Category Archives: Libraries and Learning

For postings about information literacy, learning commons, and the role of libraries in higher education.

There’s Something About Mary George

. . . that you should know. She’s just started blogging for Inside Higher Ed. Woo hoo! She has an almost Dickensian flair for description (“that murky blob marked library on your campus map . . . the Great Grimpen Mire of academe”), but she also has a purpose in mind. She wants to help faculty set up more successful learning opportunities for their students by trouble shooting unanticipated failures encountered with student researchers.

Teaching faculty have immense persuasive power; we librarians do not. What we do have are sweeping views of what scholars are up to, a grasp of how researchers do their business and what evidence ensues, and a knack for identifying and locating that evidence. By and large faculty and academic librarians respect one another’s expertise and collaborate happily. But where and how do our apprentices—either undergraduates or graduate students — learn the process and logic of source seeking? That is the question that haunts me and inspires this blog.

The nexus of knowledge transmission, of teaching, is the assignment, the place where faculty intent becomes student incentive. One thing I hope to do in this blog is to suggest ways to invigorate library research assignments that don’t seem to be working.

Whether faculty will be willing to share their challenging moments, even anonymously, is an open question. It’s much easier to get people to share what has worked for them than what hasn’t. But let’s hope she’s able to coax some conversation out of faculty whose students get stuck in the Grimpen Mire.

In case you don’t know Mary, she’s a librarian at Princeton who is the author of The Elements of Library Research.

Newsflash: Professor Visits Library

Thomas H. Benton, a.k.a. William Pannapacker, writes lyrically in the Chronicle about what the library meant to him as a student.

My undergraduate research projects were not particularly original, but I did learn that there was a continuing conversation on almost any subject that I could listen in on through books and—in those days—printed journals. The library taught me to take responsibility for my education and to question anyone who claimed to possess the one-and-only correct interpretation of any subject.

His students seem to take information too easily at its word as an unquestioned body of knowledge; he wants them to have the kind of experience he had. But he’s nervous that libraries may be considered by some administrators as a costly anachronism, so has some advice for strategic changes:

For undergraduate libraries, those changes might include, for example, offering even more online resources, providing more-flexible work spaces for students, offering more extensive digitization services, providing local expertise on copyright and intellectual property, training faculty members and students in the use of new media, and, perhaps, providing food services in a collegial atmosphere.

Experimenting with such changes does not mean that libraries need to capitulate to the worst tendencies of collegiate consumerism and techno-boosterism. None of those changes is inconsistent with the traditional mission of college libraries, and all of them can be done in the context of the preservation and study of books and other research materials. . . . There needs to be a stronger alliance between content experts and information managers, between the professors and the librarians, in order to achieve our allied goals in a rapidly changing technological, economic, and cultural context.

Well, amen to that, but I can’t help but wonder when he last visited his library. I’ve been there. The Van Wylen library at Hope College library is lovely, and the librarians there are already doing much of what he proposes – and have for years. In fact, ACRL’s award for Excellence in Academic Libraries was presented to Hope College in 2004 in part because of their collaboration with faculty to build a strong instruction program.

Benton does admit that “librarians are working hard to reach out to the campus community” and faculty haven’t always returned the favor, so he can understand why librarians retreat to their “fortresses of silence, order, and continuity.”

. . . Their what? Dude, you have to get out more. That’s not what libraries are like these days. And we wouldn’t go there, even if it existed.

Though I will give three cheers for his pledge to reach out and engage in collaboration.

[W]e as faculty members can work more effectively with librarians to design research projects and to develop collections that support the undergraduate curriculum. We can design assignments in consultation with librarians so it becomes impossible for students to pass through college without learning how to write a research paper, produce an educational video podcast, or accomplish any other goal that requires the critical evaluation of sources. If we can reconceptualize our teaching as collaborative research with students and librarians, then the library could become analogous to the laboratory in the sciences, and it would become impossible to imagine the future of any college without it.

By working more closely together, and responding to new technology while preserving the traditional culture of scholarship and books, I am convinced, professors and librarians can put the library back at the center of undergraduate education, where it belongs.

Welcome Back, Dr. Pannapacker. I look forward to reading your future columns. I’m just sorry that it’s taken you all this time to discover a place that I suspect Hope College students already call home.

Explaining Authority (Part 2)

After writing my previous post, our library director brought this report to my attention: “The Changing Nature of Intellectual Authority” by Peter Nicholson, presented at the 148th ARL meeting in Ottawa, Ontario, May 17-19 2006. Apparently I was “scooped” by a good three years, as the ideas in the report are similar enough to my own (albeit worded more eloquently) that I should have been aware of and acknowledged it. Better late than never, right?

One way of thinking about the problem of authority that Nicholson suggests, and which Emily described in my post’s Comments using slightly different terms, is that there are various species of information, with differing niches. For example, when you have a ‘good enough’ mentality, wikipedia is usually fine, but there are other times when you will demand and value peer-reviewed sources.

