Credentials, Credentials!: Demonstrating Your Potential Value in Academic Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Karen Sobel, Teaching & Learning Librarian, Auraria Library, Denver, CO.

The ACRL Webcast that I presented last fall, “Making Yourself Marketable for Academic Librarian Positions” had a particularly lively Q&A session. Attendees shared detailed questions about how different types of credentials and work experience will support their case as they apply for academic librarian positions. In this post, I will respond to eight of the most common questions, moving from easiest to trickiest.

Special shout-out to Rachel Minkin of Michigan State University. In addition to being a wonderful moderator, Rachel managed to copy down and categorize the questions most important to attendees while keeping the presentation running smoothly. Thank you!

And now for the questions:

Does a library school “field experience” that I performed for credit count as work experience?

  • Absolutely! Work is work, no matter whether you received pay, course credit, or simply gratitude for doing it.

Does GPA count for anything?

  • Honestly? Potential employers typically don’t ask for your GPA. I don’t recall ever sharing my library school GPA, except for when I applied to my doctoral program. That said, making a positive impression of your work ethic within your program is important. So are your skills in respectful communication and collaboration, as well as insight and creativity. Your professors may be the ones to recommend you for work experiences that you want to have during library school. They may also serve as references for professional positions. But no, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever ask you to state your GPA. You don’t have to focus on that goal of earning a 4.0.

CV and cover letter: I have a gap in my library work history, how do I talk about it? (In this case, it was to work in K-12 education)

  • This situation is easy to “spin” in a positive way. You chose to spend several years working in a profession that librarians value highly. Depending on the area of academic libraries that you want to work in, you probably built many skills that will support your librarianship—perhaps teaching skills, curriculum building, and so on. You’ll only need to discuss this in a sentence or two in your cover letters. Be sure to phrase it positively: You chose to pursue your interests in K-12 education through studies and work. Now you look forward to returning to academic libraries and applying skills that you’ve developed in multiple settings. You’ll have the chance to discuss this in more detail when you interview.
  • If there’s a period of time where you were not formally employed, whether you were caring for a family member, dealing with medical concerns, searching for work after a lay-off, or another scenario, that gap will show up on your CV or resume. Make sure that you address it in a sentence or two in your cover letters. You can mention your situation in more detail at interviews—but make sure to stick to a level of detail that you and your interviewer will both feel comfortable with. Stay as positive as you reasonably can.

Second master’s degree: Necessary? Not really necessary? Does this mean I’m overqualified? Should I emphasize my second degree?

  • Oh, my goodness—one of the trickiest ongoing debates in academic libraries. Let’s address the easier parts first. I’m going to assume that we’re discussing positions where a second master’s is either preferred or not required. (If it is required, then it’s probably only worth applying if you do have that second master’s—though you can take a chance.)
  • Don’t worry about seeming overqualified due to a second master’s. If no second master’s is required but you have one, it will typically be seen as value added. You have extra expertise in a subject area, PLUS you have additional experience with graduate-level studies and research. Those experiences are worth emphasizing in an interview. Discuss the ways in which your research in the other field would help you to better support faculty and students. This will be true even if you’re interested in a subject specialist position in another field.
  • If you’ve earned your MLIS degree but don’t have another master’s degree, the choice is up to you. Whether candidates with an additional master’s degree are placed above you in a candidate pool depends on the nature of the jobs, as well as on that institution’s values.
  • Many articles and blog posting on this topic exist online. Try searching for “second master’s degree librarians” to find articles with a variety of perspectives. You may want to get more specific with your searching if you’re interested in a type of position that sometimes does require a second master’s.

Can one create their own internship, (i.e. get meaningful experience outside of library school program) and still call it an internship on one’s resume/ cv?

  • Many MLIS students create their own work experiences in one way or another. I did this myself—when I realized that I wanted to gain experience in collection development, I inquired in that department at the library where I was working. A librarian generously offered to train and supervise me in a project that we designed together. My advisor and I were able to arrange for me to receive course credit. Work experiences that you co-design can be incredibly valuable. And yes, you can often call them “internships.” One word of advice is that you should agree with your supervisor on exactly what you will call this work experience on your resume or CV. Regardless of what the two of you decide to call it, you don’t want someone who is serving as a reference for you to sound surprised at the beginning of a reference call.

