The Emphasis on Text(s)

The current dominant paradigm of information literacy emphasizes the importance of connecting with textual information. This produces a deficit model of information literacy which does not take into account the importance of information learning or other sources of information which are accessed through communication or action.

–Annemaree Lloyd, Information Literacy: Different Contexts, Different Concepts, Different Truths?
as cited by Eamon Tewell in 
The Problem with Grit

It all started with this quote. I was sitting in Eamon Tewell’s presentation at LOEX earlier this month, learning about the problematic nature of grit narratives in education and libraries, when these two sentences showed up in his slide deck. Eamon was convincingly linking the popularity of grit to current deficit models of information literacy education. By defining information literacy in academic libraries in a particular way, we categorize students as academically deficient. They may be able to solve complex information problems on their own, in their own way, but because, as Annemaree Lloyd states, we emphasize text as information in academia, their experiences and abilities are invalidated. Our academic librarian version of information literacy is rooted in the written word, and not just any written word, but words of a certain kind: academic journal articles, scholarly books, book chapters, reports, grey literature, legal documents, etc. Our emphasis as librarians is on the things we can read that signal some connection to the academy.

We see examples of this in our work all the time. We might say something like,”You are used to using Google, but Google won’t help you in this situation,” (Spoiler: It probably still will). Or, “Let’s start our research with the library databases.” We might try to branch out from scholarly texts by encouraging students to use Wikipedia or news sources as launch pads for research, but these are all still resources rooted in the written word. I can always count on Library Twitter to help me process problematic ideas and issues, so I posed the following questions to my colleagues:

Responses were so thoughtful and thought-provoking. Desmond Wong, Outreach Librarian at the University of Toronto, shared the problematic nature of current information literacy education in relation to searching for and accessing indigenous peoples’ knowledge. This idea is seconded by research done by Alex Watkins of University of Colorado Boulder, who sees this emphasis on academic textual sources as “academics policing the boundaries of authority as well as elevating a particular way of knowing.” (Side note: Both Desmond and Alex have done some excellent work researching indigenous knowledge practices and information literacy). And Karen Nicholson pointed me to the great chapter by Alison Hicks on this very topic in her recent book co-edited with Maura Seale, The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship

In Making the Case for a Sociocultural Perspective on Information Literacy, Alison Hicks moves beyond the ACRL Framework vs. Standards debate to advocate for a sociocultural approach to information literacy. This focuses on the ways in which information literacy “shows itself” in different communities, and the ways in which it is shaped by different contexts. A sociocultural approach to information literacy shows us that the way we’ve defined information literacy as librarians is just one version of information literacy. It is a “social practice that emerges from a community’s information interactions” (p. 73). But by adopting a “single understanding of information literacy” as the information literacy, we impose one group’s knowledge practices on another (p. 75). What we are teaching in academic libraries is specific to an academic context, but we are teaching it as though it is universal.

I can already hear the dissent brewing, because so entrenched is my relationship to a particular type of information literacy that I had a similar, initial, knee-jerk reaction. “But we need to teach students how to use and understand these textual, scholarly resources precisely because they are new and they have never used them before!” I had to counter my own reaction with a blog post I read a few years ago by the ever-prolific Barbara Fister. Referencing the PIL study that looks at info-seeking behavior of recent college graduates, she laments the difficulty these young adults have setting up their own personal learning networks. We’ve focused so strongly on information as a textual source in information literacy education, that we don’t address the information literacy practices of different communities, including the workplace. Think about the last time you started a new job and how you gathered new information about your place of work. Did you immediately start digging into scholarly articles about best practices? Or did you set up formal and informal information appointments with your new colleagues? I think we all know the power of information in the workplace and our lives, and we’d be lying if we said we got all of this information from reading text, much less academic texts.

I’ve been deep in this idea lately as I start a new job and seek resources for my son who has various learning differences. As much as I want to say that scholarly, empirical research articles have been my go-to information sources, they absolutely haven’t. For me, as a new employee, my information literacy practices have centered around talking to people and learning from their experiences and institutional knowledge. For me, as a parent of a child with learning differences, my information literacy practices have centered around meeting and speaking with other parents and special needs education advocates. This is the information literacy I practice in my daily life, and I am starting to think more and more about how to incorporate this into the work I do with students, librarians, and faculty as an information literacy educator.

