Pulling Back the Curtain on Library Magic

open book and glowing orb sitting on a table
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Some Context

While we’re making dinner, my husband (also in academia) and I will usually talk about our workday, despite the fact that, at the moment, our offices are separated by only one wall. These conversations usually devolve into what I’ll politely refer to in a public forum as “academia garbage talk,” in which we rage about the great problems of higher education as our onion chopping gets messy and our son tries to drown out our noise with video game YouTube.

Library Magic

Earlier this week our academia garbage talk focused on the idea of smoke and mirrors in academic libraries. As a graduate student in mathematics and then an assistant professor, my husband, we’ll call him C, was always strongly encouraged to use interlibrary loan, reach out to his librarian, request journals and books, and really, ask for anything.

“The way this was sold to me,” C shared, “was that if there was anything I needed, librarians could make it happen. If I needed an article or a book or a journal or a class for my students, librarians could and would make it happen via some kind of library magic.”

C

I remember these days. In the early 2000s our budgets were healthier than they are now and all of our outreach efforts centered on this idea of getting students and faculty to not only use the library but to use us, as librarians. I remember standing in front of a class of undergraduate students and talking about interlibrary loan (ILL) as if it was library magic. It’s a FREE service! The article appears in your email inbox the next day! Did I mention it’s free? Never mind the cost and labor involved in making ILL happen. They didn’t need to concern themselves with that. That’s a topic of conversation for library workers, not students.

Before the days of critical information literacy, I taught students how to search for peer reviewed articles to meet their information needs in library databases using the magic of filters and advanced search. I routinely heard students mutter, “how did you do that?” as they stared in happy amazement at their list of results. I may have talked about peer review as a process but I didn’t dig into the economic realities of scholarly publishing or the money involved in creating library databases and the money made by Google when we used it to search.

I remember, in those days, begging faculty to place book orders to spend down our firm order budget but then having to backtrack when they wanted journals or databases instead. “Didn’t you tell us to ask for what we need?” they’d stare accusingly, as I tried to then explain allocations and subscriptions, my magical facade slipping.

The Death of Magic that Never Was

Problems occur when the magic fades, or rather, the problems become evident to people outside of the library once the illusion disappears. After the recession we found ourselves with shrinking budgets and calls to cut cut cut, a situation made even worse by the current pandemic. Library positions are not being refilled, subscription costs continue to rise, and library workers are exhausted. Faculty and students continue to want to call on our magic but we have to admit it was never really there in the first place.

That article you received via interlibrary loan may have not cost you any money but it certainly did cost the library money and library workers’ time.

Those journals we said we could get you are actually rising in cost far beyond our ability to pay so no, we can’t get that new journal and actually we need to cut a bunch of other ones.

Yeah, so, searching in Google might be free but its actually using your search information in its proprietary algorithm that reinforces racial bias (among other things) and yeah, we know that the library’s discovery layer is not great but we don’t have the personnel to fix it.

All of the services we provide, including access to collections, instruction, and research support are fueled by money and people, not magic.

Value and Values in a Non-Magical World

I don’t want to blame libraries and librarians for trading in magic. We were trying to make libraries relevant and prove our value and the rhetoric we used was meant to show helpful we could be in making academic life easier. We wanted to demonstrate our worth and increase our gate/use/reference/instruction/click counts. I won’t get into the doing-more-with-less discussion because there are much smarter folks who have covered resilience and neoliberalism in much more nuanced ways than I can do here. However I do think it’s worth continuing a conversation about how we talk about library work, how libraries work, and how information is produced, accessed, commodified, and shared.

My current place of work is part of the Texas Library Coalition for United Action (TLCUA) which aims to “think creatively about access to faculty publications and the sustainability of journal subscriptions,” and includes contract negotiations with Elsevier. Part of this work involves a coordinated campaign to educate our faculty about the costs associated with academic publishing and library collections. It’s pulling the curtain back on budget conversations that were previously kept in house, and is something that the University of California system has done quite well over the last few years. Journals and databases don’t magically appear out of nowhere. They cost money, and are costing us more and more money each year.

