Our Responsibility to Voters: What Librarianship Should Look Like During the 2016 Presidential Election Season

Since the RNC and DNC have taken place, the 2016 general election is at the forefront of everyone’s minds and news feeds. I wanted to use my final FYAL ACRLog post to talk about this topic of great relevance and importance to all of us while considering the role we should play as librarians at this crucial point in our nation’s history. This topic might also appeal to librarians in other countries who are looking to us with great interest and might also have reasons to engage with politics as professionals. As we cannot and should not push partisan politics on our patrons, the best we can do for patrons is to provide as much information and education as possible to voters, and to help encourage people to exercise their right and responsibility to vote. While the act of voting is far from being the epitome of democracy in my mind, it is one small way that people can make a difference for our country’s future (especially, during the general election, in swing states), and, as librarians who seek to help people become informed and empowered, we should be supportive of and encourage democratic processes, including but not limited to voting.

As librarians, we are expected to remain neutral (and presumably, then, also nonpartisan) especially when patrons are researching topics that are controversial or contested. To insert our own political opinions into our research assistance, teaching, or collection development would be a conflict of interest and an infringement upon our students’ and other patrons’ intellectual freedom – the freedom to explore issues autonomously and independently, without any pressure to conform to anyone else’s points of view. Instead, patrons should be able to freely research the facts and evidence, and come to reasonable conclusions on their own. We can guide them during that process, and help them find information and distinguish between information that is good – information that incorporates sound evidence – and information that is bad, oftentimes because it distorts the facts.

However, neutrality is a myth. (As have many before me have done, I have written more extensively about the myth of neutrality, especially as it relates to peer review, elsewhere.) While we should refrain from unduly influencing our patrons’ research, it is hardly possible to refrain from having an opinion on matters of importance. Besides, to not have an opinion is to silently accept things as they are. No matter what we say, our opinions will influence the types of sources that we point patrons to, and the ways in which we evaluate information with patrons. So it is extremely important that we are mindful of our opinions and seek to counterbalance those by presenting patrons with multiple viewpoints, all the while modeling careful, thoughtful evaluation.

We will have opinions, and that is a good thing as long as they are supported by evidence. To refrain from having an opinion, or to withhold it if we are asked to share it, would be tantamount to tacit acceptance of the status quo. By supporting the status quo, neutral librarians, or librarians who remain silent when asked for their opinions, implicitly support structures of power and privilege that are in place, structures that are oftentimes unjust and harmful, since we do live in an imperfect society. Thus, librarians can and should have opinions about history and politics. Obvious examples include having opinions about the atrocities that have defined our nation’s history, such as the genocide of Native Americans and forced removal from their lands, the enslavement of and accompanying atrocities against African-Americans, and other forms of discrimination and injustices committed on the basis on the race, class, gender, or sexual identity, for instance.

It is quite appropriate for librarians to have strong opinions on such matters, for us to be on the side of social justice and denounce some of the actions of our country throughout our nation’s history. Having a social justice orientation aligns with our professional ethics, which require us to make information available to all people regardless of their identity or the ways in which they are privileged or marginalized. Furthermore, knowledge is power, and by facilitating the processes of knowledge and understanding, we are empowering people and contributing to democratic processes. But in order to support these processes for all patrons, some fundamental beliefs and values are implied, many of which are also principles supported by the founding documents of our nation: equality, liberty, and justice for all.

What are our obligations to our patrons given these universal values and beliefs that our profession, too, specifically seeks to uphold? First of all, we can help voters come to informed conclusions and make informed choices. To be political and encourage politics is different from pushing political positions. There are so many things we can do to help educate voters that do not involve telling people who to vote for or who not to vote for. We can provide patrons with the tools with which they can figure things out on their own – figure out which candidates align with their politics and their values. We can point people to the resources containing factual information and evidence that might lead them to similar conclusions that we ourselves would make about candidates’ policy proposals, as professionals who are also political, as professionals whose values align with those values upon which our country was founded.

How else are librarians political? I would argue that there may be cases where we might want to be political publicly as a profession, and even partisan if necessary, if our ethics requires it. Censoring or prohibiting access to information, or violating patrons’ privacy, especially on the basis of identity alone, would be examples of cases in which we should publicly denounce candidates’ policy proposals. (Librarians and National Security: An Historical Review, by Joan Starr, provides a thorough history of librarians and our professional organizations standing up for privacy rights and intellectual freedom.) As things stand today, there might not be a reason for librarians to denounce certain policy proposals on the basis of our professional values, because such denunciations are already taking place from broad-ranging sectors of our society and such denunciations do not necessarily fall within our profession’s specific purview of information ethics. Currently, I think helping to reveal the truth about candidates through education is enough.

So, finally, what are our specific obligations to help educate and inform patrons? I believe, at the very least, we should provide education about the issues that are important in this election, and about candidates’ positions and policy proposals. I believe that we should view this as a duty, on the basis of our professional ethics and values, which include access to trustworthy information and the facilitation of democratic practices. We should also encourage people to vote, because this is one little way – though not the only way – that people can make a difference to the future of this country, and because it is a part of our mission to help empower people to make use of the information that they find in ways that support their values and beliefs.

I’ve compiled a list of some practical suggestions and pointers. Not every library will have the resources or the time for some of these, but if you do, please commit yourselves to some of them.

  1. Create a LibGuide, or other type of online guide, for voters. Make sure it is in whatever languages are commonly spoken at your university, besides English! Include resources for local and national issues. Promote it in your instruction sessions.
  2. Create a LibGuide, or other type of online guide, for international students and undocumented students, on understanding the election process and about ways in which they can help educate their peers or participate democratically even though they may not be able to vote. Make sure it is in other languages commonly spoken at your university, including Spanish if you have a significant population of Spanish-speaking students. Promote it in your instruction sections.
  3. Have a voter’s guide or handouts (one for international students and undocumented students as well) available at your reference desk, for those who prefer things in print and who might see it who might not otherwise look at a LibGuide. Make sure it is in whatever languages are commonly spoken at your university, in addition to English.
  4. Help your campus and local communities understand how elections work and what will be the impact of their vote. People can decide for themselves whether they vote based on their ideals or whether they vote strategically, if these two things are competing, but you might be able to help them understand the arguments for voting one way or the other. This can be a part of helping voters to become more educated.
  5. Organize a student panel or expert panel to help educate people about the issues or learn how to vote. We’re doing a student panel at my university as an official Debate event, since UNLV is the site of the final presidential debate. Students who are involved in the political process in some way (student government or local, state, or national politics) will explain their political involvement and discuss the issues and background of ballot initiatives in Nevada.
  6. Incorporate political issues or political information into your lesson plans. You can do this if you’re teaching evaluation, for instance. Have a range of viewpoints presented in scholarly articles or other types of sources, and help students sort out the good, factual and truthful information from information that distorts the truth. Or have your students look at annotated speeches in which the commentators perform fact-checking, as an example of evaluating for accuracy.
  7. Host a debate watch party. Have a panel of experts talk about the debate before or after, to help students unpack what happened and how it is important to their understanding of the issues.
  8. Promote all of these resources heavily, on your website and other marketing materials, and make it clear why this issue is important to the library.

If you’re a librarian, it’s okay to be political. It is good to be political; it contributes to our wellbeing as human beings who desire to make a difference in this world. You don’t have to push your political positions, but through helping to educate and empower voters, you are contributing to democracy and furthering the values of our profession. Our job shouldn’t stop there, though. We should encourage and support other forms of political involvement and other democratic processes as well. Some people may not be able to vote (or may consciously choose not to vote for whatever reason), but this does not mean they cannot participate in our democracy in other ways. Encouraging these processes aligns with our values and our ethics, it also contributes to the value of libraries, and we should see it as a duty.

