences than many of my colleagues and that’s okay. It’s actually something to be proud of. But sometimes I will find myself in situations where it’s difficult to remember that. I feel ashamed that I don’t know something or I feel lost in certain conversations. I feel like I’m a helpless college freshman all over again. How do other LIS professionals deal with these feelings? How do we continue to show pride in being different and assert that our voices make academia a much more rich and fascinating place?

I have also been thinking a lot lately about how the media and the public has informed the way I think about my abilities and myself. Lynne Coy-Ogan wrote a dissertation in 2009 where she studied first-generation students in depth. One of her findings was that despite their resiliency and success in other aspects of their lives, first generation students were often reluctant to identify themselves possibly because of shame related to the criminalization of poverty. They believed that they were “subordinate to their peers” and they often underestimated their abilities (Coy-Ogan, 2009, p. 19). They are also more likely to accept degrading or demeaning labels or representations of themselves (Coy-Ogan, 2009).

I do this a lot. I beat myself up. I underestimate my ability in a variety of situations, from #critlib chats to faculty outreach. I have already doubted this blog post and the quality of my writing several times! Part of this is that I am a human being. We always have some level of self-doubt and fear when we’re putting ourselves out there. However, the older I get, the more I realize that my feelings fit into a greater narrative that the world has told me about myself. From Missouri’s food bans to Arizona’s drug tests, our nation has no problem dehumanizing its poorest citizens. Welfare recipients are depicted as lazy drug addicts whose only skill set is manipulating and cheating the system. This idea has been alive and well since Reagan depicted the “welfare queen” several decades ago.

When you spend all of your life hearing these things about yourself, about your caretaker, about your community, what does this do to your self-esteem? What do you internalize? More importantly, how do we take these stories back? How do we assert that they won’t have power over us any longer? How do we help students do the same?

For Our Students

We have to acknowledge that a) first generation students exist on our campuses and b) that they experience the same challenges I’ve discussed above (and many more). There is a ton of literature on how to serve and mentor first-generation students and taking advantage of it should be an active part of library service planning, not an afterthought.

Again, I think that there also needs to be a more extensive conversation about the emotional, affective challenges inherent in being the first person in your family to straddle class lines and bear the emotional weight of “making it” for everyone before you that couldn’t. I know that having mentors that were more familiar with higher education than my parents has been invaluable. Having a community of other first generation students, faculty, and staff to work through these issues with would have also been helpful. How can librarians take on these roles?

Librarians should also start to think about first generation students’ needs in the context of information literacy, scholarly communication, and technology. Brinkman et al. presented an ACRL conference paper entitled “When the Helicopters are Silent: The Information Seeking Strategies of First-Generation College Students” in 2013. They explore a thought-provoking idea: if first-generation students’ parents don’t have specific information-seeking experience (as most other college students’ parents do) how do their information-seeking habits differ from their peers, both academically and practically? How does this affect library anxiety?

Getting to Work

Housel ends her Chronicle article with the following sentence:

I have slowly found other first-generation colleagues at my institution and others. Our conversations helped me realize that the biggest lie we have faced is that we do not belong in academic culture.

Let’s make our profession one that intentionally challenges and disregards this lie instead of perpetuating it.


Brinkman, S., Gibson, K., & Presnell, J. (2013). When the helicopters are silent: The information seeking strategies of first-generation college students. In D.M. Mueller (Ed.), Imagine, innovate, inspire: The proceedings of the ACRL 2013 conference. (pp. 643-650). Chicago, IL: Association of College and Research Libraries.

Coy-Ogan, L. (2009). Percieved factors influencing the pursuit of higher education among first- generation college students (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertation and Theses database. (UMI Number 3389750).