“Student Needs Are Academic Needs”: My 2 Cents

This week I watched a new report, “Student Needs Are Academic Needs,” make the rounds of community college listserv discussions. I watched the discourse around this report get kinda heated, so I thought I’d share my reaction.

As a community college librarian, I was interested to read a study with community college students in mind. While our population overlaps with 4-year institutions, it’s meaningful to see the experiences of community college students examined here specifically. The researchers found that students “see the library not only as an informational resource, an academic resource, or simply a quiet place to study, but also as a community resource within the campus context.” 

I think that’s the part some readers are taking issue with: the idea that students see the library as the place for both academic support and personal assistance with things like childcare, wifi hotspots, and help navigating college.

I recognize the anxiety that comes up when strapped librarians read a report that says students would like to find social services and childcare at the library. There’s a legitimate fear that the library’s mission will become so broad in scope that our original vision is obscured, and that expanding our services will come at the cost of burned-out library workers. 

But I think we should be redirecting the conclusions of this report outside the library; share these results with our larger institution or funding body as an indication that the library needs more resources to provide or host desired services. It’s certainly not the intentions of the co-authors of this report to suggest that libraries must become all things to all people; they’re quoted in Inside Higher Ed as saying libraries shouldn’t take all of these ideas literally.

A report is just that: it reports on the state of things, in this case what students need. Students say the library is one of the most likely places they’d go for non-curricular help. If that is the case, then we should think creatively about how that help can be waiting for them where they are seeking it. I’m not threatened by these conclusions because my first thought when I hear that a student would access a social worker’s services if they were in the library is “Great, let’s collaborate with a social worker,” not “Oh, I guess I have to become a social worker now.” As Christine Wolff-Eisenberg said in that same IHE piece:

“A lot of these services are going to require deep collaboration so the library is not reinventing the wheel when other resources exist.” 

The ideas in this report spark my imagination more than my temper, but maybe I’m just in a particularly optimistic mood. Has your library tried or considered any programs like the service concepts posed in this report? 

Learning to Learn


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Yesterday I attended a presentation and tour of a private school for children with learning differences (everything from dyslexia and dysgraphia, to autism, ADHD, anxiety, and processing issues, etc.). I’ve written about my son’s issues with learning within a school setting before, in part as a means of processing my own feelings about standardized education, but also as a way to reflect on my own work as a teacher. It’s hard for my experiences as a parent of a child with different learning needs NOT to influence my approach to the classroom.

At this presentation, the school administrators stressed the importance of teaching students to learn how to learn. Because the school sells itself as a transition school–one where the typical student attends for 3 years before moving on to a mainstream public or private school–some parents were concerned about students’ abilities to catch up in certain subject areas. I was so impressed by the school administrators’ answer, and realized that is what we try to do (to varying degrees of success) with students in college. Yes, there is a focus on content; it’s what academic majors are, after all. But there is also an emphasis on metacognition and the development of students’ ability to self-reflect, organize, self-regulate, and solve information needs and problems.

For children with learning differences, success is about coming to terms with the self. Self: acceptance, efficacy, accountability, motivation, advocacy, etc. They’re often the outliers in their classroom, and the source of frustration for teachers. Their confidence is rattled, their anxiety is high, and they often feel alienated by learning at school. Their ability is there but it’s hidden behind a complicated puzzle that can only be solved with care, time, attention, and an understanding of difference. Affect and feeling are central to unlocking their potential (really all learners’ potential) and making learning more than just a meaningless slog. A holistic approach to education is critical for these learners.

In taking a holistic approach to teaching and focusing on everything that makes learning possible, educators facilitate a version of learning that is self-directed and empowering. Learners have the agency to learn about whatever they want to learn and have the strategies and skills to make that happen. That’s not easy in public schools where teachers are accountable to standardized testing scores and hundreds of learning benchmarks. It’s difficult in college classrooms where faculty feel pressured to cover more content than is possible in one quarter or semester. It’s challenging in the teaching we do as librarians, where we manage our own desires to teach processes and critical thinking with faculty requests and student needs.

What could it look like to put learning how to learn first? How would that change our approach to teaching in libraries? In information literacy programs? The common refrain about library school is that it doesn’t teach you all the answers, but it teaches you how to find whatever answer you need. What if our graduate programs focused on teaching us to ask questions rather than find answers? To study learning as a social process (and research/information as a part of that process)? How might that impact our own approach to information literacy education?

Information Literacy: What’s the Question?

