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.

Complex or clickbait?: The problematic Media Bias Chart

This guest post was submitted by Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Research at William & Mary, and Nathan Elwood, Library Administrator at the Missouri Legislative Library.

The Media Bias Chart, commonly referred to simply as “The Chart,” has become ubiquitous in discussion of information literacy and news evaluation. The Chart, for those unaware, attempts to differentiate trustworthy and untrustworthy media sources based on two axes: bias and reliability. 

Despite the popularity of this memetic tool, it raises a whole host of issues that must be addressed as part of our larger information literacy conversations. 

The Chart promotes a false equivalency between left and right, lionizes a political “center” as being without bias, reinforces harmful perceptions about what constitutes “news” in our media ecosystem, and is ignored by anyone that doesn’t already hold a comparable view of the media landscape. 

The Chart is a meme, not an information literacy tool, and as librarians we need to be clear-eyed about these flaws. As Ad Fontes Media released version 7.0 last month, we thought it was a good time to explore our concerns. 

Origins of The Chart

First published in December 2016 by Vanessa Otero, The Chart was originally simple and informal, placing sources on a “liberal” to “conservative” left-right axis, and along a vertical axis of credibility ranging from “complex” to “clickbait.” As with all iterations of The Chart, this resulted in sources arranged in a rough pyramid, with sources ranked the most “mainstream” and “complex” as being of the highest information value. 

Creator Vanessa Otero does not come from an information literacy background. While currently an intellectual property lawyer, her previous professional experience was in pharmaceutical sales and as a Regional Advisor for Noveau Riche, a non-accredited vocational school specializing in real estate investing.  In 2010, amidst accusations of being a multi-level marketing scam, Nouveau Riche dissolved. In 2011, the founders of the company were fined more than $5 million by the Arizona Corporation Commission for defrauding students. 

Otero says The Chart is a “passion project” and could be useful to consumers and advertisers.

Within weeks of the first iteration’s release, The Chart became a viral phenomenon. It also received pushback from far-right outlets after seeing Infowars, Breitbart, and The Daily Caller all grouped in the bottom-far right, a quadrant labeled as not credible. 

However, criticism of the original meme wasn’t exclusive to the far-right. Left-wingers noticed the conspiracy site “Natural News” grouped at the bottom left of the liberal/conservative axis. 

Natural News, it was quickly pointed out, was a known purveyor of far-right conspiracy theories, such as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting being a false-flag. The far-left/extremely “liberal” grouping for the site, Otero justified through the site’s “anti-corporate and popular liberal pseudo-science positions.” Natural News has since fluctuated across the spectrum, before arriving on the far-right in the current iteration. 

On neutrality

In the original iterations of The Chart, all evaluation of sources was conducted by Otero herself. However, after her formation in 2018 of Ad Fontes Media, analysis is conducted by a team of writers, journalists, and other professionals. 

Whenever a new item is evaluated, it is analyzed by a team of at least 3 of these analysts, “with an equal number from left-leaning, center-leaning, and right-leaning perspectives.”

One of the most common points of justification for this project and similar endeavors is that the analysis they conduct is “bipartisan” in this manner. This is something that has been left uninterrogated within the library profession for far too long. It may seem like a strange question, but what is actually “good” about a bipartisan analysis?

When Donald Trump claims that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville riots, we can easily identify what a facile, deceptive framing this is. So why do we allow it within our media analysis?

Say you have, like Ad Fontes Media does, a “bipartisan” group of analysts; evenly mixed between liberals/leftists, conservatives, and centrists. For the purposes of this example, feel free to dismiss that liberals aren’t actually classified as “Left” in most understandings of political science. Instead, consider what the conservative viewpoint genuinely brings to the table.

On January 6th, a majority (68%) of Republican lawmakers, the representative body of the conservative viewpoint in American politics, voted to overturn a free and fair presidential election based on unsubstantiated and proven-false conspiracies. They did this only hours after an attempted coup against our government, based on the same premises, left five people dead.

The consensus view among the American conservative movement is that the attack was justified in its reasoning, if not its method. 

As Eugene Robinson said in his recent Washington Post editorial, “Bipartisanship is nice, but you can’t negotiate with fantasy and lies.” 

The problem with pyramids

Projects like the Media Bias Chart all portray the political center “unbiased,” feeding into what cultural theorist Mark Fisher labels as “capitalist realism,” in which the status quo power structure is the only system that can feasibly exist, and even the thought of alternative systems is seen as inherently radical.

