Must Teaching and Learning Research Skills be Boring?

Olivia Nellums blogs about her first year experience as a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Camden County College in New Jersey.

Even though I’m a young librarian, I can’t remember not knowing how to use the library. I learned gradually, through a process of trial and error, and then by going to library school.

This leaves me in a curious spot as an instruction librarian: A class comes to the library to learn how to do research for a particular assignment, and basically I communicate what I’ve learned so far about how to effectively use a library. Then, unless they find me later at the reference desk, I don’t see them again. Broadly speaking, library instruction seems to be regarded as skills-based: The librarian demonstrates the skills, and the students are supposed to absorb them in that traditional way that equates their brains with sponges. The library is relevant to them only in the context of their course, and I can tell they’d like me to hurry up and get it over with so they can get back to the competing concerns of their class.

So, as many instruction librarians before me, I’ve turned to learning theories for guidance. Here’s what I’m gathering:
-I should leave students wanting to strike out independently to learn more about information and information-gathering, but without omitting essential points in my lecture.
-I should encourage students to be curious about how to solve an information problem. Also I should nurture them into reconsidering what they think they know about information.
-I should assist with the above in a patient, encouraging, and overall enthusiastic manner.

Now, before I started this job my biggest worries were that I talk too fast and might be mistaken for a student rather than a librarian. On the bright side, I’m glad to see I can set aside those trivialities. I’m also glad that the ideas above are really part of information literacy, which seems to be getting an increasing amount of attention from the academy at large.

As for other past concerns – mainly that I’m in charge of helping students learn every little thing about the library, and that it’s a personal failure if they don’t get it – maybe what I ought to be supporting is a framework of information and the basics of how to find it. So, here’s my summary of that earlier list (borrowing slightly from Ken Bain‘s What the Best College Teachers Do):
-I should promote a natural critical learning environment where students can confront beautiful and intriguing information problems, yet not make it so theoretical that they throw rotten tomatoes at me.

I’m on it.

Introducing Our New First Year Bloggers – Dealing With Vegetable Bribes

We’ve selected two new librarians, Susanna Smith and Olivia Nellums, to blog about their experiences during their first year in academic libraries.

Here’s one of the winning posts, from Susanna Smith of Gadsden State Community College in Alabama. Susanna says,

I work at a community college library, which comes with its own sets of challenges. I just transferred up to a new campus, and am the quintessential “one-person library”, doing a little bit of everything. Also, I share a frustration that many just out of library school share – the college hired me as a “Library Specialist” (non-faculty, support staff classification) yet I still do everything the librarians do (or more!). Many of us take any job in a library we can find, hopeful that we can build a resume to be promoted or find a “true” librarian position.

In her post, Susanna writes about the awkwardness of receiving gifts from patrons. Olivia’s post will follow. Please welcome them both to ACRLog!

I’ve been working here at the community college library since November. I’ve had all sorts of strange requests and questions and completely “off-topic” conversations with patrons who just needed to vent their spleens about something completely unrelated to library services. My prior experience in bookstore management and customer service prepared me well for those things, but today was a first. It was bribery – of a sort that I was completely unable to refuse.

During my shift I helped this very nice lady find some books on nutrition. She was quite energetic, and excited that we had a large selection (we have a nursing program so most of what we have is more technically-oriented than for a layman’s consumption). She also had a very thick accent, and so it was a bit of struggle for both of us at first to figure out what each other was saying. Finally we got to the section she was looking for, and I had to leave her there because I was the only one working the front desk and had someone else waiting.

She came down with an armload of books, ranging from a juicing guide to a nursing-and-nutrition title. She thanked me profusely and headed out the door. Just minutes later she popped back in with a bag, and proceeded to hand me some tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. “I have a garden, and I have enough to share! Thank you so much! I will bring you more when I bring back your books!” I gave her my heartfelt thanks and told her it really wasn’t necessary to bring more vegetables, but she said “No, you helped me! I will bring more!” So how do you handle a patron who insists on bribing you with fresh vegetables??!?

Our college has a very strict policy about accepting gifts from vendors and other “people of influence”, but I don’t think patrons count. And on the whole I thought it would be quite rude to turn down this kind lady’s offer, and I must admit if she brings some zucchini I couldn’t say no to that either.