Bite-sized Change

Editor’s Note: We welcome Veronica Arellano-Douglas to the ACRLog team. Veronica is a Research and Instruction Librarian at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Her research interests include critical librarianship, information literacy, and pedagogy; graphic design and visual communication in libraries; and diversity, equity, and inclusion in LIS.

For years I believed that for change to have any kind of impact, it had to be drastic. I place the blame for this misapprehension squarely on the shoulders of cable TV producers and women’s magazine editors, who seem to have an uncanny ability to tap into the power transformation holds over the human psyche.  

Watch an exhausted working mom’s stunning makeover! See this outdated kitchen become a chef’s dream space! Read about the man who went from couch to triathlon in just 3 months!

I suppose I share some of the blame as well. No one forced me to watch hours of HGTV and What Not to Wear, and yet the promise of drastic change lured me in every time I turned on the TV. There’s inspiration that comes from seeing extreme transformation. It can teach us to dream big and marvel at the amazing capacity humans have for change. It can also be paralyzing. It can overwhelm us with the enormity of the process of change and leave us feeling like we’ll never live up to our potential.

How does change begin?

My library has been in a period of transition over the past few years. Expected retirements, unexpected departures, well-deserved parental leaves, and new additions have all had a significant impact on our library services and the day-to-day work of our library faculty and staff.  Understandably, we’ve been in reaction-mode for a while now–trying to maintain our core mission while deflecting potential negative impacts on services and workflow.

This last academic year was different. It was time for a change of our own making.

Although we continued to tread water in our daily practice, my colleagues and I decided to take a more proactive approach to our relationship with our students. Knowing that our Anthropology faculty frequently collaborated with campus units on ethnographic research projects for its majors, in fall 2015 we offered ourselves and the Library as “clients” to students in an Applied Anthropology course. Our intent was the learn more about the students at our quirky, small, public, liberal arts, honors college. We wanted to know more about how they integrate the library’s resources into their academic work, interact with librarians, and use the library space throughout their day. Working under the guidance and mentorship of their professor and experienced researcher Dr. Bill Roberts, the Applied Anthropology students created research questions, determined which ethnographic research methods would best answer those questions, and carried out the methods with us–the librarians–as additional researchers.

It was participatory action research at its best. Librarians and students were both researchers and research “subjects,” continuously making meaning from discussions with one another and modifying research questions as new information was gathered. Everyone had a stake in this project. The anthropology faculty member and students were so enthused that they continued their work in a new class in the spring and will likely take it up again this coming fall. You can read more about the project and our specific methods on our Library Ethnography Project Libguide.

What do we do with all this information?

This ethnographic project was meaningful as an act of collaboration and as an opportunity for faculty, students, and librarians to learn from one another. But it was also important to all of us that this process be practical, that it produce data that would lead to positive change for the library and students. Or, in the words of one of my amazing colleagues, “So… we’re actually doing to do something with this information, right?”

Right. But what exactly should we do?

Qualitative data (the kind gathered from surveys, focus groups, and free-listing) is big, unwieldy, and complex. It can feel intimidating and overwhelming. It’s easy to give into the mistaken belief that just because the project itself was big–lots of time, lots of people involved–the changes it inspires need to be equally big. There’s pressure to create the kind of dramatic transformation that would lead to a research article, a feature in Library Journal, or a mention in AL Direct.

But change doesn’t have to be big to be impactful.  

One of our project collaborators, a cataloger by training, grouped and categorized much of the qualitative information gleaned from our open-ended survey questions and focus groups into “actionable issues.” (Annie Armstrong, Catherine Lantz, Annie Pho, and Glenda Insua gave a fantastic presentation at LOEX 2016 on action coding, or coding qualitative information for change if you’re interested in learning more about this practice.) What was most surprising to us was the mundanity of the issues and concerns our students brought up again and again:

  • The temperature in the building is erratic and uncomfortable.
  • Our discovery layer is confusing and unhelpful at times.
  • There are never enough outlets available.
  • It is not clear where certain things are located in the library or what services are available.
  • Reservations for group study rooms are confusing.
  • The library is too loud.