In the structure of The Chart, the “center” or “status quo” is portrayed as the most preferable, least problematic option. It is, visually, the top of the pyramid. It is “biased” (and therefore less credible) to hold views outside reinforcement of this status quo. 

Within this framing, the Democratic Party represents the left end of the spectrum, and the Republican Party the entirety of the right. However, according to the work of the Manifesto Project, the Democratic Party tracks to the political center, and the Republican Party to the far-right. . 

Within this framing, right-wing and left-wing views are both held as equally “extreme,” despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security singled out right-wing extremists as “the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland” 

Mainstream or Utter Garbage?  


Another flaw of the balanced, pyramid structure of The Chart is that it fails to take into account the centralization of the media landscape, as described in the Propaganda Model. The corporate monopolizing that we see in the US media, rather than furnishing us with diverse viewpoints across a variety of sources, has collapsed our media ecosystem into a small set of acceptable views, portrayed by dozens of sources that differ only aesthetically. Our media ecosystem, put bluntly, presents an “illusion of choice,” oriented largely to the benefit of a pro-business status quo.   

What’s the objective? 

Also worth noting is how the “objective, view from nowhere” standard that The Chart reinforces was developed by and for white, cis males, and that enforcing that “neutral” POV can often be fundamentally inequitable.. 

Consider when a reporter for the City Desk program in Chicago accused Malcolm X of being “personally prejudiced” and incapable of being “academic” in his arguments regarding the Ku Klux Klan, simply because they had burned down his home and murdered his father. Or more recently, when Black journalist Wesley Lowery revealed how he had been “muzzled” by editors at the Washington Post.

In the wake of these events, Lowery has written compellingly on the failures of our current conception of “objectivity” in newsrooms, a conception that The Chart fortifies by design.  

The problems of source as shorthand

While the outlet providing an article is certainly an essential consideration when it comes to evaluation, we reject that it is the most important indicator. A media company is not a monolith, but an organization of people. 

Divergence from editorial direction is common. When the NYT published Senator Tom Cotton’s opinion piece calling for the military be sent in to control protests, or the Wall Street Journal’s Op-Ed questioned Dr. Jill Biden’s use of the “Doctor” title, journalists at both organizations spoke out against pieces. 

Sources are also divided into different areas, with different specializations and audiences. This makes it very difficult to generalize a source’s credibility. For example, Buzzfeed and Teen Vogue have published excellent political reporting while also drawing eyeballs through listicles and pop culture pieces. 

The simple layout of The Chart does not allow for this kind of context or nuance. 

What is included

It’s difficult to tell how Ad Fontes selects the media which appear on The Chart. Natural News and others have transitioned on and off The Chart several times. Many sources in Version 7.0’s “green box” are household names, but just beneath them in the “mixed reliability category” The Chart has previously included outlets like Epoch Times, a pro-Trump outlet with ties to the Falun Gong cult and a penchant for spreading Covid-19 conspiracy theories.

Currently occupying the same space, and even outranking established publications like The Nation in terms of credibility, is Quillette, a publication that has promoted racial pseudo-science on multiple occassions.

In her essay Lizard People in the Library, Barbara Fister argues that librarians must educate learners to differentiate between news platforms which serve as watchdogs for society, and outlets which prioritize profits over any kind of social contract. Ad Fontes amplifies outlets like Epoch Times and Quillette through their inclusion, leading the casual observer to assume that, while problematic, these are legitimate news organizations worthy of inclusion in a normal media diet. 

Just as harmful as these impacts is how The Chart also reinforces the concept of “news” being exclusively a national affair. This is to the great detriment of local news outlets, which often provide not only high quality information, but information more directly relevant to people’s lives.


This is a real problem, because the death of news at the local level has allowed for the propagation of far-right propaganda outlets in the vacuums created. 

Tabula Rasa

Some have argued that The Chart is helpful for students who are new to research and are a ‘blank slate’ when it comes to sources; The Chart gives them guidance as they conduct their research online. But this makes little sense; as a visual source, The Chart can only include a tiny fraction of sites. 

Internet searches will bring up stories from thousands of different sources not on The Chart. Local media sources are one example of a source type that is ignored by The Chart’s methodology, but there are even extremely popular information and disinformation sources that don’t show up. 

Given the variable nature of the chart’s inclusion of sources, how are readers supposed to interpret a source’s absence in relation to its credibility? 

Check your bias

In one of the earliest mainstream media articles about the newly formed Ad Fontes Media, MarketWatch asserted in their headline “How biased is your news source? You probably won’t agree with this chart.” 

