Discussing the 4 Pillars of Immersion: The Educational Role of Librarians in Higher Education

Editor’s note: This guest post has been authored by Daisy Benson and Melissa Bowles-Terry. Daisy is the instruction coordinator at the David W. Howe Library at University of Vermont. Melissa is the sciences librarian at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. This post is the second in a four-part series, “Discussing the 4 Pillars of Immersion.” Read the first post about Information Literacy.

This series was inspired by conversations during a January 2024 Immersion Facilitators retreat that examined our relationship with the foundational pillars of the program. The team explored each pillar by sharing questions and perspectives and considered how to integrate each pillar into the future portfolio of Immersion programming. The first post in this series focused on information literacy. In this second post, Daisy Benson and Melissa Bowles-Terry reflect and share their perspectives on the changing roles of librarians in higher education. When asked about the educational role of librarians in higher education, our current cohort of Immersion facilitators identified some common themes among us, most notably that all of our potential roles are definitely contextual and sometimes contested. 

(Melissa) When we brainstormed this question as a group, there were many potential roles we could think of: educators, partners, researchers, stewards, interlocutors. I know that over the course of my career, I’ve definitely experienced changes in my educational role. Early in my career I was in a coordinator role for information literacy and instruction, and then a head with more authority for library instruction. After a decade as a librarian, I left libraries for a while and was director of faculty development at UNLV, in the provost’s office. Last year I returned to the library faculty as science liaison. This is a brand new role for me, and I feel like more than ever I’ve been leaning into my relationships with faculty and administrators in my liaison areas. It’s interesting to be in a partner role like this that I feel in some ways is even more about my relationships than about my expertise. How about you? How do you currently think of your educational role?

(Daisy) First off I’ll say that I see myself first and foremost as a teacher; although, I recognize that some librarians don’t see that word as applying to what they do. For me, the work I do with students, in a wide variety of contexts such as working with classes or meeting one-on-one is all part of my teaching portfolio, as is working with faculty to help them build their own capacity to address information literacy. All of this is where I find the most satisfaction and energy as a librarian. I think one thing librarians are really good at is pivoting as higher education changes. For example many libraries are developing new roles for librarians to support their educational missions. On my campus we recently created a new role for an outreach person to work with groups around the state who might not otherwise have access to our services – it ties in to our role as a traditional “land grant” institution. Are there new roles and ways of engaging on your campus?

(Melissa) Yes, we have a makerspace that is becoming a real hub for creativity and community. It’s a fun place to spend time and to see what students are coming up with, in terms of design projects for their classes as well as just-for-fun things like building games or accessories. 

(Daisy) Melissa, as we were prepping for this conversation one of the roles we identified was that of the “researcher-practitioner” or “practitioner scholar.” How do you define this role for yourself and how does it impact your work?

(Melissa) For me as a faculty member and a librarian, I have had opportunities to present at conferences and write about library programs and user behaviors. I’ve had an incentive to do it as well as support for that work. And clearly, institutional culture has a huge impact on the roles that librarians find themselves in. Over several years of facilitating Immersion programs, I remember hearing from many librarian participants about ways their information literacy goals were stymied by either academic departments, their own librarian colleagues, or other administrators. Some institutions see librarians as partners in education, and some have more of a service orientation. How do you think institutional culture impacts the educational role that librarians play? 

(Daisy) That’s a great question, I think there are so many factors but one that comes to mind especially is whether librarians have faculty status or not. At institutions where librarians have faculty status,and mine is among these, librarians have a direct and codified role in institutional governance. So, at my institution this means that we have librarians who sit on the university-wide Curricular Affairs committee. I currently serve on our General Education committee and am part of a team that reviews courses that are being considered for all of our general education requirements including those seeking designations for our two Writing and Information Literacy requirements, as well as requirements related to sustainability, the sciences, and more.This gives me a broad and detailed view of the curriculum across campus and gives me as a librarian a role in shaping the curriculum.

