In and out of context: Musings on information literacy, institutional, and higher ed landscapes

After more than a decade at a private small liberal arts college, my recent transition to a large, public research university has been full of learning opportunities regarding both the content of my work and the culture of this organization. Since arriving, I’ve identified a need for jumpstarting and growing a dormant information literacy program. Developing information literacy initiatives–including course-embedded instruction and faculty development, for example–was a significant focus for me at my previous institution. My experiences and the expertise I developed there certainly apply here. Yet that application requires some translation; my previous work, no surprise, was deeply steeped in that institution’s context.

In my previous position, talking about information literacy by articulating its connections with critical thinking, for example, packed a solid punch for faculty and students. My former institution’s mission statement illustrates the context of our discourse and work, dedicated to the development of “independent critical thinkers who are intellectually agile” and “committed to life-long learning.”

Don’t get me wrong. This kind of language and these values aren’t hard to find at my new institution either. In our general education learning objectives alone, I can point to both explicit and implicit language about information literacy. Telling the story of information literacy in terms of strengthening our abilities to think and learn and live is still compelling. But it doesn’t feel like it goes quite as far a distance here–where I’ve heard gen ed branded as “connecting curiosity and career,” for example–as it did in my previous context.

Surely, it’s not institutional culture alone that explains the difference. The landscape of higher ed altogether has been and continues to be shifting. Yesterday’s joint statement by AAC&U and AAUP, for example, characterizes the trend in this way: “Politicians have proposed linking tuition to the alleged market value of given majors. Students majoring in literature, art, philosophy, and history are routinely considered unemployable in the technology and information economy, despite the fact that employers in that economy strenuously argue that liberal arts majors make great tech-sector workers precisely because they are trained to think critically and creatively, and to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.”

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m against pre-professional training nor that liberal arts will save us. This is not an either/or situation. One of the reasons I sought this type of job at this type of institution was to find a new context, a new learning experience. After so much time at one institution, I wanted to see other ways that higher ed works. But I certainly still subscribe to the maxim that critical thinking is just as important, if not more, as content knowledge for our students’ (and our society’s) future success and that information literacy is an elemental part of those critical thinking habits, attitudes, and skills.

So as I’m thinking about growing our information literacy program here, I’m thinking about our institutional context and higher ed landscape with fresh eyes, too. I’m thinking now about all the ways to make the long reach of information literacy visible beyond the classroom. My thoughts turn first to the application and impact of information literacy skills in students’ internships, a signature experience on my campus. How have you illustrated the power of information literacy for your context(s)? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Amping up Diversity & Inclusivity in Medical Librarianship

This past week, I attended the 118th Medical Library Association (MLA) Annual Meeting in Atlanta, GA. While it was a standard conference in many respects, it was also a historic one. Beverly Murphy was named the first African American president of MLA since it was incepted in 1898.

When I first considered becoming a librarian, I quickly learned about #critlib, which centers the impact of oppression and marginalization of the many –isms in librarianship. I wanted to be in a profession where I could provide information in a critical way, dismantling library neutrality. I found this through a hashtag which allowed me to meet diverse, inspiring, kind, and intelligent librarians. However, I find it slightly more difficult to apply a social justice framework as an academic medical librarian focusing upon the School of Medicine. I have tried my best through critical search strategies and educating others about bias within publishing. And of course, subject areas specific to public and/or global health easily lend themselves to health disparities. Overall though, I have noticed that medical librarianship has been slower to the game, especially in terms of coming together as a community. During this meeting, however, it felt different.

The annual Janet Doe lecture was given by Elaine Martin, focused upon social justice. I have listened to some talks concerning social justice that just scratch the surface. They seem to give a nod to diversity as more of a check box rather than a critical interpretation and call for action. However, Elaine stressed mass incarceration as a public health issue; she emphasized dismantling library neutrality; she quoted Paulo Freire, the author of the seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed. She received a standing ovation. It was inspiring, and while it may have just been pure emotion, it gave me hope.