In parallel to these faculty education efforts, we should also be teaching students about information systems and how information works, a topic Barbara Fister advocates for in her new PIL Provocation Essay. We used to hide much of the inner workings of search algorithms, databases, data collection, metadata, subject headings, and the costs of academic scholarship from our students because that was librarian stuff that students didn’t really care about. They just needed to know how to get their books and articles to complete their assignments and access the information they needed. They didn’t need to know that information got there in the first place.

But we have classrooms of students now who are concerned about the legitimacy of information shared online, struggling to spot bias in writing, and wondering where all the data collected about them by websites and learning analytics systems is going. Some of the most engaging conversations I’ve had about the peer review system, academic publishing, news, and social media have been with undergraduate students. We can’t assume that students don’t want to learn about how information and its systems work. More importantly, we can’t have conversations about information literacy without talking about the sociological, cultural, and economic context of the information they seek.

Library magic may have felt easy and appeared wondrous, but in the end what we need is less magic and more dissection. We need to get into complex explanations and uncomfortable conversations and we need to assume that our students and faculty can handle it. If we’re in the business of education then we need to stop the smoke and mirrors and start (or continue!) to critically inspect and explain the information systems around academia as well as those outside of our context. Academia overlaps with the commercial world, political landscape, and cultural contexts, and we need to have a narrative about library work that doesn’t shy away from those realities.

Complex or clickbait?: The problematic Media Bias Chart

This guest post was submitted by Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Research at William & Mary, and Nathan Elwood, Library Administrator at the Missouri Legislative Library.

The Media Bias Chart, commonly referred to simply as “The Chart,” has become ubiquitous in discussion of information literacy and news evaluation. The Chart, for those unaware, attempts to differentiate trustworthy and untrustworthy media sources based on two axes: bias and reliability. 

Despite the popularity of this memetic tool, it raises a whole host of issues that must be addressed as part of our larger information literacy conversations. 

The Chart promotes a false equivalency between left and right, lionizes a political “center” as being without bias, reinforces harmful perceptions about what constitutes “news” in our media ecosystem, and is ignored by anyone that doesn’t already hold a comparable view of the media landscape. 

The Chart is a meme, not an information literacy tool, and as librarians we need to be clear-eyed about these flaws. As Ad Fontes Media released version 7.0 last month, we thought it was a good time to explore our concerns. 

Origins of The Chart

First published in December 2016 by Vanessa Otero, The Chart was originally simple and informal, placing sources on a “liberal” to “conservative” left-right axis, and along a vertical axis of credibility ranging from “complex” to “clickbait.” As with all iterations of The Chart, this resulted in sources arranged in a rough pyramid, with sources ranked the most “mainstream” and “complex” as being of the highest information value. 

Creator Vanessa Otero does not come from an information literacy background. While currently an intellectual property lawyer, her previous professional experience was in pharmaceutical sales and as a Regional Advisor for Noveau Riche, a non-accredited vocational school specializing in real estate investing.  In 2010, amidst accusations of being a multi-level marketing scam, Nouveau Riche dissolved. In 2011, the founders of the company were fined more than $5 million by the Arizona Corporation Commission for defrauding students. 

Otero says The Chart is a “passion project” and could be useful to consumers and advertisers.

Within weeks of the first iteration’s release, The Chart became a viral phenomenon. It also received pushback from far-right outlets after seeing Infowars, Breitbart, and The Daily Caller all grouped in the bottom-far right, a quadrant labeled as not credible. 

However, criticism of the original meme wasn’t exclusive to the far-right. Left-wingers noticed the conspiracy site “Natural News” grouped at the bottom left of the liberal/conservative axis. 

Natural News, it was quickly pointed out, was a known purveyor of far-right conspiracy theories, such as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting being a false-flag. The far-left/extremely “liberal” grouping for the site, Otero justified through the site’s “anti-corporate and popular liberal pseudo-science positions.” Natural News has since fluctuated across the spectrum, before arriving on the far-right in the current iteration. 

