The Adventures of a Zillennial Librarian

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve attended a few library webinars focused on Generation Z out of my own curiosity. For full transparency, I am a fairly young librarian; I took one gap year in between undergrad and library school. I’m in that liminal space of not quite a millennial, not quite Generation Z (I’ve seen it referred to as a “zillennial”). My birth year has been in both generational cutoffs, depending on who you ask. I often relate to the experiences and outlooks of both of the generations. I still get mistaken as a student, and I am indeed on TikTok like a lot of the typical college-age students I teach.  

I felt particularly “Gen Z” in a research consultation I just had with one of my Environmental Studies students. She needed some legislation from the 80s and 90s, and my state’s government website only has the most recent version. My library is a government repository; we have a specific government documents section of our stacks. Was that the first place I went? Nope. I scoured many a website, and eventually did find the 1989 version we were looking for in the appendix of a 1993 thesis from the University of Montana. Thank goodness for OCR, searchable full text, and institutional repositories!

We did, however, have it in our Maryland Register up in the stacks. This allowed us to find the date it was proposed and the date it was passed, for both versions of the law (and cite it properly!). This consultation got me thinking though about my instincts as a librarian, and how my world experiences and generation relate to the way I go about finding information, even after being trained in it for my master’s degree. Looking in the physical collection is only a thought after I exhaust all of my online searching techniques.  I, and I’d wager to guess many of my students, prefer the ease of finding and reading something online. Although I had dial-up internet for perhaps longer than most folks (I had a version of it until about 2013 or so? Living in the middle of nowhere problems), the internet in general was a big part of growing up and learning how to research. Yes, I love a physical book as much as the next person – but I’m talking more about answering my own questions or doing research. In a webinar on Gen Z by ASERL recently, it was said that “[Gen Z is] so used to finding what they need on their own.” I heavily relate to this. My first impulse is to pull out my phone and perform a Google search; I’m sure this is the case for many now, regardless of generation.  

Another difference I’ve noticed in being a young librarian is that I actively encourage the use of Google Scholar (and actually use it myself). I have attended library sessions before where it is discouraged or interacted with faculty that do not want students using it. I personally find that it is a good steppingstone from performing regular Google searches to getting right into an academic database that might look completely foreign to them. They can still use natural language in Google Scholar and get some relevant results, but they get better ones when we as information professionals introduce them to Booleans and other strategies. It’s also been really useful if a student has too broad of a topic – searching in Google Scholar allows them to see all sorts of discipline conversations about a topic, and how other academics have narrowed things down. They can choose which pathway they’d like to explore further, and once they have a good research question and keywords to try, we can get into the library databases, all the while talking about the differences between Google Scholar and Academic Search Ultimate. The “Cited by” function has also been invaluable in teaching students about the academic conversation as a concept too.  

Another aspect of Gen Z from the ASERL webinar I attended is that despite being constantly online, we generally prefer face-to-face communication. In my personal experience, this preference is heightened due to the pandemic when face-to-face wasn’t even an option. I will take any and all other forms of communication over a phone call, though; I’m not sure that’s necessarily attributable to being Gen Z, but more of an “Emily” thing. The reason is because I can’t read the other person’s body language or facial expressions. You might now ask, Emily, you also can’t do that when it comes to chat, text, and email? But the difference is there isn’t an expectation to immediately respond – I can have a moment to really take in the other person’s words and consider my response.  

As an example for face-to-face communication in my workplace and work life, I would much rather go down to my colleague’s office and ask them my question as opposed to emailing. This is partly due to our collective open-door policy, but for some reason, emailing feels overly formal to me in a lot of cases. If that isn’t an option, I might send the message over Slack. Of course, if it’s important to have some sort of paper trail, I’ll gladly email – it is very helpful to have a record of what a professor and I talked about when I’m preparing the lesson plan, for instance. If my email data scarf had been expanded to all kinds of work communication, I’d be interested in how the percentages broke down! Perhaps that should be my next data project.

These are just a few things I’ve been thinking about as a strange middle-ground zillennial librarian lately, especially since that research consultation. I am endlessly fascinated by generational research as a whole, so if you’ve got any thoughts, please comment them down below.  

Building Community through Inclusive Research Guides  

Editor’s Note: Please join us in welcoming Nery Alcivar-Estrella, Reference and Instruction Librarian at California State University, Northridge, as a new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger for the 2023-2024 year here at ACRLog.

