Conceptualising our practice: the library service spectrum (and who gets to decide where you stand on it)
Here’s a short piece I wrote for the UKSG Newsletter recently, reproduced here with permission. There’s a downloadable version over here if you prefer. At a recent ARLG event on ‘Librarians as Teachers’ I invited the audience to consider the idea of a spectrum or continuum of library service provision. At one extreme end of this continuum is a vision that revolves around the provision of quality materials; at the other, a focus on supporting learning and knowledge creation. These poles could be described in terms of an orientation towards collection development and learning development respectively; more loosely, they can be seen as a focus on ‘stuff’ on one hand, and on ‘the people who use the stuff’ on the other. These positions are deliberately represented as the extreme ends of a continuum or axis rather than as an either/or dichotomy, because most library staff will find themselves falling somewhere along the line between the two rather than wholly at one end. It’s an interesting, and revealing, activity to reflect on how much of what we do in our daily work lies towards each end of the continuum. For instance, at the material-facing pole will fall ‘traditional’ library processes like selection, organisation, acquisition, description and circulation – and indeed also promotion of the selected material; at the learner-facing pole we would find activities like facilitation, scaffolding, reflective dialogue and collaborative question-framing, as well as some formal teaching interventions. As suggested above, the work of many library staff will include elements of both types of provision: the interesting thing is to consider the proportion or ratio between them, and where this places you on the scale. The first question, then, is: Where do you stand on this spectrum? How much of your professional time is spent organising knowledge that’s already out there – published material, scholarly communications, information artefacts – and how much in supporting and developing what’s going on in the crucible of the mind, where knowledge is still taking shape? This is a particularly interesting question for teaching librarians. Few would dispute that libraries, and in particular academic libraries, have a part to play in helping students develop their higher-level information handling abilities. These abilities include critical thinking and evaluation, interrogating and synthesising variant points of view, and developing an informed and reflective approach to encountering information – what Neil Postman called “the art of crap-detection” (1969). The issue lies in how we approach this remit of scaffolding students’ critical and academic development. Should we seek to fulfil this role by ensuring that the library offers reliable, authoritative material of academic quality, selected by subject experts to be useful and relevant? Or should we aim to support students in learning to select material themselves for its use and relevancy to the particular task at hand? Champions of the former standpoint are likely to see their role in terms of weaning students away from uncritical Googling and towards a thoughtful use of scholarly information sources. Advocates of the latter, on the other hand, will probably endorse William Badke’s assertion that “An information literacy approach … might not even in every case take the student to a library” (2010). Our own beliefs and values along this axis will influence how we perceive the relationship between the library and information. Thus a materials-focused approach is likely to conceive of the library as being the gateway to all appropriate information. In this relationship ‘library’ is the dominant concept and contains the concept of ‘information’, towards which it acts as a gateway or quality filter. In contrast, an approach that aims to support students in developing the ability to evaluate information for themselves is likely to conceive of this relationship the other way around, with the library forming part of a much larger information landscape with which our students engage. Sarah Cohen draws a sharp distinction between these two approaches, arguing that the former revolves around instruction in library resources, whereas “information-centric instruction” takes in the whole information landscape including, but not limited to, the library. Regrettably for theoretical precision, the term ‘information literacy’ is so elastic that it can – and does – accommodate both approaches: however, mapping them to the material-learner spectrum enables us to see how divergent they really are. Where information literacy instruction deals exclusively with promoting and demonstrating library resources, it falls very close to the ‘materials’ end of the spectrum, despite the fact that, as a teaching intervention, the vehicle of delivery appears to be learner-focused. At the opposite pole, teaching will concentrate not on resources or products but on processes involved in learning – sense-making, question-framing, synthesis and knowledge construction. Why does this matter? It matters because where we stand on the spectrum has significant implications for how we construct our idea of the library and its mission, purpose and value in the lives of our learners. This in turn will determine how we present the library to our students and affect how they perceive what we can offer to support them in their learning journey. Yet this is nothing like the whole story. Beyond the interest, or the reflective impact, of determining your own standpoint on the provision continuum lies a far bigger question:
Where does your library stand on this spectrum?
What proportion of overall staff time is spent on materials-facing work relative to learning-facing provision? Which kind of workflow is better established and supported in the organisation’s culture? How many sections or departments on the organisational chart are named after materials-facing processes, and how many after teaching and learning activities? (I would suggest, perhaps controversially, that ‘Reader Services’ in many libraries actually falls towards the materials-facing end of the spectrum, since it often focuses on what readers do in the library building and with the library’s collections – i.e., the stuff.) Yet beyond where your library stands on the spectrum is a wider context again: that of the student’s encounters with the whole institution, from application through admission to assessment and finally (we hope) into employability. All our interactions with learners – whether formal teaching interventions or ad hoc one-to-ones at the inquiry desk – take place within this wider institutional framework; and this framework has always already influenced our students’ learning experiences by way of prior encounters or touchpoints and the values that are perceived to underlie them. So the final question to consider is:
Where does your institution think that your library, and you, should stand on this scale?
Because ultimately, that factor is likely to be the greatest determinant of how our students perceive the role, mission, and value of the library. Time to start working on that elevator pitch for the Vice-Chancellor?