And so I have begun to think that when librarians teach information literacy, the underlying question to encourage students to ask should be “Why was this information generated?” That can be unclear, so the question becomes “Why COULD this information have been generated?” It is easy to become paranoid when searching for this answer, but I like to think that misinformation is usually caught, and when it is not, it is a source of outrage, or at least newsworthy.

Deliberate propagation of misinformation is greeted with protest rather than resignation, at least in this country. Whether we work in information professions or not, everyone is responsible for paying attention, and because of the abundance of critical minds, we can count on someone to call out untruths, mistakes, biases, and sinister influences.

As Nicholson points out, institutions suffer as a result of a breakdown in rules about authority. I do work for an institution, with all that implies. As I proceed blithely ahead, attempting to teach students information literacy and how to use the traditionally accepted, scholarly resources that the library provides, perhaps I will best serve them if I bear all of the above in mind. I should be pleased if they are skeptical of me and my message. At least, if students stop to consider where information I recommend is coming from, they can take personal responsibility and have a personal stake in the information they choose to rely on.

If I can make all this clear in my library instruction sessions, while still being relevant to the task or assignment at hand, I will consider my job well done.

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P.S. The next post will be my last as a First Year Academic Librarian here on ACRLog. Technically this should have been my final post, but the administrators kindly granted me one extra.

Explaining Authority

One thing I have found difficult in my librarian-instructor capacity is how to impress students with the idea that some sources of information are better than others. We are all comfortable with the concept that value is subjective. But does this apply to information? (My own answer varies depending on what day it is.)

Of students I have interacted with, I have met some who have not thought about source authority at all, and some who suspect there is a good source for the information they need but do not know how to find or identify it (because they have never before been expected to justify their sources?). Perhaps of the students I do not interact with, 100 percent are fully competent when it comes to finding and using information. It is possible that the majority of college students have a perfect grasp of information and how it is generated and used. Most of the students I work with at the library, however, do not.

In any case, I do not want to be heavy-handed and say “X sources are good but Y sources are bad,” first because even I do not think it is so black and white (see recent Elsevier story & the story about cancer research), and second because I do not think students will accept that message. That is the old librarian-as-gatekeeper, top-down mentality, which is no longer realistic. So I have been envisioning a fancy presentation containing the various examples I have been collecting of how you would look foolish if you relied on sources such as wikipedia for all your information. Unfortunately I have not gotten around to creating it yet, and such a thing would go out of date so fast that I am not convinced it would be worth the effort. (Although I did link to Colbert’s wikiality speech on one of our LibGuides.) Besides, when am I, the librarian, given classroom time to do something like that?

So I do not really know what to do, except briefly repeat the same old message about how it is generally a good thing to use sources from the college’s library, about how these are the sources instructors expect students to use, and unless I am questioned not be too specific about if and why they are ‘better.’ I am not so far down the libraryland rabbit hole that I imagine I will get a round of applause if I say “You should use the library because the library is on your side. The college library wants to provide you with high quality sources for your research. Our agenda is clearly stated. We do our best to provide an additional level of editorial process by reading reviews and making informed decisions for what should be added to the collection, and beyond that we are trying to make as much of it as possible accessible from home.”

Big fricking woop. Now I’ll go back to answering questions about how to cite web sites.

Lawyers, Librarians, Clergy, and Coaches

No, this is not the answer to the “Top 5 Professions You Would Like to Pursue” quiz that is likely appearing on Facebook even now; it is a partial listing of the “other professional staff” positions found on American campuses cited as part of a Chronicle article on the increasing number of “support staff” in higher education. The Insider Higher Ed version of the article is here.

Both IHE and the Chronicle point to a new report by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity on “Trends in the Higher Education Workforce” that notes that the number of “support staff” positions have increased far more rapidly over the past 20 years than has the number of instructional positions. This, it is suggested, “reflects unproductive spending by academe.”

The Chronicle does a good job making clear the (very) gray areas around any conclusion that increased spending on “other professional staff” reflects “unproductive spending,” but the lumping together of librarians with other professional staff presumed not to be directly contributing to instruction is worth noting. I have seen several surveys over the years that have followed the “other professional staff” model, including those of first-year-experience programs and public engagement initiatives – librarians are administrators, managers, and, perhaps, research support staff, but they are not instructors.

And, perhaps we are not (although I have argued the opposite on many occasions), but I see echoes in this report of the 2006 debate in school library circles over the “65% solution”, i.e., the question of whether school librarians should be “counted” as instructional staff in budget allocations and reporting required by educational reform programs. Should the argument advanced by the CCAP report gain traction, and should there be any question of whether professional academic librarians contribute directly to student learning in ways that all might recognize as being “productive,” we might be wise to consider these questions advanced as part of the school library debate (Harada, 2006):

  • How does your library media center support student learning?
  • What compelling evidence do you have that students have achieved the learning targets?

How ready are you to provide the answers?