Moving Beyond Standards: A Response to the Open Letter Regarding the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Ian Beilin, Instruction Librarian and Assistant Professor at New York City College of Technology, CUNY, and Nancy Foasberg, Humanities Librarian and Assistant Professor at Queens College, CUNY.

We would like to answer some of the points made in the widely distributed Open Letter Regarding the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.

The main argument of the letter, that the Framework should be used in tandem with the Standards, is based on a misconstrual of the basic theory upon which the Framework rests. It is important to acknowledge that one of the main stumbling blocks for the Framework has been the confusion generated by the language and theory of threshold concepts. But one of the clearest messages that the Framework drafts have conveyed, in our view, is that the use of common standards is problematic and prevents the kind of deeper, active and potentially critical learning that the teaching of information literacy demands. This critique applies to all standards, not just the ones enshrined by ACRL in 2000. So it doesn’t make sense to suggest, as the letter does, that the Standards can be used in tandem with the Framework or that they can be “mapped” on to the Framework. The two documents rest on wholly different foundations. As Troy Swanson recently has argued quite emphatically and eloquently, “The IL Standards and the IL Framework Cannot Co-exist.”

The open letter refers to the Framework as a “theoretical document.” In fact, both the Framework and the Standards are theoretical in nature, as is any document that sets out the kinds of teaching that we value and the outcomes we desire for our students. The difference between the two documents is not in their theoretical nature but rather in the theories to which they subscribe. The Standards understand information as a commodity external to the student; something that can be obtained and subsequently “used.[i]” When we look at information in this way, we are thinking of information literate students as consumers who must choose among many options, like shoppers selecting goods from among those placed before them in the market. The Framework instead aims at a more social understanding of information and information literacy. Most notably, it uses the explicit metaphor of a conversation, but it is also interested in the ways that authority is constructed and the ways that information artifacts are produced. Research is thus framed as an interaction among people rather than a choice among artifacts.

Because it hinges on the production of information within communities, this understanding of information literacy is inherently less friendly to universal standards. The open letter assigns great value and importance to the idea of generalized standards for education – partly because such standards have become commonplace and have been invested (both literally and figuratively) with great importance by educators, administrators, and perhaps most importantly, accreditors, politicians and funding sources. The letter claims that the word ‘standards’ “sets uniform goals and acceptable levels of achievement.” But for many educators and librarians, especially in today’s climate of forced austerity and cutback threats, the words ‘uniform’ and ‘acceptable’ are not ones we would choose to describe our pedagogical goals. Moreover, the letter claims that “Many states are adopting “common core” standards for K-12.  Our president & our governors are initiating conversation about curriculum change around the “common core standards” and major media outlets are covering this issue in depth.” And a little later, “The concept of standards is widely understood as a level of quality to be attained.” Again, these defenses, at least for a good number of academic librarians, read more like indictments. The idea of common core standards, much less their actual implementation, has come under intense scrutiny and critique as equally as it has been trumpeted and supported, and one cannot claim the existence of any consensus on their acceptability or appropriateness, either for K-12 or higher education.

The letter asks “Are we going backwards to insist that each locality ‘interpret’ the Framework according to their own standard?” This, it regrets, will mean the loss of a universal, prescriptive set of information literacy standards for all of US higher education. The letter seems to put forth the view that guidelines for information literacy instruction can be just as standardized as other aspects of library activity, such as collections. Indeed, this mindset was part of the philosophy of the Standards, in its claim that information literacy “is common to all disciplines, to all learning environments, and to all levels of education” (“Information Literacy Defined”). However, as this list of disciplinary standards suggests, librarians have long recognized that information works differently in different contexts. In fact, there is no universal skill set that comprises information literacy independently of disciplinary and local contexts.

