Informational Holism: Humanities librarianship, liberal arts, and the limitations of quantitative metrics

Benjamin Dueck is a General Librarian in the Arts & Humanities Division at The University of Manitoba Libraries. They are the liaison librarian for Religion, English, Catholic Studies, Theatre & Drama, and Peace & Conflict Studies. Their role includes collection development, teaching information literacy, and providing reference services for faculty, students, and staff.

I am writing this article in the midst of a major life transition. Earlier this month, I began working as a full-time Humanities Liaison Librarian at the University of Manitoba. This is both my first academic job and the only time in recent memory that I haven’t been a student. I am feeling proud and excited to be embarking on this new journey! Still, despite the stability that this position provides, I remain plagued with feelings of uncertainty. As someone who falls somewhere in between the proverbial “millennial” and “zoomer” generations, I’ve become accustomed to a certain sense of precariousness. As a child who grew up on the internet, I struggle to remember a time where there wasn’t a global crisis happening around me—be it the 2008 economic crash, the COVID-19 pandemic, or the omnipresent threat of climate change. Be that as it may, I remain resolutely optimistic about the role that academic librarians have to play in the future of teaching and learning. More specifically, I believe that the qualitative research methods supported by humanities librarians like myself will become vitally important in decades to come.

Historically, the capacities I am referring to have been transmitted to learners through the artes liberales (or liberal arts), a Greco-Roman ideal based on the assumption that a flourishing and cooperative society requires a population that is systematically trained in critical, interdisciplinary thinking. In this blog post, I want to reflect on my experiences as a humanities librarian and explore how the philosophies that inform my work contradict many of the demands being placed on universities by neoliberal governments. I hope that those working in similar positions will be able to relate to the ideas explored here and come away from this article feeling empowered and reinvigorated.

Informational holism

As a subject librarian serving the English and Religion programs on my campus, my day-to-day work involves thinking about domains of experience that elude empirical measurement: ethics, theology, and the great wisdom traditions of the world. In order to support the information needs in my subject areas, I take an integral approach to my reference work and in-class instruction. I strive to teach my community to master a form of inquiry that I call informational holism, the ability to intuit across disciplinary boundaries, think in gestalts, and cognize around clusters of datapoints (figure 1). Informational holism can be contrasted with linear-procedural thinking which emphasizes step-by-step instruction and a hierarchical connection between concepts (figure 2). It is also different from decentralized or “non-hierarchical” network thinking which maps the connections between concepts but lacks the dimensionality needed to render relationships of transcendence (figure 3). While the latter two styles do a good job of modeling workflows and making them more efficient, they tend to flatten out the qualitative depth of the objects they represent. If this all seems overtly abstract, worry not! In the sections that follow, I will ground these concepts with some more concrete examples.

Figure 1: Informational holism. Figure 2: Linear-procedural thinking. Figure 3: Network thinking.

Quantification & the neoliberal university

One of the things I love most about working as an academic librarian is the open-ended nature of my job. Aside from daily duties of reference service, teaching, collection development, and committee work, I have the privilege to choose the kinds of projects that I work on. While I remain grateful to have this liberty, the freedom to choose arrives bundled with the gift and the curse of unstructured time. Lindsay O’Neil gives some much needed strategies for managing this freedom in her articles on time management and academic culture shock.  Still, I frequently feel torn between two competing inner voices—a wise and encouraging voice that advises me to slow down and reflect and the voice of a factory foreman chastising me for not using this time to the best of my ability.

I’ve come to realize that this pressure to maximize my work output is only one ripple in a broader current. I am employed after all in the Canadian province of Manitoba, a place where a neoliberal conservative government is making moves to restructure public education as part of a larger effort to stimulate private sector growth. In this landscape, publicly funded universities like mine are being pressured to align themselves with the economic goals of the state by demonstrating their value and accountability. One of the ways that this manifests in the lives of academic workers like myself is through the use of quantitative metrics designed to save time and money. Generally speaking, these metrics leverage networked technology as a means of meeting the goals delineated by linear-procedural strategic plans. In my own institution, I have seen them implemented in various ways: key performance indicators (KPIs) that track the form and frequency of library reference appointments, usage statistics used to determine the value of library subscriptions, and alumni employment surveys that inform how funding is to be allocated to specific academic programs. Quantitative metrics have their place and are undoubtedly useful from an organizational perspective. In my library, the teams that are implementing these metrics are doing so in good faith, working as best they can within a strategic plan that has been set by the university. Nevertheless, if these measures are used at the institutional level to support a program of economic austerity, they can become harmful to the academic community as a whole.

