Archive for the ‘Teaching and learning’ Category

My breakup letter to academia

Can you be a librarian without a library? I am.

Can you be a researcher without an institution? I am.

Can you be a teacher without any students? I am.

I am other I now.

But who?

I started working in academic libraries in 1998. I qualified as a librarian in 2008, and began my first professional post in the same month. In 2018 I became a postdoctoral research fellow in higher education pedagogies. And in 2020 I experienced burnout for the final time and walked away from academia. This chapter both records that journey and is the final step in it.

Download repository version (preprint)

Coonan, E.M. ‘From survival to self-care: performative professionalism and the self in the neoliberal university’. In Lemon, Narelle, ed. Healthy Relationships in Higher Education: Promoting Wellbeing Across Academia. Routledge, 2021.

Image credit: A. J. Booker


Getting it wrong so you can get it right(er)

Image: Haragayato on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Image: Haragayato on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Last week I had the huge privilege of giving a keynote talk at the Cambridge Libraries 2017 conference. Not only were there some great speakers present, both external and internal, but I’ve worked in various roles at a number of Cambridge libraries and attended many a CamLibs conference in my day: so to be asked to keynote at one was enormously exciting, gratifying, and above all TERRIFYING.

As it turned out, it was one of the best days of my life. Being given a platform to talk about issues that mean a great deal to you – in this case the importance of failure in learning, research, and teaching – and to be received with empathy, recognition, thanks and hugs, is one of the most amazing things there can be. I don’t know how to express my gratitude that it’s happened to me.

I’m always fascinated by how people use scripts, prompts and other aids to speaking. I don’t usually use much in the way of notes, relying on my slides to keep my argument on track (yes, this can sometimes go a bit wrong!). This time I didn’t want to wander too far off-piste, especially as my slot was 90 minutes long and I had visions of my audience petrifying with boredom, so I scripted the talk much more tightly than usual. Of course I added a bunch of revisions at the last minute all the same … so for fun or in case anyone is interested, here’s the version I spoke from, with all its scribbles and alterations, to complement the neat and tidy transcript that will appear on the CamLibs site in due course.

The talk is a wild melee of random things that go round in my head a lot, but there are many important anchor points that come from other people’s thinking. Most of these are attributed in the script, but there are three that aren’t and deserve to be:

“the Ow factor” was a phrase used by Hazel Rothera in talking (very postively!) about her experience of the peer review process

“you never get to be a good teacher” (because it’s an ongoing balance) was said by Michelle Bond

And I’d either forgotten or never knew that the wonderfully comforting “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly” – which I suddenly remembered mid-flow and managed to include – was written by G K Chesterton.

UEA Digital Scholar course


‘Wikipedian protester’ by Randall Monroe, (CC BY-NC 2.5)

I’m currently working on a pretty exciting project – designing an online course to help UEA students develop and reflect on their digital literacies in three overlapping contexts: the personal, the academic, and the workplace. Me being me, of course I have talked a lot from the start about the complex nature of digital practices and identities, and the dangers of viewing DLs through a purely functional lens or of reducing it to a simplistic ‘skills’ discourse. From the outset, however, the project board has been clear that the course shouldn’t be a didactic, ‘death by Blackboard’ experience for participants but a genuinely active one: rather than reading about digital literacies (or watching videos about it – digital but still didactic) they should be involved in creating digital artefacts themselves all the way through, and critically (and contextually) appraising those made by others.

Here’s a piece I wrote for UEA’s Learning Highlights magazine about the course, the principles that informed its design, and the outcomes of a workshop on DLs we carried out with academic staff at UEA’s 2015 Learning and Teaching Day. (Disclaimer: I got a bit carried away in writing the piece and had to cut it down to fit the publication word limit! What follows is the original, full-length version, because it’s my blog and I can ;-) [Downloadable version here.])


What does a ‘digital student’ look like, and does the answer vary according to discipline or context?