 

Finishing up a Library Residency: My Final Thoughts

It has been almost three years since I moved to Washington DC for the Resident Librarian position at American University. My contract was for three years and this July, that contract will end. As I am preparing for my next steps, applying to jobs, and going through life changes, I am inclined to reflect on my residency and the residencies I have seen show up in our field over the past three years. Most of it positive, but some that has me left with questions.

Let’s start with the good:

I was the very first Resident Librarian at American University and while the first year was a little unstructured and we were all still learning, I have to say that the past two years have been productive and joyful. Not only is my residency more structured, but I also received so much support for developing as a professional. The support and success I have had has to do with the following:

Professional development funds: Here at AU, we have funds set aside for each librarian, which we can use to attend conferences or other professional development events. With this support, I have been able to present at conferences all over the country (National Diversity in Libraries Conference, ALA Annual, and ACRL NEC 2018) and meet other fellow resident librarians. Presenting and traveling to these conferences are essential, especially to an early career librarian who is looking to meet new professionals and get their name out there.

Peer-mentorship: As I was able to travel to conferences and get involved in the ACRL Residency Interest Group, I was able to network. A whole new world of resident librarianship opened up to me. I am glad and proud to say that I found a supportive, kind, and ambitious community in resident librarians, as well as other early-career librarians.

Formal mentorship: Many of you have heard me rave about my mentorship experience, but I will repeat it once more. At the beginning of my residency, I was paired with my mentor, Nikhat Ghouse. She has been a librarian for about 20 years, is a former resident librarian, and someone who has guided me, trusted in me, and pushed me to fulfill my full potential. Along with my formal mentor, I had others who have guided and advised me throughout my residency. I have learned so much from them and am grateful to have them in my life. They know who they are and without them, I would not have had such a productive time during my residency.

American University colleagues: Last, but not least, I have had amazing colleagues. My colleagues at American University immediately made me feel welcomed and part of the faculty. Throughout these three years, I felt like the administrators put their trust in me, especially when it came to taking on a larger teaching load, interim liaison duties, and participating in service throughout the university. I have heard of so many residents who say they did not receive much support throughout their residencies, so I am grateful to have a great group of librarians and mentors at American University. I try not to think about it, but when I leave in July, I will be sad to leave them. However, I know that they are colleagues for life.

Let’s talk about the…questionable things:

Goals of a residency: Over the past three years, I have spoken to and interacted with people who still do not know what the point of a residency program is. Some seem to have the idea that a residency is a type of internship. I will say that this accounts for very few people I have interacted with. It causes me to think if we as a profession have not done a great job at effectively communicating what a residency is or if the goals and definition of a residency are so vague, that it is hard for some to comprehend.

Rotational Residencies: This might be unpopular, but I am not a fan of rotational residencies. When American University posted their job description for their very first resident librarian, they advertised it as a position that would focus on reference and instruction. They also added in the description that the resident librarian would have the opportunity to work with other departments. While the freedom to explore other departments was appreciated, I knew going in that I wanted to work in public services. I knew that I wanted to improve my teaching and work with first year students. When I voiced these interests, I was able to take on duties that allowed me to work with incoming freshman and first year students.

I personally believe that if an institution is going to have a rotational residency, then they should plan this with the incoming resident librarian. At the very least, allow the incoming resident the freedom to be embedded in one department, but also have opportunities and freedom to work (or not work) with other departments. If a resident prefers one department to another and chooses to work with them, then this is going to make their residency more productive. Let us remember that many of these residencies tend to be two-year terms and that is actually a very short time to get significant experience, so that you’re able to get a job you want after you leave your residency.