The limitations of scholarly metrics

To understand how the biases of linear-procedural logic become materialized through networked technology, I want to talk about scholarly metrics. As an academic librarian, this topic comes up quite often in my reference appointments, particularly with graduate students who are preparing to enter the academic job market. Broadly speaking, scholarly metrics refer to technologies and programs that are used to measure the “impact” of digital objects (journals, papers, researcher profiles etc.). The most common are the citation tracking features available through platforms like Google Scholar, PLoS, BioMed Central and ResearchGate. Within these systems, impact is measured quantitatively. The greater the total citation count of a digital object, the greater the impact and influence it can be said to have. The problem is not that these tools are inaccurate, it is that they do not tell the whole story.

To understand why this is, I pose to you a hypothetical question. Which is more impactful, a research paper that is cited 100 times or a book chapter that while only being cited once, plays a central role in an emerging scholar’s PhD dissertation? If this were my own work being referenced, I’d tend towards the latter. I’d much rather my work be engaged with in a thoughtful and rigorous way than referenced many times in passing. You may have a different opinion and I respect that. Your answer will depend on your own definition of what is valuable and your own tendencies as a thinker. Nevertheless, the question sheds light on the way scholarly metrics are biased towards a particular definition of what constitutes valuable knowledge. More perniciously, when quantitative metrics become central to the budgetary decisions made by universities, academics feel the need to choose research topics that yield the highest possible impact. If left to continue, I can see this trend posing a threat to academic freedom, particularly if research tied to industry is prioritized over work that contributes to human knowledge in the long term.

The future of humanities librarianship

In their book The Evolution of Liberal Arts in the Global Age (2017), editors Peter Marber and Daniel Araya show how the liberal arts model has survived centuries of economic and technological upheaval. This is because it teaches timeless skills that help learners to navigate periods of social and economic change. In order for subject librarians working in the humanities to best serve our communities, we need to become vocal advocates for the artes liberales as both a guide to action and as a philosophical ideal. On a practical level, this means fighting back against metrics that impose a reductive quantitative logic onto our work and proposing sustainable alternatives that leave room for informational holism.

Valuable guidance on this front can be found in Kevin Adams writing about integrating Critical Information Literacy (CIL) into library instructional design. Pedagogies of this kind will be crucial in the coming decades. Still if these initiatives are to have an ongoing structural impact, they must be paired with a commitment to the liberal arts at the institutional level and a broader societal shift away from neoliberal economics. I am aware that I have only diagnosed the most general contours of this phenomenon here. To use a scholarly cliché, a richer engagement with this subject goes beyond the scope of a single blog post! Nevertheless, this is a topic that I plan to expand on in future research projects. I encourage anyone who shares similar interests to get in touch with me or to leave a comment below.

Learning to Fly: Life as an Early-Career Academic Librarian

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Justin Fuhr to the ACRLog team. Justin is a Science librarian at the University of Manitoba. His professional interests include reflective practice, librarian philosophies, organizational culture and community, and support for early-career librarians such as mentorship. His current research assesses researcher profile library workshops and profile usage at his institution, as well as a project on relational practice in Canadian academic librarianship.

Life’s hard as an early-career academic librarian working on contract, not knowing if your contract will be renewed or where you will be working three years, a year, or even six months from now. It’s tough job searching; there’s so many qualified candidates, not enough positions, and it can be hard to make yourself stand out with experience, education, certification, volunteer work, interviews, public presentations, and on and on.  

I was relatively fortunate. I’ve been working at the library at the University of Manitoba for over seven years, starting out as a library technician, then working as a term librarian at the beginning of 2020. After several interviews for different positions, I got a continuing position in May of this year. Working at the same institution for so long helped to know our library system, run through my public presentation with my work buddies, and know of upcoming vacancies. Our library also started giving candidates the interview questions in advance. This improves accessibility and helps to prepare for the interview in advance.  

For all my worries and whinging — and trust me, my coworkers can attest to that — I’m now working as a science librarian. I moved from supporting Catholic studies, religion, and peace and conflict studies to mathematics, physics, and astronomy. Suddenly I find myself moving from B (Philosophy. Psychology. Religion.) to Q (Science) — that’s fifteen whole letters away! And what do you mean mathematics profs like old books? Oh wait, that didn’t change from the humanities.  

I now have the task of learning my new subject areas, getting to know the faculty and students, my coworkers, how to manage and develop the collections, learning how best to instruct sciences students, new databases like MathSciNet, signing up for new mailing lists like PAMNet (who endearingly refer to themselves as a PAMily), and where the closest and cheapest coffee shop is on campus.  