The letter expresses alarm at the prospect of localized information literacy assessment, perhaps motivated by the fear that accreditation agencies and other higher education organizations will ignore libraries unless we can produce something fixed and solid like a list of standards that retain an aura of authority. A careful reading of the Framework and of the theory upon which it rests shows that a standardized approach does not reflect how learning actually takes place, or should take place, in libraries or any other learning environment. Instead of a set of skills which can be used under any circumstances, the Frames present several ways of becoming more attentive to the contexts of information and achieving a good understanding the communities in which the information was produced and will be understood. Under the Standards, “knowledge can be organized into disciplines” (Standard One, 2.a.), but the Framework understands knowledge as originating from various communities (which may include academic disciplines). These communities do not simply organize information but rather determine how it establishes its authority, oversee the processes through which the information is produced, and ultimately pass judgment on its contributions.

Thus, to insist that the Framework be interpreted locally is the only way to meaningfully assess the kind of information literacy in which this document interested. Rather than positing some universal skill set which applies to the use of all kinds of information in every conceivable community, we must be attentive to the needs and goals of students and faculty in our own local contexts, which are unlikely to align perfectly with the goals of a prescriptive document drawn up by a national professional association (even a very active one like ACRL).

Finally, the letter bemoans the presence of ‘jargon’ in the Framework, which is made doubly bad, it claims, because this jargon isn’t even taken from the LIS field, but from education and psychology. This problem is also presented as a threat to librarians’ alleged established respect and status within academia: forcing librarians to make themselves understood once again to colleagues beyond the library would set us back. Here again the letter expresses a conservative, backward-looking disposition which does not consider that our field and our practice, like the rest of academia, should be expected to move forward, to evolve and to put into action the results of research not only produced by ourselves, but throughout academia and beyond (and yes, that includes theory!). If we value intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning, we should not turn away from ideas that may improve our pedagogical practice. In fact, were we to avoid theory, we would lose one of the great opportunities of such a revision—the chance to carefully examine what we do and the philosophy that underlies it.

In other words, we really do need to acknowledge that ‘scholarship is a conversation’ and revitalize information literacy. The ambition of the Framework is to produce a more honest document reflecting the true beliefs – and practices – of instruction librarians. The Framework creates IL guidelines that can actually serve as an inspiration for creative, individual, yet carefully directed IL instruction – that is, just what most of us strive to do every day!

[i] Many writers have made this point before us. A review of critiques of the Standards can be found in Kimmo Tuominen, Reijo Savolainen, and Sanna Talja, “Information Literacy as a Sociotechnical Practice,” The Library Quarterly 75, no. 3 (2005): 328-345, doi: 10.1086/497311

Low Self-Esteem and the Academic Librarian. Maybe it is just me. It is probably just me.

Until I actually started writing my FYAL entry for January my plan was to write about academic interviews – how they are horrible (they kind of are!) but also what I like about them. However, I am really focusing on something else right now, still related to getting and keeping a faculty position: the curriculum vitae (vita or CV for short). It’s on my mind because I’m busy putting mine together. Honestly, it isn’t all that different from a traditional resume. Pretty much what you’d expect in academia – it is heavily focused on scholarly achievements rather than just work experience.

The most difficult part about writing mine is that it is giving me a bit of low self-esteem.

 

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In order to get a good feel for what is included in a vita I went snooping around on my colleague’s faculty webpages (note to self: I need to get my faculty profile on the website asap). And then I went back to the faculty directory of the University of Kentucky School of Library and Information Science to get a sense for what the CV of teaching faculty should look like. And I am humbled. My little vita is so…concise. So…well, lacking much beyond education and work experience. And if I’m honest, I actually feel pretty good about how my resume stacks up against other professional librarian’s resumes. I started working in libraries before attending grad school, did multiple internships while in grad school and then have been incredibly fortunate finding jobs that allow me to do what I love – which is to say, jobs working as a librarian. So my resume is pretty good, no employment gaps to explain or toxic workplaces to gloss over, plenty of experience to highlight since all of it applies to jobs in the library world which are the only jobs I’m interested in.

Turning my two-page and totally sufficient resume into a three-page and rather insufficient CV is giving me low self-esteem, though. Last September, just a couple of months after starting out at UNT, one of my colleagues scheduled a webinar on “Imposter Syndrome” that I attended. The full title was actually “Managing the Imposter Syndrome in Academia: How to Overcome Self-Doubt.” At the time, I was skeptical. ‘Why’, I thought to myself, ‘would there be enough self-doubt in academia to warrant a webinar?’ Academics are educated, respected, published…so why wouldn’t they be confident? ‘I am certainly feeling confident,’ I continued thinking to myself; ‘I’ve got this academia thing in that bag,’ I might have muttered.