As a first year Academic Librarian, I have become immersed in a project at Cal State University, Northridge (CSUN) with Lisa Cheby, the Education Librarian, and Yi Ding, the Online Instruction Coordinator & Director of Affordable Learning Solutions. We have embarked on a CSU-wide effort inspired by the LibGuides Open Review Discussion Sessions also known as the LORDS Project, which was originally created by Cal Poly. My team and I use rubrics and frameworks from the CSU Wide Toolkit provided by the LORDS team at Cal Poly. Our own version, entitled Engaging Diverse Voices through Research & Resources, will help students research the perspectives of marginalized communities. It will provide students with jumping-off points like search strategies, databases, theoretical and methodological frameworks, community resources as well as reading recommendations to help them diversify their research. Students researching one or more forms of oppression, whether that’s sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, religious persecution, or linguistic discrimination would benefit greatly from using our LibGuide. The tabs located on the right side of the LibGuide have been organized by communities or identities that have been systemically excluded by academic institutions.

As a community of librarians and scholars, we must challenge traditional research practices and encourage critical reflection, particularly as it relates to referencing methods. Typically, academic librarians work with professors and instructors, who require students to cite scholarly or peer reviewed journal articles. Subsequently, many academic librarians have established a conventional way of approaching information literacy and research instruction. However, we must not oversee the importance of recognizing and uplifting different forms of authority. Because of institutionalized discrimination and systemic oppression within predominantly White, research-intensive institutions, publishing processes must be critically examined. As noted in the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, “Experts understand the need to determine the validity of the information created by different authorities and to acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations.” In this way, academic librarians may help students identify not only traditional authorities like peer-reviewed journal articles, but also alternative sources of information like blogs or podcasts. Our LibGuide, Engaging Diverse Voices through Research & Resources, will raise awareness about inclusive academic processes and citational justice.

In our LibGuide, Lisa Cheby will cover the section about citational justice and she will discuss its current role in research and scholarship. She asks, “How are we decentering, decolonizing, diversifying research practices?” With these questions in mind, we developed our LibGuide with the intention of fostering and supporting campus-wide discussions about inclusive research practices. We hope that our suggested readings and tools about citational justice will encourage educators and students from various disciplines to implement this practice into their own scholarship. Citational justice involves a critical awareness about who we are citing and why. Rather than just locating bibliographic information, citational justice involves a commitment to diverse perspectives and schools of thought. This includes questioning our own biases, learning about the identities of cited scholars, and embracing marginalized voices into our scholarly conversations.

As I begin my career as a Reference & Instruction Librarian, I have come to recognize the importance of digital learning objects. Since more students are becoming distant or hybrid learners, it is critical to provide various points of access, which includes online resources centered on inclusive research practices. Although our CSUN LibGuide will not be officially published until spring 2024, I will share our work-in-progress. Please feel free to explore our work and consider implementing a similar research guide at your own college or university. 

Learning to Teach Credit-Bearing Courses

One element that excited me about my current job was the opportunity to teach credit-bearing courses in our Library Informatics bachelor’s degree program. In my role as department head, I not only get the chance to teach and but also lead the program. For my first year, I mostly did the administrative work of leading a program. I worked with our advisor (one of our librarians in our department) to resolve student issues, coordinated our program assessment, set up our course rotation each semester, and assigned classes to the folks that report to me. My first year was really a chance to dive into the program, learn about its creation and context, and lead conversations with the department about the program’s future. It seems that my second year here has focused more on actually teaching the classes, something that excites me and also gives me a lot to think about.

My first chance to teach happened this past summer, where I co-taught LIN 175: Information Literacy, our general education course that covers the research process and gives students a look at research through an IL lens. We taught in a five-week, five days a week, two hours a day, synchronous format. I was able to learn the content, teach about ? of the class sessions, and work closely with the students enrolled. Their final project was a group poster (inspired by the better poster template introduced by Mike Morrison) on an IL related topic of their choice. This version of the class was also a heavy revision from ways the class had been taught previously; our team got together in May and reimagined how the content was introduced and created the final poster project. In many ways, our revisions worked well and the new structure kickstarted a lot of good discussion within the department about how we want this class to work. 

This fall, I had to pinch hit and teach a seven week, asynchronous version of LIN 175. I had never taught a credit course asynchronously before and relied on my department colleagues who let me look at their past syllabi and lurk in their Canvas shells. Teaching a seven week course was definitely eye opening. It was fast paced and pushed me to juggle my day-to-day job, creating content, and evaluating student work. Particularly, I ran into the following challenges and opportunities: 

  • Out of sight, out of mind. At first, I sort of forgot I was teaching an online class. I was involved in so many other projects and in-person activities that I had to actively remind myself there were students, online, waiting for my instruction and feedback. Like any other project, I had to find ways to build it into my to-do lists and my calendar.
  • Developing weekly content aka building the airplane while I was flying it. In general, I roll my eyes at the “building the airplane while we’re flying it” phrase, but it definitely was my experience this fall. Especially at the beginning of the course, I felt that the day before I “dropped” a new module, I was frantically recording lectures, organizing learning materials, and double checking the assignments were set up correctly. While I had a lot of the content from the summer class, there are vast differences between working with students daily, in-person, and having a student work online asynchronously. It’s not an easy transfer! It did get a little easier in terms of setting up modules as time went on, but it was anxiety inducing to start. 
  • How much content is too much content? With the in-person, five-week class, we had two hours each day to go through context, do activities, and learn the materials. I feel comfortable with lesson planning for two hours. I did not feel as confident designing asynchronous content. I still am learning what is reasonable/doable for a week’s worth of learning materials. I want to pick things that are relevant, engaging, and applicable to the students. I also want content that connects to each other and sets the stage for application assignments. Those assignments are really my only way to know if students have absorbed and learned the material, I don’t have the same in-person cues. I ended up with some good modules and I also made plenty of notes of how to improve content for future iterations of this class.  
  • Building connections with students. Something I’ve heard from both faculty who teach online courses and students who have taken online courses is that connecting with each other is tough. Just because I have students complete a reflection over VoiceThread doesn’t mean they connect with their peers or feel connected to me as their professor. I know there’s learning I need to do to better understand how to cultivate community in this time frame and virtual environment. In many ways, I feel like I’m VERY behind on this conversation after the pandemic (but look forward to reviewing all the content created in this time). 

When I submitted my grades on Monday afternoon, I felt a sense of relief. I did it! I don’t think I’ll teach this class, in this format, until the fall, so I have time to make some tweaks and build off what I learned the past seven weeks. For now, I’ll make a transition to preparing for a different seven-week class that starts in January. Wish me luck!


Featured image by Kelli Tungay on Unsplash

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? 

Informational Holism: Humanities librarianship, liberal arts, and the limitations of quantitative metrics

Benjamin Dueck is a General Librarian in the Arts & Humanities Division at The University of Manitoba Libraries. They are the liaison librarian for Religion, English, Catholic Studies, Theatre & Drama, and Peace & Conflict Studies. Their role includes collection development, teaching information literacy, and providing reference services for faculty, students, and staff.

I am writing this article in the midst of a major life transition. Earlier this month, I began working as a full-time Humanities Liaison Librarian at the University of Manitoba. This is both my first academic job and the only time in recent memory that I haven’t been a student. I am feeling proud and excited to be embarking on this new journey! Still, despite the stability that this position provides, I remain plagued with feelings of uncertainty. As someone who falls somewhere in between the proverbial “millennial” and “zoomer” generations, I’ve become accustomed to a certain sense of precariousness. As a child who grew up on the internet, I struggle to remember a time where there wasn’t a global crisis happening around me—be it the 2008 economic crash, the COVID-19 pandemic, or the omnipresent threat of climate change. Be that as it may, I remain resolutely optimistic about the role that academic librarians have to play in the future of teaching and learning. More specifically, I believe that the qualitative research methods supported by humanities librarians like myself will become vitally important in decades to come.

Historically, the capacities I am referring to have been transmitted to learners through the artes liberales (or liberal arts), a Greco-Roman ideal based on the assumption that a flourishing and cooperative society requires a population that is systematically trained in critical, interdisciplinary thinking. In this blog post, I want to reflect on my experiences as a humanities librarian and explore how the philosophies that inform my work contradict many of the demands being placed on universities by neoliberal governments. I hope that those working in similar positions will be able to relate to the ideas explored here and come away from this article feeling empowered and reinvigorated.

Informational holism

As a subject librarian serving the English and Religion programs on my campus, my day-to-day work involves thinking about domains of experience that elude empirical measurement: ethics, theology, and the great wisdom traditions of the world. In order to support the information needs in my subject areas, I take an integral approach to my reference work and in-class instruction. I strive to teach my community to master a form of inquiry that I call informational holism, the ability to intuit across disciplinary boundaries, think in gestalts, and cognize around clusters of datapoints (figure 1). Informational holism can be contrasted with linear-procedural thinking which emphasizes step-by-step instruction and a hierarchical connection between concepts (figure 2). It is also different from decentralized or “non-hierarchical” network thinking which maps the connections between concepts but lacks the dimensionality needed to render relationships of transcendence (figure 3). While the latter two styles do a good job of modeling workflows and making them more efficient, they tend to flatten out the qualitative depth of the objects they represent. If this all seems overtly abstract, worry not! In the sections that follow, I will ground these concepts with some more concrete examples.