When we think about what our work looks like now and what it might look like in the future, it’s clear that we can’t always predict what comes next! I’m looking forward to considering how we might lead ourselves and our colleagues into new roles. Our next post in the Discussing the 4 Pillars of Immersion series will build on this conversation and focus on leadership. Join Veronica Arellano Douglas and Jessie Loyer as they reflect on some of the questions we posed here and ask new questions as well. Look for that post in the next few weeks!

Librarianship: As We May Evolve

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Debra Kolah, head of the User Experience (UX) Office at Fondren Library, Rice University in Houston, Texas. She also blogs at the Effervescent Librarian.

A 1947 film located in the online Wayback Archive, The Librarian, urges young people to become librarians, and features a traditional library, and lots of books, and no technology — not even the early technologies of the library world. It stresses you must have two things to be a librarian: a love of books, and a love of people. Ten years later, the classic 1957 film Desk Set, starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, pits a traditional librarian against a suit from IBM. It is his task, as an expert of “electronic brains,” to automate and replace the jobs of the reference librarians at a television studio.

I love these examples of librarianship, not just because they are quaint and outdated, but because, at the time, they spoke truth. A love of books got you far in 1947, and in 1957 there was a fierce battle raging between a group called the documentalists, and traditional humanist librarians. Librarianship is a golden thread that organizes, illuminates, and provides knowledge. Luckily, we are now more open and responsive to innovations in discliplines, and infuse our profession with methodologies and best practices from every disclipline. When we have suffered from information overload, the chemists have helped; even now, when we need to find out what our users are saying, and what they are doing, we rely upon anthropologists, like Nancy Foster. This is a wonderful thing about librarians — we are some of the best people at work arounds, and we look at other fields for answers. Jesse Shera, who once scolded us for being slow to adopt technology, would be proud.

A brief glimpse into the past serves us well. One tale that is interesting is the story of two chemists who entered library school, and then went on to become leaders in the world of organizing scientific information.

• Eugene Garfield received a BS in chemistry in 1949 from Columbia and an M.S. in Library Science in 1954. Garfield created Current Contents which provided journal contents in a simple, regular and comprehensive format. He also spearheaded the indexing of scientific articles by their bibliographies, which creates a system of citations so that the very ideas of science can be traced. In 1960, his firm name became the Institute for Scientific Information, and began publishing an ambitious index entitled, the Science Citation Index, which both the NIH and NSF had declined to publish. The SCI later became the Web of Science.

• The other chemist, Robert Maizell, received his Phd in Library Science from Columbia in 1957. His dissertation was entitled: Information Gathering Patterns and Creativity: A Study of Research Chemists in an Industrial Research Laboratory. He was interested in how chemists found information in their day to day life. Maizell’s solution to information overload was fairly simple: do instruction and teach abstracting. He wanted chemists to do abstracts, and make the literature more accessible. He first published Abstracting Scientific and Technical Literature in 1971. A glowing book review in the Journal of Chemical Education says, “Chapter 14 is an excellent introduction to the use of computers and their corresponding information systems both in future automated abstracting operations and as current support systems for highspeed printing, producing ‘keyword’ indexes and in maintaining and servicing interest profiles for users involved in Selective Dissemination of Information Services.”

Regardless of their methods, the infusion of chemists changed librarianship, and information science, forever.

E-Science, the evolution of scholarly communication in a digital world, depends not only upon the selfless engagement that chemist turned librarians like Robert Maizell offered, but a truly more transnational approach and embrace of semantic web capabilities. We are seeing a revolution in the digital humanities now, where historians are creating data driven databases to organize and make sense of their data, which they freely publish, and make available for others. This is certainly the case for Andrew Torget, who created election data that is now incorporated into Google maps and freely available to the end user. This means that millions around the world used Voting America layers in Google Earth. To do digital librarianship in the future requires looking to the past, and understanding the history of who created some of the great information and storage systems. We will slowly move past solutions created in the Cold War, embrace open technologies, and yes, we will still need to love books, and people. And we need a new recruitment film. Especially one that attracts scientists that are good at data, and want to become librarians.