This is the fun stuff. It’s intimidating to learn a ‘new’ position, but it’s rewarding in so many ways. I used a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song for the title of this post — we’re all learning to fly in some ways, maybe early-careers librarians the most — but I could have just as easily used another Tom Petty song: “You Got Lucky.” 

Earlier this year I was speaking about librarianship as a career to undergraduate English literature students at the institution where I got my B.A. I was amazed at the interest they showed. I mean, I was talking about a research project I’m doing on researcher profiles, and at one point I stopped, apologized, and said this must be excruciatingly boring for them to listen to. “No,” my previous English professor said. “This is really fascinating.” I got lucky.  

One piece of advice I can offer to librarians currently job searching is to rely on your colleagues, librarians at other libraries, friends, family — whoever! — for support and guidance. I found it especially invaluable to hear from other librarians of their experience job searching, even if it had been many years since they’d gone through it. We work in a helping profession and one thing I’ve found is librarians want to help other librarians. Rely on your community, look to others for support and provide support to others when they need it. We are lucky.  

If you’re looking for a job, considering a career change, or finding early-career librarianship challenging, please keep going, you can do it. You got this. It may take time. It will take time. It will be worth it. You’ll get lucky.  

If any academic libraries are considering giving interview questions ahead of time – please do! It helps the candidates immensely. I also encourage any librarians that know of early-career colleagues currently job searching to reach out, be available, offer encouragement and to answer any questions they may have. If you can think of any other advice to job searchers or those in new positions, please leave a comment.  

For all that academic librarianship deals with and is going through, you can help guide the profession positively and I feel it’s a great profession to be in. I’m teaching students, involved with library associations, working with my colleagues on different committees, completing research with fun and collaborative coworkers, and talking all things academic librarianship with whoever will listen; sometimes I think I’ve found my dream job. I got lucky. Now it’s time to get to work. 

Moving Forward, Not Backward

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Cynthia Mari Orozco to the ACRLog team. Cynthia is the Equity + OER Librarian at East Los Angeles College and PhD Candidate in Information Studies at UCLA. She is a former resident librarian at Loyola Marymount University and tenure-track librarian at California State University Long Beach before moving into community college librarianship. Her interests include OER and open pedagogy, information literacy, and scholarly communications in community colleges.

I graduated from library school in 2011, and I recall library workers bemoaning the overuse of the term “21st century library” in publication and presentation titles. At the time, I mostly agreed with this criticism. However, having now been in the profession for over 10 years, it sometimes feels like some spaces are not operating in the present century.

But I get it. When I started my online MLIS at San José State University, I remember thinking, “Let’s try this out for a semester. If it doesn’t work out, we can apply to an in-person program.” I had previously attempted to take an online course at my local community college and failed miserably. The course wasn’t hard, I don’t think; I just forgot to sign into the learning management system (LMS) and do the work. Entering the SJSU program, I was now confronted with another LMS and many new technologies that I had long resisted or never even heard of: teleconferencing, blogging, wikis, and Second Life, among others. In this first semester, I also started my first and current Twitter account! I lurked for at least two years before actively tweeting, or at least attempting to tweet. These technologies were all new and scary to me, and it took years to develop the comfort and ease that I now am privileged to have. Through SJSU, I learned how to thrive in an online environment by communicating synchronously and asynchronously, working across time zones and geographies, working on projects with various groups of people, and developing a curiosity for utilizing and assessing new technologies to improve my library work.

In early 2020, I was pulled into a Zoom meeting in my library not because I was involved with this group in any way but rather to connect to and facilitate Zoom in one of our classrooms. I logged into my Zoom account as no one else in the room had one at the time, I brought my microphone as the computer had none, and I pushed buttons as requested by the group. While slightly annoyed at the time, again, I’ve had the privilege of having years of experience using teleconferencing for my work. And throughout the last several years, I’ve witnessed all of my colleagues rise to the occasion to work effectively online with even the Zoom resisters now able to fully use Zoom on their own. I’m incredibly proud of my colleagues, and I have been looking forward to seeing how our experience in working remotely and providing remote services will affect our work from this point forward.

At East Los Angeles College, we have a smaller campus 10 miles away in the city of South Gate, where I often work. The South Gate campus library is one large room with one librarian and one library technician who both work at a public-facing desk during all operating hours. Our campus conversations often include advocating for equitable student services at this campus, which is often overshadowed by our Monterey Park campus (known by most as the “Main Campus,” which further perpetuates the relative importance of this campus). Do you know where a lot of this advocacy work happens? In meetings! In conversations with the ELAC community! And through teleconferencing, employees at South Gate have been able to attend meetings that one would otherwise have to miss when tied to a physical location at a specific time. While the pandemic has admittedly been very isolating, remote meetings have raised attendance and participation, an amazing opportunity for advocacy and diversity of thought.

