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.

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.

First-Generation College Students – How Can the Library Help?

Three months into my current position, I realized that one of my biggest professional goals was to work with first-generation college students (FGCS). Inspired by a presentation about FGCS on campus at a Teaching with Technology conference sponsored by the campus Center for Teaching and Learning, I immediately marched into my reporting officer’s office seeking guidance on how to make this happen. As a social work librarian at my current institution, my primary outreach focus is on students and faculty who participate in the Master of Social Work program in the School of Social Work, and my secondary focus is participation in campus-wide reference and instruction programs for undergraduate and graduate students. I was worried about whether I’d have the opportunity to achieve this goal in my current position – could I cross the lateral boundaries of my immediate job responsibilities to work with this student population? Would that be a major faux pas? Did any of my colleagues want to join me? Would campus stakeholders be willing to collaborate (or, at least, provide insight) on library initiatives? Luckily, I have an endlessly supportive reporting officer who encouraged me to rally support from both academic and non-academic partners across campus.

Here is some background. I was not an FGCS myself, but I taught many of them in my introduction to information literacy course during graduate school. Planning, coordinating, and delivering lesson plans for that course was probably the most challenging part of my job assignment as a teaching assistant, but it was also the most rewarding – the experience also inspired me to pursue instruction as a library career. If possible, I wanted to continue working with this student population but knew that it may not be within the purview of my job responsibilities, especially in my first job.

At my current institution, the number of FGCS is increasing and the number of corresponding university services dedicated to FGCS is, thankfully, increasing as well. Groups dedicated to peer mentoring, career services, and internships for FCGS are going strong on campus, some of them with years of institutional history and experience under their belts. The First Generation College Student Task Force guides many of these groups. Developed under the auspice of the Office for Diversity and Strategic Initiatives, the group is dedicated to connecting FGCS students with myriad resources available to them on campus. In addition to connecting students to academic resources such as the Writing Center and cultural resources such as El Centro Chicano, the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs, and the Women’s Student Assembly, the Task Force encourages student well being and offers support for stress management. The Task Force also supports FGCS fellowships, awards, internships, and study abroad programs

So how did the library fit into this campus support system for FGCS? Was there a need for a library program for FGCS? I certainly wasn’t sure. I knew that collaboration was key – collaboration with my library colleagues and campus groups dedicated to helping FGCS.

It took six months for me to put out a call to library staff and faculty. I sent an email via the lib-all listserv (which was terrifying!) to gauge interest. Were any of my colleagues interested in starting a FGCS working group in the library? They were. We ended up with a fairly agile group of library faculty and staff – many whom were FGCS themselves – who wanted to develop library interventions for FGCS or, at least, think more intentionally about library outreach to this student population.

But what should these library interventions look like? Are they workshops? Personal librarian programs? A position dedicated to FGCS? Our initial conversations were informal and concentrated on reviewing the literature on FGCS and learning more about campus FGCS partners. We started out as an information-seeking group. We knew that the insight of campus partners dedicated to FGCS was crucial to guiding our charge. And let me tell you, it took time to gain buy-in from these partners – understandably so. Like so many on college campuses, these groups are understaffed and over worked; we were a freshly developed group who needed more of their time. So immediate buy-in was, frankly, non-existent. After months of contacting the Task Force, introducing myself to stakeholders, and describing the charge of our library group, I finally convinced the Vice Dean and Assistant Dean of Diversity and Strategic Initiatives – and leaders of the Task Force – to chat with our group about how the library could help FGCS.

We learned that 16% of the undergraduates at our institution are FGCS, defined as students where neither parents attended or completed college. We learned more about the many academic and non-academic campus groups dedicated to FGCS. We talked about the tacit barriers to college, such as working full-time while maintaining a full course load, managing anxiety about financial support, and negotiating the pressure to select a career aligned with familial goals or values. They discussed how crucial it is to include families in the FGCS experience. The Vice Dean, who teaches a general education seminar, talked to us in-depth about his philosophy and lesson plans for the class. I knew that many FGCS don’t self-identify as FCGS, but these conversations encouraged me to really ruminate on what that meant for our groups’ outreach philosophy. We were slated to meet for only an hour but collaboration flowed beyond that allotted time frame.