From the beginning, the biggest flaw in this project has been viewers’ own confirmation bias. Frequent consumers of sources that The Chart claims to be untrustworthy or biased will often dismiss The Chart entirely. Conversely, the centrist consumer who reposts The Chart to their social media page will often ignore the unscientific and haphazard nature of the work.

So what chart should I use instead?

While we have focused our discussion on the Media Bias Chart’s flaws, many of the same critiques apply to other websites that claim to rate media outlets’ biases. Professors and librarians are looking for a ‘silver bullet’ that will help students become more discerning consumers of media. As educators, we must transition away from crutches like these, and instead endorse comprehensive, skill-based evaluation of information sources.

While Nathan does not recommend any methodology in particular, he has found that the Five W’s as framed by Jessica Olin are a helpful tool when training students to read sources critically. The easy recognizability of the framework helps it to stick with students, and promotes a constant and variable interrogation of sources rather than a standardized checklist. He has also regularly talked about the misinformation categories identified by media professor Melissa Zimdars, whose work was popularized around the same time as Otero’s meme. In addition, he feels that information literacy, as a skill designed to create more informed citizens, must be coupled with a comprehensive and rigorous study of the basics of political science and civics. 

Candice advocates people use Mike Caulfield’s SIFT method when evaluating a news article, since it emphasizes lateral reading and the need to recontextualize information. While media bias charts try to provide a heuristic that encourages people to trust or distrust a source in isolation, SIFT recognizes that we must view each story within the greater information ecosystem. This is not something that can be done with a meme – and to suggest information literacy can be so simplistic is insulting. 

Combatting Imposter Syndrome with Comradery and Critical Pedagogy

One of my friends from my graduate program is currently an instruction librarian at another institution. At the beginning of the academic school year, he asked if I would like to join him in reading partnership centered on instruction and pedagogy through a critical lens. So far this year, we have read bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. While reading these books we have met weekly or biweekly to discuss the contents of each chapter. I am as sick of Zoom as the next person, but these meetings were often the highlight of my week.

During these sessions we have shared our experiences, opinions, and instruction strategies as they relate to the work of hooks and Freire. It is hard to select just one topic from hours of lively conversation, but one common theme has been resonating with me as I reflect on last semester and look ahead to the new one – the complicated student-teacher relationship.

Both authors problematize the traditional hierarchical classroom setting where the teacher is always the leader of the classroom and students are often stripped of their agency upon entry. Rather, hooks and Freire explore the ways in which it is necessary for teachers to empower student agency, and to enter into a teaching and learning relationship with the students.

Creating a classroom where students have agency, and their experiences and voices are truly valued is demanding work that becomes more complicated when applied to the library one-shot instructional model. Part of this complication comes with the course instructor/librarian relationship. If the course instructor teaches with a traditional lecture model, and does not see the value of centering student voices and experiences in the classroom, librarians may not feel empowered to create this environment, or may even run the risk of not being asked to return.

As a new librarian at a new university, building relationships with teaching faculty has been one of my primary goals. Through my various communications with faculty in my liaison areas, I have not encountered any strong push back to my instruction style. However, and this may be completely in my head, I often feel that there is an expectation that I will come into the Zoom room as the Expert and fill the students with my Librarian Knowledge. This unspoken, and perhaps fully imagined, expectation feeds into something I have written about before – imposter syndrome.

This is made worse by the fact that I am what some of my colleagues like to refer to as a “generalist” – I do not have a master’s degree in any of the fields with which I liaise. This is where student experiences, voices, and expertise come to play. My reading comrade and I have been discussing strategies that implement hooks’ engaged pedagogy and Freire’s dialogics – essentially centering student voices and experiences in the library one shot.  

In reality, I am not a generalist. I specialize in library pedagogy and information literacy. When I give over half of the classroom time to the students to share their thoughts, experiences, and even expertise on information literacy topics, I am seeking to empower student knowledge, and allowing for them to teach and learn from each other. Of course, I bolster their ideas with additional perspectives where and when it is helpful. By creating a learning environment that centers students, I am able to bring together my subject expertise and their knowledge base.

Learning to navigate classrooms norms and pedagogical power structures is something instruction librarians are always participating in. In conversation with my reading comrade, I have developed several new strategies for this. It is my hope that as I push and break down the boundaries of the hierarchical classroom, my new colleagues will see the value of this practice.