I see our campus starting to revert to our default in-person modalities and assumptions that everything in-person is “better.” Advocacy for our smaller South Gate campus is just one example of how online technology has allowed us to improve our work, thus improving campus conditions for our students. It would be an utter shame to dismiss the progress we’ve made over the last several years. It’s also worth remembering that 12-hour days on Zoom is not normal and probably way too much! But it also doesn’t mean that we ought to completely discard remote or hybrid options for meetings and conversations.

Holding Space for Students

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Stephanie Sendaula to the ACRLog team. Stephanie is an On-Call Reference Librarian at Mercer County Community College, West Windsor campus. Her professional background includes a transition from librarianship to publishing and back again, with a sideline in freelance writing. Her research interests include outreach, instruction, and information literacy.

We’re in the midst of summer and in anticipation of the beginning of the next academic year, I’ve been reconsidering the concept of space. This is a subject that has been covered on the ACRLog earlier this year, when Maura Smale asked how we can better shift services and spaces to meet students’ needs.

I have been thinking along the same lines, with a specific focus on how the library can meet the needs of community college students who are in a transitional stage in their lives. In my case, I’ve been seriously considering the needs of community college students who may be the first in their family to attend college, who are often living at home while working part-time and attending school part-time, who are often responsible for caregiving for older relatives and younger siblings in addition to managing their coursework, and who often speak English as a second or sometimes third language. 

I keep these nuances in mind since I remember how I felt as an undergraduate student, intimidated by the imposing rows upon rows of stacks. I think about how overwhelming it can be to walk into a library and immediately see imposing desks for reference and circulation, and not know where to turn because you can’t differentiate one from the other. I consider how intimidating it might be to approach a desk and ask a question, even if library staff happen to look like you.

I also consider the recent update from the ACRL Academic Library Trends and Statistics Survey, which was discussed at a session at ALA Annual in Washington, DC in June 2022. Among other figures, the survey cited the decline in reference desk visits while circulation checkouts remained stable, as well as a decline in the circulation of print materials while the circulation of digital materials increased. That also rings true for my experience as a reference librarian at a community college.

How does this tie into space? Reflecting on the needs of the community I serve, I am often wondering how the library can better utilize space to serve students’ needs, both physical and virtual. For students who might be apprehensive to visit the library, how can we meet them where they are? In terms of physical space, are we taking advantage of our limited physical space in order to house collections that are relevant and up-to-date?

Thinking of virtual space, do we have enough technological resources in order to accommodate the number of students who lack a private computer at home and rely on library computers or cellphones in order to complete their assignments? When thinking about space, I’m also considering the needs of students who physically visit the library, but frequently utilize options such as chat reference and libguides.

These questions are often rhetorical since, similar to other libraries, there is always something that we could be doing more of, or something that we could be doing better. The challenge is often: Where do we start? What small steps can we take in order to ensure that students feel the library is an approachable space, both in terms of physical appearance and online resources? What can I, as a reference librarian, do in order to ensure students that library staff are there to assist them when they don’t know where to turn? 

My answer to this question is to develop radical empathy–a social justice concept of actively striving to better understand and share the feelings of others–and to consider how I would approach the library if I were a student (and how I approached the library when I was an undergraduate student). To be honest, I often avoided the library since I was often scared to approach, and I was overwhelmed by the numerous virtual options to connect with library staff. It was often easier to ask a friend for help, and have them guide me to wherever it was that I needed to go, whether that was finding a specific course reserve or navigating a public computer.

Thinking back to the ACRL survey, I’m also keeping this in mind as more students check out items digitally instead of walking across campus, depending on where they’re coming from, in order to find course materials. It’s not just space, it’s also time and convenience. We’re all stretched thin, and that includes students, who are juggling multiple responsibilities at once during a difficult time in their lives–an ongoing pandemic and, for many students I serve, a move toward four-year institutions or an entry into the workforce. Space can mean a lot of things, but it often comes back to, How does the library hold space for the students it serves?

Playing with Fall Planning

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Jade E. Davis to the ACRLog team. Jade is Director of Educational Technology & Learning Management at the University of Pennsylvania Library. She leads a team committed to strategic technological innovation in library spaces, student engagement, play, teaching, research, and learning support. She was previously the inaugural Director of Digital Project Management and Columbia University Libraries. She has a PhD in Communication studies with a focus in media, technology and culture from UNC Chapel Hill. Her research looks at new modes of knowledge production, how digital information complicates information literacy, the ethics of digital knowledge production, digital media & learning, and empathy culture. Prior to earning her PhD she worked in digital project management and production, a digital humanities lab, and HASTAC.

