Tag Archives: students

Experiencing the Shift

I spent a few days last week at a fascinating conference called MobilityShifts held at The New School in NYC (full disclosure: I was also a presenter). The tagline for the conference is An International Future of Learning Summit, which I definitely found true: attendees from all over the world ranged from faculty and administrators to publishers, students, activists, and librarians, and were interested in education at all levels. It would be impossible for me to do justice to all of the great talks and panels I experienced at the conference, but here are some notes on a few that piqued my interest that seemed especially relevant to academic librarians.

John Willinsky (founder of the Public Knowledge Project which created Open Journal Systems for publishing open access journals) gave a wonderful talk about open access publishing. He made the distinction between two kinds of intellectual property: content produced by scholars and researchers, and content produced by commercial and entertainment entities (with frequent use of Lady Gaga as an example of the latter). Willinsky asked us to consider why copyright for these two types of intellectual property is treated identically. He suggested that there is a strong historical and legal basis for open access in scholarly journals: information produced by universities is a public good, as demonstrated by the tax-exempt status of academic institutions. Further, the information that researchers produce only increases in value when it circulates and is critically reviewed, and open access increases the circulation of scholarly information. With Open Access Week practically around the corner, I’m looking forward to sharing what I learned at Willinsky’s talk during the faculty workshops we’re planning at my library.

I was very pleased to have the opportunity to hear Michael Wesch speak — I’ve been a big fan since seeing the video he made in 2007 with his undergraduate anthropology students at Kansas State University, A Vision of Students Today. Wesch focused his talk on student engagement, beginning by juxtaposing a photo of 400 bored-looking students in a lecture course with one of excited young people at auditions for American Idol. College students are seeking ways to create their own identities and find recognition, which the mainstream media are all too happy to provide. He noted that in the past media critics like Neil Postman criticized television for being a one-way medium, but now we have the ability to both create content and to talk back — it’s no longer just a top-down information stream. Wesch suggested that we encourage students to ask questions and talk back (both critical aspects of information literacy), and show them that these actions are relevant to creating their own identity and making meaning in their lives.

Like most conferences, the overwhelming majority of the speakers were faculty, administrators, and other professionals — that is, adults. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend a panel titled Open Education: A Student Perspective, and listen to the voices of four articulate students from The New School. Open access publishing was one dominant theme in this session. One student spoke passionately about the frustration that accompanied his inability to access scholarly information in databases when he had taken time off from his studies. Another wondered about the oxymoron of students who depend on piracy and copyright infringement to get materials that they need (or want), at the same time as the university has to take steps against it. The high prices charged by textbook publishers were also questioned, especially for materials for K-12 education. These students were an interesting counterpoint to the students Wesch discussed; they’re highly engaged in their own education, and curious about why educational policies and practices so often default to closed when arguably one of the purposes of higher education is to open and broaden knowledge and worldview.

The conference also featured “short talks,” 10 minute presentations grouped by theme. Among the many I heard, one from Xtine Burrough, Communication professor at Cal State Fullerton, stands out as particularly information literacy-friendly. She asks her students to remix and respond to the copyright infringement case Lenz v. Universal. In 2008 Stephanie Lenz was served with a takedown notice by Universal for posting a video to YouTube in which her then-toddler is shown dancing to a brief snippet of the Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy,” and decided to fight back (she’s being represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation). Burrough’s students create videos using the same 29 seconds of the song and upload them to YouTube as a response to Lenz’s original post. And of course even this assignment has gone viral, and there are many video responses from people who aren’t students in Burrough’s classes.

There are so many moving parts to the education ecosystem that it’s easy to stick to just the topics we know best or spend the most time thinking about. This was the first non-library conference I’ve been to in ages, and it was fascinating to step outside of my library bubble and listen to/learn from the other presenters and attendees. It’s going to take a while for me to digest everything I’ve taken in over the past few days, but I’m finding myself with lots to think on about the place of libraries in education.

Don’t Make It Easy For Them

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Andy Burkhardt, Emerging Technologies Librarian at Champlain College in Vermont. He also blogs at Information Tyrannosaur.

I love customer service in libraries. I love improving our systems and services so they are more user-friendly. I love helping students with their research and answering their questions. But I don’t want to make things easy for students. If I did, I wouldn’t be giving them what they want: an education.

In information literacy sessions, which of these two scenarios is easier for students: letting them sit there while you demo the catalog and a database or having them play with the search tools themselves and then explain to the rest of the class how they work? The first one is way easier. Students can sleep, text, or zone out without having to think or learn anything. The second situation is exceedingly more challenging. Students have to actually have hands on contact with the tools. They also have to learn them well enough to explain them to their classmates. They have to talk!

At the reference desk, what’s easier for a student: when a librarian searches the catalog for them and gives them a relevant book, or when the librarian asks them a bunch of questions, has them explain their topic clearly, and makes them search the catalog? Clearly the first one is nearly effortless for the student. Ask and they receive. The second one is significantly more demanding. After asking a question, the student is asked more questions back. They have to work to define and redefine their topic into something clear. And they have to try searching for a book themselves!

When an online student is looking for an article, should we just send a PDF or should we make a quick screencast about how to get to that article in our databases? Sending the PDF as an email attachment would be much easier for the student. It would also be much easier for the librarian. In fact, things that are easier for students are often easier for librarians too. It’s easy to send a PDF. It’s simple to go through the motions of demoing a database you have shown hundreds of times. It’s a cake-walk to give a student a book and send them on their way. But if we take the easy route, we’re failing them. Learning isn’t easy; it’s hard work. It can be interesting, challenging, confusing, overwhelming, engaging, scary and really fun, but not easy. It’s never easy. Part of our service to students is challenging them so they learn and grow.