On neutrality

In the original iterations of The Chart, all evaluation of sources was conducted by Otero herself. However, after her formation in 2018 of Ad Fontes Media, analysis is conducted by a team of writers, journalists, and other professionals. 

Whenever a new item is evaluated, it is analyzed by a team of at least 3 of these analysts, “with an equal number from left-leaning, center-leaning, and right-leaning perspectives.”

One of the most common points of justification for this project and similar endeavors is that the analysis they conduct is “bipartisan” in this manner. This is something that has been left uninterrogated within the library profession for far too long. It may seem like a strange question, but what is actually “good” about a bipartisan analysis?

When Donald Trump claims that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville riots, we can easily identify what a facile, deceptive framing this is. So why do we allow it within our media analysis?

Say you have, like Ad Fontes Media does, a “bipartisan” group of analysts; evenly mixed between liberals/leftists, conservatives, and centrists. For the purposes of this example, feel free to dismiss that liberals aren’t actually classified as “Left” in most understandings of political science. Instead, consider what the conservative viewpoint genuinely brings to the table.

On January 6th, a majority (68%) of Republican lawmakers, the representative body of the conservative viewpoint in American politics, voted to overturn a free and fair presidential election based on unsubstantiated and proven-false conspiracies. They did this only hours after an attempted coup against our government, based on the same premises, left five people dead.

The consensus view among the American conservative movement is that the attack was justified in its reasoning, if not its method. 

As Eugene Robinson said in his recent Washington Post editorial, “Bipartisanship is nice, but you can’t negotiate with fantasy and lies.” 

The problem with pyramids

Projects like the Media Bias Chart all portray the political center “unbiased,” feeding into what cultural theorist Mark Fisher labels as “capitalist realism,” in which the status quo power structure is the only system that can feasibly exist, and even the thought of alternative systems is seen as inherently radical.

In the structure of The Chart, the “center” or “status quo” is portrayed as the most preferable, least problematic option. It is, visually, the top of the pyramid. It is “biased” (and therefore less credible) to hold views outside reinforcement of this status quo. 

Within this framing, the Democratic Party represents the left end of the spectrum, and the Republican Party the entirety of the right. However, according to the work of the Manifesto Project, the Democratic Party tracks to the political center, and the Republican Party to the far-right. . 

Within this framing, right-wing and left-wing views are both held as equally “extreme,” despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security singled out right-wing extremists as “the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland” 

Mainstream or Utter Garbage?  


Another flaw of the balanced, pyramid structure of The Chart is that it fails to take into account the centralization of the media landscape, as described in the Propaganda Model. The corporate monopolizing that we see in the US media, rather than furnishing us with diverse viewpoints across a variety of sources, has collapsed our media ecosystem into a small set of acceptable views, portrayed by dozens of sources that differ only aesthetically. Our media ecosystem, put bluntly, presents an “illusion of choice,” oriented largely to the benefit of a pro-business status quo.   

What’s the objective? 

Also worth noting is how the “objective, view from nowhere” standard that The Chart reinforces was developed by and for white, cis males, and that enforcing that “neutral” POV can often be fundamentally inequitable.. 

Consider when a reporter for the City Desk program in Chicago accused Malcolm X of being “personally prejudiced” and incapable of being “academic” in his arguments regarding the Ku Klux Klan, simply because they had burned down his home and murdered his father. Or more recently, when Black journalist Wesley Lowery revealed how he had been “muzzled” by editors at the Washington Post.

In the wake of these events, Lowery has written compellingly on the failures of our current conception of “objectivity” in newsrooms, a conception that The Chart fortifies by design.  

The problems of source as shorthand

While the outlet providing an article is certainly an essential consideration when it comes to evaluation, we reject that it is the most important indicator. A media company is not a monolith, but an organization of people. 

Divergence from editorial direction is common. When the NYT published Senator Tom Cotton’s opinion piece calling for the military be sent in to control protests, or the Wall Street Journal’s Op-Ed questioned Dr. Jill Biden’s use of the “Doctor” title, journalists at both organizations spoke out against pieces. 