Re-envisioning an Instruction Program with Critical Information Literacy in Mind

My name is Kevin Adams and I am one of the new First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) bloggers! My pronouns are he/him/his. I am interested in critical information literacy, pedagogy, all things punk, and a bunch of other stuff. I am so happy to be writing for this blog and I hope that by sharing some of my experiences I can spark some fun conversations or just brighten somebody’s day.

I am the Information Literacy Librarian at Alfred University. Alfred University is a small private university in a little village in upstate New York. The closest city of note is Rochester. Because Alfred University is so small, I am one of eight librarians (including the dean and director). I don’t want to speak too much to other librarians’ workloads, but suffice to say we all have a lot of different responsibilities. One responsibility that we all share is instruction, and in my new position I find myself leading the instruction team. In this post I want to share my experience navigating reconstructing an information literacy program shaped by Critical Information Literacy. I hope to share what my goals are, what some of my strategies are, and the challenges I have faced.

Goals

The United States is a hell scape. Late stage capitalism is siphoning money from the working and middle class folks in this country to support billionaires’ and corporations’ hoarding habits; cops are continuing to murder innocent black and brown folks with no significant repercussions; climate change is driving natural disasters that are forcing people from their homes; innocent immigrants are being held in concentration camps where agents of the state are carrying out forced sterilizations; over 200,000 people have died in the United States from COVID-19; and the list goes on. I am aware of this, my colleagues are aware of this, other teaching faculty at my university are aware of this, and students are ABSOLUTELY aware of this. So, creating a standard information literacy program that doesn’t recognize what is going on in the world felt totally useless. For this reason, and others, I am trying to create an information literacy program that integrates Critical Information Literacy (CIL) throughout the instruction design and delivery process.

CIL is not the answer to all of the problems that I have listed above, but it is an approach that does not actively ignore the situation that we find ourselves in. CIL is an approach to information literacy that is informed by critical theory and critical pedagogy. It recognizes that information is not neutral or objective; rather, it reflects social, political, and economic power systems and privileges. CIL engages with learners as contributors in the classroom to investigate, understand, and use the contours of information structures and manifestations (Wong and Saunders, 2020). In many ways, this is an approach to information literacy that uses a social justice lens. 

This approach has two elements: 1) a deep understanding that information and libraries are not neutral, and 2) a centering of students in the classroom stemming from an understanding that students are important, active agents in the classroom. This agency allows students to contribute their ideas, experiences, and even expertise.

Strategies

When I applied and interviewed for this position, I centered my commitment to an inclusive information literacy program that, if possible, would implement CIL. Keeping this method front and center in my communications with potential new colleagues set the stage for me to have challenging conversations about neutrality and the role of instruction librarians as I began my new position.

Fast forward to my first month on the job. After getting acclimated to the new culture and climate of the position as best I could over Zoom, I started putting together a written Information Literacy Plan. I found myself in a unique position. Due to some shifts in the library prior to my joining, the previous instruction models were still primarily based on the ACRL Standards. This created a need for a new plan that centered the ACRL Framework. In filling this need, I saw an opportunity to incorporate CIL as a basic tenet of the Information Literacy Plan.

In order to tie the Information Literacy Plan into the values of my library and university, I consulted the strategic plans and mission and values statements for each. Alfred University strives to be “outside of ordinary” and uses language about inclusivity and diversity, affecting individual students, and changing the world for the better. While this type of branding sometimes leaves an unsavory taste in my mouth, it has allowed me to connect the CIL goals of social justice and inclusivity to the broader goals of the university. This has proven to be a failsafe as the White House has released statements that attack Critical Race Theory, an important theoretical foundation for CIL.

Implementing a plan for information literacy that negates that libraries and information are neutral from the very first page might not be possible at all institutions and might be highly controversial at others. In addition to creating a plan that ties in the values of the university, I worked closely with library administration. The Dean of Libraries at my institution is very sympathetic to social justice issues and information literacy. He has provided ample support for this idea from the outset. This has been extremely helpful in drumming up support for the idea amongst the other librarians, all of whom have been very receptive.

CIL does not exist in a vacuum. I was thrilled to find that AU libraries were actively working on a commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression. In this commitment the librarians showed that they were already thinking about many of the concepts that inform a CIL approach, for example anti-racism, false neutrality in academic spaces, the history of white supremacy in libraries, etc. Finding ways to talk to fellow librarians about these topics created fertile ground for the seeds of CIL.

Challenges

A little over a month ago I introduced the librarians to the Information Literacy Plan. The plan is still a living document and will be adapted as necessary, but it lays out a shared groundwork that can inform each librarian’s instruction practice. The plan was so well received that I nearly cried after sharing. It can be difficult to find high points this semester, but that was certainly one of them.