Well, clearly that was before I knew how much I didn’t know. I have been gradually getting a better view of what is expected of academic librarians since then – the publishing, the outreach, the service, the presenting, the research, etc. Yes, it is challenging – but I am thrilled to be so challenged! I can do this! I still felt confident, not just of my ability to manage the workload and fulfill my job duties but to do so by working hard but not so hard that I forget how to enjoy my weekends.

Until now, until writing my first CV and comparing it to the CVs of other academic librarians made me suddenly realize that I am barely even out of the gate in this race. SO, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m overwhelmingly intimidated I have to admit that I’ve wondered more than once in the past few days how I even got here in the first place. I mean…I’ve never been published in even one peer-reviewed journal…I attend conferences but never bothered to present at them…my vita is only two and half pages long for gods sake most of the CVs I’ve looked at are at least – at least ten pages long.

‘Oh, wow,’ I’ve thought to myself, ‘what if somebody notices that they hired a non-academic?’

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And suddenly it hit me – this is what people mean when they talk about Imposter Syndrome. This is a totally new feeling for me and I have to think it is a “syndrome” that is fairly common in academia, partly because I’ve never experienced this sense of being less-qualified-than-most before. But also because I never heard about the Imposter Syndrome in the public library, library vendor and school library communities that I worked in previously. So now my question is, how do I make this realization work for me instead of against me? I think just being aware of the phenomena is helpful – to know that this imposter syndrome thing is not uncommon, it is not “just me” and it isn’t even really about low self –esteem. Imposter syndrome can hold people back for years.

In my case it would probably tend to “hold me back” by making me work ten times as hard as I actually need to in order to succeed.

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Working too hard or working just to fulfill the perceived expectations of others results in missed opportunities, not to mention how it diminishes the enjoyment that you should be getting out of your work. So, success is, for me at least, about setting reasonable goals that meet or exceed expectations but are definitely attainable. No, I’m not going to publish 5 papers, present at 10 conferences and write a book chapter this year. But I can work toward doing what I need to do to attain those goals. I can write some reviews and present at 2 or 3 conferences. I can learn as much as possible about the research/publication process and look for opportunities.

Recognizing that I am a beginner is helpful. In some ways moving into an academic position is like starting over as a librarian, as one of my colleagues pointed recently. You might have 10 years or more of professional library experience but – here you are, on square one in the tenure process. And that’s okay; being a beginner has advantages. It is exciting and you have many paths open to you because you haven’t chosen a track yet. I have been reminding myself that I am fully capable of doing the things I need to do to achieve tenure (someday, some faraway day from now…), it’s just that I haven’t done them yet. I even looked at the dates on a few highly accomplished CVs to get a feel for a timeline and I noticed that many people started working in an academic library one or even more years before they starting adding significant scholarly achievements to their work history. Nobody comes into this with a 30 page CV, everybody starts exactly where I am – at the beginning.

An Open Letter Regarding the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Heather Dalal, Assistant Professor I-Librarian at Rider University.

Some of the members of the ACRL-NJ/NJLA CUS User Education Committee and the VALE NJ Shared Information Literacy Committees have collaborated on an Open Letter Regarding the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. We are appreciative of the work of the Task Force who have developed the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. However, there are a number of concerns about this new document that have not been adequately addressed in revisions and that we would like the ACRL Board to take into consideration when the Task Force presents its final draft.

  1. The current standards should not be discarded; they should be revised to be used in tandem with the Framework.  The task force has created a new document that establishes a theoretical basis for information literacy. This does not replace standards. In an early article about threshold concepts for information literacy, Townsend, Brunetti, and Hofer (2009) recommended threshold concepts as “ideas that would add new layers of meaning to the current standards and integrate those standards into a more coherent body of knowledge.” The standards could be updated to reflect the expanded concepts in the Framework. But we still need standards. Why?

