Story Swap

“If a picture is worth a thousand words,
then a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures.”
-George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

In this collaborative post from our ACRLog team, we’re sharing some of the “stories”–allegories, analogies, anecdotes, images, memes, metaphors, and more–that we use across the domains of our work to make abstract concepts more concrete, prompt meaning making, demonstrate relevance, communicate impact, bring a dry concept to life, or simply connect with our colleagues, users, and stakeholders.

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate concepts related to information literacy and research skills?

[Jen] I’ve recently become very interested in using stories as a pedagogical technique. I don’t have a large repository of stories to call on yet, but a few examples I’ve been using to good effect come to mind:

  • Source integration – Images of a container ship and a cargo train help me illustrate the goal of synthesizing sources in a literature review versus stringing them together one-by-one. I start with the train photo and ask students to imagine that each container on the train is a source. I describe how the train illustrates a style of writing where the author treats each source individually–the author might summarize, analyze, or otherwise comment on each source one by one in a long string of paragraphs. By contrast, I note that the ship is full of the same containers (i.e., sources) as the train but draw students’ attention to how the containers are instead stacked in groups, that each column is made up of many containers. In this image, I suggest that each container still represents a source but a paragraph is this time represented by a column of containers illustrating the goal of weaving sources together for more skillful analysis and writing around themes across sources.
  • Source evaluation – Wineburg and McGrew’s study serves as an anecdote regarding approaches to source evaluation (as well as the idea of relative, or domain, expertise on occasion). The researchers observed 45 people evaluating websites: historians with PhDs, Stanford University undergraduates, and professional fact checkers. When I ask students to guess which group was best at evaluating information, they typically vote for the historians with PhDs. Yet findings showed that the “fact checkers arrived at more warranted conclusions in a fraction of the time.” A primary difference in their approach? Fact checkers read laterally, not vertically. Because lateral reading is a departure from the kinds of information evaluation that are commonly taught to high school students, this story helps illustrate the effectiveness of an unfamiliar approach.  

I’m motivated to use stories more (and to better effect) in my classes because I think it can be so powerful; the sense of clarity and connection these stories can offer for students is incredibly productive and gratifying.

[Alex] I have referred to truncation as “my favorite library magic trick” when demonstrating searches in databases, and it’s true! It’s such a simple thing to do but can really change the list of results you get back. I also refer to it as advanced… I don’t normally go into the details of truncation until the learners I’m addressing have mastered some of the other concepts like Boolean operators and selecting keywords. But when I do introduce truncation, I love to tell this story. I was working with someone who needed information on radiation and adjuvant chemotherapy. Looking at my list of search terms, I saw radiation, radiotherapy, radiation therapy, etc… so I thought, truncation time! Radi*, easy. Because of the complexity of the rest of the search, there were about two pages of results so I looked through all of them and behold, one of them was about… radishes. You can’t anticipate every possibility when you truncate, but that one was a real surprise. Truncate responsibly, everyone!

[Justin] I like to use the metaphor of gardening for the research process:  

  • Prep your garden: determine a topic and a focused research statement or question, along with background research.  
  • Care for your garden as it grows: identify keywords, makes a list of databases and sites to find information, create search strings, and save sources.  
  • Inspect your produce: evaluate your sources for relevance and credibility.
  • Cook! Use your sources in your writing to make something new.
  • Modify your approach if nothing is growing.

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate concepts related to teaching and learning more broadly?

[Alex] This is so common it hardly feels like a story or metaphor but teachers as coaches is such a great framework. I can run you through practicing a skill, I can tell you the plays, but I can’t make the shot for you from the sidelines. You have to be able to apply what we did in practice while you’re on the court.

I’ve also used my experience as a DM for Dungeons & Dragons to explain outlining activities and learning objectives for a class. (Not to students, to other educators.) If you tell your players “you’re going to go here and do this, then go here and do this, ad nauseum” that’s called railroading and it isn’t as much fun as letting the players make decisions for themselves. Giving them multiple threads to follow and seeing what they value and decide to do is part of the game! Same goes for the classroom: here are all the objectives we need to meet, but you can help me decide which one we’re going to address next, and exactly how that’s going to look.