Happy Fiscal Year 2022-23 to those who celebrate! On my team we celebrate by beginning our fall planning. I started my current role at the beginning of the remote phase of the pandemic. A significant portion of my work, to date, has been attempting to counterbalance burnout (of staff, students, faculty, etc) with new ways of bringing our community into our work, and thinking differently about how we approach our work. For the part of my team that manages our Commons spaces we are focusing on undergraduate engagement and something that has caused some organizational tension: play. There are three reasons for this.

  1. Supporting students, especially undergraduates, supports the health of the University.
  2. Play is a low-stakes, high-reward way to bring people together. 
  3. Play can be cultivated given the Academic Library’s super power*.

*The Academic Library’s Super Power According to Jade

The Library is a central part of the university with access to a plethora of resources, material and flexible spaces. Our engagement with patrons is not bound by time in the way courses are. We can create many of our own assessments without the baggage of grades. We know why our audiences are here: to learn and create knowledge. We can participate in and create co- & extra-curricular activities, and experiential learning through play that facilitate the generation of new ideas and approaches which, in turn, supports the mission of the University.

Why Now?

A pattern we’ve seen when we look at surveys of faculty now is faculty feel they have less time for research and service given their own pandemic+ burnout. Faculty, graduate students, and other lecturers feel they are spending more time providing support to students, not just for course material, but in general as students try to figure out how they fit into the campus community. Generally there is a sense that the remote period or other dynamics (there are so many dynamics right now), have led to student disengagement, which we are seeing reflected in patron counts. This is where play comes into play.

I like to call “play” a total empowerment move because it addresses so many things. It creates a space where people are able to meaningfully engage social dynamics and take risks with controlled consequences. It allows for creativity, exploration, discovery, and joy for participants and staff. In my experience it also reminds people that they play all the time by doing things like playing with ideas and finding solutions to problems. There is a good amount of research on play and learning/pedagogy, and there’s been a recent uptick in looking at play in Higher Education. I’ve put together a talking points table that I use to walk people through how play-empowered libraries, students, and culture & society are better able to navigate our current context and develop resilience and shared purpose based on takeaways from the research. 

Play Empowered

LIBRARIESSTUDENTSCULTURE & SOCIETY
Are inclusive engagement spaces by design. They allow multiple ways to engage. This creates a safe space for exploration and experimentation.Are allowed to be more vulnerable, take risks, and play with ideas including their own positionality and power without fear of failure.Imagine and create different worlds because we know we can be in the world together differently.
Create community within the University. Students are accountable to themselves  and to each other.Practice being part of a paraprofessional community through  low stakes, high reward socialization.Understand that society is a network/global and our choices produce results and consequences.
Cultivate a productive and positive  orientation towards the moment and “failure” by experiencing surprise and delight through experimentation without the risk or anxiety of getting a bad grade.Navigate unexpected obstacles or changes because experimenting with different solutions, materials, and expertise is possible and encouraged.Recognize that current problems are temporary but require intentional engagement through collective action to be remedied.
Empower students to define their own success by making space for multiple destinations and ways of getting to the end.Have agency to imagine and design the future relevance and applicability of the material and skills.Assess their positionality and subjectivity by asking who am I in this? What is my impact? What are my choices? Who or what am I adding to, taking from?
Allow for and validate emotional responses & reactions in learning and coping through taking detours and non-linear pathways.Fully engage in the process of learning by acknowledging feelings of accomplishment, joy, and levity, in addition to stress, overwhelmedness, and other emotions/feelings.Become lifelong learners

The Work Right Now

Like many libraries, we had an exodus of staff during the pandemic. Once it became clear that the burnout being experienced was going to exist in waves, I rethought some of the roles on my team. This fall will be the first semester with Program Coordinators of Technology and Play. It was a title I campaigned for because it attracted people who already understood “play” as a powerful mode of engagement. To date, they’ve carted equipment and material from the Maker Space to the main Library to host some very successful pop-ups. The pop-ups allowed them to meet students, faculty, and staff semi-organically, and see what would be interesting for specific populations while still being fun for the staff. We are planning to expand these across the Library and bring in other units in the fall because they were so successful. And we are just starting to put together our fall plans. They’ve been given my one rule for cultivating play:

Design an experience YOU will be excited to be a part of. 

So, how about you all? Are you planning any play-filled activities or events to reintroduce patrons to your spaces and resources in the fall?