    • “Standards” is a powerful and clear word. It sets uniform goals and acceptable levels of achievement.  We should claim our right to set such standards in our own knowledge domain (call it a discipline if you want).  We disagree with the notion that the concept of standards is outdated. AASL has standards to help support their professionals as “education leaders”. Other academic groups (such as the National Council of Teachers of English) have adopted standards for their programs (see Writing Across the Curriculum).  A conversation around “standards” is now also part of the national dialogue on improving education in the United States.  Many states are adopting “common core” standards for K-12.  Our president & our governors are initiating conversation about curriculum change around the “common core standards” and major media outlets are covering this issue in depth.  “Standards” are now part of the vernacular.
    • There are political implications of losing the standards when other non-library agencies – for example, Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), Association of American Colleges & Universities, NJ Council of County Colleges – have finally adopted them, which took years of engagement on the part of many librarians.  To say that “this is not an issue for the accrediting agencies and they will work with what we have” is naïve. MSCHE just dropped information literacy and libraries from their “Characteristics of Excellence” and librarians fought diligently to get it reinstated. This Task Force is not helping us make our case on the importance of information literacy.  They seem tone deaf to the politics of Higher Ed. Standards have easily been used to articulate active learning outcomes that everyone understands. They have practical applications that are universally understood. The theory outlined in the Framework is good and should be retained but supported with standards. There is room for both documents — the Threshold Concepts providing an overall theoretical structure and the IL Standards providing skills, learning objectives and suggested assessments. The power of the standards was that they were NOT local.  Are we going backwards to insist that each locality ‘interpret’ the Framework according to their own standard?  ACRL has other standards.  Why are we comfortable being prescriptive about library collections but not about instructional goals?
    • We disagree with the notion that standards are outdated as indicated in (a) above. National conversations about education are centered on the idea of standards. The concept of standards is widely understood as a level of quality to be attained.
    • The Standards are working well in New Jersey academic libraries.  It has taken many years for NJ librarians to communicate and integrate the Standards in their own institutions, and we have been rather successful.  We have seen wide adoption by individual institutions of the Standards and their integration into a variety of curricula for instruction and assessment.   We have also worked with K-12 colleagues to develop Information Literacy Progression Standards that articulate the skills that should be learned in the first two years of college. These standards are endorsed by NJ State College Council of Academic Vice Presidents and the Provosts at senior public colleges and universities. We planned to continue progression standards through the 3rd and 4th years and graduate school, but put those efforts on hold during this revision process.  In 2011, the New Jersey General Education Foundation was revised to reflect the difference between “technological competency” and “information literacy,” establishing IL as a general education integrated course goal – a skill that should be integrated in courses throughout a general education curriculum. Such work was made possible by the outcomes-based competencies defined in the Standards. There is no advantage to confusing our non-library colleagues with new jargon, when the core ideas and learning goals remain the same.
  2. It is NOT counterproductive to map the IL Standards to the IL Framework. So many curriculum maps and programs have been designed with the IL Standards as the foundation. As stated above, the Standards do need revising, and in doing so can be mapped to the Framework to create cohesive documents that are used in tandem. The Framework as it is written can not be “implemented,” a fact that the task force has acknowledged in its declaration that the Framework is not prescriptive. Rather than recommending that ACRL form an “implementation task force,” the next task force should be dedicated to revising the standards in light of the Framework, and in a way that they are still useful for teaching and measuring information literacy skills.
  3. The Framework is a theoretical document which makes it difficult to assess outcomes. Assessment continues to be an integral part of higher education. By relying solely on a theoretical framework that is not assessable, we are making information literacy irrelevant to the learning outcomes emphasis in higher education.
  4. The entire framework is filled with jargon, especially the new definition of information literacy. It’s not even library jargon, it is educational jargon that does not resonate with librarians, the primary audience. Only faculty in a few disciplines (education, psychology, and writing) will relate to this document. We disagree with FAQ #8 that the Framework is designed to be shared with faculty, and the introductory statements for faculty and administrators are insufficient. In addition, the Framework can provide a catalyst for instruction programs to have a more cohesive approach to curriculum mapping or scaffolding yet, because of the jargon and the removal of the standards, it actually sets librarians back to square one where we will need to re-educate our faculty with new terminologies and thus lose the momentum that was gained with the standards.
  5. The lack of parallel structure of the frames is grammatically jarring. Yes, this is discussed in the FAQ; however, the frames will eventually be reduced to their simple titles. We are academics and we should make the effort to use the English language as precisely as possible. There surely can be another way to maintain parallel structure and the meaning behind the current titles. In fact, the statement from the FAQ, “Information creation is indeed a process, but it is much more than that, and this Frame focuses on the one aspect of the creation process” does not seem to make sense. If the Frame focuses on creation, then stating “Information Creation is a Process” captures exactly what the Frame intends: the process of creating information, isolated from the many other things that information is. Also, consider “Inquiry is Essential to Research” as a concept that encapsulates what is intended by that Frame while keeping parallel structure. We urge the Task Force to make a greater effort to re-title the Frames.