UEA’s Information Services Directorate is in the process of designing an online course on Digital Literacies for UEA students in partnership with Careers and with the support of Dean of Students’ Office. Despite being a somewhat elusive concept, the need for digital literacy among students, graduates and citizens generally is gaining recognition in higher education across the UK and beyond. Digital literacy has been identified as a UEA graduate attribute, and is a component in the UEA Skills Award. But what exactly is (or are) digital literacy (or literacies)? How are they different from IT skills? And what do they look like in an academic context?

Despite its persistence, the ‘digital natives/digital immigrants’ theory put forward by Prensky in 2001 has been challenged repeatedly in research literature (see e.g. White & Le Cornu, 2011; Bennett et al, 2008). Although the idea that those born after a certain year (usually given as 1980) possess an innate and sophisticated understanding of digital technologies seems anecdotally appealing, this belief is not borne out by the evidence (see, for instance, Margaryan et al., 2011, and the larger-scale study by Kennedy et al., 2008, both of which suggest that university students use a limited range of mainly established digital technologies).

Most importantly, the essentialist nature of the digital native concept masks the fact that young people’s fluency with technology and digital environments may not extend into critical, ethical or reflective judgements about online information or the behaviours and practices relating to using, creating or interacting with it. This is a dimension of digital literacy that lies beyond functional ICT skills, the capacity to download and use an app, or the ease of adaptation to a new device. “Human judgment, or criticality, is involved in most understandings of digital literacies” (Gillen & Barton, 2010, p.5), and it follows that a means of supporting the development of our students’ digital critical capabilities, as distinct from their ICT skills, is needed. This is not only about helping to make our students employable graduates: it’s also a crucial part of supporting their transition into the academic arena and its idiosyncratic uses of information and evidence; and perhaps most crucially, a vital part of what makes an individual an articulate, empowered and judicious member of society.


The ‘Digital Scholar’ course

ISD is piloting a four-unit online course to help UEA students reflect on and expand their existing digital skills and behaviours. The course will invite them to consider and share how they could deploy these skills in their own academic context as well as in preparing for future employability.

The focus throughout is on promoting participants’ awareness of online issues, practices and choices as well as tools and apps. Running on Blackboard and aligned with the UEA Award, through which we hope the course will be validated, the programme will require participants to create artefacts using a variety of tools and to think about the ethical and practical implications of using, making and sharing material. One unit will focus on digital practices in the academic context, and another on employability issues.

Although the course will be chiefly online we plan to offer a scheduled run (which will also be our pilot test) in November 2015, enabling us to give the programme a MOOC-like feel which we hope will encourage participants to develop a peer support network through the activities and discussion forums.


Learning and Teaching Day parallel workshop

At the 2015 Learning and Teaching Day Jane Helgesen and Emma Coonan presented an overview of the proposed Digital Scholar course, and also attempted to gain some insights into academic views and practices of ‘digitalness’. We were especially interested in how digital aspects have permeated academic practices, and in turn how these are reflected to students in course and assessment design and in the discipline-specific behaviours enacted by academics. To this end, our audience kindly participated in a workshop where they shared their perceptions and expectations of ‘digitalness’ in the academic arena.


Learning & Teaching Day workshop questions

The responses from workshop participants highlighted a variety of important aspects ranging from awareness of one’s online presence, through the need to filter and evaluate information critically, to understanding the ethical and contextual nature of using it.

  • Online behaviour and digital professionalism

“What’s online is there forever”

“Be aware of who can see what you put online – things can go viral very quickly”

There were some interesting responses around appropriate online behaviour, including the need to “Develop a sense of responsibility” and for students to be “accountable for their actions”. One group noted that health professionals in particular “need to be aware of what they put on the internet”, highlighting the impact of the digital footprint in a professional as well as a personal context.

It was noted that “We all make digital things – blogs, Word, tweets, PPT, photos, email”, highlighting that ‘the digital’ is not an arena only inhabited by students. Indeed one response asked for “Academic staff access – can staff do this [to] develop our own skills”. (The answer is yes, you would be welcome!)