How I can I use my background in teaching online to market myself for “in-person” instruction positions?

  • When academic libraries hire for instruction positions, they’re looking for a number of qualities and specific areas of experience. These vary, depending on the nature of the position. As colleges and universities offer more and more courses and degrees online, there is increasing demand for instructors who can teach online. If you have experience teaching asynchronously, you already have very marketable skills for those positions: for example, choosing content and creating online teaching materials, and interacting with students online.
  • If you’re looking to move from teaching online (synchronously or asynchronously) to teaching in person, yes, you do have marketable experience with some of the necessary skills. You understand selecting content, creating lesson plans and curricula, and interacting with students. To make yourself more marketable, it’s worth trying to build experience and confidence with day-to-day interactions in the classroom. Find opportunities to work on your teaching confidence, as well as your skills with classroom management. Think broadly: Can you volunteer to teach workshops at your local public library? Could you practice teaching in another group that you’re involved with, such as your child’s scout troop, your church, or another community organization?
  • Different library instruction positions will have different levels of competition. Some may have three applicants; others may have a hundred. You may need to keep trying before you get your first opportunity – but once you have an instruction position, you can build from there.

How can I start building a scholarly record if my MLIS program and/or my current job don’t give me opportunities to do so?

  • Getting started building a scholarly record can feel overwhelming, especially if you don’t have opportunities from your degree program or workplace. It can still feel overwhelming if you do—I’ve been there! (You can learn more about what a scholarly record is beginning on slide 19 of the November 12, 2019 webcast.)
  • I’ll reiterate a couple of points from the webcast for readers who are still enrolled in an MLIS program.
    • It’s unusual that your professors offer writing a manuscript for a scholarly paper as an option for an assignment. However, they’re often open to this as a course final project if you ask well in advance.
    • You may have opportunities to gather data, perform cutting-edge work in informatics or many other subspecialties, or simply to spend significant time thinking about theory and praxis. The data you gather, and the thoughts you put together, can form the basis of articles, presentations, and blog posts when you write them, or later.
    • Speaking of “later”—you can absolutely revisit the work you did during your MLIS and write about or transform it later.
    • Speaking of articles, presentations, and blog posts—remember that a scholarly record usually *doesn’t* begin with peer-reviewed articles. Rather, it often begins with a few thoughtful professional blog posts, a presentation at a local or student-oriented conference, or an article for a professional magazine (“non-peer-reviewed publication”). Look creatively for opportunities to show off your writing and analytical skills. (Check out the slideshow linked above for suggestions on finding opportunities.)
  • If you’re working in the field, you can almost certainly write and create professional or scholarly materials on your own time. That isn’t as great as having work time set aside—but it’s how many librarians start building a scholarly record.
    • Ask your employer if you may write about innovative work that you and your colleague have done. Aim for a professional publication—or for a scholarly one, if you feel that you have the information needed to meet that publication’s requirements. Or present locally—that’s a great way to build recognition for your library as well.
    • Talk with your employer about whether you may analyze data that you have available to serve as the basis for a scholarly manuscript. Or consider designing a project that will ethically gather data about your work. You will need to investigate policies at your institution to make sure that you are following all of their ethical regulations related to patrons and patron data, if applicable. That said, once you’ve made sure that you are following regulations, you’re set for meaningful and productive work.

As always, I look forward to hearing additional questions, as well as insights based on your experiences. Please feel free to comment, or to contact me.

Best of luck to you with your career goals for 2020!

Reflections on Shame and the Library Profession

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jenn Monnin, Scholarly Engagement Librarian, Health Sciences Library, West Virginia University.

Last October, I had the opportunity to attend the Mid-Atlantic Chapter Conference of the Medical Librarian Association in Durham, North Carolina. The theme was Rising to the Occasion, and talks ranged from information management in emergency planning to building your own ILS system. One of the plenary speakers was Dr. Will Bynum, a shame researcher at Duke University. Physician suicide is, unfortunately, a common tragedy, and Dr. Bynum is working to counteract this by normalizing a conversation around shame in medical education. Near the beginning of his presentation, Dr. Bynum asked us to participate in a Poll Everywhere by texting our responses to the question: “In 1-2 words, what has triggered shame or imposter feelings in you (or could in the future).” Our submitted answers would appear on the screen in a public word cloud. 