Lack of support from an institution: Most, if not all residencies are promoted as positions that will provide you the opportunity to become immersed in academic libraries. These institutions also might promise support in the form of mentorship and professional development opportunities. It is unfortunate that I have spoken to resident librarians that are frustrated in their residency, because they are not getting the support and guidance that they were promised. As an example, I received an email about a year ago from a resident librarian I have known for a couple of years. They had emailed me because they were now in the instruction portion of their residency rotation and had taught their first class. This resident felt like it had not gone well and needed some advice. In their email, they mentioned that they had not received enough training. While I shared my advice on instruction, it was disturbing to me that an institution would let a resident librarian, who did not have much instruction experience go out and teach a class without basic training. Had there not been an observation of how other librarians teach? Was the resident librarian able to co-teach before teaching a class on their own? It is disappointing, but while it is an institutions job to make sure that a resident librarian gets the proper training, the responsibility tends to fall on the resident librarian to keep their institution accountable.

Final Thoughts:

Our field of librarianship puts a lot of emphasis on the recruitment of librarians of color and from underrepresented groups, but once you get a resident librarian at your institution, that institution now bears some of the responsibility of retaining that person. If a resident librarian is not getting the training and experience that was promised and important to their career, then how can we expect them to want to stay in academic librarianship?

All of this brings me to my final point. In the past three years I have been a resident librarian, I have voiced my opinions and concerns, along with many other librarians about some of the issues with residency programs. While there are many in our field who truly care about improving the residency experience, there are some, who are involved in forming these residencies or coordinating residents, that are willing to listen to our residency feedback, but are not willing to address it and take action. When this happens, the issues are ignored, not taken seriously, or scoffed at. This is not helping anyone and I predict that these issues will begin to stack up and affect retention rates of these resident librarians and residency programs.

My last piece of advice would be for resident librarians. If you find yourself in a not-so-great situation at your institute, please know that there are people who are willing to listen to you and support you. Groups such as ACRL Residency Interest Group, We Here, or a long list of former resident librarians. Your experience is important, your concerns are important, and your success is important.

Failure and Feelings

This semester I’m co-teaching a graduate class at my university in a certificate program in interactive technology and pedagogy. It’s a course I’ve taught before, though it changes somewhat each time I teach it, in part because it rotates between several different faculty members every year or so. The course focuses on the practice of teaching and learning with technology, and this week, our last “content” week before our students’ final presentations, the topic was failure.

We’ve had a session on failure during the other times I’ve taught the course, though I believe this is the first time that failure is leading us into the final presentations (and papers due soon after). Our discussion this week was terrific — the students and my co-teacher and I brought our own experiences with failure inside and outside the classroom to bear on our conversation, and we talked through both logistical/practical and emotional aspects of failure in academic contexts generally as well as around their projects specifically. An article by Alison Carr, In Support of Failure, was the focus of much of our discussion, especially about the emotions around failure.

It’s not yet the end of the semester (my college’s semesters go very late — 11 more days!), and I’m thinking about failure too. I’d meant to write more often on ACRLog this semester, but failed to do it. I’d meant to find something more interesting or relevant to write a post about today, but failed to do it. I’m thinking about failure that’s both general and specific: it’s not that I don’t have ideas for topics to write on, but that the topics seem either too well-trodden or too local. There’s a lot going on right now, though I do have time to write, but I’ve failed to take that time to write. I’m feeling all kinds of emotions around these kinds of failure, most of them of the mopey variety, though I also realize that here near the end of the semester it’s not unusual to have more feelings than usual.

When we were talking through classroom failures in class earlier this week, we talked a bit about failure in research and library instruction and how some experiences that might initially seem like failures can actually be pretty valuable for students. The pre-planned vs. spontaneous approach to teaching about keyword searching is a great example of the way a failure can be a useful learning experience. Students are unlikely to find exactly what they’re searching for the first time around, and for a librarian to model (in front of the whole class) that process of searching, not getting useful results, and refining your keywords and strategy to search again is much more realistic for students to see. And (I hope) it makes them feel less anxious about doing their searching “the right way.”

Thinking on this more today I’ve realized that a successful spontaneous search in an instruction session is somewhat choreographed, and still has some measure of control that prevents it from being a true failure. There is that element of uncertainty — it brings me some discomfort to be spontaneous in front of an entire class because what if it doesn’t actually work? What if we refine keywords again and again and still don’t find anything useful? There’s a right way and a wrong way to fail in the library classroom, which seems tied to control. I wonder, if we’re willing to give up some of that need for control, is it still possible to fail in the right way?