  •  Discernment and evaluation

Many responses emphasised the need for critical discernment, especially in evaluating online information sources:

“Evaluation of sources – peer reviewed?”

“Accessing relevant info – rigour”

“Be aware [of] the source of where you get your information online – challenge (i.e. the Sun says …)”

Although dealing with the digital, these responses are very closely aligned with the academic emphasis on evidence-based, rigorous inquiry, for example the desire for students to “Challenge assumptions” and to “Think independently”. One group also pointed out that “Shortcuts/quick answers = surface learning” – a very relevant point in an era that resounds with internet-friendly soundbites.

  •  Contextual appropriacy

“Understanding of appropriateness of using material or not and that it varies according to context”

“Able to find and filter relevant information and move from ‘spoon-fed’ approach to analytical approach which is reliable and gain discernment”

The issue of critical discernment in turn overlaps with an understanding of the contextual nature of how information is used in different environments. There is a strong ethical dimension within the workshop responses – copyright, legal responsibilities, citation and plagiarism were all mentioned. Alongside this was a desire for students to gain flexibility in their navigation of online environments – to recognise when they need to build their own skills, “understanding which area they need to develop”; to have “Confidence to experiment once acquired basic skills”, and the “Ability to use technology as a tool, not as an end in itself”.

Finally, one response really sums up what we would like the Digital Scholar programme to empower students to do:

“Make informed choices about what they could do, how they could do it, and the relative merits of this choice in a particular digital context”.

Next steps

Jane and Emma are keen to gain more insight into how digital behaviours intersect with academic practices, and would be delighted to meet any staff member willing to talk about this intersection from the point of view of their own subject area. Our session at the Learning and Teaching Day elicited some ‘critical friends’ for the programme, but we would be very happy to gain more.

We would be delighted to offer a closer look at the Digital Scholar programme content for anyone interested in exploring it further, either to assess how the course might support their students’ academic development or indeed to enhance their own digital literacies!


Many thanks to all those who attended our parallel session and contributed valuable insights. Please do get in touch to tell us how the programme could support your students or have a look at our webpages:



Bennett, S., Maton, K. & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: a critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775–786. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00793.x.

Gillen, J., & Barton, D. (2010). Digital literacies: a research briefing by the Technology Enhanced Learning phase of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme. London.

Kennedy, G., Judd, T., Dalgarno, B. & Waycott, J. (2010). Beyond natives and immigrants: exploring types of net generation students. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26, 332–343. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00371.x

Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A. & Vojt, G. (2011). Are digital natives a myth or reality? University students’ use of digital technologies. Computers and Education, 56(2), 429–440. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2010.09.004.

Prenksy, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6.

White, D. S., & Le Cornu, A. (2011). Visitors and residents: a new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9).

‘This house believes …’

Yesterday I confronted a childhood terror: I took part in a debate and – to my great relief and even greater surprise – emerged unscathed. I’ve always been anxious about confrontational situations and fearful of verbal dexterity, so when I was invited to take part in a debate organised by CILIP it took me a whole week to get up enough courage to agree.

Far from being some kind of Perry Mason-style ripping-the-witness-to-bleeding-shreds affair, however, it was actually great fun and very friendly! For a start, the topic was ‘This house believes that the role of the librarian should be that of teacher‘, and I was speaking for the motion. Since I spend my time running round saying basically exactly this to everyone I meet professionally (to what is probably a monotonous degree), coming up with a passionate argument in favour of the motion wasn’t going to be a problem : ) I also knew that my partner in advocacy, Geoff Walton, would be able to provide convincing evidence to back up my airy-fairy theoretical wibbling.

Our co-debators, speaking against the motion, were Darren Smart and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, who were both a joy to listen to: thoughtful, enlightened, and insightful. Alka’s background is in school teaching and her research is in the philosophy of education, so her perceptions of how libraries and information collections fit the educational and academic spheres were very interesting. Darren’s passionate belief in public libraries, and his understanding of issues facing them, was totally convincing – as well as deeply poignant given that we were in the stunning, and threatened, Library of Birmingham.