[Justin] I’ve used the example of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey”. One of my favourite ways to illustrate the hero’s journey is using Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. I find it relates to learning quite well: there’s a problem, you set out on your journey with help from mentors, there’s transformation and atonement (and learning a lesson?!) and finally return. 

[Jen] I’ve gotten a lot of mileage over the past few years out of an anecdote I’ve drawn from Carrie Brownstein’s memoir in which she reflected on some of the key experiences of her adolescence that helped shape her as a musician. In short, Brownstein first described how enthralled she felt watching pop music giants perform in stadium-sized venues. The spectacle of those huge performances entranced and inspired her but they felt opaque and unattainable. “I had no idea how it [the music] had been assembled or how to break it apart,” she wrote. “I remained merely a fan …with no means of claiming the sounds as my own.” Brownstein went on to describe her experiences a few years later, this time at shows in small clubs. Here, Brownstein could get close to the musicians and observe their techniques and interactions. This is my favorite quote about her realization: “It seems obvious, but it was the first time I realized that music was playable, not just performable—that it had a process.” To me, her story showcases the power of uncovering process. At huge, heavily produced shows, she was an onlooker with no discernible entry point for her own participation. When the making of the music and the performances’ component parts were made visible at smaller shows, the performances felt more accessible and attainable; Brownstein could imagine doing it for herself. I’ve used this story time and again– when consulting with faculty on the design of research assignments, for example–to illustrate the power of uncovering the process of scholarly and creative work rather than focusing on polished products.

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate concepts related to library services, procedures, workflows?

[Maura] As a director I often find myself having to explain our work in the library to faculty and administrators on campus in a range of contexts: as library faculty progress through the tenure track, when sharing the institutional questions we get at our service desks in the library with Student Affairs staff, and especially when advocating to fill vacant faculty and staff lines in the library. The analogy I’ve found most useful is from the restaurant world: front of the house for Public Services, and back of the house for Technical Services/Technology. In my previous position I worked at a college that offered Hospitality Management degrees and this analogy was widely understood across campus. But with greater visibility in the media into food and restaurant services over the past few decades I think it could be a useful analogy for anyone trying to make visible the often invisible work that keeps the library functioning. 

[Justin] I’ve heard an interesting comparison from a friend of a librarian’s role to What We Do In The Shadows: there’s so much intellectual work happening behind the scenes, that not all of our students and faculty know about or are aware of. 

[Jen] I just started a new book and was struck by the proverb that the author used as an epigraph: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.” I’ve never personally used this proverb although I’m sure I’ve heard it before. But I’m thinking about it with fresh eyes through the lens of this post’s theme. It seems to me that it might serve as a “story” to illustrate the interconnectedness of different domains within library work not to mention the value and importance of the many small details in our day-to-day work. 

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate library impact and value?

[Justin] My friend mentioned the metaphor of weight of books to me recently. He’s interested in knowing how much our library collection weighs – why? I have no clue. But he’s right: it makes for an interesting metaphor of the weight of information.

[Hailley] I’ve been recently working on updating our library’s mission and vision statement. In our revision, we did a lot of looking at other library mission and vision statements and the idea that kept coming up is how the library is the “heart of the university.” I don’t have any brilliant thoughts on this at the moment, but it’s definitely a phrase I’ve been thinking about and thinking about if this phrase is useful in defining the impact, value, and place the library has at an institution. 

What stories do you use? To what effect? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Uncovering Expectations and Opportunities, Opening Doors 

It’s hard to believe, but we’re already wrapping up week two of the fall semester at my campus. This means that my information literacy instruction responsibilities are starting to ramp up. Teaching has been a big part of every library job I’ve had since grad school. So it naturally follows that teaching dominates a lot of my time and thinking, not to mention my posts here–from reflections on experimenting with specific activities or strategies in the classroom to the evolution of my teaching practice over the years and attempting to uncover the research process. It’s that last bit in particular that I want to pick up on here, with fresh eyes. 