Sources are also divided into different areas, with different specializations and audiences. This makes it very difficult to generalize a source’s credibility. For example, Buzzfeed and Teen Vogue have published excellent political reporting while also drawing eyeballs through listicles and pop culture pieces. 

The simple layout of The Chart does not allow for this kind of context or nuance. 

What is included

It’s difficult to tell how Ad Fontes selects the media which appear on The Chart. Natural News and others have transitioned on and off The Chart several times. Many sources in Version 7.0’s “green box” are household names, but just beneath them in the “mixed reliability category” The Chart has previously included outlets like Epoch Times, a pro-Trump outlet with ties to the Falun Gong cult and a penchant for spreading Covid-19 conspiracy theories.

Currently occupying the same space, and even outranking established publications like The Nation in terms of credibility, is Quillette, a publication that has promoted racial pseudo-science on multiple occassions.

In her essay Lizard People in the Library, Barbara Fister argues that librarians must educate learners to differentiate between news platforms which serve as watchdogs for society, and outlets which prioritize profits over any kind of social contract. Ad Fontes amplifies outlets like Epoch Times and Quillette through their inclusion, leading the casual observer to assume that, while problematic, these are legitimate news organizations worthy of inclusion in a normal media diet. 

Just as harmful as these impacts is how The Chart also reinforces the concept of “news” being exclusively a national affair. This is to the great detriment of local news outlets, which often provide not only high quality information, but information more directly relevant to people’s lives.


This is a real problem, because the death of news at the local level has allowed for the propagation of far-right propaganda outlets in the vacuums created. 

Tabula Rasa

Some have argued that The Chart is helpful for students who are new to research and are a ‘blank slate’ when it comes to sources; The Chart gives them guidance as they conduct their research online. But this makes little sense; as a visual source, The Chart can only include a tiny fraction of sites. 

Internet searches will bring up stories from thousands of different sources not on The Chart. Local media sources are one example of a source type that is ignored by The Chart’s methodology, but there are even extremely popular information and disinformation sources that don’t show up. 

Given the variable nature of the chart’s inclusion of sources, how are readers supposed to interpret a source’s absence in relation to its credibility? 

Check your bias

In one of the earliest mainstream media articles about the newly formed Ad Fontes Media, MarketWatch asserted in their headline “How biased is your news source? You probably won’t agree with this chart.” 

From the beginning, the biggest flaw in this project has been viewers’ own confirmation bias. Frequent consumers of sources that The Chart claims to be untrustworthy or biased will often dismiss The Chart entirely. Conversely, the centrist consumer who reposts The Chart to their social media page will often ignore the unscientific and haphazard nature of the work.

So what chart should I use instead?

While we have focused our discussion on the Media Bias Chart’s flaws, many of the same critiques apply to other websites that claim to rate media outlets’ biases. Professors and librarians are looking for a ‘silver bullet’ that will help students become more discerning consumers of media. As educators, we must transition away from crutches like these, and instead endorse comprehensive, skill-based evaluation of information sources.

While Nathan does not recommend any methodology in particular, he has found that the Five W’s as framed by Jessica Olin are a helpful tool when training students to read sources critically. The easy recognizability of the framework helps it to stick with students, and promotes a constant and variable interrogation of sources rather than a standardized checklist. He has also regularly talked about the misinformation categories identified by media professor Melissa Zimdars, whose work was popularized around the same time as Otero’s meme. In addition, he feels that information literacy, as a skill designed to create more informed citizens, must be coupled with a comprehensive and rigorous study of the basics of political science and civics. 

Candice advocates people use Mike Caulfield’s SIFT method when evaluating a news article, since it emphasizes lateral reading and the need to recontextualize information. While media bias charts try to provide a heuristic that encourages people to trust or distrust a source in isolation, SIFT recognizes that we must view each story within the greater information ecosystem. This is not something that can be done with a meme – and to suggest information literacy can be so simplistic is insulting. 

From Cyber Attacks to Pandemics: Reflections on Trying to Work During Times of Crisis

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Melissa DeWitt, Research and Instruction Librarian at Regis University.

