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.

Generosity at work

It seems to me that the interconnectedness of our work makes us library folk frequent collaborators. It often takes a number of people working together, for example, to select, acquire, receive, catalog, and provide access to resources. Or, for instance, how does a librarian have access to students for in-class instruction if not through collaboration with faculty? We are often skilled at working cooperatively and fostering partnerships within our libraries, across our campuses, and beyond.

The characteristics and quality of our many collaborations, however, can sometimes be disappointing–as is the case in all work environments, no doubt. It’s frustrating when work that is connected and should be collaborative is instead disjointed and siloed. It’s challenging to work with a difficult or defensive colleague or supervisor. And it’s depressing to recognize when we ourselves have been the source of a problem.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year and a half or so working with a faculty member at my institution on a fairly intensive teaching and research project. The course of our deepening and developing partnership has provided me an occasion to give a lot of thought to our collaboration and, by extension, the nature of collaboration more generally. This particular faculty member has been an especially generous collaborator. By generous, I don’t mean she has been nice or easy to work with, although she certainly has been those things. What stands out most to me is that she has never been territorial or defensive. She has had no tendency toward one-upsmanship. Instead, she has been at ease with and even eager for sharing ideas, work, and credit. She was as keen to hear my ideas as she was to share her own and just as likely to advance my interests as she was hers or, better yet, find common ground between them.

Indeed, when I reflect on the many people I’ve worked with, I feel grateful for all the generosity I can so easily call to mind. These people and moments were characterized by, much like my recent faculty partner, a ready willingness to share ideas, information, communication, and credit, an inclination to recognize the potential and the contributions of others. These were people who were accountable and took responsibility for their fair share of both work and mistakes. Rather than trying to stake personal claims, they sought to support and advance those around them such that everyone benefitted–individually and together.

As far back as elementary school, I’ve prided myself on being a good teammate or colleague, yet I now recognize how one-sided a collaborator I often have been. I cringe to recall the moments when I was certainly eager to help others, but not work with them. I see now how I was often resistant to others’ contributions and reluctant to hear criticisms. I was more than happy to give, but not to actually join forces. I wasn’t ill-intentioned, just perhaps (too) focused on self-reliance or proving myself.

A search for recommendations on how to be more generous at work turns up articles like this one and this one. The short version of their suggestions includes things like: be thoughtful, work hard, communicate readily, collaborate better, share credit, create positive working environments, and so on. While these things can be easy to know, they are often hard to do.

To be clear, I’m not talking about being nice here. I’m by no means against niceness or kindness. What I’m talking about, though, is developing and contributing to an environment of thick collegiality such that we can work effectively together in a “shared endeavor to create something rich in meaning.” Generosity, I think, helps makes this possible.

So how to become a more generous collaborator, leader, colleague, supervisor, supervisee, mentor, and/or teacher? Some research suggests that, perhaps like most things, practicing makes it easier. And my personal experience suggests the same. The more I practice generosity–that is, the more I cultivate the mindset and habits of a generous colleague or leader–the easier it is. And the more generosity I see around me and receive in return. It seems to me that respect and trust are at the core of this attitude and practice. Being generous both requires and helps promote trust and respect.

I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here. I do think I’m better at this than I used to be, perhaps because of time, age, worldview, and because I’ve worked at it, too. I also know I can be better at it still. But the practice of promoting generous behaviors and attitude–the work of it and the reflection on it–has had a significant impact on my work relationships, quality, engagement, and satisfaction.

It would be naive to ignore the roles gender and other types of power and privilege, or lack thereof, can play in collaborative work and the work environment generally. Some might say, for example, that generosity is expected of women, and not men. Or some might say that to be “generous” actually means to be weak or timid or taken advantage of. There are challenging and troublesome expectations and stereotypes wrapped up in this conversation for sure. It’s reasonable to worry how this might reinforce divides, rather than challenge them. It seems to me, though, that generosity can help to subvert stereotyped expectations and structural inequalities by acknowledging others’ capabilities and accomplishments, by making space for voices otherwise unrecognized. I think practicing generosity at work opens communication, creates respect, and transforms our perspectives and practices for the better. Generosity can promote opportunities and engagement for us all.

Your thoughts? Drop us a line in the comments…

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.

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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?