For many years now, transparency has been a guiding principle of my approach to teaching and all information literacy-related work, in and out of the classroom. I aim to expose embedded–and often invisible–information literacy concepts, skills, strategies, and expectations in order to make the mysteries and complexities of the research process more accessible to students and engage them in it. 

A few weeks ago, I attended the faculty development series my campus offers just before the start of each semester. My colleague led a session about strategies that instructors can use to support neurodivergent students. Her recommendations included providing explicit and intentional directions about academic and behavioral expectations and providing options for student participation to give students some control. Her suggestions made sense to me–I could imagine how such clarity, as well as choice, might support neurodivergent students’ engagement, and neurotypical students’ engagement, too. 

I’ve tried incorporating some of her recommendations in the few classes I’ve worked with so far this semester. More specifically, I’ve tried to make clear at the beginning of each class how students might choose to engage in the session. I provided, for example, a list of what engaging might look like including participating in the in-class activities, asking questions, and contributing comments, as well as avoiding distractions in order to focus, actively taking notes, reflecting on how the day’s content relates or applies to their own experience, etc. I also articulated how students might accomplish these things: vocally in class, in the online platforms as part of our day’s activities (e.g., Padlet, Jamboard), or after class by emailing me or stopping by my office. I provided these expectations in writing on a slide and described them during class. I have always articulated how I hope students will participate in class, suggesting that they ask questions or share their thoughts. This new level of intentionality and detail at the outset, though, brought a more focused spotlight than I have been in the habit of offering. To be honest, it felt a bit awkward to me. I was concerned that it might feel forced or be perceived as juvenile or even didactic. So I’ve attempted to frame these introductory remarks as an invitation to students rather than a patronizing prescription, explaining that I understand students might be uncertain about how to participate given that I’m an unfamiliar guest instructor and I want to be clear that I hope they’ll actively engage in the class. To me, that framing feels more comfortable and authentic.

I’ve only tried this in three classes so far this semester. It’s a limited sample, but I have to say that I’ve been struck by how engaged many of the students in these three classes have been. Of course, that could have nothing to do with this tweak! But maybe…

What strikes me now is how this new, small change is, in fact, so closely aligned with the transparency I’ve been cultivating around information literacy. This intentionality in being explicit about class engagement options is just another kind of unveiling, another way to increase clarity, accessibility, and inclusion.

It makes me wonder what else I could be working to uncover and clarify for students in and out of the classroom. Where else might I be making assumptions? What other paths and processes– established and expected to me but invisible to students–could be unveiled? How and where do you practice transparency in your teaching? 

Things I Didn’t Know I Needed to Know

Hindsight is 20/20, right? In this collaborative post from our ACRLog team, we’re reflecting on the lessons and truths about libraries, librarianship, and higher ed that we wish we had come to understand sooner — the stuff we didn’t know to ask about earlier on in our careers, the stuff we didn’t know that we needed to know — and how our current understanding can perhaps help us to more clearly see the things we need to do differently. 

What’s something you wish someone had told you or that you wish you had asked in a job interview in order to get a clearer picture of the work, institution, or culture? 

[Alex] I wish I had the foresight to ask for more detail about what the tenure process looks like for a librarian, as this was not something I had encountered before. I had the rare opportunity to choose tenure-track or fixed-term when I was hired, and I assumed tenure-track was inherently the “better” choice and did not give it much critical consideration. 

[Hailley] A colleague and I were just talking about this recently – we wished we had asked about what the culture is around start and end times. At my current institution, we have a pretty standard 8:15-4:30 workday (university-wide). Knowing this might not change your mind to take or not to take a job, it is helpful to know what the general rule of thumb is before entering a new institution. 

[Veronica] It’s incredibly important to ask what the organization is doing to ensure their workplace is equitable, inclusive, and accessible. Both the answer, and the way that it is answered are especially important for librarians with marginalized identities, but should be a concern for all librarians. You can usually get a sense of a place by how the people you are talking to react to that question. 

What’s an unwritten rule at your current or past institution(s) or within your area of librarianship that you had to learn as you go?