I also attended a Diversity & Inclusivity Fishbowl session by MLA’s Diversity and Inclusivity Task Force. During a fishbowl, a moderator poses a question to a group of individuals seated in a few concentric circles. In our case, there were around 30 of us. There were four seats in the innermost circle, and the individuals in that circle answered the question and can be “tapped out” by others in the outside circles who wish to speak. Unless we were in the inner circle, we were solely active listeners. I’m not going to lie, when I saw the format of this meeting, which was three days into the conference and from 5:00 p.m.-6:30 p.m., I dreaded it. But I also knew this was an important issue. Not only did I feel welcome, but I enjoyed the structured yet conversational format. It can be difficult to talk about diversity and inclusion because everyone’s positions are well-intentioned, however, because this is an issue that historically induces trauma upon the marginalized, it can become very passionate. This passion is essential for affecting change, and this format provided a way to combine this passion with respect and compassion. While this is just the beginning of these discussions, it is important to understand perspectives, especially for those greatly affected by oppressions. It was assuring to see so many people coming together while sharing their individual experiences and beliefs for a topic I thought was somewhat dormant within medical librarianship. And, because of the incoming presidency of Beverly Murphy, I am full of hope and faith that events like these will result in an action plan.

I can’t say that I remember everything that Beverly said during the talk she gave after being named the new MLA president. But I can tell you how I felt in response. First, Beverly did not stand at the podium when delivering her words. She sat at a table on the stage to be in conversation with the MLA members. She included song, humor, and love in her words. It was warm. It was inviting. And given the previous events I witnessed, it felt promising. She incorporated the importance of diversity and inclusivity, so it wasn’t a mere check box. Rather, it was always part of the conversation. Just two days before, I met Beverly at the New Members Breakfast. As a co-convener of the MLA New Members Special Interest Group (SIG), I was interested in how we can further engage new members. Shannon Jones, the founder of the New Members SIG, was eager to share ideas with me and introduced me to Beverly, who immediately stated her commitment to advocating for new members. She also told me that she was asking first-time attendees she met to share their experiences, positive and negative, and to contact her directly. Real change comes from strong leaders and action. And diversity is more than an initiative – it is a way of being. Regardless of topic, subject area, or library role, it needs to be part of all we do. Beverly is firm in this commitment:

“No matter what race we are, what color we are, what ethnicity we are, what gender we have, or whether we have physical issues – we are all information professionals, with a common goal, and that is ‘to be an association of the most visible, valued, and trusted health information experts.’ Diversity drives excellence and makes us smarter, especially when we welcome it into our lives, our libraries, and our profession.” – Beverly Murphy

The solidarity and volume is increasing for diverse voices in medical librarianship, becoming a stronger driver for diverse and inclusive representation, pedagogy, scholarship, community, and more and vice versa. I know that equity of race, sexual orientation, gender, and ability is a long road. And I am appreciative we are on it.

 

Failure and Feelings

This semester I’m co-teaching a graduate class at my university in a certificate program in interactive technology and pedagogy. It’s a course I’ve taught before, though it changes somewhat each time I teach it, in part because it rotates between several different faculty members every year or so. The course focuses on the practice of teaching and learning with technology, and this week, our last “content” week before our students’ final presentations, the topic was failure.

We’ve had a session on failure during the other times I’ve taught the course, though I believe this is the first time that failure is leading us into the final presentations (and papers due soon after). Our discussion this week was terrific — the students and my co-teacher and I brought our own experiences with failure inside and outside the classroom to bear on our conversation, and we talked through both logistical/practical and emotional aspects of failure in academic contexts generally as well as around their projects specifically. An article by Alison Carr, In Support of Failure, was the focus of much of our discussion, especially about the emotions around failure.