Uncertainty

It’s amazing just how anxious that request made me, as this was my first professional conference and all four of my immediate coworkers were in the room. I was extremely self-aware of my identities as a new medical librarian, a new academic librarian, and as a new librarian. I began my current position a month and a half before this conference, and spent the previous two years as a public librarian. I just got the hang of managing the collections and all programs for adult and teen patrons for all six library branches, had established partnerships with all four local afterschool programs offering Girls Who Code Clubs to their students, and worked consistently with the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation and the local OhioMeansJobs office to offer In-Demand career services to the county. When my family moved, I had to get settled in a new position all over again. Now, at the very last session of my first conference as a medical librarian, I was being asked to publicly reflect on what made me feel so behind in my career. That felt like a lot to ask. I didn’t want to send anything in, and thought I’d leave the imposter-feeling explaining to people who knew more about librarianship than me. Thank goodness I was sitting alone so my coworkers wouldn’t see me not participating! 

As words started appearing on screen, I saw my own anxieties, fears, and insecurities reflected in real time. The more a word was texted in to the Poll Everywhere, the larger it appeared. Since I saw concepts that so completely described how I felt in my new position being sent in by others in the room, I decided to send in my own thoughts. Dr. Bynum posted a picture of our completed word cloud to his Twitter account shortly after the conference. 

Early on in his talk, Dr. Bynum pointed out that when dealing with a professional at any level, it’s possible to trigger something that disrupts their professional identity. In our profession this could happen when presenting in front of peers or encountering new library jargon, for example. This causes what he refers to as “a shame reaction,” and has the potential to cause the person to feel shame and/or react defensively because their identity has been threatened. Any time a shame reaction is triggered it is possible for the person to respond “I am bad; I must fix myself” instead of “I did a bad thing; I must improve at ____.” The first response, or the internalized shame response, is anti-learning and impairs belonging. When the shame is prolonged, it can turn especially destructive. The second response is a guilt response, and according to Dr. Bynum, when properly harnessed guilt can be motivational and lead to the healing of whatever caused the shame reaction in the first place. 

Many librarians are already talking about shame and impostor syndrome in librarianship, and I had been completely missing the conversation. Some great examples I’ve found recently are  Zoë McLaughlin’s great reminder that “we are faculty members too, so there’s no reason to feel lesser,” Veronica Arellano Douglas’s amazing internal monologue about her own impostor syndrome, or the important light that Yoonhee Lee shed on the difficulties of even learning how to introduce yourself “in a succinct but engaging way.” More and more librarians are being vulnerable and opening up about their impostor syndrome, and how it affects their everyday life. 

Millennials

After Dr. Bynum posted the word cloud to his Twitter, I noticed that two words to the right of mistakes, is the word millennials (it is written vertically and can be easy to miss). The inclusion of millennials surprised me. Up until this point, my perception of impostor syndrome, or more like my desperate hope, was that it had to disappear at some point in your career. There had to be some threshold where, if only I knew this much, if I could only go through this imaginary gateway, then all my impostor syndrome would simply be cured. The longer you’re in a field the more you know about it, so clearly one day I will get to a spot where I feel secure in what I know and never suffer from impostor syndrome again. The truth is the longer you are in a profession the more changes you will have to walk through, each one presenting a new opportunity for impostor feelings to arise. 

Rising to the Occasion

Comparison is the enemy of community, and comparing myself against someone who has been in the profession for their entire career ultimately serves no productive purpose. Similarly, it is no help for experienced librarians to compare themselves to new librarians. At the end of the day there are far more ways we can support and learn from each other if we actively create those environments where all people can grow, freely express themselves, and put down roots.