Developing a Campus Framework for Digital Literacy

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Julia Feerrar, Head of Digital Literacy Initiatives at Virginia Tech.

During the summer of 2016 my library began to envision a more coordinated effort around supporting digital literacy on our campus. We began by examining the scope of digital literacy at Virginia Tech and have since developed a framework to help us build towards a shared definition and language for our context.

For me this process has been a really interesting chance to reflect on the relationship between information and digital literacy (as well as media, data, and many other literacies), and to explore perceptions and needs around these literacies on my campus. Building towards consensus around a nebulous, multifaceted concept like digital literacy can be very challenging, but we’ve been able to have some exciting conversations and build connections across campus as we move towards shared understanding.

Our framework

As Alexander et al. illustrate in the NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief on Digital Literacy in Higher Education, Part II, definitions and frameworks for digital literacy vary, particularly in their emphasis on technical skills, critical thinking and creative abilities, and social or cultural competencies. Considering that these pieces can shift in different contexts, I think that it was important for us to begin with the what and why of digital literacy, before jumping into the how of digital literacy on our campus.

An initial task force within the University Libraries began the work of navigating existing definitions for digital literacy and identifying needs in our context. The task force was particularly influenced by Jisc’s Digital Capability Framework, which positions digital literacy as “capabilities which fit someone for living, learning and  working in a digital society.” We discussed these capabilities as including engagement with a variety of digital tools, types of content, creation processes, and decision-making. The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education and  its emphasis on students as “consumers and creators of information who can  participate successfully in collaborative spaces” was also foundational to our thinking. It was important to us to think about digital literacy as flexible enough to include common or foundational skills related to critical consumption, creation, and collaboration, and to support learners in achieving their own goals for their digital lives.

Following the Libraries’ task force,  we drafted a framework graphic and sought feedback across the Virginia Tech community. We reached faculty and graduate students through existing professional development opportunities as well as by hosting a day-long digital literacy symposium, which also served as an opportunity to build community among those who support digital literacy at Virginia Tech. During these feedback conversations, we asked participants about any elements they saw as missing from the framework draft as well as where  they saw their work connecting to it. With all of this feedback in mind, we revised the framework to a final (for now) version.

Infographic illustrating Virginia Tech's digital literacy framework

This framework represents four aspects or layers for digital literacy at Virginia Tech.

  1. The learner at the center, who might engage with the other  areas in the framework in any combination or order.
  2. Core competencies that each include technical, critical thinking, and social aspects
  3. Key values that connect and contextualize the competencies. I see these as as particularly tied to the why of digital literacy and our hopes for our learners as engaged digital citizens.
  4. Multiple literacies that frame the outside of our framework. I think of the literacies as our lens or lenses on digital literacy.

Navigating literacies

Our framework approaches digital literacy as a kind of umbrella or metaliteracy that includes information, data, media, and invention literacies. While a particular class session, workshop, or online learning module might focus on one of these in particular, they come together to inform the way we think about digital literacy as a whole.

While I find this to be a useful way to think about the relationship between these several overlapping literacies, I want to acknowledge that it is certainly not the only way. As Jennifer Jarson points out in her 2015 post, many of us might conceptualize information literacy as the broader category that includes digital literacy. I think it’s possible to take any number of literacies into the foreground as a lens for others and I find that my own thinking shifts depending on the context. As individuals we might gravitate towards one literacy or another, perhaps depending on disciplinary background, but ultimately I think that looking at them in conjunction can help us to think more expansively about our hopes for our learners.

Our framework in action

Looking forward, our framework will guide the continued development of digital literacy initiatives. Within VT Libraries, I see this framework as helping us with two major activities: more strategically coordinating and sequencing our existing library educational offerings around digital literacy (course-embedded instruction, co-curricular workshops and events, new spaces and  technology for creation) and identifying areas for further development. More broadly, my hope is that our framework will also help us to continue to build shared language and shared vision for digital literacy learning as we continue to build partnerships in support of student learning.