There were of course, other issues, but you can see that the over all theme centers around quite small, ground-level, day-to-day issues. They don’t require a giant library renovation or a complete overhaul of services, but they do inspire change. Through this project, we’ve learned that there are small things we can change about our library and our work that can positively impact our students’ experiences in the library. Things like

  • Designating a portion of our 2nd floor as quiet study space.
  • Posting daily reservation schedules on our group study room doors.
  • Creating aesthetically-pleasing and cohesive signage for our library.
  • Changing our implementation of the default discovery layer settings.
  • Creating monthly PSAs and advertising campaigns highlighting specific library services, parts of the collection, or aspects of the building.
  • Making more extension cords available around the building for student use.

These are our immediate responses to things that are directly under our control. They aren’t earth-shattering, but we think they’ll make a difference to our students and be noticeable to them in the fall. We also have long-term actions we’d ultimately like to see happen, but we aren’t letting the need for radical transformation prevent us from making the small, necessary changes that are easy for a small library like ours.

There’s still another month left before our students return and classes begin, and we’re using the time to carry out some of the actions listed above. What kind of changes (big or small) have you implemented or discussed in your library this summer?

Put a Process On It!

Editor’s Note: We welcome Angela Rathmel to the ACRLog team. Angela is the head of Acquisitions & Resource Sharing at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. Her research focuses on libraries’ organizational response to changes in scholarly publishing, acquisition, and access, particularly with respect to organizational communication, information seeking, and knowledge management.

Working in acquisitions and resource sharing, I sometimes struggle to navigate my unique and shared place in the various communities of this profession (ACRL, ALCTS, LLAMA, etc.). I’m often characterized as a “technical services” librarian, but this does not always adequately describe the work I do. In the past 15 years that I have worked in this part of the library, I have seen dramatic changes as a result of the material transition of print to electronic resources. Beyond just the physical format, these changes have meant that technical services staff now work more directly with library users and no longer just process behind the scenes. Our work also involves direct and frequent interaction across more areas of the library than ever before.

I genuinely enjoy working with people. Discovering new ways to communicate across the library, especially through radical change, fascinates me. In spite of these interpersonal interests, in many ways I fall right into the technical services stereotype. I’m a cautious communicator, and my go-to mode of thinking is to solve every issue with a systematized process. Give me a problem and I’ll “put a process on it”!

A particularly cogent example of this tendency occurred recently with some of my colleagues in “public services” (another phrase that no longer adequately describes their work). We were discussing our campus-wide initiatives in diversity, equity, and social justice and how the libraries could support these initiatives throughout all of our services, not just at the service desk.  I saw this as a perfect opportunity to once again lower the barriers between technical and public services. But I worried because I found myself expressing the challenge many of us in technical services face even initiating discussions about our own day-to-day work conflicts. I was fearful about my ability, especially as a leader, to initiate a productive conversation with my staff about conflicts, like microagressions, of which individuals may not even be aware. So, I did what I often do when faced with uncertainty — I put a process on it! I suggested that we solicit the help of trained facilitators from the libraries’ organizational development unit. As one of those trained facilitators, this seemed both a safe way for me get involved, while at the same time satisfying the requirements of scale.

I was amazed at how my colleague’s response could all at once genuinely honor my approach and also persuasively encourage each of us to find our own (maybe different) path. This was not the first time I have questioned the appropriateness of my knack to put a process on things. But that discussion was moment of clarity shaping everything I’ve encountered and thought about since. It has prompted me to examine more closely and even question this tendency that has served me well so far in my path in technical services. I thought I’d begin my introductory post to ACRLog sharing my experience as this kind of librarian, and hopefully in the process discover more about a path forward.