It’s not yet the end of the semester (my college’s semesters go very late — 11 more days!), and I’m thinking about failure too. I’d meant to write more often on ACRLog this semester, but failed to do it. I’d meant to find something more interesting or relevant to write a post about today, but failed to do it. I’m thinking about failure that’s both general and specific: it’s not that I don’t have ideas for topics to write on, but that the topics seem either too well-trodden or too local. There’s a lot going on right now, though I do have time to write, but I’ve failed to take that time to write. I’m feeling all kinds of emotions around these kinds of failure, most of them of the mopey variety, though I also realize that here near the end of the semester it’s not unusual to have more feelings than usual.

When we were talking through classroom failures in class earlier this week, we talked a bit about failure in research and library instruction and how some experiences that might initially seem like failures can actually be pretty valuable for students. The pre-planned vs. spontaneous approach to teaching about keyword searching is a great example of the way a failure can be a useful learning experience. Students are unlikely to find exactly what they’re searching for the first time around, and for a librarian to model (in front of the whole class) that process of searching, not getting useful results, and refining your keywords and strategy to search again is much more realistic for students to see. And (I hope) it makes them feel less anxious about doing their searching “the right way.”

Thinking on this more today I’ve realized that a successful spontaneous search in an instruction session is somewhat choreographed, and still has some measure of control that prevents it from being a true failure. There is that element of uncertainty — it brings me some discomfort to be spontaneous in front of an entire class because what if it doesn’t actually work? What if we refine keywords again and again and still don’t find anything useful? There’s a right way and a wrong way to fail in the library classroom, which seems tied to control. I wonder, if we’re willing to give up some of that need for control, is it still possible to fail in the right way?

I Liked, I Wished, I Wondered: A One-Year Review

One year ago today I flew one-way from ORD to LAX for my first real librarian job (and obviously for the weather). I’m going to take an assessment nugget I once learned from Jennifer Brown, Emerging Technologies Librarian at Columbia University and reflect upon this time using the following measurements: I Liked, I Wished, I Wondered.

I Liked

I liked plenty thus far as a Health & Life Sciences Librarian at UCLA. Most importantly, I am grateful for my work colleagues. I work with people that truly care about learning and how it is reflected within library practices. I work with inspiring and supportive people of color. I work with people that have more to talk about than libraries (this is so important!). While I didn’t necessarily imagine myself working as a librarian in the sciences, I like working in this domain! While I have health sciences experience from working as a speech-language pathologist,, I didn’t appreciate scientific research, its importance, its limitations, and its possibilities, as much as I do now. The sciences seemed a bit intimidating in the beginning, but I have been pleasantly surprised at how accessible it can be, even if someone doesn’t have a sciences background (or even an interest…I am curious how much these are linked). I also like the new matrixed organizational structure within the UCLA Library. It allows for librarians to do a little bit of everything while focusing on a specific area: Collections, Outreach, Research Assistance, Research Partnerships, or Teaching and Learning. This encourages communication across units. For example, I am on the Teaching and Learning Team with the Visual Arts Librarians. This is not a librarian with whom I would typically interact, however, this allows for collaboration, transparency, and information dissemination in seemingly unrelated functions and subject areas. Did I mention that I also like (LOVE) the weather? UCLA is a gorgeous campus all, come visit!

I Wished

I wished I came into my position having a better grasp of collections and scholarly communication. These are essential parts of my everyday duties, and while I have learned these functions over time, I think I would have hit the ground running a bit faster if I did a better job of taking a collections class or participating in a collections and/or scholarly communication focused internship during my MLIS.

I wished I had more time! There are moments where it’s hard to stay focused. This is likely due to a combination of my slightly average organizational skills and saying yes to opportunities. I do think I have been saying yes for the right reasons. I want to be of service, test my capacity in my role, and see what I liked (see above). The good news is that certain responsibilities do not last forever, and now I do have a better idea about what I would like to keep pursuing, what might make sense to stop in a year or two, and what to say yes/no to next time around. I want to be mindful of librarian burnout, so while I’m happy to try it all out, I don’t want to resent the profession either.