Thankfully, Dr. Bynum left us with some practical advice on dealing with our shame and the shame we see in others. I would say this advice can also be applied to impostor syndrome:

  • Know what shame looks and sounds like, because it is often hidden 
    • Ask “how are you feeling about yourself today?”
  • Actively identify when you or someone you know feel shame, and be aware of the feeling
  • Explicitly say “let’s take the blame for this mistake and put it on this other thing” so you can accurately process what went wrong and how to keep it from happening in the future
  • Speak up and break the culture of silence
  • Create environments where people can grow roots and freely express themselves

I am fortunate enough to work at an institution that supports early career librarians, and have plenty of experienced colleagues who want to learn from me as much as I want to learn from them. I have yet to open up a conversation about impostor syndrome other than with a few trusted, early career librarian colleagues, but that may be the next step for me. Yes, it is difficult to break a culture of silence. Yes, it means we have to be vulnerable with each other, which is not easy and opens you up to getting hurt. But when we break the culture of silence, when we actively love and care about the well-being of people around us, when we work together and harness our impostor syndrome instead of fear it, we are far more equipped to handle change and will be far more successful than if we had tried alone. 

Big Transitions: Changing Jobs within and between Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Karen Sobel, Teaching & Learning Librarian, Auraria Library, Denver, CO.

Happy new year, everyone!

During the ACRL Webcast that I presented, titled “Making Yourself Marketable for Academic Librarian Positions” (12 November 2019), many attendees asked questions about transitions. In particular, they asked whether it’s possible to transfer from one type of library to another, or from one type of librarian position to another. The webcast organizers and I felt that those questions deserved thorough answers, along with some resources. Thus, here we are in the new year, ready to talk about creating change and working toward your goals. Let’s discuss the two questions one at a time.

Transitioning between Types of Libraries

Imagine that you’re working in one type of library – let’s say it’s your city’s public library. You’ve been there for a few years, and you realize that you want to find a job at another type of library. We’ll say that your new dream is to work at an academic library. Could you realistically make this transition happen?

The answer is yes – plenty of librarians have made this sort of change in the past. However, it does require careful preparation, and may not occur in a single move.

The most important aspect in making this sort of a shift is finding opportunities that align as closely as possible with your experience. Have you gathered experience in all of the required qualifications, and in some or all of the preferred qualifications for the position? If you begin searching for positions at a different type of institution from the one where you work, and you find that there are qualifications that you like, make a plan for developing that experience. You may need to get creative. Seek out experience at your own library. If you cannot develop the skills or experience that you need there, search for opportunities, or for professional development, elsewhere.

When you’re applying, highlight your experience honestly, echoing the language of the position posting. Different types of libraries may describe similar types of duties differently; make sure that your description will resonate with search committee members who will read your application. Your application will of course come across as “different” from those written by librarians whose experience comes closer to the job for which you are applying. Highlight the strengths that you have built which will set you apart. You would bring unusual positive qualities to the job.

Show that you truly understand what it would be like to work in the type of library where you wish to work. Talk with librarians who work in that type of library. Use the preferred language of that type of library in your application – and make sure to run your cover letter and CV or resume by librarians who work in that type of library. If you’re chosen for an in-person interview, research the library and the community it serves in great detail. Being able to discuss the context is important in rising to the top of the applicant pool.

Remember that different libraries and different positions will have different levels of competition. You could be one of three candidates for one position, and one of 200 candidates for another. That means that it may take several tries to make the leap from one type of library to another. Or that you may require a couple of leaps before you reach your dream job (which is true for most of us anyway). With careful planning and application, you can make the move from one type of library to another happen.

Transitioning between Types of Library Positions

Typically when librarians shape their career paths, they move from one position to another, built on a related set of skills and qualities. However, occasionally a librarian wishes to follow a career path that uses a dramatically new set of skills—moving from instruction to technical services, for example.

Building skills and experience are of course key to switching tracks within librarianship. If you already have your MLIS or similar degree and some experience, you’ve got an advantage. You just need to build credentials and experience specific to your new goals. Once you’ve decided to make the switch, it’s time to research the skills that you’ll need to build. Talk with professionals who already do the work that interests you. Read position postings and look for trends in required and preferred skills.

