Tag Archives: committee work

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…

Wearing Different Hats: Academic Service and Librarianship

Like many academic librarians, I’m on the tenure track, and with that comes the opportunity and requirement for academic service. I genuinely enjoy most of my service work, which ranges from membership in our faculty governance body to work on committees dealing with academic technology and curriculum development, among others. Right now I’m in the midst of a five-year commitment on a large grant-funded pedagogical project at my college. My time is devoted either to the project or to my work in the library on different days of the week, with some exceptions. I joke about taking off one hat and putting on another from day to day or meeting to meeting.

My library days are structured along similar lines as they were before my involvement in the grant project. But on my grant days I often don’t feel like a librarian: no library instruction, no reference, no information literacy program planning, no library meetings — only work related to my other service obligations. On those days I sometimes wonder: what does it mean when I spend more time outside of the library than inside?

Despite occasionally feeling as if I’m being pulled in different directions depending on which hat I’m wearing, I’m certain that my service work augments my work in the library. College service makes me feel connected to the institution, and allows me to gain a more complete understanding of and contribute to the college’s mission, going beyond the work I do in the library. I also think that academic librarians taking on service commitments can bring more visibility to the library on campus, almost a stealth form of marketing. Faculty in other departments whom I’ve met on various committees will sometimes contact me to ask a question about the library, and I hope that makes them more likely to send their students to the library as well.

My academic service outside of the library also helps inform my work as an information literacy librarian. In my roles on college-wide projects I’ve become much more familiar with the programs and majors available for our students, which facilitates making connections across the curriculum and planning information literacy outreach. College service work increases the number of faculty from other departments whom I meet who can be potential collaborators, too. I’ve drawn on these colleagues when we’ve wanted to pilot different initiatives for library instruction, and have sometimes sought feedback from them on our programs and efforts.

I hope that being in this space at the intersection of multiple identities can help push me to think in new ways about the role of academic libraries and about myself as a librarian and an academic. But despite the benefits of college service work, the crowding of these multiple identities that I inhabit is not always entirely comfortable — sometimes I wish I had two heads for my two hats. If you’re a librarian involved in academic service, what strategies do you use to reconcile your two roles?