The draw of process

When I talk about process in this context, I mean the way in which I think through the steps of workflow, understand cause and effect, and most efficiently move from point A to point B, all while accounting for the connections in between. For acquisitions and resource sharing, the overarching process we are concerned with is the scholarly communication supply chain and its ability to get the resources users need as efficiently as possible. Individual motivations for this work vary, of course. Some enjoy improving these processes for the economic reasons: the joy of saving money, cutting costs, and demonstrating a return on investment. Some like the ever present source of a puzzle to solve. Many still are motivated by service and how the process makes it easy for other people. Some like fighting for our core values through the process of negotiation with vendors. For the more introverted among us, it seems that processes at their root help create predictability where a thing might otherwise be or feel out of control. This certainly describes the environment in which libraries and we librarians of all types have found ourselves ever since change became the new normal.

The benefit of process is not just for the individual coping with change. It has a direct benefit to the organization as a whole. In my experience, process helps me discover and understand how to use new technologies effectively.  Process has been the language I use to help others through ongoing training. In my library as whole, that language enables me to translate the impact of larger change on our work. Becoming a trained facilitator, I’ve learned better processes of communication between individuals or groups, made meetings run more smoothly, facilitated strategic planning and assessment efforts, and contributed to larger organizational change. How each area within the library addresses their own particular management of perpetual change has brought about all manner of processes, frameworks, assessment models, and mission statements. It seems librarians of all types can put a process on just about everything.

Process in the extreme

The consequence of taking process thinking too far is that it can get in the way of actual doing, or worse, overlook the human need in all of us for deeper meaning and connection. Technical process efficiency taken to its extreme is automation. Even the rise in library automation processes, however, has not eliminated the need for human aspects in the most technical of workflow processes because the environment is filled with people serving people.  I tend to perceive my own process as an act of creativity. As my leadership responsibilities move me from introversion to ambiversion, I prefer to process with others, creating new things and building new relationships. Additional research, suggesting that our minds do not even process or recall like computers at all, supports the notion that there is a more creative present and future for our work.

Processes involved in addressing continual change on an organizational level are essentially human-oriented. These can’t achieve the extreme of automation because they too require ongoing attention for the people involved. How our relationships change, how we communicate across new organizational structures, and how we respond to actual people, are a necessary part of our response to the rapid changes in our work. People and their relationships certainly don’t want to be processed; they need to be seen, understood, and valued.

Process to path

The conclusions I’ve come to are:

  • we need both technical process mindedness and relational mindedness
  • these are not necessarily mutually exclusive

Getting myself to that point means rediscovering the areas of research that piqued my curiosity and inspired my passion for this profession from the start – Devin’s sense-making and research around the reference interview. This research speaks directly to how our systematized human processes and automated systems can and should be relational. The fundamentals of communicating in our profession are constructive,  “tied to specific times, place, and perspectives” (Foreman-Wernet, 2003, p.5). This applies not only for dealing with patrons, but for dealing with one another, inside and across library departments.

I intend to stay involved in interactions and discussion like the one that prompted this reflection. I may not have the capacity yet to effectively communicate, or know how to take action, on issue of diversity, equity and social justice. But I know enough that it is my privilege to learn. My awareness and willingness seem small to me, but I can accept them as important and necessary steps on my larger path.

References:

Dervin, B. and Foreman-Wernet, L. (2003). Sense-making methodology reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. New Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc.

Breaking Big: Transitioning from Small to Large Academic Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Michael Rodriguez, Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Connecticut.

Navigating the transition from large to small academic library employers, or vice versa, can be challenging. Early-career librarians in particular can find themselves navigating radically new landscapes: specialized, bureaucratic, and complex.

Recently I moved from a small, career-focused, private, nonprofit institution in Florida, to a large, tier-one public research university in New England. Now six months along my new path, I am ready to share some generalizations and guidance about navigating the transition from small private to large public universities and libraries. (For the opposite path, check out Seven Keys to Switching from a Big Company to a Small One—yes, it’s a Harvard Business Review piece, but the advice applies equally to librarians.)