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Mark Lenker, Teaching & Learning Librarian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Do you have an arch-frenemy book or article from the literature of library science?  Mine has to be Edward K. Owusu-Ansah’s 2005 “Debating Definitions of Information Literacy:  Enough is Enough!”  Owusu-Ansah argues persuasively that we have already defined information literacy clearly enough to know that it involves making a positive difference in our students’ experiences with learning.  Rather than dither about with the fine distinctions that a perfect definition of information literacy would require, Owusu-Ansah implores us to get on with the good work of teaching information literacy.[1]

But I can’t help myself.  Definitions of information literacy fascinate me because they open new possibilities for thinking about (and occasionally actually doing) my work.  The ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards made it clear to me that information literacy was about more than just showing students how to use databases (which was a lesson I really needed to learn).  The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education stimulated my thinking about information as an ecosystem that we inhabit and influence.  Even Owusu-Ansah’s 2003 characterization of information literacy as “conversance with the universe of information” taught me that conversance with information is a more reasonable and pressing instructional goal than expertise in information.[2]          

All of these conceptions describe information literacy as an attribute of learners:  competencies they exhibit, concepts they have mastered, a level of know-how they have attained.  The focus on such characteristics makes sense; literacy itself is a quality possessed by people.  But what if we took a step back from our focus on skills and competencies and instead thought about information literacy as a matter of learning something about the world?  What if we framed information literacy in terms of a big question, one that accurately conveys the depths of the unknowns that information literacy touches upon?  Getting the defining question right would help others understand the weight of the subject matter that we teach and research.  It would also improve our own understanding of the deep-rooted mysteries that pervade our work.

It bears emphasis that information is an aspect of the world that is teeming with mystery.  The range of questions includes current challenges, like how to learn about politics in the midst of our fractured public discourse, or how search algorithms can skew our searching and distort our learning.  But the span also includes questions as old as information itself.  How can I tell which information I should trust?  What’s the best way to obtain information that I can rely on?  Or, deepest of all, how do text, images, and sound, all physical signals, get taken up as meaning that influences future thought or action?  It’s easy to forget that learning with information is an everyday miracle, and that libraries are in the miracle business.

When we acknowledge the vastness and the subtlety of information literacy as a subject matter, it makes a difference in the way we approach our teaching.  I underestimate the subject matter and my students when I view teaching as a matter of giving the students what they need to know about research. 

Better to think of the teacher as a guide leading the students to a vantage point over a yawning chasm of information possibilities so that they can explore it together.[3]  The canyon is sublime when considered in its wholeness–it is so much bigger than the teacher or the students–but it is also composed of billions of details worth considering on their own.   The wind gnawing at the rock particle by particle.  The intrepid trees somehow growing on the face of the blasted cliffs.  The exquisitely adapted animals that find a way to thrive in this impossible place, where nature slowly gouges away at itself.  Each instance of information that we encounter, considered in its context, is a similar occasion for wonder, if we take the time to think about it.

To continue with the analogy, the teacher cannot give the students everything they need to know about the canyon.  The canyon is too vast, and the backgrounds and questions of the students are too varied.  The teacher can point out some interesting features and ask questions to bring the canyon into focus in a way that many students have not considered before.  But no one will leave having mastered the canyon, and that is the way it should be.  It is enough that the students have taken in one of the big, rich features of their world and come away more curious, inspired, or humble than they were before.

The canyon metaphor has important limitations.  It is too visual, as though information is something that we look at from afar rather than participate in up close.  In fact, none of us can ever really leave the information canyon.  We are composed of information in much the same way that we are made up of water, carbon, and iron.  Further, our choices, both big and small, influence the character of the information ecosystem that sustains us.  We must be mindful to do no harm.

Instead of mastery, I would rather see my students come away from our time together more alert to the likelihood that there is more to information than initially meets the eye, more aware of the ways that information shapes their lives, and more mindful of the ways that their choices influence the future, both for information and for themselves.  To awaken and encourage that sort of deliberate and probing curiosity, information literacy needs a really good question.

Can we meaningfully discern the human purpose (and, frequently, the human negligence) lying behind the information artifacts that occupy so much of our lives?  How do our information choices make us more (or less) fully human?

That’s my version of information literacy’s big question.  What’s yours?


[1] Edward K. Owusu-Ansah, “Debating definitions of information literacy: enough is enough!.” Library Review 54, no. 6 (2005): 366-374.

[2] Edward K. Owusu-Ansah, “Information literacy and the academic library: a critical look at a concept and the controversies surrounding it,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 29, no. 4 (2003): 219-230.

[3] I am not the first to use the image of a landscape to describe information literacy.  For an influential example, see Annemaree Lloyd,  “Information literacy landscapes: an emerging picture,” Journal of documentation 62, no. 5 (2006): 570-583.  The Sconul 7 Pillars of Information Literacy also makes extensive use of the landscape metaphor.

“One: Librarians Are Not Wearing Enough Hats”

If you’re familiar with Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life,” you might recognize this joke. For the uninitiated, here’s the relevant clip, (less than two minutes), but I’ll explain. In a boardroom, there is a report being given about a team’s findings on the meaning of life thus far, and it starts with, “One: people aren’t wearing enough hats.” It goes on to be philosophical and I won’t ruin the rest of the joke because they tell it better than I ever could, but suffice it to say that I’ve been thinking about hats a lot lately.