Thank you for your attention.

Respectfully,

Cara Berg, William Paterson University, Reference Librarian/Co-Coordinator of User Education, Co-Chair of VALE Shared Information Literacy Committee
Leslin Charles, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Kilmer Library, Instructional Design/Education Librarian
Steve Chudnick, Brookdale Community College, Department Chair, Reference/Instruction Librarian
Heather Cook, Caldwell University, Learning Commons Librarian
Heather Dalal, Rider University; Co-Chair of ACRL-NJ/NJLA CUS User Education
Megan Dempsey,  Raritan Valley Community College, Instructional Services Librarian; Co-Chair of VALE Shared Information Literacy Committee
Eleonora Dubicki, Monmouth University, Reference/Instruction Librarian
Chris Herz, Rowan College at Gloucester County, Reference Librarian
Amanda Piekart, Berkeley College; Co-chair of ACRL-NJ/NJLA CUS User Education Committee
Lynee Richel, County College of Morris, Coordinator of Instructional Services
Davida Scharf, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Director of Reference & Instruction
Theodora Haynes, Rutgers University – Camden, Instruction Coordinator
Roberta Tipton, Rutgers University – Newark, Instruction Coordinator
Mina Ghajar, College of Saint Elizabeth, Assistant Director, Research & Access Services

If you would like to show your support for this letter, please add your name to the public signature page. You can also see the list of signatures already collected.

Lost Time is Never Found

It was three months before I realized: each week I was working four hours on the reference desk, but my assignment sheet said I was supposed to be scheduled to work three. One hour – that’s not a big deal, right? I wrestled with this discovery for days! Should I speak up? Was I being petty to point out the discrepancy? I finally emailed one of the librarians that crafted my assignment sheet – he spoke to the desk scheduler and the discrepancy was resolved, no big deal. Only three hours a week on the desk from here on out!

It was one hour! Out of forty. ONLY forty! Never in my past life as a non-librarian would I have worried about a single hour, but since I’ve begun the tenure-track life, I measure each minute by productivity achieved, or lack-thereof. I identified completely when Erin Miller, the other (also tenure-track) FYAL blogger wrote, “I have never had to be so concerned with the minute-by-minute flow of each workday,” in her first blog post.

Time management! This is nobody’s favorite phrase. I felt little-to-no pressure in my past life as library staff to achieve Great Things. I usually had a few projects going, but deadlines were of my choosing. I’ve long been amused by people that stress how busy-busy-busy they are – especially when I read articles like this. Busy-ness is just another social competition. But as a tenure-track librarian, I now find myself falling into that trap! I’m just TOO BUSY these days! Do you realize what I could do with that extra hour each week? Great Things! And as Benjamin Franklin said, “lost time is never found again.” This is especially true on the tenure-track.

Managing Yourself

When I started my new job, I was basically left to my own devices on the afternoon of my first day. I was suddenly in a brave new world where I had to figure out what I was supposed to be doing and set my own schedule. I hereby admit that lack of structure makes me uncomfortable! So I made two decisions off-the-bat: I would work 8:30 to 5 every day and I started a work diary. I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life. (I once tried to count them all – somewhere around 12 or 15. All but two were hourly). I know that the first days of a new job can go by in a blur. And my job wasn’t just new to me – it’s a brand new position at my library. I didn’t want to feel like I was running on a hamster wheel with nothing to show for it. I decided that a work diary would help me see where my time went and what I accomplished.