[Alex] At each institution I’ve worked at, the unwritten rules are mostly workplace culture, processes for the way things are done. My best example is that I have had scheduled reference shifts at both of my librarian jobs, and it is done very differently at each: on a weekly basis vs. six months at a time; in hourly shifts vs. 90-minute shifts; all open hours vs. a six-hour period of the day on weekdays only. It demonstrated to me that not only are types of libraries very different, but so are individual locations. 

[Maura] When I started at my current institution as Instruction Coordinator 14 years ago, I also noted a few things about workplace culture that were perhaps a bit more formal than I expected. Most of my library colleagues dressed up a bit for reference shifts and teaching, and across the college when faculty referred to each other in front of students they tended to use “Professor So and so” rather than first names. The former has definitely changed somewhat since the pandemic though I’m not sure if the latter has.

[Jen] When I moved to my current institution to take on this job almost five years ago, it was my first time in a faculty position. I had already worked in libraries for a long time by that point but always in positions classified as staff. I didn’t take this job because it was classified as faculty; I saw it as a plus, but certainly not the deciding factor. It’s taken me some time to fully grasp what it means to have faculty status in terms of planning my work and organizing my time, as well as in terms of my opportunities and responsibilities–not only of the position itself, but also as a faculty member. Of course, faculty classification while working in a public service-oriented unit and also being an administrator and manager is different from a typical faculty role. But I think this vantage point has given me new perspective on what a position’s classification can mean with respect to autonomy, advocacy, and the like. Having worked from both sides of this coin now, though, I still believe that it is up to us to not only practice and embody the full potential of our roles, but to also challenge it (or, perhaps more accurately, to challenge others’ assumptions and expectations of our roles). Whether because or in spite of classifications, we can play a significant part in making our places in our library and institutional landscapes what we want them to be. 

What’s something simple or fundamental about higher ed, libraries, or your current/past job(s) that you wish you’d understood sooner?

[Hailley] Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how decisions are made. Overtime, and especially as a current middle manager, I can more clearly see the many people above me who might influence, inform, or make a decision. Even if I don’t love a decision, I try to keep in mind the bigger picture and context for that specific decision. 

[Angie]  Absolutely what Hailey points out. I try to share this perspective with others as well.  Another reality I wish I knew sooner is how people in higher ed – from students to faculty to administrators – understand so little about the work of libraries, and how even those who communicate well, it remains a constant endeavor.  I am starting to accept this as work that is never done.

[Jen] I decided to go to library school without much library work experience, really. I had a job at the circulation desk in my college library, but my experience doing research for my senior thesis played a much bigger part in prompting me to take this path. While in grad school, I worked at the reference desk in one of my university’s libraries. This was a valuable experience that helped me solidify my grad school (and job search) focus on reference, instruction, and outreach work in academic libraries, but I don’t think I gave other areas of librarianship as much thought as I should have. All that to say, I didn’t come to this field with much pre-existing foundational knowledge about libraries. I feel particularly lucky, then, to have had a supervisor in my first professional position (a one-year stint) who took great pains to connect me with colleagues and projects in a wide range of areas and departments to help expand my awareness and skill set. And I feel very lucky, too, to have spent a significant chunk of my career early on at a small liberal arts college library. Because our library team was relatively small, collegial, and collaborative (read: everyone wore a lot of hats), I had many opportunities to get involved in projects outside the scope of my specific position. Moreover, the daily work of each person and department was literally visible to me. As such, I feel like I got a broad view of how libraries work. My current position at a small branch of an enormous university library system still requires me to wear a lot of hats and also still regularly offers me new insight into how libraries–and higher ed–work, too. But had I started my career in a system of this size, I don’t think I would have had occasion to participate in or observe so many aspects of academic library work so closely. I would have very little understanding, for example, of the technical work of my cataloging, serials, and licensing colleagues or of what’s involved in implementing a new discovery system. I regularly rely and expand on the broader, foundational understanding those early positions afforded. I’m grateful for the opportunities I had to build it.