I Wondered

I wondered how things would be different if what I wished and what I liked had worked in concert. I wonder where I would be if I hadn’t come to UCLA. I wonder if I prefer to manage others or work as a subject or functional liaison. Will I stay in health sciences librarianship or would I branch out to other areas? I have truly enjoyed diving into medical librarianship, but I have wondered if a I would be better suited to focus upon a functional area. I enjoy pedagogy, active learning, outreach, and connecting different campus partners – perhaps there is a place for me in these areas? I enjoy wondering about this all at UCLA because the matrixed organization and professional development opportunities allow me to explore. I have also wondered if I will stay at an R1 institution, make the jump to a community college, or even try my hand in public libraries.

What Now?

I have always disliked the idea of having a 5-year or 10-year plan. I believe in intention, serendipitous moments, and blending that with your personal drive and abilities. I did not come to librarianship through a straight path, and, while I don’t want to change my career again, I am open to different possibilities that can harness and enhance my skill set. Writing this out has definitely forced me to reflect upon the past year, see how far I have come and what the future might hold. One year down and many more to go!

What are some different ways you taken assessment of your career path as a librarian?

Puzzling Over Interdisciplinary Publishing

This semester I’ve been working on an article sharing the results of the research I did while on sabbatical last year. I was interested in how undergraduates access and complete (or don’t complete) their course reading, and I interviewed students at three colleges in my urban public university to learn about their experiences. My interest in this topic is multifaceted: I’m interested both as a librarian at a library that offers (some) textbooks on reserve for students and has a robust OER initiative underway, and also as a teacher who wonders why students don’t always complete the reading in courses I’ve taught, and also as a faculty member who hears similar questions about reading completion from my colleagues on campus (and honestly? also a little bit as parent of a junior in high school who’s starting to think about college).

This topic, like most of the research that most interests me, is interdisciplinary. While it’s library and information science-relevant it’s not solely relevant to LIS; it’s educational research but I don’t have a degree (at any level) in education, and folks who work in student or academic support services might find it of interest, too. As I gather and update sources in my literature review, initially compiled almost two years ago when I prepared my sabbatical application, I’m also thinking about where to submit the article. What journal should I aim for? Where’s the best home for this work?

Interdisciplinary research is interesting if challenging. I find that it stretches my brain in lots of ways — my lack of prior knowledge of the scholars and journals outside of LIS and a few other fields can make it hard to find sources, though as a librarian with a public services background my instruction/reference skills are helpful. Even so, sometimes finding keywords to describe a topic outside of my expertise is a puzzle. We academics love our jargon, and jargon often differs between fields even when describing the same subject or topic (information literacy, anyone?). Spoiler alert: our students recognize this as a barrier, too — during my interviews I often heard that students sometimes struggled with the reading in general education courses outside their majors and felt that their instructors assumed prior knowledge of the topic that students did not have.

I’m also finding it challenging to find open access journals that fit my interdisciplinary leanings. At this point I’m tenured and not aiming for another promotion, and I’m even more committed to publishing only in open access journals. Open access coverage is highly variable between fields, still. I’ve become so spoiled by the wide range of OA journals in LIS that I’m somewhat shocked when looking for journals in other disciplines. There are lots of fantastic OA options in LIS, but that’s not always the case in other disciplines.

In recent years I’ve begun to wonder whether the journal itself isn’t somewhat of a dinosaur, at least for interdisciplinary work. I use Twitter plus uploading to my university’s institutional repository as my primary means of self-promotion, hoping that the range of scholars who I follow and am followed by will help my work get to anyone who might be interested in it, both inside and outside LIS. In my own research process I rarely read entire issues of scholarly journals anymore, or even table of contents updates, with a few exceptions (that include those journals I regularly peer review for). A journal can be and represent a disciplinary community, but must it always be? There are multiple means of discovery — our usual library databases, social media, the various search engines — for scholarly articles. Is the journal as container for research still the best model, especially if it can’t easily accommodate research that doesn’t fit neatly into disciplinary categories?