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.

What Does Engagement Mean?

Our library now has an Inclusive Pedagogy Community of Practice (CoP) spearheaded by my excellent colleague, Emily Deal. Next week we’re meeting to discuss Not Enough Voices, a chapter from An Urgency of Teachers by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel. It’s such a rich chapter that I fear I won’t do it justice by summarizing it. But one part of Morris’ chapter has stuck with me this week:

Today most students of online courses are more users than learners. The majority of online learning basically asks humans to behave like machines…We believe that efficiency is a virtue…But these are not things that are true, they are things that are sold.

Sean Michael Morris, Not Enough Voices

I think about these lines, and the ways in which Morris, himself an instructional designer and teacher, ties so much of instructional design to operant conditioning. We want so desperately to set up the right conditions for learning– the settings, learning management systems, virtual classrooms, and online learning experiences that will best help the greatest number of students engage in learning and succeed. In working towards what we think is best for all we have a tendency to standardize, to teach towards the “average learner” (whoever that might be). Yet learners are not a uniform body, nor is it possible to create a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching.

By approaching our teaching using universal design for learning principles, we attempt to make learning environments, systems, and experiences as accessible and positive as we can for as many people as possible. But is it enough? We’ve created space for greater numbers of learners to engage in learning, but what does it mean to engage?

In the forward to An Urgency of Teachers, Audrey Watters writes:

We all spend much of our day now clicking on things, a gesture that is far too often confused with “engagement.” (“Engagement” — a word that has come to mean “measurable” and “marketable.”)

Audrey Watters

This hit a little too close to home. As an instruction coordinator and teacher I’m building asynchronous lessons, videos, research guides, and other teaching materials. I strive to be inclusive in my creation of these materials, but what kind of engagement am I hoping to achieve? Does making something interactive and clickable automatically make it engaging? Do we measure engagement by how many students watched a video or went through a lesson? Are they truly “engaged” when they do so or are they just going through the motions. Click here. Watch this. Submit your answer. Repeat.

Those who see learners as users as Morris mentions in his chapter would have us focus on fostering engagement by eliminating barriers to entry, ease of use of interfaces, and simplifying actions like accessing course materials and submitting assignments. An LMS with a good user interface is helpful, but it’s not all that’s needed for learning. Learning isn’t a UX problem to be solved. It’s not about personas. It’s too complicated to generalize because it is so individual. Engagement is individual. The way one student engages with material, with their instructor, and with their peers may be radically different than the next student. One student listens intently, another asks questions, still another writes and draws and ends up with copious pages of notes. Engagement can be so many different actions–some visible, some not.

My team and I have invested hundreds of hours over the past 6 months on creating online learning experiences that we hope will engage students, make them think and help them clarify their own thoughts and knowledge. Yes, we wanted to make them interactive, but we also wanted to give space for students to reflect, digest, and brainstorm. This has meant relying on offline methods like worksheets, reflection questions, and pauses to brainstorm. Sure, they can turn these in to their instructors for “proof” that they did the work, but that’s not what’s important. For us, what’s important is that they spend the time engaging with the material in a meaningful way. It’s probably not always going to happen, but we want to create the space for it to happen.

One thing we’re still wrestling with is how to foster engagement among students in an asynchronous library world, because there is so much students learn from one another in synchronous learning. We’ll continue to ponder this as we strive to make our online learning experiences more inclusive, more robust, and more engaging than just clicking.

Performance

We have tents and grand speeches, branded masks and slogans, rehearsals and schematics and all of the plans that accompany major performative events. And to be honest, that’s exactly what college, university, and academic library reopenings feel like to me: A Performance.

We’re reopening because of political pressure and financial need, not because it’s suddenly safer to do so. We can’t talk about closing after reopening; in fact we pretend it’s not even an option. We only talk about cutting services, socially distancing, limiting crowds in the library, and cleaning and sanitation. We suspend disbelief so that we can say it will all be as safe as possible because this is the story we are telling; this is the performance we are giving. We see some universities cancelling these performances, but most of us are persisting.

I, like many of you, am not great at this performance. I can’t “Yes, and…” these plans as I sit safely working from home for the next few months. I am not putting myself at risk but my colleagues are going to be doing that everyday. It’s a dangerous performance set on a foundation of hopes, best laid plans, willful ignoring/ignorance, and government incompetence. I don’t know how long it will run–2 weeks? 2 months? a whole semester?–but it’s not a show I thought we would ever be performing. It feels like living in a McSweeney’s essay or an article from The Onion.

I am grateful to have a job / part to play in this performance. I am grateful to have health insurance and meaningful work I can do from home. I am grateful for my paycheck. But do I love this performance? No.

Here. Still.

Here we are friends. Things are still weird, wrong, scary, annoying, infuriating, comforting, isolating, easy, difficult, slow-paced, and overwhelming. I’m sitting at the IKEA desk I hastily bought before Texas shut down all non-essential business in April. It’s positioned at a window that overlooks two dumpsters and a parking garage, but the light is good and I can close the door to the room while my partner homeschools our son in the morning. We trade off in the afternoon and again in the evening. He’s a good partner, but I still find myself being the preferred parent these days, a source of endless hugs and reassurances that remind me of what it was like to parent a toddler.

This is my week to write a post for ACRLog and I’ve been struggling to come up with ideas that I think are worth writing about. I solicited advice from the ACRLog blogging team and colleagues on Twitter. Suggestions were all good and helpful, and ranged from topics like what an instruction program would look like in the fall to staying motivated over a socially-distant summer to misinterpretations of vocational awe to discussions of imposter syndrome and the reopening of libraries. The problem is that I can’t bring myself to write about any of these topics well. The library world doesn’t need another Libraries + COVID-19 think piece, certainly not from someone like me, who is still employed, safely working from home with an immunocompromised partner who is able to do the same.

What works for me while I work from home won’t work for you. I work around homeschooling an 8 year old, our family’s various therapy appointments, dog-walking, exercise, grocery runs, and making food my son won’t think is “the grossest thing ever.” My work is easy. I’m not making decisions about furloughs or layoffs. I’m not having to don homemade PPE to reopen my library or gather books for faculty researchers. I get to create online instructional materials and work on interesting projects. I’m always worried, but my worries aren’t your worries. I worry about my partner getting sick and his compromised immune system not being able to fight off the infection. I worry about my ASD son being so socially isolated and not being able to practice valuable social interaction. I worry about my parents and in-laws. I worry about being a family whose income relies solely on the success of academia, and one academic institution in particular. I worry about the most vulnerable people in the world right now.

So what is there to write and share? I can share that things that get me through a day. They probably won’t be helpful to most people who read them, but maybe if we all share what gets us through a day (maybe not today, or yesterday, but a day that was a good day) there’s something there for each of us.

Here’s where I reach the part of writing where a little part of me gives up and I just start listing things, or, what my friend Jo and I call the “F**k it. Here’s a list.” portion of my post. We’re all here. Still. Some in better shape than others. Let’s support each other. Organize. Reach out. Offer help. We all need it.

Things getting me through a day: