In Praise of Ideas

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Emily Drabinski, Electronic Resources and Instruction Librarian at Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY. She’s the editor (with Alana Kumbier and Maria Accardi) of Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, published by Library Juice Press.

I just completed a thesis in the English department of my home institution, finishing up the second masters our jobs so often require. When people ask me what my thesis is about, I give them a short answer: kairos, a Greek notion of qualitative time, and what it has to tell us about library instruction. But there’s a longer answer, of course; it’s 100 pages long, cites everyone from Plato to James Elmborg to Michel Foucault and back to Plato, and is a significant deposit both in my theoretical bank and the bank of raw text from which I’ll attempt to craft a tenurable research profile in the remaining four years of my clock.

But why did I need to do so much reading and writing just to be a librarian? We’re a profession of practice, after all. We do and make things more than we think things. The first chapter of my thesis parses the debate between Plato and the Sophists about the nature of time and truth. What in the world could that have to do with my daily work at the reference desk and in the library classroom?

Well, actually kind of a lot. Me, I came down on the side of the Sophists. Knowledge is contingent and happens in time. It’s not absolute. What it’s possible to know, or even conceive as a question, depends on the context–what has come to count as knowledge over the course of time. It may not be a set of how-tos, but the notion of kairos does provide me a frame through which I work, every day, in my office, at the reference desk, and in the classroom.

Here’s an example: If knowledge is contingent, then I’m never looking for right answers. Instead, I’m looking for ways to engage students in their own active knowledge pursuits, pursuits that happen in time and are never final. I taught a class last week, and I framed my discussion with a metaphor that came directly from all that thinking, reading and writing. Instead of going with shoe shopping as a way to explain why students might use a subject database and not just Google (when I need shoes I go to a shoe store; I don’t go up and down the mall asking for shoes in every store), I went with dialogue as a metaphor. (Confession: I yoinked that one from Socrates.) Research is about a conversation one has with the literature of the past, in the present, toward the future of our own scholarly work. We ask databases questions, and databases give us answers. Sometimes they tell us no results. But there are no final answers, not if we embrace the kairos of research. There are simply next questions–with corrected spelling and broader keywords, maybe.

Ideas matter in librarianship, even for those of us at the frontlines of service delivery and not in the ivory towers. Ideas frame our action, the way we talk and teach about what we do, and what we make matter when we’re connecting our users to resources. If my frame of reference were informed purely by a desire to get things right, I might teach students how to follow my directions to get to a stable, unchanging and unchangeable answer. I’d be invested in describing how to use the correct language in the correct way in the correct database, all the while reinscribing as correct knowledge systems that reward some ways of knowing and not others.

That was a great class, the one that talked about research as a conversation. We all had a pretty great time, with a free flow of questions and answers. We spent a lot of time laughing, and a lot of time finding appropriate scholarly resources. There was applause as we wrapped things up, spontaneous and grateful. In the two weeks since the session, a quarter of the class has made follow up appointments with me or one of my colleagues. It’s not tenure-level evidence-based research, of course, but it anecdotally tells me my idea is one worth pursuing, not only in the scholarly literature of the field, but as a part of my classroom practice as well.

We don’t talk much about ideas, we practicing librarians. There doesn’t always seem time for them, between the classes and the desks and the meeting–oh, the meetings. But that’s the real advantage of the demand for scholarship, the demand that we engage and reflect on the ideological frames that guide our teaching, and a demand I’d like us to take up more often and more informally. What ideas undergird the way you work as a librarian?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

7 thoughts on “In Praise of Ideas”

  1. This article made my day! Theory is often criticized for being irrelevant to our patrons or not leading to practical results. Thanks for the reminder that our ideological frames are more fundamental than that: they are our guides for deciding what even counts as relevant or practical in the first place.

    And as to ideas that undergird my library work…I’m the exact opposite: I side with Plato against the sophists. More to the point, I do hold objective knowledge (JTB) as the gold standard, and this leads me to frame my reference/instruction work in terms of justification.

  2. Thank you, Emily, for a post that made me think not just about my own practice, but about the ideas that shape it. There are plenty of answers that I could give to the question at the end of your post, but your writing has inspired me to be honest, and my honest answer is Fear. Much of the time (but not always), fear undergirds much of the way I work as a librarian. I am afraid that what I teach students may be seen as unimportant in a culture that wants quick, easily accessible answers. I am afraid that other members of the faculty don’t think of me as a peer and fellow scholar. I am afraid of giving out the “wrong answer” to a question and I’m equally afraid of not knowing the “right answer” to a question.

    I’m often frustrated by much of the writing that exists on libraries and librarianship, particularly the pieces that seem to focus on the “death” of this or that library service/idea/job title. I realize that most of those pieces are also rooted in fear: fear that libraries will lose funding, fear that our patrons will leave us, fear that we won’t have jobs.

    Fear isn’t productive, and neither is a framework of librarianship built on fear.

    I think that your push for practicing librarians to focus on the ideas that inform our practice is so important (at all times, not just NOW or in this economic climate or in this rapidly changing technological landscape, etc). I don’t want to pass on fear to my students and I certainly don’t want them thinking that there is a “wrong” or a “right” when it comes to ideas or research.

    Sorry for this long comment, but your post was really thought-provoking.

  3. Fear! Oh, Veronica, I know just what you mean. There’s a real sense of scarcity on most of our campuses these days, and I also find it tempting to act in ways that protect my territory rather than risking things. We’re using a new assessment tool this year, and I struggle with how much I should teach “to the test” and how much I can simply trust that students will learn our five or six stated outcomes with a more expansive approach to the class. It is so tempting to just drill students with the set of skills we’re assessing, harder to trust that students will come to understand in a classroom that takes a different approach.

    I also think that having a developed theoretical foundation to our discipline and our pedagogy, one I can articulate to faculty in other disciplines, is itself one of my own protective moves. I think it helps faculty see me as faculty–I too have a mode of scholarship outside my daily classroom practice! I am like you! Which has its yay-feel-good qualities, but is also functional–liaison work is a whole lot easier when I’m considered a peer.

    Thanks for engaging with my post! I really appreciate it!

  4. This is a wonderful post. I’m glad that you are encouraging students to think about research as a conversation, one that has no certain answers, no rights or wrongs, just paths unending, circling, and if we’re lucky, joining. I look forward to reading more! And congrats on finishing your thesis.

  5. Your metaphor of conversation is a fantastic one to demonstrate the ongoing process of research. Bravo! As a first year returning adult MLS student, I can honestly say that I do not remember much of the rote materials drilled into my head throughout my school career when I was younger. What did, however, make a lasting impression on me were the teachers who taught me resourcefulness and how to learn. As I prepare for my future ILI classes, I hope to bring the same knowledge and appreciation of metacognition with me in the hopes of passing this down to my future students. Thank you for reiterating this central concept in such a novel way.

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