Once you’ve identified skills and experience that you need to build, think about what you could learn through on-the-job experience and what requires coursework or professional development. A lot of that is up to your judgment; you may want to seek out thoughts from professionals who already do that work. For example, you might decide that you’d learn skills for instruction most effectively through on-the-job practice at your institution. However, you’d probably learn the details of working with MARC records most efficiently through a course.

If you’re already working full- or part-time as a librarian, it’s well worth inquiring as to whether you can gain experience through making special arrangements in your own library. Interestingly, you may find that it’s easier to make this sort of arrangement in a smaller library, where each individual tends to have a broader range of duties. Think carefully about whether you can build this into your job, whether you can do the work as part of a full-time work schedule, or whether you may need to make adjustments to your arrangements in order to find time to support your goals.

It probably doesn’t need to be said, but you can likely be open with your colleagues regarding your changing intentions. New aspects of librarianship have sparked your interest. As long as you’re continuing to work hard at your current job, good colleagues tend to be supportive of your evolving dreams. Be open with your supervisor as well. Just like your other colleagues, your supervisor will likely be supportive as long as you continue to work hard. You may find that you need to request support, or to discuss the possibility of shifting some arrangements at work. Keeping your supervisor involved from early stages will only make this part easier.

Final Words

I wish you the best in working toward your goals! Feel free to reach out to librarians in your network, including me, as you move forward: karen.sobel@ucdenver.edu.

Resources

Strategies for Changing Your Career Path within Librarianship:

“Adaptable Applicants: Preparing to Change Your Library Path,” by Lindsey Homol for the American Library Association New Members’ Round Table: http://www.ala.org/rt/nmrt/news/footnotes/february2014/adaptable-applicants-preparing-change-your-library-path

The richest source of information on how to prepare for a “big transition” (from one type of library to another, or between roles in libraries) is articles from scholarly and professional library publications. If you have access to LISTA, LISA, Library and Information Science Source, or other library and information science databases through your library, you may want to explore those. Google Scholar will also point you toward many of those articles.

Writing Effective Library Resumes/CVs and Cover Letters:

“Common Library/Info Science Action Verbs,” courtesy of the Massachusetts Library System: https://www.masslibsystem.org/wp-content/uploads/LIS-action-verbs.pdf Terms on this sheet are commonly used to describe librarians’ work. Read through the list & consider incorporating some of these words into your next cover letter, CV, or resume.

Conferencing while Chronically Ill

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Katie Quirin Manwiller, Evening Public Services and Assessment Librarian at DeSales University, Center Valley, PA.

Travel time, packed schedules, and constant networking can make conferences exhausting for even the most outgoing librarians. For those of us who face mental and physical exhaustion as part of daily life, attending conferences can be a battle. I’m a spoonie librarian who deeply enjoys meeting and sharing with fellow LIS folks, but it takes a lot of extra effort for me to manage my health during professional events. Through navigating various national and regional conferences, I’ve developed a few tricks to help me make conferencing while chronically ill possible.

Some background: I work primarily in reference and instruction at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. I’m interested in assessment, student engagement, professional service, and accessibility in librarianship. I also have a handful of chronic illnesses you probably have never heard of: Hypermobility Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS). I manage an array of symptoms on a daily basis, such as chronic muscle pain, acute joint pain from dislocations, migraines, chronic fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, depression, nausea/GI upset, dizziness, and exercise intolerance. Sounds fun, right?

Like most chronically ill people, I will struggle with my health for the rest of my life, but the difficulty of that struggle varies greatly from year to year. After my initial hEDS diagnosis in 2013, my symptoms and pain management slowly improved for three years, only to go tumbling backwards in 2017. My health has been largely at a low point since then, which brings me to April 2019, and the inspiration for this post.

I attended ACRL 2019 in Cleveland and as an early-career instruction librarian, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to learn from my peers and be fully immersed in academic librarianship. Unfortunately, my body was not so thrilled. The travel sent me into a POTS flare and I was dizzy with a skyrocketing heart rate every day of the conference. I had a panic attack when someone in a session seemingly subtweeted me after I asked a question and I needed to leave the conference center for a break. ACRL had some helpful services for attendees, like a quiet room, but when my pain was high and my brain fogged I couldn’t even find the room to rest. Long story short, it was hard. Harder than any professional experience of my life.