I try to remember not to make it easy for students, but also not to make it easy for myself. If my job is starting to seem easy, I’m doing something wrong.

Reflections on Service

By now I’m sure everyone’s seen Thomas Benton’s article in praise of academic librarians in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s getting a lot of link love in the blogosphere, and was in the top five most viewed and emailed articles on the Chron’s website early this week. I love being a librarian and reading positive things about librarianship, and I enjoyed reading Benton’s piece. The whole article’s worth a read but a few sentences near the beginning sum it up nicely:

[M]ore than any other class of professionals in higher education, librarians possess a comprehensive understanding of the scholarly ecosystem. They know what’s going on across the disciplines, among professors and administrators as well as students. No less important, they are often the most informed people when it comes to technological change–its limits as well as its advantages.

The article’s comments were mostly positive, too, but scanning through them there was one in particular that caught my eye. The commenter suggests that faculty and administrators value librarians because of the work we do for them which, in this commenter’s mind, equates librarians with “glorified research assistants.”

One of the reasons this comment struck me is that it speaks to something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Librarianship is a service-oriented profession — service to our patrons, whether faculty, students, or staff, is a core value for many academic librarians. We want faculty and students to ask us questions about library and research resources.

However, sometimes it can be a fine line to walk between facilitating access to and use of library resources, and slipping into an assistant role as mentioned by the Chron commenter. Does our goal to assist with research in our institutions ever cross the line to acting as a research assistant? What does “service” really mean in an academic library?

Practice, Practice, Practice

The semester is drawing to a close at my college and students in the information literacy course that I’m teaching are deep into their work on their final projects. I’m taking a breath before the grading begins and already starting to reflect on the semester: what worked well, what didn’t, what I’ll tweak over the summer and what I can use again in the fall.

One thing has been apparent since my students turned in their annotated bibliographies last month. To put it bluntly: their sources are awesome. Each of them has found solid information on their research topics from a wide variety of sources including scholarly books and articles, conference proceedings, academic websites, specialized reference materials, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and other internet sources. I can honestly say that it was a delightful experience to read their bibliographies.

The students chose topics of interest to them which definitely seems to have helped them embrace the research process. But I think that the main reason they were able to find such excellent sources is time. We had time over the course of the semester to explore where information comes from; how and by whom it’s produced and distributed; how to search for, find, and evaluate it. We also spent time discussing when to use different kinds of information, for example, when it’s appropriate to use a journalistic source and when it’s better to find something scholarly. Like the old joke about Carnegie Hall, this semester my students had time to practice.

I don’t know that I’ve emerged on the other side of this assignment believing that credit-bearing courses are the one and only best way to teach information literacy, but my experiences this semester have certainly been eye-opening. It’s not that taking one course magically creates information literate students — as with English Composition courses and writing, this is just the beginning. But I do feel that the students have built a solid foundation that will serve them well as their information competencies continue to develop over the rest of their time in college and, I hope, throughout their lives.

Realistically, it would be difficult at my college to require an information literacy course of all students; there just aren’t enough available credits in most degree programs. So another thing I’ll be thinking on over the summer is how to port some of the successful strategies I used during the course over to the one-shot sessions that still represent most of the library and information literacy instruction we provide. And I’m hopeful that strategies from both kinds of instruction can continue to evolve and inform each other.

Browsing, Searching and Finding

January always brings lots of discussion about the future, and probably even more so this year now that we’re a decade into the second millennium. Collections are central in much talk about the future of academic libraries, which naturally leads me to thoughts about browsing.

I have a confession to make: I don’t browse through academic library stacks much anymore. There seem to be a few reasons for this:

  • I work at a small college library which is part of a larger university system that includes over 20 schools, each with its own library. Many of the books I need I borrow from the other colleges in the system via our shared catalog.
  • The discovery methods I use have shifted away from browsing. Typically I learn about new books through association news, ads in library science journals and magazines, or via blogs, Twitter or other internet sources. (It’s hard to say whether there’s a feedback loop here: if I worked in a larger library would I browse more?)
  • I also read across a wider range of disciplines than I did before I was a librarian. When I was an archaeologist there were a couple of call number ranges in close proximity to each other that I’d occasionally browse through (good old CC and GN), but if I tried that now I’d be all over the library.
  • And, I sheepishly admit to a bit of browsing fear: I always seem to have plenty to read, from journal articles to the biblioblogosphere to the three work-related books sitting on my desk right now. So I’m somewhat scared to spend time browsing in case I find more than I have time to read.

Though they definitely use the library, I don’t typically see faculty at my college browsing our stacks, either (maybe their reasons are similar to mine?). But I have noticed that students often want to browse in the library. Many students, especially those new to the college, stop by the reference desk and ask “Where’s the psychology section?” or “I need to look at the architecture books.” It’s easy to forget how opaque an academic library, even a small one, can seem to undergraduates. Last semester a student said to me, in an awed whisper, “the library is so big.”

All of this leads me to wonder about the future of collections at my library. If faculty don’t browse much anymore, how would they feel if we were to propose moving some of the lesser-used materials to off-campus storage? Though common at many college and university libraries, faculty may not agree with this strategy, as we saw late last year with the faculty protest at Syracuse University.

On the other hand, if students are still browsing, how can we make it easier for them? We have those nifty bookmarks from ALA with the Library of Congress call number ranges printed on them, and I like to pass those out to students who ask about broad subject areas. Would it be helpful to students if we added signage that displayed the subject names next to the call number range signs on our shelves?

Whatever happens, I’m sure that the next decade will bring lots of change for our collections, and I’m eager to see what’s in store for the future.