In spite of how well received the plan was, explaining and implementing it is and will continue to be challenging. Most of the instruction practices at my institution have, up until recently, been primarily informed by the ACRL Standards. Updating the program to include both the ACRL Frameworks and CIL is a dramatic shift. While working with fellow librarians that are excited and curious, I continue to find myself asking and answering new questions about how to best connect with and platform students in the classroom.

These challenges are compounded by the fact that all our instruction sessions have been online this semester. Centering students in a meaningful way during a one shot can be challenging in any circumstance. Add to that Zoom fatigue, frequent technical difficulties, and all the social, political, and environmental challenges weighing on our minds in 2020. JEEZE. It is not easy, and feeling encouraged by or excited about a session is becoming a rare occurrence.

I am still figuring out new strategies to overcome these challenges. I am excited to continue to share about this and other new developments in my first year as an academic librarian! I would be thrilled to speak with anyone about what this process has looked like, share strategies, or just commiserate. You can reach me by email, or hit me up on twitter @a_rad_librarian.

A hook to grab onto: Creating context cues in online instruction

In a recent meeting, I found myself yet again wondering if I had already shared a particular bit of news with my colleagues or was I thinking of the previous meeting? My schedule, probably much like yours, is usually full of meetings. In the pre-pandemic world, my schedule reflected a mix of online and in-person meetings that were peppered in among the classes I taught (almost exclusively in person), hallway chats, and so on. A meeting frequently also meant a change of scenery, whether just down the hall or across town. These days, my physical surroundings from meeting to meeting are largely unchanged: I’m typically at the makeshift desk in my makeshift home office. Just the link that I click on changes. Even on the days when I’m physically on campus per our rotating schedule, meetings still happen online from my office. 

It’s no great surprise that the sameness of my physical environment contributes to my sense that time is simultaneously sticky and slippery. Yet it felt like a moment of realization to first recognize its impact on my ability to recall–or perhaps situate is the better word–details. In such moments of memory lapse, I’m struck by how much I have typically relied on context cues from my physical space to trigger my memory. I might think back to how a room was configured, where I was sitting, where my colleagues were sitting, and so on in order to make a connection or dig up a detail. As I frequently find myself in the same chair at the same desk overlooking the same window, I no longer have such easy triggers to help me differentiate. 

As my information literacy instruction schedule kicks into high gear for the semester, I now find myself wondering how the sameness of physical space is impacting students. My institution is currently offering in-person and online classes. We’re doing all of our information literacy instruction online. Of course, the impacts of the pandemic on student learning are broad and deep. Here I’m thinking, though, specifically about the physical space from which students are engaging in their online classes and its impact on their experience, as well as their perception of their experience.  

This all makes me think back to an interaction I had with a student at my former institution a number of years ago. In that library, we frequently scheduled information literacy instruction in the library’s main computer lab. Often, then, students would visit the same space for any research instruction. On one occasion while chatting with a student before class began, he said to me that he already knew what we were going to do that day because he had been in this lab before. When I probed further, I learned that the student had attended sessions led by different librarians for courses in other disciplines. Yet the student assumed that he already knew what our class would entail. This student’s comment could mean many things, of course. Perhaps the comment suggests that the student was already able to transfer important takeaways about the research process from those sessions to the project at hand. Or perhaps the comment suggests that the student perceived all library research tools and strategies as the same and wasn’t able to distinguish between them in the nuanced way that librarians perceive them. But the student’s comment specifically referred to the association he was making between the content/learning goals and the physical space leading me to infer that the sameness of the space primed the student to think that he was about to learn the same material or participate in the same activities. 

With this new lens on my own online experience, I’m thinking anew about this student’s comment. I’ve often reflected on how a physical classroom, meeting room, or library area is arranged to promote (or inhibit) engagement and communication or guide behavior, but I haven’t before given much thought to how our spaces (whether physical or online) perpetuate a feeling of sameness or carve out a feeling of uniqueness. As our students connect to what may feel like an endless string of Zoom rooms and with no ability to influence the physical spaces from which our students are connecting, I’m now thinking about the small moves I can make to help create a hook for students to grab onto–the little things I can do to help situate a memory, trigger recall, and facilitate connections. In addition to thinking about the learning goals to guide our session and the active learning experiences to achieve them, then, I’m also thinking more about how I pose questions, design slides, format handouts, even modulate my voice to help facilitate context cues and triggers for students. How do you create hooks for students? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.