Hack the Stacks: Outreach and Activism in Patron Driven Acquisitions

As many others have said more eloquently than I could, everyday in libraries we make decisions about how to spend our resources: time, space, attention, but perhaps most obviously, money. In 2015, the average library expenditures for collections at doctoral institutions was over 5 million dollars. What we choose to spend that money on is an inherently political act. Recognizing it as a form of activism, students at the University of Virginia used our purchase request system to ask that the library add more materials by underrepresented voices to our collections.  I’ll describe the background, logistics, and outcomes of an event we organized to encourage and facilitate these requests.

As a subject librarian, collection development is a surprisingly small part of my job. A centralized collections team manages our approval plans and once a year subject liaisons review them to make sure they still align with departmental interests and priorities. We also have an automated purchase request system that patrons can use to request items for the library. These requests get sent to the collections team and the subject librarian in the area and we passively approve them (unless there’s a glaring reason not to purchase it, it goes through). Beyond those two responsibilities, my involvement in collection development is minimal.

UVA isn’t alone in changing the way it handles collection development from the selector/bibliographer to an outsourced model. Along with this operational shift, we’ve experienced a more philosophical one: budget and space constraints mean that we can no longer try to collect everything, and have had to refocus our efforts towards providing material as patrons explicitly need them, which is the same paradigm shift of “just-in-time” to “just-in-case” that many libraries are experiencing. We rely upon patron purchase requests to tell us when there’s a gap that needs to be filled, but sometimes students don’t know about that feature of the library website or how to use it.

A few weeks ago, a graduate student in the Music Department approached me about co-organizing an event to teach people how to use the purchase request feature while simultaneously requesting books by marginalized authors and independent presses be added to our collection. (Thank you to Aldona Dye of the UVA Music Department and Matthew Vest of UCLA who came up with this idea.) We decided to call it Hack the Stacks and partnered with the Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation, an interdisciplinary group formed  “with the goal of creating a campus environment where resources  for learning about and combating white supremacy (such as discussion forums; visiting scholar and activist talks; syllabi; direct actions; trainings; and safe and accountable spaces) are readily available.”

Prior to the event, we circulated a Google Doc and asked people to add books and presses they thought should be added to the library’s collections. The day of the event, we gave a presentation covering the library’s current method of collection development, emphasizing that purchase requests are the best way for patrons to influence what they think we should own, how to submit a purchase request, and describing what happens after a request is submitted. From the patron perspective, our collection development process is opaque and this discussion made it a lot more transparent. We posted large print-outs of the list on the wall and asked participants to check off items when they submitted a request. We also brought a blank sheet of paper for participants to add to if they submitted a request for a book that wasn’t on our list. Participants filtered in and out during the two hour event, with some staying and submitting multiple purchase requests and others dropping in to submit one or two. 

Our collections and acquisitions teams helped facilitate this event on the backend. Before the event, we talked about whether our normal purchase request budget would be sufficient to cover an event like this, and I shared the list with them in advance to give them a rough estimate of the number of requests to expect. During the event, I encouraged participants to track down the link to purchase the title they were interested in to make it easier on the acquisitions team and to use the “additional notes” field to justify the purchase, which is a practice our collections management team encourages for requests to be fulfilled more reliably. We also added a designation to each item that was requested so that the acquisitions team could track which requests were coming in as part of the event.

All told, we ended up submitting purchase requests for close to fifty items. Those requests are still being processed, so I can’t yet say how many will be added to our collection, but I’m hopeful that most of them will be purchased. Building diverse collections is, as AJ Robinson pointed out, imperative if we want to be the inclusive and welcoming institutions we strive to be. We need to have books by and about people from historically marginalized groups if we want them to feel as though the library is for them, too.  Having these materials on hand also means that more people will engage with them. We are undergoing the beginning of a renovation right now and through a series of preparatory focus groups and meetings many people have emphasized how essential browsing is to their research processes. Hopefully, by having these books in our catalog and on our shelves, faculty and students will be more likely to use them in their courses and research. This event also revealed gaps in our collection, particularly in disability and indigenous studies. I hope we can use this knowledge to revisit our approval plans to see how we could collect more intentionally in these areas.

This was my first experience doing outreach to encourage patron driven acquisition and using it as a tool to encourage more inclusive collections. I’m hopeful we can turn it into a larger effort to tap into patron expertise as we make decisions about how to allocate our limited resources and to incorporate what we learn into our long-term collections strategy.