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.

Finding the “yes and…” and getting out of my head

As the semester and end of the year approaches, I find myself reflecting on this question more frequently:

“Am I currently just trying to make it through the day or do I have the capacity and bandwidth to do other things?”   

I, like many of you reading this post, am tired. I feel like I’m doing just enough to stay a few steps ahead of everything. My best days are when I focus on one project and make slow and steady progress. I’m frustrated and anxious and that has bled into the ways I feel about work and the people I work with. I have felt stuck, in many ways, this fall. The jazzy Hailley some of you know can be a bit harder to find some days. 

What I’m slowly realizing is that my best strategy for handling these feelings is to step outside the library. Earlier this week, I attended another meeting of the Improv & Pedagogy Teaching Community, a group funded by our center for teaching excellence and led by faculty members who also are founders for a local improv group, Happy Valley Improv (HVI). 

Now, for some context, you should know I took an improv class with HVI at the start of 2020 (which seems like another lifetime ago). I had several motivations for taking the course, but mainly I wanted to try something new and was able to take the course with a close friend (shout out to my gal, Giorgia!). What I didn’t expect was that I truly loved doing improv. In an improv space, you’re asked to trust the people around you, get into the flow and energy of that group, and know that you’ll be accepted for whatever ideas you put forward. Everyone has agreed to the “Yes and…” philosophy and you make it work, with whatever you have been presented. While taking the in-person classes, I found it refreshing to turn the part of my brain that thinks about the next 10 moves and tap into my creative side, coming up with stories and backstories on the spot. I enjoyed the class so much, I had signed up for level 2 but obviously, the pandemic got in the way. 

So when I got the email about the fall meetings for the Improv & Pedagogy Teaching Community, I figured this was my way back into improv. I attended a session about a month ago and left the session feeling happier and more energetic than I had been in a while. It wasn’t a large group of us, no more than 12. We talked about our position at the university and how it’s related to teaching, and what we were experiencing in our virtual classrooms. During that first happy hour, we played a few games, where we got to rename ourselves, pass around the ball of energy, and dream up some new characters. 

When the next happy hour came around this past week, I thought about skipping it. There was a lot of library drama this week and I felt weighed down by everything. However, I reminded myself that I would probably feel better if I logged on. So, as 4:30 rolled around, I got onto Zoom and as soon as I got into the room, I started to smile. What struck me about this happy hour was that it was refreshing to talk to people not deeply interconnected with the library. Widening my group of colleagues gave me a new perspective I needed. As we sat in that Zoom room, we were all educators, sharing our experiences, testing out some games, solving problems, and thinking about our teaching pedagogy and how improv plays a role in our work. Sure it wasn’t quite the same as standing in the ballet studio HVI used for their classes but the way the happy hour helped me and my brain definitely felt the same. I feel lucky to have this teaching community and am appreciative that this space is available to me.

Upon further reflection, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the ethos of “Yes and…” plays into my student engagement and outreach work. I’ve always seen myself as a connector and the “yes and…” helps bring new ideas, events, and workshops to life. In two meetings this week, after the improv happy hour, I found myself taking the “yes and…” stance. The first came in a conversation with two groups of colleagues, where we were connecting two peer mentoring services and imagining new ways to bring them together and provide instruction. The second was with two colleagues in Outdoor Adventures, as we began to finalize a semester-long Wikipedia Edit-a-thon to increase the coverage of POCs who are involved in the outdoor industry. In both situations, I felt that spark of making connections and building something I didn’t anticipate when I entered the meeting. It will definitely be this sort of work that sustains me, during this pandemic and beyond. And this week has been about clarifying what that dynamic is, so I know how to get back to that space when I need it.  

I’m curious if any readers have something like improv that helps you? Both for getting out of your head but also might have applications to your work? Would love to hear how others are continuing to grapple with today’s reality (and if there are any other library improv folks out there!).  

What Does Engagement Mean?

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

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

Sean Michael Morris, Not Enough Voices

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

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

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

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

Audrey Watters

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

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

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

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

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.