Figure 1: Informational holism. Figure 2: Linear-procedural thinking. Figure 3: Network thinking.

Quantification & the neoliberal university

One of the things I love most about working as an academic librarian is the open-ended nature of my job. Aside from daily duties of reference service, teaching, collection development, and committee work, I have the privilege to choose the kinds of projects that I work on. While I remain grateful to have this liberty, the freedom to choose arrives bundled with the gift and the curse of unstructured time. Lindsay O’Neil gives some much needed strategies for managing this freedom in her articles on time management and academic culture shock.  Still, I frequently feel torn between two competing inner voices—a wise and encouraging voice that advises me to slow down and reflect and the voice of a factory foreman chastising me for not using this time to the best of my ability.

I’ve come to realize that this pressure to maximize my work output is only one ripple in a broader current. I am employed after all in the Canadian province of Manitoba, a place where a neoliberal conservative government is making moves to restructure public education as part of a larger effort to stimulate private sector growth. In this landscape, publicly funded universities like mine are being pressured to align themselves with the economic goals of the state by demonstrating their value and accountability. One of the ways that this manifests in the lives of academic workers like myself is through the use of quantitative metrics designed to save time and money. Generally speaking, these metrics leverage networked technology as a means of meeting the goals delineated by linear-procedural strategic plans. In my own institution, I have seen them implemented in various ways: key performance indicators (KPIs) that track the form and frequency of library reference appointments, usage statistics used to determine the value of library subscriptions, and alumni employment surveys that inform how funding is to be allocated to specific academic programs. Quantitative metrics have their place and are undoubtedly useful from an organizational perspective. In my library, the teams that are implementing these metrics are doing so in good faith, working as best they can within a strategic plan that has been set by the university. Nevertheless, if these measures are used at the institutional level to support a program of economic austerity, they can become harmful to the academic community as a whole.

The limitations of scholarly metrics

To understand how the biases of linear-procedural logic become materialized through networked technology, I want to talk about scholarly metrics. As an academic librarian, this topic comes up quite often in my reference appointments, particularly with graduate students who are preparing to enter the academic job market. Broadly speaking, scholarly metrics refer to technologies and programs that are used to measure the “impact” of digital objects (journals, papers, researcher profiles etc.). The most common are the citation tracking features available through platforms like Google Scholar, PLoS, BioMed Central and ResearchGate. Within these systems, impact is measured quantitatively. The greater the total citation count of a digital object, the greater the impact and influence it can be said to have. The problem is not that these tools are inaccurate, it is that they do not tell the whole story.

To understand why this is, I pose to you a hypothetical question. Which is more impactful, a research paper that is cited 100 times or a book chapter that while only being cited once, plays a central role in an emerging scholar’s PhD dissertation? If this were my own work being referenced, I’d tend towards the latter. I’d much rather my work be engaged with in a thoughtful and rigorous way than referenced many times in passing. You may have a different opinion and I respect that. Your answer will depend on your own definition of what is valuable and your own tendencies as a thinker. Nevertheless, the question sheds light on the way scholarly metrics are biased towards a particular definition of what constitutes valuable knowledge. More perniciously, when quantitative metrics become central to the budgetary decisions made by universities, academics feel the need to choose research topics that yield the highest possible impact. If left to continue, I can see this trend posing a threat to academic freedom, particularly if research tied to industry is prioritized over work that contributes to human knowledge in the long term.

The future of humanities librarianship

In their book The Evolution of Liberal Arts in the Global Age (2017), editors Peter Marber and Daniel Araya show how the liberal arts model has survived centuries of economic and technological upheaval. This is because it teaches timeless skills that help learners to navigate periods of social and economic change. In order for subject librarians working in the humanities to best serve our communities, we need to become vocal advocates for the artes liberales as both a guide to action and as a philosophical ideal. On a practical level, this means fighting back against metrics that impose a reductive quantitative logic onto our work and proposing sustainable alternatives that leave room for informational holism.

Valuable guidance on this front can be found in Kevin Adams writing about integrating Critical Information Literacy (CIL) into library instructional design. Pedagogies of this kind will be crucial in the coming decades. Still if these initiatives are to have an ongoing structural impact, they must be paired with a commitment to the liberal arts at the institutional level and a broader societal shift away from neoliberal economics. I am aware that I have only diagnosed the most general contours of this phenomenon here. To use a scholarly cliché, a richer engagement with this subject goes beyond the scope of a single blog post! Nevertheless, this is a topic that I plan to expand on in future research projects. I encourage anyone who shares similar interests to get in touch with me or to leave a comment below.