My final post as an FYAL blogger was in July of 2019. I ended that post on a reflective note, and like the themes I reflected on. In particular, I still believe that relationships are the most important thing, which I hope comes through in this post. While I liked those themes, there were some things I didn’t realize during my first year – mainly that my work life and personal life are not separate. That’s not to say that I don’t take time to myself or find ways to decompress (I love my hobbies, and I definitely know how to chill!). What I mean is that I am not a person that carefully tucks work into bed when I leave for the day, nor can I separate the ways my personal life affects my work. All facets of my life intertwine with and influence one another. I suspect that this is true for most people. Stacey Abrams, in a podcast with David Tennant, describes work/life balance as a myth. Instead, she equates it to a game of Jenga. You carefully stack and pull pieces out whenever you need them, hoping it all won’t come tumbling down, but the crash is inevitable. You have to put the pieces back together and try balancing everything all over again.

The goal of this series is to reflect on our trajectories since the first year, and I’m not sure how to reflect on my trajectory without providing some context. The truth is that reflecting on my work experience since I last posted is upsetting. Sometimes reflection is cathartic, but sometimes it’s like ripping the scab off a wound you’ve been trying to ignore. This reflection is a combination of both.

On August 22, 2019, three days before the beginning of the semester, my workplace detected an external security breach. We learned later in the day that we had experienced a cyber attack, and would eventually learn that it was ransomware.

I could spend hours talking about what happened next, but there’s not enough space in this post. Here’s a brief overview. We did not have systems back up for months. We used personal devices to perform our work. All data on my work computer was lost or unrecoverable. The library did not have access to databases or any online content, and so we contacted vendors, one-by-one, to ask for alternate access, which we listed on a password-protected spreadsheet. The research desk became an IT desk, as we spent hours helping students print and navigate research without purchased resources. We spent months without any of the tools we needed to do our jobs (because if it was tech, we did not have it), and yet we were still expected to do our jobs. My main takeaway from this experience? It was awful.

I mentioned that work and personal life affect one another because this was especially true during the cyber attack. Work became a low point for me and many of my colleagues, which affected my mood at home. Several people left during this time, morale was garbage, and I woke up every morning with a deep sense of dread. We did absolutely everything to try and provide the same services, but that was part of the problem. We should have been able to take a break, to look at the situation and say, “this isn’t sustainable.” Instead, we pretended that we could do the same work without any of the resources that made our work possible. There were also professional repercussions: we had layoffs, incentivized retirements, hiring freezes across many departments, and mergers between colleges. It felt like it would never end. The worst part was that no one outside my workplace really got it, so it felt like we were isolated in our little bubble of misery. That’s not to say that people were not supportive. When I reflect back on this time period, the one bright spot were the people in my personal and professional life that created an amazing support network. I do not know what I would have done without my people. Despite that network, it’s hard to relay the despair, fatigue, anger and poor morale I felt. It consumed all aspects of my life, and that semester is now a huge blur.

My world isn’t solely professional. In 2019, I attended three funerals for grandparents. Life didn’t stop just because work was shit. There were amazing things too. I attended my sister’s wedding, and I got engaged. I planned a wedding during the cyber attack and in between funerals, and then I took a break from the chaos of my workplace to get married in early February 2020. The pandemic was not quite on our radar, and I remember my wedding as the last real gathering with all of my friends and family before everything went down. We were incredibly lucky, and it’s an event I’ll never forget because it’s this amazing, bright and shiny spot on an otherwise miserable year.

Then the pandemic hit, and we all had to deal with it. The only saving grace was that, after working through a cyber attack, pivoting library work for the pandemic felt easy because I had the tools necessary to do my work. Except, this time, the crisis was present in every facet of our lives, and people were (and still are) dying. I won’t spend much time reflecting on the pandemic because, reader, you know what it’s like. Reflection is a process of looking back, but the pandemic is still happening. I don’t know how this ends yet. Instead, I’ll tell you about bright spots amidst the chaos.