This conversation caused us to completely re-shift our focus. Instead of focusing on developing robust workshops, we are focused on changing the library’s perspective among FGCS. We need to simplify library language and heighten the library’s visibility on campus, which means that we need to get out of the library to help FGCS where they naturally fall on campus. We need to focus on what we can do to help them succeed in college. We need to educate academic advisors and campus peer mentoring groups on what the libraries has to offer FGCS. I’m focusing on developing an interactive library tutorial about many of the tacit barriers to academic success – such as breaking down the stigma of attending office hours, or reaching out the Writing Center for help. I’m also focusing my effort on developing campus awareness of OER and laying the groundwork on, hopefully, lowering the costs associated with textbook purchases.

Of course, all of this is in development. But our group now has a set of goals, and that’s a big deal! Group participation may wax and wane during the academic year, but at least we have an objective and related goals. But I’d love to learn more about what other university libraries provide for FGCS. Does your library provide outreach to FGCS? Are such outreach initiatives folded into another program? How does your library approach this outreach experience? I’d really like to develop a support network for librarians to share and collaborate on ideas for FGCS library programs. If you’d like to reach out to me directly (again, I’d really like to hear from you!), I’m on Twitter @therealcalliek.

“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…

Invisible Disabilities, Self Care, and a Generous Heart

This has all been said before, and better than by me. Not to bury the lede – practice self care and have a generous heart.

One of the insights I’ve gained as I’ve grown older, is how deeply and comprehensively injuries and illness can effect someone. Or non medical issues – the regular ups and downs of life. Especially on the job.

A few weeks ago a friend called out a scholar for not caring about their research. The presentation was bad, they were unenthusiastic and, frankly, it sounds like it sucked. It sucked for my friend to sit through it. Maybe the presenter doesn’t care, and if a presenter doesn’t care it’s hard for anyone else to care. But I kept defending this unknown person, thinking maybe they were doing the absolute best they could and we just don’t know what is going on.

What if they have plantar fasciitis and standing is painful? Or if they have a bulging disc between their vertebra that is pressing directly on a nerve? What if they suffer depression – that wounds so many, kills some, and hides in plain sight?

What if they have lost someone?

What if they have an autoimmune disorder that is causing a cascade of seemingly unconnected problems that just makes them tired and miserable? Maybe their doctor thinks they are a hypochondriac.

Migraines.

Microaggressions.

Muscular sclerosis.

HIV.

Prescription drug side effects.

Nonacceptance of gender identity.

A belittling, tyrannical supervisor.

Their child is being bullied.

Parkinson’s.

Marital problems.

Financial troubles.

Sick family.

Othering.

You get the idea.

There are a nearly infinite number of reasons someone might be flat or uninspired that have nothing to do with their passion for a subject. Personal matters and illness can intersect in ways both traumatic and invisible that harm our work performance – and I mean the affective state we try to project.

As I age and endure some of these issues I usually choose not to share my troubles with coworkers. I imagine they are doing the same – the best they can. (EDIT – a friend notes this suggests that people normally and perhaps should hide their problems. She is right, and that is not what I wanted to communicate. I was speaking to my tendency to not share. Sharing of problems can be therapeutic and I hope people can seek help and not be isolated by the problems they face.) I  have had to become better at self care to combat the little aches that accrue as my birthdays pile up. I get off lightly and I never will know what others are enduring. Maybe you are healthy and happy in your job – awesome! But please have a generous heart and at least assume others are doing their best within the framework of their life. And of course, practice self care to the extent you can.

Shifting Gears for Summer in the Library

At my workplace — the City University of New York — our semesters run later than many others, and finals just ended for us yesterday. Today the library’s practically a ghost town, nearly empty of students during our short intersession before summer classes begin next Thursday.

As I imagine many of us do, I’ve been looking forward to this summer slowdown (though not the hot & humid weather that’s accompanied it this year). The summertime can offer mental, physical, and temporal space for us to work on library or research projects that can be tough to schedule during the academic year, or even just the opportunity to take a day to clean our offices and organize files (surely I’m not the only person who’s really looking forward to that day?).

I’ve had an unusually busy semester and am getting ready for a week of research leave coming up soon, so it’s not quite time for me to hit those summer projects yet. But I’ve already started thinking about how to organize my time this summer. Every year I’m surprised at how challenging it can be to schedule project work over the summer when it seems like it should be the exact opposite, since there are fewer meetings and other commitments. My fellow ACRLoggers (and others in higher ed) have written about this in the past, and today I find myself revisiting these posts for tips and suggestions:

And as we go into a long holiday weekend in the U.S., I hope everyone has a chance for rest, relaxation, and whatever forms of self-care you prefer, in order to start the summer off right.