Scaling Size

Large public universities are vast and complex. Libraries can be six stories high and filled with millions of volumes. A hundred staff and student assistants may be working inside the building during business hours. Millions of dollars may be spent on collections and salaries. Contrast this with smaller universities, where the library may boast four staff, a $250,000 budget, and one big room lined with eighteen thousand volumes and branded “the library.” A difference of 25,000 students is another huge numerical contrast.

Imagine changing jobs from one to the other of these environments. Maybe you already have. Either way, this can be a stunning adjustment. Example 1: Walking from parking lot to office takes twenty times longer at my massive public university than it did at my small private university. Example 2: I still manage electronic resources, but my budget is fifty times larger. Example 3: I used to negotiate e-resource licenses solo; now we have attorneys who write five pages of state-mandated provisions into all new contracts.

How to thrive in a larger environment? Chunk your experience into bite-sized pieces. One hundred colleagues to get to know? Set up meetings with each of them in turn, and then allocate time each week to walk about and schmooze. Many complex projects to manage concurrently? Start using Evernote, Trello, a notepad, or other tracking tool to divide your projects into manageable tasks and triage them according to stakeholder impact. Rethink goals as forward momentum. Reassess priorities, eliminate redundancy and excess, and clean up data and processes. Like Thoreau, “simplify, simplify.”

Personalizing Bureaucracy

Small universities are intimate to the point of claustrophobic. You know a great many of the professors and students by name, you work closely with each colleague, and you run into the college president at the neighborhood bakery. In contrast, your large university is a bureaucracy, “effective through its mass rather than through its agility,” notes Peter Drucker. Generally you will need to navigate layer after layer of approval and mediation. Destroying 20-year-old papers requires permission from the state capital. Managers ask you to make appointments to see them. Implementing innovations can take way longer than they should because of the many stakeholders you must consult or persuade.

How to thrive amid bureaucracy? Accept that change is slower in complex environments and that large universities value consensus, whereas small organizations can just decide. So stay patient, but bring your enthusiasm and energy. Bureaucracy tends to sap drive from its members, so as a newcomer setting a faster pace, your drive adds value to the organization. And if you counter-interviewed your search committee as rigorously as they interviewed you, your new colleagues will appreciate you and your vitality.

This brings us to the key point: personalizing working relationships enables us to break through bureaucratic barriers. Be tough and hard-driving, on yourself above all, but be genuine, kind, and helpful too—and do not allow your frustration with the bureaucracy cause you to become frustrated with the people trapped in it. You’re new, and that fact will help you build positive relationships with even the most challenging personalities.

Broadening Scope

Isolation is a byproduct of specialization in large, complex organizations. Small-library staff may do reference, instruction, web design, budgets, resource management, etc. Large-library staff are generally hired for a specialized role. This is fine. The problem is that you can do your job without interacting much with folks outside your immediate working group. This is true for instruction librarians as much as it is for catalogers.

This hyper-specialization is ultimately pernicious. If you do not collaborate or socialize with a broad spectrum of colleagues, or understand how users engage with the services you provide, then you are isolated, not specialized. Isolation’s effects can be personal, such as loneliness and loss of motivation. Or they can be work-related. If people do not know you, they will not know to respect you. You will (A) lack control over the direction of your work, and (B) fail to exercise influence outside your cubicle walls.

The key is to broaden the scope of your specialized work. Start by applying or acquiring expertise in areas related to your specialization. For example, if you manage eresources, then get a handle on user experience. If you teach, then study up on open educational resources. Do not try to take over other people’s jobs—rather, identify service gaps of which to take ownership. Wrangle appointments to committees and task forces beyond the scope of your immediate duties. Gently, persistently remind your supervisors of the intersections between your work and others’. Communicate openly and frequently. Be transparent with internal stakeholders. Embrace interconnectivity. You’ll thrive.

Michael Rodriguez is an Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, which has fifteen times as many students and fifty times the operating budget of Hodges University in Florida, where he formerly served as E-Learning Librarian.

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.