When I was first hired, I asked about the possibility of teaching a credit-bearing class because creating a course was one of my professional goals. That goal came to fruition in fall 2020. The class was difficult to teach due to pandemic-related reasons, but also incredibly rewarding. I suspected that teaching a course outside the traditional, one-shot library session would foster my growth as a teacher, and this turned out to be true. I learned so much about myself, my capabilities as a teacher, and about students. Students are the reason I wanted to become an academic librarian in the first place, and teaching a class solidified all the warm fuzzy feelings I have towards them. I will never forget ending our last class of the semester and students remaining in the Zoom room because they did not want to leave. I cried. They cried and wrote the sweetest things I’ve ever read in a chat. There’s something about taking care of one another during a difficult time that brings you together. I also would not have been able to navigate this class without my friend and colleague who was my mentor while teaching the class. She answered all of my frantic emails with grace, and I probably would have melted into a puddle without her.

I also co-wrote my first publication, which was a source of angst during my first year. The timing was not ideal, but it got done. This was, again, not possible without the support of my co-writers. Writing is already challenging, but writing during a pandemic is something else. It’s nice to work with folks who keep you accountable but also understand that we’re all human beings just doing our best. First year me would be very proud. In addition, you can catch me all year presenting at conferences, including two pop culture conferences. I’ll be presenting with some really cool people.

Furthermore, I look forward to the progression of my teaching skills and the evolution of my pedagogy. Continuing my teaching adventures, I will co-teach a master’s level research course in March, which I’m really excited about. I will also teach writing and composition to first year students again in the fall. Teaching and working with students brings me joy in my work, so that’s what I’m going to keep doing.

Final Reflections

It was hard not to feel anger bubble up as I wrote 30 versions of this post (some a little spicier than others). I’m curious to see what my professional life will look like when I no longer have to perform during a crisis. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that institutions will do what’s best for them, not for you. I like my job and my work, but it doesn’t need to be this difficult. We can’t keep doing more with less and expect that to work forever. The professional accomplishments I’m proud of are in spite of my workplace, not because of it. It’s possible I would have published sooner, or achieved more of my goals if I hadn’t worked in a place that was weathering multiple crises. I am trying to acknowledge that impact and recognize that I am not above external factors. At the same time, I do not need to simply roll with the punches. Since my first year, I’m a little louder, a little more jaded, and a lot angrier. I’m less afraid and more confident about what kind of impact I want to make in my work and at my institution. The time since I wrote my last post was jammed with low points, and at some point, I’d like to take a nap. In the meantime, I’ll celebrate my accomplishments, lean on the strength of my relationships, and see what I do next.

A Student (Doesn’t) Walk into a Library During a Pandemic

I’ve restarted the library’s blog to create a space just for students. The idea was to help them navigate the college experience through the lens of the library. Naturally we feature heavily in the messaging. I already have a newsletter for faculty, which they seem? to read, but we didn’t have anything for students. The blog already existed, but hadn’t been used in a while. I’m not convinced this is the best platform, but will keep it until I come up with something better. In the meantime, it doesn’t matter how good the content is if the students don’t know it is there.

This brings me to my main challenge…
We continue to struggle to communicate with students as a library. I understand that this was a challenge in the past, but not at this scale. Our library and entire campus is remote. We aren’t even lending books this semester to keep all of us safe. The library is fully virtual, and I have enjoyed communicating this with my fellow faculty members, but getting the message to students has been an uphill battle.

Foot traffic to the library in “the before times” wasn’t an issue and I have heard that it could get downright crowded. This meant simpler forms of communication worked well- word of mouth, a chalkboard, flyers, and bulletin boards. A candy jar with small advertisements attached and bookmarks both worked well in previous positions. None of these methods work right now.

Our students don’t read their emails. Well…I guess I don’t know if that is based on data, or something we anecdotally suspect. I will continue to email them from time to time to cover all of my bases. Email may be the easiest, but I don’t think it is the most effective means of communication for them.