Since ACRL, I’ve successfully presented at a conference for the first time. And best of all, my experience at ACRL led me to a community of other librarians with illness and disability for which I am deeply grateful (#SpoonieLibrarian or #CripLib on Twitter). I hope to support this community and want to begin by addressing one of my biggest challenges as a professionally-engaged spoonie. Here’s my advice for fellow librarians who conference while chronically ill:

1. Have a buddy. I was able to learn at and enjoy ACRL largely because I had a close friend also attending the conference who has known about my health issues for years. She went to restaurants with me when I was too dizzy to stand in the food truck lines, found a place for me to sit down in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when my heart rate was going crazy, and generally provided emotional support. If you don’t know someone else attending who you feel comfortable disclosing to, let someone in your support network know you will be having a challenging few days and reach out via text, call, whatever when you need to. Bonus tip: share this blog post with that buddy, so they can learn more about what you might be going through and how they can support you.

2. Plan rest time in advance. I do better when I plan rest into my schedule before I arrive at the conference. Plan for a quiet dinner in your hotel instead of attending the dine-out on the same day you traveled seven hours. Schedule time off for the day after the conference to rest and recover. If financially able, stay in the hotel adjacent to the conference center so it’s easier to get to your room if you need a break. If not, scope out the conference map beforehand and figure out where you can rest without having to go all the way back to your hotel.

3. Set reminders for your meds. I easily forget my medicine when I break from my regular schedule, which always happens at conferences. I got a daily pill organizer to keep track of what I have/have not taken, and set reminders in my phone to make sure I take them before heading to a session. Also, bring extra meds and make sure you have some with you so you don’t have to return to your room if symptoms come up.

4. Plan your outfits in advance. This may seem like a basic one but chronic illness makes it trickier. My MCAS flares if clothing is too tight on my abdomen, and my POTS makes it hard to regulate my body temperature. Bring clothes that you feel confident in but that are also comfortable enough to not increase symptoms. Add in a few options in case the conference center is colder or hotter than you expected. And plan outfits a few days in advance – a 10 pm Target run the night before you leave does not do your anxiety any favors (speaking from experience).

5. Skip sessions. The FOMO at conferences is real, especially when it costs $1000+ to attend. Try not to feel guilty about skipping sessions or events when your health won’t permit it. Prioritize certain sessions that you definitely want to attend, and determine what you can skip if necessary. Follow the conference hashtag on twitter to get a recap of the keynote you didn’t feel up to attending. Unless you actually need to meet with a vendor, consider skipping the exhibitor hall. You will probably spend an hour and a fair bit of energy collecting unnecessary freebies to carry around for the rest of the day. Plan to review the conference materials that go online afterward. Take advantage of the online options when you need to stay in your room.

6. Make your session work for you. If you’re presenting, do what you can to make the session cost the fewest spoons. Present with a colleague if possible to delegate responsibilities. Skip a meal out to practice and rest the night before. Arrive in the room early to set up and mentally prepare. Ask for a chair so don’t have to stand the whole time (this is totally fine! Your content is still excellent whether you present it standing or sitting). Incorporate small group discussion to give yourself a break. Plan extra rest before or after your session if you need to. Overall…

7. Be gentle with yourself. This goes along with skipping sessions, but be mindful of your limits. It can be easy to push yourself because you don’t want to miss anything, but in the long run you’ll end up missing more if you completely exhaust yourself. Stop before you get exhausted and before the pain is too much to keep going. That way you’ll not only be able to attend the sessions you want but actually focus on them and not your symptoms. Take a few minutes at the end of each session to check in with yourself, see how you’re feeling, and determine if a preventative break is the best option. You can also take that time to check in with your buddy, grab a cup of coffee, and discuss what you’ve learned so far.

Chronic illness and disability are experienced differently by each individual, so these tips will not work perfectly for everyone. They have made attending conferences easier for me, and I hope they will help other spoonie librarians successfully engage in LIS events. If you have any tricks or tips that have worked for you, please feel free to add them in the comments below.


Information Literacy: What’s the Question?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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