‘Only connect …’
Andy Walsh and I have compiled, edited and published an ‘anarcho-narrative unbook’! Which is a funky way of describing a publication
- that will be electronic by default (but is also available as print-on-demand)
- that will be freely available online and licensed under Creative Commons
- where the chapter authors were invited to choose the most appropriate structure and medium (or media!) for their contributions
- in which the richness of information discovery is represented by an eclectic and inspiring range of writing styles and voices.
The (un)book consists of a series of narratives connected by the overarching theme of information discovery journeys. Read on to discover more about the individual contributions …
From the introduction
Into the woods: teaching trails and learning journeys
These pieces are remarkable individually; collectively they shed new light on the subtle interplay between information and identity. This holds both for the roles we occupy and the relationships we construct during the processes of teaching and learning – librarian, learner, guide, seeker – and also for identity as our innermost sense of self: how we learn who we are. As Osborne writes, “How do we become ourselves – the self that we know and others recognise?” This unbook opens with the voice of the librarian-guide in dialogue with learners and other teachers, and shifts gradually towards an exploration of how our personal identities are shaped or even constituted by the information we encounter.
The two sections of this book thus offer complementary yet deeply contrasting visions of the information journey. Section One, ‘The Mapmakers’, presents a set of planned routes, suggested and tested by knowledgeable guides: a cross between Baedeker and Bradshaw. In this section, librarians offer a range of thoughtful observations on how learners encounter, negotiate and construct knowledge. Few of these accounts are didactic; they give not so much a blueprint or template for ‘how to do it’, but rather a topographical record of their learners’ journeys.
The Mapmakers, then, offer the reassurance of well-signposted paths, including a number of ‘scenic routes’ or imaginative ways in which librarians and academics can help their students to choose appropriate sources of information. Delasalle and Cullen’s literature search “travel guide”, a collaboration between learner and librarian, is modelled as an A-Z directory of the information searching process. Gröppel-Wegener and Walton provide engaging guidelines for navigating the information ocean and identifying what you find in your fishing net, enhanced by Josh Filhol’s beautiful and illuminating illustrations. Gröppel-Wegener’s second contribution, which closes the section, portrays the qualitative difference between summary and synthesis through an imaginative, extended playing-card metaphor which enables learners to evaluate and collate their information ‘cards’ and maximise the value of their ‘hand’.
Several of the Mapmakers themselves invoke and interrogate the journey metaphor. Burkhardt and Carbery’s Prezi, which narrates how staff engage students in critical conversations about their information choices, is itself modelled as a learning journey from unquestioned assumption towards self-discovery. Importantly, the authors acknowledge that this journey requires learners to cross the threshold out of their “comfort zone”, encountering information that may confuse or disconcert them. It’s refreshing to see the emotional impact of learning acknowledged in this way, since although encountering new or contradictory information can be a deeply unsettling experience, this dimension is all too often silently omitted from information literacy discourse.
Johnson and Walsh’s exploration of the information approaches of drama lecturers also highlights the affective impact of learning. Their study sees participating academics falling broadly into two groups: those who advocate “following the paths” versus those who suggest “exploring the landscape”. Whereas the ‘explorer’ academics encourage their students to seek out new routes and new views of the subject, the path-following group focuses on getting students safely to a known information destination. Interwoven with the emphasis on “safe”, stable knowledge is the implication of possible divagation, disorientation or outright danger if the safe routes are departed from.
This shadowy peril is beautifully described by Linda Tolly, who maps the information journey to the template of the hero’s quest. In doing so she highlights one of the most important differences between mapmaking and journeying: the guide is not the traveller. Not even the wisest sage (or librarian) can accompany the learner all the way on the quest, or through the dark forest. The nature of the quest is that the “travels and travails” must be undertaken by the quester, upon whom the adventures and encounters may have a life-changing effect.
Information and identity: “I am other I now”
Our second section is composed of, and by, Travellers. These authors try less than the Mapmakers to show any objective ‘truth’ about information literacy and show instead more of the process behind an information discovery journey in a way that as yet does not have a fixed ‘lens’ of information literacy imposed. Throughout we glimpse the reflective learning self which simultaneously steps into a new position and observes itself doing so: in Joyce’s words, “I am other I now”. The result is candid, compelling and deliberately uneven. The authors employ a range of voices, registers and genres, sometimes within the same chapter; narratives are not brought to closure but left open, the linear sequence disrupted; the learning is ongoing.
We have represented this narrative fluidity and internal counterpoint by using contrasting fonts, but our authors have also broken out of the text-only mode to include video, audio, images, cartoons, and interactive media to both record and communicate their learning journeys. As several chapters demonstrate, the connections and associations we make between concepts are far from being exclusively textual: dialogue can take place by exchanging sound clips, artworks, doodles, dreams.
Going beyond the authority of the written word is an act of subversion, of leaving the path, and it is both perilous and rewarding. As Inês Amado and Ximena Alarcón note, “the issues of migration and dislocation are always present”. The two artists connect across space in a technology-mediated dialogue, which itself exceeds the bounds of the textual, to share visions and dreamscapes which combine sound, video and objects. The students in ‘Memories’ go yet further, connecting across time in exploring how we encode and communicate identity through clothing and across generations.