Here’s my bit of talking – partly for the record, and partly because I think it’s interesting to read something that’s been designed to be spoken. I’m accustomed to building my arguments in the measured, circuitous, densely-evidenced manner of academic writing, and it was quite a challenge to work more polemically: I had to really cut down my sentence and clause length and relentlessly rip out all the hedging that’s so dear to the academic mind. I also ended up doing very odd things to the punctuation so that it would give me signals for spoken emphasis (more pregnant pauses than a Pinter play). So when I read this it feels hideously full of unsupported assertions and lousy grammar, although declaiming it to an audience felt fine! Just for fun, too, I’ve left in all my last-minute annotations and the timings from my practice runs.

The ‘F’ word: information literacy, ‘find’ and other verbs

Another short piece written for the UKSG Newsletter back in September. Thanks to editor Andrew Barker for letting me reproduce it here (and in a downloadable form over here), and for being brave enough to indulge my long-cherished desire to write about ‘the F-word’ : )

Autumn! Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, of Welcome Week and freshers’ flu, of hoarseness and voice loss from back-to-back induction sessions. The opportunity to welcome a new group of learners into the academic community and let them loose on knowledge ought to be joyful and exciting – but somehow the joy gets lost in the pressure to condense Everything You Need to Know About The Library into a single front-loaded session, usually in a lecture theatre, and sometimes into a five-minute ‘introductory’ slot that may be the only timetabled contact you have with a new cohort of students.

Every new academic year I struggle with the ever-present temptation to just focus on the basics, which in a five-minute ‘library slot’ means how to find your stuff. My struggles centre around the verb: as a passionate proponent of what Cottrell and Cohen call “real deal information literacy” (2012), I have issues with the fact that ‘find’ often comes across as the primary verb for what you do with information in an academic context.

It’s fairly frequently noted that in our disintermediated information world finding things is easy: it’s exercising critical evaluation of such a volume of material from such a range of sources that’s hard. In this regard it’s interesting that while classic models of information literacy such as SCONUL, ANZIIL and the original ACRL standards all include the concept of ‘find’ (sometimes as ‘access’ or ‘gather’) as a key action, it’s a verb that scarcely appears in the eight pages of the ANCIL curriculum. Instead, ANCIL uses verbs like ‘distinguish’, ‘critique’, ‘identify’, and ‘reflect’ to model the learner’s relationship with information – all of which involve doing something to, or with, the information found.

In the library world, where much of our focus is naturally on systems for organising and locating information, we can sometimes be fooled into thinking that the learner’s interaction with information is a kind of quest narrative that centres on seeking and culminates when the desired material is found. This is a seductive construction of academic information practice, placing the library and its search tools at the heart of scholarly creativity and incidentally ensuring that our role as gatekeeper retains its hieratic status. Again, this perception of information enshrines ‘find’ as the primary information activity: as Spiranec & Zorica have commented, “within IL standards information is usually treated as an object to be located and used by the individual” (2012).

But if the only message we have the chance to communicate to our students is that their relationship with information centres on finding information objects, we’re doing them a major disservice. At some point we need to make clear to learners in higher education that what really matters is what you do with the information once you’ve found it. Too much focus on ‘find’ implicitly communicates to students that their encounter with information is simply a matter of tracking down published artefacts, when in fact that encounter is about “Making meaning within unfamiliar discourse” (Wingate, 2006).

What it comes down to is that in library sessions we have a choice in how we present the concept of information. We can describe a book or a journal article as an artefact, a published and describable entity: you look for it, you find it, you’re done. Or we can describe information in terms of its contribution to knowledge, as a point of view expressed and negotiated within the academic discourse: you find it, you read it, you start answering back to it. The academic community’s relationship with information is not to absorb without question – it’s entirely the opposite. The whole purpose of HE is to develop in students a critical mindset: the weighing, sifting, questioning approach that isn’t cowed by expertise or silenced by authority.