And it has helped! My “work diary” is really simple – I set up a notebook in Microsoft OneNote and use a page for each month. I fill out a row in a simple table for each day: what time I worked and my accomplishments. It’s only a sentence or two for each day, but I can tell you how much I worked and what I worked on for any day since August 1st. I even started including what I did on the weekends, since I’m one of those people that can hardly remember what I ate for breakfast, let alone what I did on Saturday.

There are Four Reasons to Keep a Work Diary as listed by the Harvard Business Review: focus, patience, planning, and personal growth. Writing down what I do each day keeps me accountable and on track (focus) and also shows me that I am making progress on a project even if it doesn’t feel like it (patience). I can see how much time something takes, and that helps me set realistic expectations for deadlines (planning). The article recommends writing 100 words a day about your feelings – I don’t write nearly that much – but if I am feeling especially emotional one day, good or bad, I include that and when I re-read what I wrote I can remember those feelings and think about how I can avoid frustration or find more “wins” in the future (personal growth).

I happen to use Microsoft OneNote because it was already on my work computer, but I also like the way it looks and is organized, and that it syncs across platforms. Evernote is also a good choice, or even a simple Microsoft Word document.

15-Minute Rule

Keeping a work diary also showed me how heavy my workload was. Seeing how much (or how little) I could accomplish every day quickly helped me discover that I needed to do as much as possible in my work time or I was going to end up either (1) working too much, or, (2) not getting enough done. I love this job but I have no desire to work over my forty hours each week because I also love having a life. Only a month or so in, I was already stressing about all the projects that I wasn’t making any progress on!

Enter the 15-minute rule. Juggling multiple projects often means making progress on one or two to the detriment of the others. I committed to working at least 15-minutes a day (on average) on each of my ongoing projects. And guess what? I now get stuff done!

When I got here, I told myself to take it easy and not sign up for everything that came my way. But, alas, I’m a compulsive overachiever and I stretched myself thin my first semester. I signed up for an online class through our Faculty Development Center on Universal Design for Learning and made zero progress on it the first two months. Funded by a grant, the facilitator sent out regular emails promising to enter course-finishers in monthly drawings for $100, but even regular promises of financial gain failed to spur me to action. Realizing I wasn’t getting anything done did. When I started scheduling 15-minute chunks to work on the class, I made progress and finished. And then I won that month’s drawing for $100. Personal satisfaction and monetary winnings: best week ever!

Schedule ALL the Hours

I used the 15-minute rule in conjunction with advice from academic Cal Newport, who runs the fantastic Study Hacks Blog. Newport recommends planning out every minute of your work week. I thought my schedule was packed when I first started here – so many meetings! And so many projects! Now, I spend a half-hour every Monday morning planning out my week. I have a recurring appointment with myself where I keep a list of all the tasks that need to be scheduled, and all the projects that I’m working on. Here’s what my schedule looks like now:

Weekly Schedule
My weekly schedule now. (ID means instructional design time!)

Okay, so I’m still working on not getting anxious just looking at my weekly schedules, but I’m constantly reminded to stay on track and to get work done. It also forces me to work on things I don’t want to – like doing collection development in GOBI. Scheduling time to work on it in little chunks has helped me make progress instead of waiting until the last minute to order, and now GOBI doesn’t seem so bad.

I also build myself in little buffers – like I’m not really going to spend an hour on email every day, but I’ll also use that time to catch up on my reading for professional development, or I’ll get started early on the next task. (Also, I’ve gotten really good at managing my email from attending one of librarian Anali Perry’s Inbox Zero presentations. HIGHLY recommend perusing her slide deck.)

Take a Walk

Finally, here’s a counter-intuitive tip: to better manage your time, take a walk. It’s been easy for me as new tenure-track faculty in a brand new position to feel overwhelmed, so whenever it gets too much, I go outside. Often by myself, sometimes with coworkers, and sometimes I grab coffee with coworkers. It helps me to step away from thinking so hard about what I need to do, and it also helps me to clear my mind and find inspiration.