We do know that students aren’t liking our social media posts, but fellow faculty and staff members have. That’s not a problem exactly, but it does mean that we should use Facebook to communicate with our colleagues, not students. About a year ago we started an Instagram account, which has been fun for me as a new user (I learned long ago to cut myself off from more social media, but that’s a different discussion entirely), but we get the most responses from other libraries. Again, this isn’t a problem exactly, but we should use Instagram for that purposes and not assume that our messages will reach students. Twitter is the same way. I’m hesitant to open a TikTok account since as someone approaching middle age, the more I try to be cool, the more I resemble this. I also have privacy concerns about making videos in my own home.

Prairie State College uses D2L as our learning management system for remote classes. Since I am the liaison librarian for a few classes, I can see that students are active and engaged in that space. We have a link to the library and at our request, instructors can put our content there too. I think there is some potential, but the library isn’t a “class” that students have to access via a course shell to participate. It might take some creative thinking to see how we can easily deliver library messages that way.

I’ve also been meeting with departments one by one to share with them what the library can do for them and their students right now. They are always gracious and seem to welcome our services into their virtual classrooms. It is a roundabout way, but one I think has some potential to communicate with students.

I think that there won’t be one way that we better communicate with students right now. It will be several and I need to find the best combination of reaching out via their professors, over D2L, on our own website, via student leaders, and potentially over different (new) forms of social media. This isn’t a problem that I have to solve today or even all at once, but it is something that we can measure and track, which will give us immediate feedback about what works, and what doesn’t.

Combatting Imposter Syndrome with Comradery and Critical Pedagogy

One of my friends from my graduate program is currently an instruction librarian at another institution. At the beginning of the academic school year, he asked if I would like to join him in reading partnership centered on instruction and pedagogy through a critical lens. So far this year, we have read bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. While reading these books we have met weekly or biweekly to discuss the contents of each chapter. I am as sick of Zoom as the next person, but these meetings were often the highlight of my week.

During these sessions we have shared our experiences, opinions, and instruction strategies as they relate to the work of hooks and Freire. It is hard to select just one topic from hours of lively conversation, but one common theme has been resonating with me as I reflect on last semester and look ahead to the new one – the complicated student-teacher relationship.

Both authors problematize the traditional hierarchical classroom setting where the teacher is always the leader of the classroom and students are often stripped of their agency upon entry. Rather, hooks and Freire explore the ways in which it is necessary for teachers to empower student agency, and to enter into a teaching and learning relationship with the students.

Creating a classroom where students have agency, and their experiences and voices are truly valued is demanding work that becomes more complicated when applied to the library one-shot instructional model. Part of this complication comes with the course instructor/librarian relationship. If the course instructor teaches with a traditional lecture model, and does not see the value of centering student voices and experiences in the classroom, librarians may not feel empowered to create this environment, or may even run the risk of not being asked to return.

As a new librarian at a new university, building relationships with teaching faculty has been one of my primary goals. Through my various communications with faculty in my liaison areas, I have not encountered any strong push back to my instruction style. However, and this may be completely in my head, I often feel that there is an expectation that I will come into the Zoom room as the Expert and fill the students with my Librarian Knowledge. This unspoken, and perhaps fully imagined, expectation feeds into something I have written about before – imposter syndrome.

This is made worse by the fact that I am what some of my colleagues like to refer to as a “generalist” – I do not have a master’s degree in any of the fields with which I liaise. This is where student experiences, voices, and expertise come to play. My reading comrade and I have been discussing strategies that implement hooks’ engaged pedagogy and Freire’s dialogics – essentially centering student voices and experiences in the library one shot.  

In reality, I am not a generalist. I specialize in library pedagogy and information literacy. When I give over half of the classroom time to the students to share their thoughts, experiences, and even expertise on information literacy topics, I am seeking to empower student knowledge, and allowing for them to teach and learn from each other. Of course, I bolster their ideas with additional perspectives where and when it is helpful. By creating a learning environment that centers students, I am able to bring together my subject expertise and their knowledge base.

Learning to navigate classrooms norms and pedagogical power structures is something instruction librarians are always participating in. In conversation with my reading comrade, I have developed several new strategies for this. It is my hope that as I push and break down the boundaries of the hierarchical classroom, my new colleagues will see the value of this practice.