Penny Andrews and Marika Soulsby-Kermode exchange and explore information in many media, discussing how it both assists and hampers a coming to terms with the true, autistic, self. Antony Osborne narrates compellingly the confusion of trying to construct an identity in the cross-fire of information available from scarce and conflicting sources – medical categorisation, cultural markers, the austerity of legal and judicial language, and the tacit social mores reflected (but never overtly articulated) in media representations of gay men.
There is neither classroom nor computer in David Mathew’s study of the (deliberately ambiguous) ‘stable group’, yet here too the close connection between learning and identity is evident. Here the learning is entirely practical and extra-textual. Horses, humans, and the author-observer all experience a process of becoming, of learning as embodying or extending the identity. Even the dogs are learning to become guardians or gatekeepers: “Zack was teaching Bonnie how to fight and to bark with more aggression”.
The librarian: guide, gatekeeper, barrier?
What is the place of the librarian in these information journeys characterised by the creative, the experiential, the nontextual? A number of guide figures appear in the pages (or pixels) of this unbook, variously depicted as mentor, shaman, guardian and barrier, and helpful or sinister in about equal measure. While the mapmakers tend to represent them in a more positive light, it’s evident that learners and travellers regard the librarian figure with some ambivalence!
Antony Osborne’s redoubtable Mrs Fogg – a classic shusher presiding over a space smelling of furniture polish which contains none of the information he seeks – is surely related to Nick Norton’s librarians, both of whom actually withhold information from library users whom they perceive as using it inappropriately: “No, no, now no. That is not at all what the book is for.” All three are drawn from real life experiences, yet they are strangely reminiscent of the unhelpful bears and robots who staff Bryony Ramsden’s fairytale library. Far from being kindly wizards, sages, or guides, these characters stand uncompromisingly between the learner and information, proffering search ‘tips’ along the lines of “Write a query based on a combination of base 6 numbering and binary … (ensure interjections are in Assyrian cuneiform or C++)” (Ramsden).
At the other end of the spectrum, however, more positive visions of the librarian’s potential role can be found in Johnson and Walsh’s Cheshire cat, who appears at difficult forks in the path (and presumably fades away, grinning benevolently, when no longer needed); in Tolly’s Sorceress-Librarian, who can gift the power of knowledge but who also recognises that the learner must quest alone; and in Norton’s vision of a person-centred library entity based around the core Rogerian conditions of congruence, empathy and respect for the individual.
All these visions have in common a perception of the librarian as neither gatekeeper nor shaman but as collaborator and partner in learning. They also share a vision of the library – real and/or virtual – as a space in which to create and experiment, which fosters “a joyful, playful” attitude to information (Johnson and Walsh), which perhaps even “rebrands as the Zone of Proximal Learning” (Norton).
In the journey into the unknown, play and learning both require an exceeding of preset boundaries. To cross this threshold is to shift into the unimagined ‘now’ of creativity. Signposting, guiding, and the desire to reach a place of safety give way to being playful, joyful and experimental: the positive flipside of the affective impact of information.
Stepping off the path
Teaching is developmental – it nourishes, modifies and deepens our practice and our pedagogy – but learning is transformative: it changes the learner, not the practice, and it does so at a profound level. The two processes of teaching and learning may take place at the same time (in a classroom, at an inquiry desk) yet, as Norton points out, they are “simultaneously intimate and entirely distinct”. Terrain that has already been mapped is nevertheless new ground for a first-time visitor, and each newly arrived explorer steps, at every moment, into unknown territory.
The journey metaphor illustrates this slippage between the processes of teaching and learning: the contrast between retracing an established route into knowledge and the unsettling phenomenological experience of constructing the pathway for the first time. “STOP. Wait. Is that right? TRY AGAIN” (Ramsden). “I try again …” (Cullen and Dellasale).
Our learners go where we cannot guide them. Their learning takes place in unexpected spaces and guises, away from the pathways and into the forest: exploring beyond the ‘safe’, known structure and into to the as-yet-undefined. As educators, we know that these metaphors represent the essence of knowledge creation, and yet we fear for our learners: we can only watch, not accompany. So we must take care that in our zeal to guide learners and help them find the right, safe pathways, we don’t contain or limit or smother their intellectual journeys. We can plot a course for our teaching interventions, but we cannot predict, mandate or define our learners’ journeys through information and connectivity. We can define what a ‘winning hand’ looks like, but we can’t govern the fall of the cards. We can designate the unknown, we can even map out its extent on our charts – but that’s not at all the same thing as crossing the threshold or stepping off the path.
Learning changes the learner. Whether we find the Grail or not, we have still achieved the quest: the journey itself and the information encounters we experience have effected a profound change. And who is to say when the destination is finally reached or where the journey ends? Ramsden’s chapter offers us three endings out of a myriad of possilibities; and this unbook ends with an invitation to you to continue the dialogue. We can continue to make connections between librarian and learner, between knowledge and creativity, through communicating our information encounters.