Tag Archives: library practice

In Praise of Ideas

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Emily Drabinski, Electronic Resources and Instruction Librarian at Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY. She’s the editor (with Alana Kumbier and Maria Accardi) of Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, published by Library Juice Press.

I just completed a thesis in the English department of my home institution, finishing up the second masters our jobs so often require. When people ask me what my thesis is about, I give them a short answer: kairos, a Greek notion of qualitative time, and what it has to tell us about library instruction. But there’s a longer answer, of course; it’s 100 pages long, cites everyone from Plato to James Elmborg to Michel Foucault and back to Plato, and is a significant deposit both in my theoretical bank and the bank of raw text from which I’ll attempt to craft a tenurable research profile in the remaining four years of my clock.

But why did I need to do so much reading and writing just to be a librarian? We’re a profession of practice, after all. We do and make things more than we think things. The first chapter of my thesis parses the debate between Plato and the Sophists about the nature of time and truth. What in the world could that have to do with my daily work at the reference desk and in the library classroom?

Well, actually kind of a lot. Me, I came down on the side of the Sophists. Knowledge is contingent and happens in time. It’s not absolute. What it’s possible to know, or even conceive as a question, depends on the context–what has come to count as knowledge over the course of time. It may not be a set of how-tos, but the notion of kairos does provide me a frame through which I work, every day, in my office, at the reference desk, and in the classroom.

Here’s an example: If knowledge is contingent, then I’m never looking for right answers. Instead, I’m looking for ways to engage students in their own active knowledge pursuits, pursuits that happen in time and are never final. I taught a class last week, and I framed my discussion with a metaphor that came directly from all that thinking, reading and writing. Instead of going with shoe shopping as a way to explain why students might use a subject database and not just Google (when I need shoes I go to a shoe store; I don’t go up and down the mall asking for shoes in every store), I went with dialogue as a metaphor. (Confession: I yoinked that one from Socrates.) Research is about a conversation one has with the literature of the past, in the present, toward the future of our own scholarly work. We ask databases questions, and databases give us answers. Sometimes they tell us no results. But there are no final answers, not if we embrace the kairos of research. There are simply next questions–with corrected spelling and broader keywords, maybe.

Ideas matter in librarianship, even for those of us at the frontlines of service delivery and not in the ivory towers. Ideas frame our action, the way we talk and teach about what we do, and what we make matter when we’re connecting our users to resources. If my frame of reference were informed purely by a desire to get things right, I might teach students how to follow my directions to get to a stable, unchanging and unchangeable answer. I’d be invested in describing how to use the correct language in the correct way in the correct database, all the while reinscribing as correct knowledge systems that reward some ways of knowing and not others.

That was a great class, the one that talked about research as a conversation. We all had a pretty great time, with a free flow of questions and answers. We spent a lot of time laughing, and a lot of time finding appropriate scholarly resources. There was applause as we wrapped things up, spontaneous and grateful. In the two weeks since the session, a quarter of the class has made follow up appointments with me or one of my colleagues. It’s not tenure-level evidence-based research, of course, but it anecdotally tells me my idea is one worth pursuing, not only in the scholarly literature of the field, but as a part of my classroom practice as well.

We don’t talk much about ideas, we practicing librarians. There doesn’t always seem time for them, between the classes and the desks and the meeting–oh, the meetings. But that’s the real advantage of the demand for scholarship, the demand that we engage and reflect on the ideological frames that guide our teaching, and a demand I’d like us to take up more often and more informally. What ideas undergird the way you work as a librarian?

More Provocative (if less provoking) Statements

Not long ago Steven B asked us to take a look at the Taiga Provocative Statements for 2009. We went, we read, we were provoked.

I have to admit I’m much more intrigued – and, frankly, charmed – by the Darien Statements which aren’t meant to be provocative in the same way the Taiga Statements are, but rather “meant to be grand, optimistic, obvious, and thankful to and for our users, communities, and the tireless librarians who work the front lines every day, upholding the purpose of the Library.” Maybe there’s a bit of mom and apple pie here, the odd gamboling unicorn under a pastel rainbow, but this document too could be the bases of interesting discussions. Are these the things we value? If so, how do we express those values in what we do? And what adjustments will we have to make to live up to them?

For instance, here are some that seem to me excellent fodder for academic librarians to discuss:

The library encourages the love of learning. How can we do that? Can things we do change the experience of students who are stressed, resentful, and likely to find the “most efficient” (least engaging) route to completing a task they don’t want to do in the first place – because lecturing them they should try harder to find more appropriate scholarly sources isn’t likely to do the trick. Are there ways we can work with faculty to make “encouraging the love of learning” a reality? Too often research assignments are a form of hazing – or are based on naive assumptions such as “students will naturally start their research weeks before the paper is due; they’ll be so eager to get going” and “by writing this paper students will get to explore a topic that interests them. It’s the best kind of active learning.” Maybe – but all evidence suggests otherwise. Students won’t love learning by writing papers if you don’t build the right scaffolding and give them a sense that it matters to them personally – that it’s much more than an annoying and difficult task they have to complete to get a grade.

Librarians connect people with accurate information. Okay – but much of the time we emphasize connecting with masses of information and pay scant lip service to evaluating sources (often by distributing a checklist of surface features in the last five minutes of a library workshop). Many librarians feel uncomfortable even suggesting that some information is better than other information. It’s not our place or it’s even some kind of censorship or a demonstration of prejudice which is not allowed. Certainly in an academic setting there’s a temptation to “leave it to the experts” because expertise is highly valued in academia. But sometimes you have to make up your own mind about things you don’t know much about – a bill before Congress, your opinion about immigration issues that’s being hotly discussed in your community, what the best form of education might be for your child who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s. Do the things we teach in our information literacy efforts help our students prepare to address questions that aren’t an academic assignment? Or are we just interested in helping them succeed as students, no mean feat in itself? That innocuous statement that looked like it might be suitable for embroidery on a pillow turns out to be pretty provocative after all!

Librarians should adopt technology that keeps data open and free [and] abandon technology that does not.
We talk a lot about the virtues of access. We talk a lot about the vexing economics of publishing and the tilting of copyright toward owners and away from the public. But do we put our own efforts into solving any of these problems in our libraries? The library director at Harvard says inspiring and wise things about the Google settlement – but my library has to pay a lot to request an interlibrary loan from Harvard. Huh? How can we reconcile our so-called values and our day-to-day practices?

So I’m charmed and inspired by the Darien Statement – but find those feel-good statements still a good springboard for the kinds of discussions that I suspect the Taiga statements were intended to provoke.