Cal Newport talks about using this state of mind to manage your projects. He says to “forget your project ideas (until you can’t forget them).”

At first, in this position, I kept a list of projects I’d like to work on – then I’d look back at it and feel like I was already behind. But let’s be honest – I’m the only instructional designer at my library, and I only have so much time to dedicate just to design. Something like 8-12 hours a week in an average week. Not much! Now, I might sketch out an idea or two for a project on one of the scratch papers in my office, and then I forget about it. The things that really matter and I really want to accomplish never leave my mind. This tactic is especially coming in handy as I start to write my prospectus and need to clarify my research interests.

How about you? How do you stay sane and manage your time?

Across Divides: Librarian as Translator

Editor’s Note: We welcome Jennifer Jarson to the ACRLog team. Jennifer is the Information Literacy and Assessment Librarian and Social Sciences Subject Specialist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. Her research interests include information literacy and student learning pedagogy and assessment, as well as issues regarding communication, collaboration, and leadership.

A few weeks ago, I facilitated a few discussion sessions with faculty at my institution who had participated in a recent information literacy study.  Together, we reviewed and interpreted some of the more significant themes of the study’s findings.  We discussed, for example, evidence of students’ competencies and sites of their struggles, our teaching and learning goals and the gaps between our goals and our realities, and so on.  As we identified areas of students’ disconnects, some faculty began to identify a disconnect of their own.  We need help, they said, to better understand conventions and ways of knowing outside our own disciplines.  We recognize that disciplines view and value source types differently, for example, or cite differently, but we don’t know how and why.  As the discussion continued, faculty described wanting to better understand the perspectives that students from different disciplinary backgrounds are bringing to their classes.  In core courses within their departments, faculty described comfort with their own disciplinary traditions, of course, traditions in which their students are becoming knowledgeable or are already well-versed.  Yet, in the increasingly interdisciplinary areas of our evolving liberal arts curriculum — first year seminars and cluster courses, to name a few — faculty described feeling a little more at sea.  So deeply steeped in their own disciplinary traditions, they asked for a little help interpreting other disciplines’ points of view and the varying research approaches through which students might be passing on the way to their classes.

This request — for librarian to operate as translator — is not unfamiliar territory.  We librarians frequently work as translators, as interpreters.  In fact, it seems rather like our home turf.  Facility with different ways of knowing and organization is our wheelhouse. Decoding those schema and perspectives for our different user groups is a language in which we’re fluent.  We interpret our users’ needs when we engage in a reference interview.  We translate their needs into search strategies to best fit database structures or into relevant subject headings in a catalog.  We interpret for students an assignment’s purpose or their professors’ expectations.  We interpret for faculty points of research/information literacy confusion and difficulty commonly experienced by students.  We decipher for users the elements of citations and clarify their means of access.  The librarian-as-interpreter (or perhaps we should say negotiator?) paradigm holds in navigating relationships between faculty and student, faculty and faculty, discipline and discipline, and information resource and user.  It’s in my sphere of public services that I’ve given this topic most thought, but the librarian-as-translator trope doesn’t end there.  The parallel surely continues in cataloging, systems, web design, and beyond.

So what is it about librarians that situates us in this role?  And serves us well in it?  It’s the nature of our work itself, no doubt.  By working with our users, we see through their eyes.  It’s the philosophies and values at our profession’s core (Ranganathan, anyone?), however debated our philosophies might be.  With deep respect for our users and our resources alike, we aim to bridge the gaps between them.  It’s the nature of our location, at the intersections of so many points in our information ecologies and our campus landscapes.

Access to these points — these viewpoints, these skill sets — is not something to take lightly or ignore.  Our unique position affords us opportunities to reach across divides of perspectives, stakeholders, and disciplines.  At the same time, we must take care to evaluate our neutrality in such a position; we must recognize the role we play and our responsibilities in these acts of translation.  With an ear tuned accordingly, we can bring a diversity of voices to our varied campus tables.

What are you hearing?  For whom and how are you interpreting?  I would love to discuss your thoughts in the comments…