I mean “hats” in the metaphorical sense, where they are equated with discrete jobs. I’ve been trying on a lot of these hats recently, because I have found a lot of opportunities to do things that are not in the traditional jurisdiction of a librarian.

I’ve been interviewing applicants to our MD program. I enjoy it because I get to talk to a diverse group of very intelligent, personable, and driven young people who want to pursue a very challenging and rewarding career in medicine. The college benefits because I am helping them identify the applicants who are most likely to succeed not only as students but as doctors, finding qualities such as empathy, integrity, and tenacity in addition to their academic and service achievements.

Proctoring exams is another opportunity I’ve recently accepted. The library provides an ideal space for taking exams, and it takes little time and effort for me to set up a space for an exam-taker and ensure that their test-taking conditions are met.

I’ll be wearing three hats at once tonight when I combine my hobby of running, my employment at Penn State Hershey, and my position as a urology resident’s spouse, to participate in a 5K for prostate cancer awareness with a very large team that includes most of the urology department. I mention them specifically because while this activity may seem the least related to my librarian role, of these examples, it might be the closest, since I am the library’s liaison to all the surgical specialties. I doubt we’ll discuss their research needs on our three-mile trek, but making the connections is important, however you do it.

I’m not counting various committees I’ve joined, because I do think that, for example, being on the Diversity Committee is a part of library work, because I’m representing our library there and bringing diversity matters back to the library to integrate them into our resources and services. Being in the Group for Women in Medicine and Science strengthens the partnership the library already has with that group, and I am, again, representing the library there.

I know I’m not unusual in this hat-wearing regard: most librarians do “non-library” things in the course of their work. So I’m not arguing that we don’t wear enough of these hats, despite the Python quote (in fact, a lot of us probably have to juggle too many hats), but I am pointing out that wearing them gets the library’s face out there and shows that we are just as integrated into the fabric of the college (or other institutions you may be a part of or partnered with) as any other department.

What fun, non-library-specific “hats” do you love to wear?

Embracing the Coordinator Role

Earlier this week, my boss went into our HR system and changed my title. I went from the Student Engagement & Outreach Librarian to Student Engagement Coordinator. The change happened for many reasons, some political, and others, more practical. As a whole, the change recognizes the work I have done in this role the past two years and signals to others how my position is set up. My scope of work and job responsibilities don’t change, but I feel confirmed. 

Upon reflection, I think I’ve seen myself as a coordinator for a while. When I was preparing to go “on the road” in order to meet up with my colleagues at other campuses to discuss student engagement, I created this slide: 

Slide of a highway with the words "Coordinator" "Facilitator" and "Bridge Builder" on it

I told my colleagues that I see myself as a coordinator, facilitator, and bridge builder. This signals that I cannot do everything on my own, but I’m here to help connect us, bring us together under a shared understanding of student engagement, and advocate for the resources we need to make our ideas a reality. This work is mediated through librarianship, and provides the lens through which I tackle projects. Librarian might not be in my title anymore, but it provides the foundation for the work I do within the world of student engagement.  

And I have done a lot of coordinating while I have been the Student Engagement Librarian. I coordinate an undergraduate research award, the Short Edition dispensers, a library internship program, a student advisory group, and several committees with my colleagues to help get this work done. It’s work, but it’s something I enjoy and like to think I thrive at.

Of course, as my title changed (and I updated all the appropriate places online), I took a minute to look at the formal definition of co-ordinate, from OED. When used as a verb, this was one of the definitions:

To place or arrange (things) in proper position relatively to each other and to the system of which they form parts; to bring into proper combined order as parts of a whole.

This definition resonated with me because I think bringing things together has always been a strength of mine. I like knowing about what people are up to, programs happening around me, and the context for which these things occur. For something like student engagement at Penn State, it’s big, wielding, nuanced, and complex. I love the challenge of finding and connecting the various pieces within this system. It’s exciting and I like to imagine the little gears in my brain turning and tumbling, connecting and imaging new possibilities.  

As I fully embrace the word “coordinator” in my title, I’m also starting to look more closely at the literature out there. In libraries, my first thought is the research done on library instruction coordinators. I immediately went back through work by Veronica Arellano Douglas and Joanna Gadsby, like their ACRL 2017 contributed paper and their more recent In the Library with a Lead Pipe article. I’m excited to re-read and reflect, with my coordinator hat more firmly on. There’s lots at play and I want to be conscious of how I navigate and investigate this as I keep moving forward. 

For me, this blog post is a starting spot. I don’t have any grand conclusions or big ideas to leave you with. But I’m excited, for this title and for embracing the coordination. 

Do you coordinate in your role? If so, tell me more! I’m curious at the ways we think about this and do our work around this title.