Yet given the active, constructive, negotiated nature of this relationship with information, isn’t it interesting that our ‘induction’ weeks in general chiefly consist of telling our students things? Paradoxically, this first week of student life in higher education has very little to do with being introduced to the values and practices of the academic community, with a view to enabling each individual to negotiate and express an identity within that community. In fact, ‘induction’ is possibly the worst label there could be for an introductory experience that chiefly consists of directional wayfinding and basic know-how – finding the lecture theatre, managing to remember your username and password, learning where to get cheap pizza. This preliminary orientation phase isn’t really designed to foreground advanced intellectual content or knowledge construction: it’s about finding and finding out. Thus it deals chiefly with declarative rather than procedural knowledge – knowing what, rather than knowing how (Ambrose et al., 2010, 18).

Now it’s clearer why focusing on ‘find’ is such an overwhelming temptation in Welcome Week: it makes a good fit with the rest of what’s happening. ‘Find’ sits very well within a basic orientation-and-wayfinding phase; after all, there’s not much you can evaluate, construct or negotiate about either where the lecture theatre is or what you do to look up a book on your reading list. Finding information, in fact, bears the same surface and preliminary relationship to the information encounter that finding the lecture theatre does to attending (and attending to) a lecture. Therefore at some point we need to find a way to clearly signal to students that a shift from ‘find’ to ‘use’ will be necessary in order to engage with academic practices and succeed in their studies.

To do this we need to move away from telling, because although all these things that we tell our students are useful and good to know, in the act of telling itself we construct and subtly impose a transmissive model of learning in which we possess expertise that students must acquire. At some point we ourselves need to model a different relationship both with information and with our learners, to recognise that each is taking part in a fluid and negotiated process of knowledge construction. In short, we need to let them know the information experience doesn’t end with ‘find’: that find is where it starts.

As librarians, I believe we can still do more to reframe our thinking away from our search products and from the perception of information as artefact, and more towards alignment with the academic practices of the community we work with and in. Rather than merely demonstrating resources, we need to be able to articulate how use of those resources might support the academic journey as an ongoing process of making sense, constructing meaning, creating conceptual relationships and even negotiating one’s own identity within a community of practice.

The advent of discovery systems has given us a game-changing opportunity to model this realignment in how we talk to students about information. When you can introduce your library’s search tool in under five minutes you have the chance to reclaim interface demonstration time and use it to talk instead about the conventions and values of academic information communication (see e.g. Coonan, 2014). So I’m hoping that even if I spend only one of those five minutes flagging up the shift from finding to using, from transmitting to constructing, from telling to questioning, that I’ll still have managed to help students perceive a different relationship with information and with what it means to ‘be academic.’

Only once the introductions are over does the real practice start; and only when the practice starts does the induction to the community begin. And it’s at this point in the student’s journey that ‘real deal’ information literacy – the making of meaning – replaces ‘find’; and at this point, if we have the chance, that we can stop simply telling our students things and invite them to start constructing meaning for themselves.



ACRL (2000) Information Literacy Standards for Higher Education (This document is now superseded by a threshold concepts approach: see

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, Calif.: Wiley.

Australian and New Zealand Information Literacy Framework [ANZIIL], 2nd ed. (2004).

Coonan, E., ed. (2014) Teaching, not telling: proceedings of the 2nd Information Literacy and Summon Day.

Cottrell, Janet & Cohen, Sarah Faye (2012) Real deal information literacy: designing and implementing meaningful instruction and assessment.

SCONUL Seven Pillars of Information Literacy: core model for Higher Education (2011)

Secker, J., & Coonan, E. (2011) A new curriculum for information literacy [ANCIL].

Špiranec, S. & Banek Zorica, M. (2012) ‘Changing anatomies of information literacy at the postgraduate level: refinements of models and shifts in assessment’. Nordic Journal of Information Literacy in Higher Education 4

Wenger-Trayner, E. (n.d.) ‘Communities of practice: a brief introduction’.

Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with “study skills.” Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), 457–469.

[All URLs accessed 30 September 2014]

“My dolly’s bigger than your dolly”, or, Why our labels no longer matter

Here’s an expanded write-up of my part of the presentation on ANCIL at the recent Association of Learning Developers in Higher Education conference, one of whose key themes was ‘Who owns learning development?’. In response to this theme Jane, Maria and I talked about moving from theory to practice in the development of a shared academic skills curriculum that embraces information literacy, digital literacies, learning development and graduate identites. They spoke about the practical work they’re doing at LSE; I got to play with the concepts!

When Jane and I carried out the ANCIL research in 2011 one of the first things we did was to map out the landscape of information literacy and how we saw it overlapping with related areas.



Our representation situates information literacy as the central concept, overlapping with areas of specific information application (new learning literacies), practices involving a specific type of information (digital literacies), and information in use in a particular context or community (academic and media literacies). The graphic was designed to show that we perceive information literacy as interwoven with all these areas – but it also suggests visually that information literacy is a grand narrative: the overarching, ‘master’ concept that relates and makes meaningful all the others.

It’s fair to say that both Jane and I perceived this landscape through the lens of information literacy, as that’s the conceptual matrix in which our approach developed. However, we soon began to see an equal degree of complexity in other areas, in particular recognising the strength of the claim that learning development constitutes a legitimate, epistemologically autonomous, and empirically grounded field of inquiry (see this wonderful article by Lillis and Scott). In other words, learning development could equally validly claim to occupy the central, relational role in our diagram, as a lens through which to see and connect the other areas – including digital and information literacies.

Similarly, digital literacy has gained a good deal of both recognition and traction in the UK higher education arena, where information literacy has notably failed to gain either. As a result, what Jane and I refer to as ‘information literacy’ is now often seen as being subsumed within the larger concept of ‘digital literacy’, in direct contrast to the ANCIL perception imaged above. In other words, digital literacy could equally validly claim to occupy the central, relational role in our diagram, as a lens through which to see and connect the other areas – including academic and information literacies.

Is this a deadlock, a stand-off? Not at all. Enter the wonderful matryoshka metaphor conceived by Florence Dujardin


Hello, Dolly!

Mulling over the relationship between information and digital literacy at an SRHE event, Florence said (as nearly as I can remember): “In HE we’re always trying to put one concept inside another so that we can see our preferred one as the biggest idea. It’s like Russian dolls … and everyone’s dolls stack up differently.”

Over the past decade or so, in each of the areas of learning development, information literacy, and digital literacy there has been a radical shift in thinking away from a simplistic, functional and normative approach and towards recognising and honouring the complexity of learning outside the curriculum and the agency of those doing the learning. So here’s a thought: maybe we’re at the point now that it doesn’t actually matter which doll is the biggest, the outward, most visible one. Because of the way our thinking in all these areas has developed, maybe we’ve reached a point where although we’re coming from different specialties and start points, we’re all converging on the same goal: to provide opportunities for our students to construct and sensemake the academic landscape for themselves.

Jane’s and my attempt to map the place of information literacy was the start of a growing recognition on our part of how nuanced each of these specialist areas is, how shifting and negotiated this academic information landscape is, and likewise how fluid are our own practitioner identities as ‘belonging’ to one or more of these areas. As a teaching librarian, I move across and between the arenas of academic literacies, critical information use, digital literacy and graduate identity. I can’t separate them, even if I thought there were any mileage in trying. And I can situate my practice and my professional identity as comfortably in the context and discourse of Beetham and Sharpe’s digital literacy framework, Hinchliffe and Jolly’s VIPER model of graduate identity and employability, or Lillis and Scott’s epistemology of academic literacies, as I can within Bruce’s six frames of information literacy. It’s not that I ‘wear different hats’ in each different sphere: I do the same thing in the same relationship with students, aiming always at the same goal – to help them to realise a critical and reflective relationship with the information that shapes, filters and mediates our lived experience.