[Veronica] Like Jen, I also spent a significant chunk of my career at a small liberal arts college library. What that time taught me, and what I wish I’d realized sooner, is that everyone in higher ed–staff, faculty (tenure track, adjuncts, lecturers), librarians–is trying to do their best with the limited time, bandwidth, and resources that we have. There can be this tendency in larger institutions to feel like it’s us versus them, or fall into victim-villain thinking, when in reality everyone is trying their best and no one is ignoring you on purpose. Yes, there will always be people who are rude, but the vast majority of folks are really just trying to get by as best as they can. I think the more that we can listen to our colleagues and get to know them and their wants, needs, worries, and hopes, the better we can support one another and show solidarity in higher education. 

What’s something in higher ed, libraries, or your area of librarianship that everyone just does but doesn’t work well or should be re-thought?

[Angie] I truly don’t understand how, especially as information scientists, we haven’t prioritized the problem that is email. When I first moved into my own place after college, I remember the internet offerings advertised “up to 5 email accounts!”, and I thought why would anyone need that many? In my work within technical services, we have more than that; I know their purpose, and still wonder why these systems can’t serve us better. Many band-aids out there endeavor to help us “manage” email, but not a lot of solutions recognize the problematic level of reliance on email in the workplace. I don’t want to manage email. As ubiquitous as email is, it ought to more effortlessly help or at least get out of the way.

[Maura] I am so grateful to my colleagues that we are a well-functioning, kind, and thoughtful team. Not that we don’t have challenges, because every workplace has challenges, but we’re committed to asking questions and taking responsibility for our inevitable mistakes (because everyone makes mistakes). I was in academia right after college and then took some time in the publishing industry before returning to academia as a librarian, and I’d forgotten about the conflict avoidance that seems endemic to so many academic settings. I wish that institutions offered more support for doing the necessary work of moving through conflict thoughtfully and respectfully.

[Jen] We need to increase transparency around salaries. To withhold salary information from position descriptions and during the interview process can make what is already a difficult undertaking even more uncertain and fraught–not to mention a waste of time for everyone involved if candidates drop out late in the process after finally learning that salaries don’t meet their needs. And then, once hired, the lack of communication within and across institutions about salary data leaves library workers siloed and in the dark about potential earnings equity issues and missing key information with which to advocate for themselves. On a related note, we need to create more internal advancement opportunities in libraries. It seems that the general thinking is that in order to move up, one has to move out. I agree with that approach to some degree–transition is typically healthy for an organization and individuals (fresh perspectives and new horizons!). However, the lack of growth potential for folks within an institution can result in stagnancy, frustration, and low morale. While an organizational culture that supports experimentation and innovation can keep motivated library workers interested and invested, the lack of structural elements to support such folks to move into new positions (with real salary growth) is hurting us on both individual and organizational levels.

[Veronica] Like Jen, I definitely feel as though pipelines to leadership are something that need to be addressed within libraries with equity in mind. There is a strong push towards diversifying the profession, but it often stops with the hiring and onboarding process. What happens after that? Why do people leave the organization or the profession? At my library we are looking into how to help all librarians access professional development and support that will help them advance their careers within our library or elsewhere. Some things we need to ask ourselves are: Who are we sharing leadership opportunities with and why? Who within the organization has access to training, mentoring, and coaching? Who is missing from conversations about leadership potential and career advancement? If we, as a profession, spent time on these ideas we might be able to ensure that people stay within librarianship.

What are some of the lessons and truths that hindsight has helped you to see better? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 

Apply to join the ACRLog Blog Team!

Interested in writing for ACRLog? We’re looking for a few new bloggers to join our team! 

We aim to have a group of bloggers who represent diverse perspectives on and career stages in academic librarianship. We are especially seeking librarians interested in writing about technical services, scholarly communication, technology, and related areas and/or those working at small colleges, community colleges, or private institutions, to balance the strengths of our other bloggers.

Members of the ACRLog blog team write on any issue or idea that impacts academic librarianship, from current news items to workflow and procedural topics to upcoming changes in the profession and more. 

ACRLog blog team members typically publish individual posts every 6-8 weeks and sometimes collaborate with other blog team members on co-authored posts. Blog team members also contribute to the work of blog promotion and management (e.g., participate in 2-3 blog team meetings every year). 

If you’re interested in joining the ACRLog blog team, please complete our application form. Applications are due January 31, 2022. 