Image by Lachlan Fearney, CC BY-SA 3.0

The academic support iceberg

I’ve just had one of those meetings – the kind that make you feel all zingy and creative and as bouncy as a puppy in a ball-pit. It was a conversation between librarians and learning developers, and there are few things more inspiring or full of possibility …

A lot of our discussion was about the ‘big picture’ of what both professions do in terms of academic support, and what it might look like to students. During our talk my colleague Sarah came up with a wonderful metaphor: there are three ‘prongs’ of academic development support – provided by lecturer, learning enhancement staff, and librarians. It’s an alliterative educational trident!

Then I started thinking about how visible each of those prongs is to learners, since mainstream subject content is often perceived as providing all the potential for academic development needed by students. As a (fairly vocal) proponent of both reflective information literacy and learning development, it’s probably no surprise that I feel that subject content needs to be interrogated, negotiated and contextualised in order for deep learning to be achieved. And so I give you … the academic support iceberg!


Above the surface, the academic development environment most visible to students – that available within their discipline, through their interaction with their subject. Below the surface, the rich opportunities offered by stepping back to look at ‘how you do what you do’ and reflecting on how to manage your own learning, with support from specialists in information and education.



There are consonances here with ‘real’ conceptual models such as ANCIL and Beetham and Sharpe’s Digital Literacy framework, which express information and digital literacies as a continuum rather than a simplistic single skill, and with current thinking about learning development as a complex of situated social practices. But although the iceberg is a metaphor schema rather than a model, I still like it rather a lot – not least because it’s reminiscent of other surface/depth schemata such as Alke Groppel-Wegener’s wonderful ‘Fish-scale of academicness‘:

Fishscale of Academicness

There’s more about Alke’s Fishscale schema in this post, too. I wonder if there’s room for a trident in there next to the treasure chest … ?

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. uksg_graphic_cropped 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. uksg_graphic 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. lib_vs_info 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. info_vs_lib 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?

Research Skills: a five-year retrospect

Image by Luz Adriana Villa,, CC BY 2.0

It’s Annual Report time again and my savvy colleague Alex suggested: “You’ve been in post five years. Why not make this a five-year report?”

So alongside the figures for this year’s Research Skills Programme, I’ve put together an overview of how the programme has changed in ethos and direction over the last half-decade in response to changes in the wider HE landscape.

It made me a bit sad that the feedback I got on my teaching didn’t make the final cut for the divisional report, which is another reason I wanted to put this document out here * shameless self-promotion klaxon *. But I also think that the work my colleagues have put in to the tour leaders’ Peer Training and Support scheme deserves more attention. This is what I wrote in the report:

The scheme requires commitment on both sides. It is not merely about passing on wisdom in a one-way relationship, but about dialogue and sharing of experience between the partners …. Participants on the scheme have to date responded with zest and enthusiasm, willingly making time for their own and their colleagues’ professional development in an outstandingly positive way.

That bit didn’t make the divisional report final cut either, so I want to shout about it here instead!


Image by Luz Adriana Villa,, CC BY 2.0

‘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 …

The Fishscale of Academicness. Image by Josh Filhol, from the chapter by Alke Groppel-Wegener and Geoff Walton

The Fishscale of Academicness. Image by Josh Filhol, from the chapter by Alke Groppel-Wegener and Geoff Walton

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).

Maze graphic by Nevit Dilmen on Wikimedia Commons. From 'The Library' by Bryony Ramsden

Maze graphic by Nevit Dilmen on Wikimedia Commons. From ‘The Library’ by Bryony 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).

From 'The Library' by Bryony Ramsden

From ‘The Library’ by Bryony Ramsden


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.

Casting your information net. Image by Josh Filhol, from 'The Fishcale of Academicness' by Alke Groppel-Wegener and Geoff Walton

Casting your information net. Image by Josh Filhol, from ‘The Fishcale of Academicness’ by Alke Groppel-Wegener and Geoff Walton