Proposals will be evaluated by the existing ACRLog blog team. We will strive to consider:

  • Diversity of race/ethnicity/sexual orientation/ability
  • Voices from a range of academic institutions (for example, community colleges, small colleges) and job responsibilities within academic libraries (for example, cataloging, scholarly communications, etc.)
  • Clear and compelling writing style
  • Connection between day-to-day work and bigger conversations around theory, practice, criticism, LIS education, and other issues

Please send any questions to Jen Jarson at jmj12@psu.edu. We’re looking forward to hearing from you! 

Things I mean to know

I’m a big fan of using low-stakes passive engagement activities to informally gather student perspectives. For me, this has most often been simply posting a question or poll related to a timely topic on a strategically-positioned whiteboard. I’m always interested to see what students post–I look eagerly for new responses every time I pass a board–and I try to think carefully about the insight their responses can offer. 

At my current library, we’ve used these questions or polls most often to gauge students’ preferences for services or features we’re planning, such as new furniture or space changes. We’ve also used them as a small way to promote well-being or students’ sense of connections, such as by inviting students to share study tips, messages of goodwill, or plans for the break at the end of the semester. Pre-pandemic, we posted these polls or questions on a regular basis, often weekly. But in the past year and a half, we have gotten away from this practice. First, because our campus was physically closed due to the pandemic, then because of concerns about handling shared materials (like the markers students would use to post their responses), and more recently because we’ve just been out of the habit of doing it.

I’ve been feeling the itch to start this up again so last week I posted a prompt asking students what questions or topics they’ve been researching this semester. I like the range of responses so far: from phyllosilicates to Tyrion Lannister. I posted this particular prompt partly because I’m just interested in the work students are doing. But I also hope that seeing this prompt–their fellow students’ research topics, but also just the question itself–might plant a seed to inspire their own curiosity. It’s just one question on a whiteboard, of course, but you never know what gets someone thinking.

In fact, this little whiteboard question has made me reflect anew not just on the professional and personal topics I’ve researched this semester, but also on my own inquiry mindset. My own research is more often than not driven by an imminent deadline or in reaction to an issue or problem that has arisen in my work or life, rather than because of innate curiosity in a topic. Rarely do I find myself exploring a question for its own sake just because I was interested. I think time/workload are partly to blame, but I’ve long framed this as a personal shortcoming. I think often about how much I admire–envy, even–people with a strong naturally inquisitive nature and their drive to satisfy their curiosity. 

This all got me thinking about a podcast episode I listened to some years ago. My memory of it is spotty, but the episode had something to do with the theme “things I mean to know.” I think the idea was more or less about getting to the bottom of the facts about the world that we take for granted: how do we really know they’re true? At the time, I was inspired to generate my own list of facts and universal truths that I wanted to investigate. I felt enlivened by the sense of inquiry and optimism that having such a list engendered. It felt like the beginning of something exciting. But the sad truth is that I let my list quickly fall by the wayside; I don’t know where it is now and I don’t think I made much, if any, progress on answering the questions I brainstormed.

As I survey today’s additions to the what-are-you-researching whiteboard prompt, I’m thinking about a still more abstract goal at the core of this little exercise. I also posed this question because I’m always looking for little ways to expand students’ understanding and awareness of research–big and small, academic and otherwise–as relevant to their interactions and experiences in the world, to see themselves in that word. And the same goes for me, really. The reflection brought about by writing this post first led me to think that perhaps I should generate a fresh list of “things I mean to know.” Surely, articulating a list of topics to pursue and questions to answer will invigorate me and offer a renewed sense of purpose, I thought. And that’s likely true, for a time. But, turning this lens on myself, I can see with fresh appreciation where my more innate inquiry tendencies–strengths, even?–lie. As a “process person,” I often relish uncovering, understanding, and effectively navigating the steps and behaviors that make up the path to a goal or product. I’ve long recognized and valued how empowering it can feel to have an understanding of the process–the how. I have typically used this as a guiding principle for my librarianship and focused on growing students’ awareness of process in order to support and advance their inquiry experiences. It’s been some time since I saw this spark, this drive as the way I motivate my own research, as a mark of my own curiosity.