Archive for the ‘libraries’ Tag

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?

Advertisements

How I work (what, me?)

dance_vramak_CCBY20

So there’s a Lifehacker thing going the rounds where “productivity heroes” share their habits and in turn invite others to do so. I don’t know where I stand on the productivity scale, but I do know I’m one of the most disorganised researchers I’ve personally ever come across. This is great for teaching – it means I can be a sort of living Awful Warning to my research skills students – but whether it makes me a good candidate for productivity hero is definitely questionable.

But how could I resist Andy Priestner’s invitation – nay, command?

So here we go …

Location: Cambridge University Library

Current gig: Research Skills and Development Librarian

Current mobile device: elderly iPad (no camera!)

Current computer: Toshiba laptop with a missing plus key. (It got stuck on endless repeat and I eventually got fed up, prised it out of the keyboard and chucked it across the room.)

One word that best describes how you work: Chaotically.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?: Spider Solitaire. In times of stress I play it obsessively.

What’s your workspace like? I should do some shredding. And some filing. And some general desk entropy measures. I’m sure I had a chair once.

What’s your best time-saving trick?: I have no time-saving tricks at all. I drafted a ton of self-deprecating reasons as to why not before I realised that this is not an embarrassing omission or a character flaw: it’s a deliberate policy. I don’t want to save time. I want to spend it – wisely, profitably, joyously, frivolously. I want to seize opportunities, take on new projects, meet and create ideas with people, walk all 186 miles of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. I could save time easily by doing none of these things. But what would I do instead?

What’s your favourite to-do list manager?: The stash of scrap paper that I cut down to A5 and hold together with a bulldog clip.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? My Moleskine 18-month weekly notebook diary.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?: Well, I’m pretty shit-hot at Spider Solitaire.

What are you currently reading?

  • The Oxford Book of English Poetry
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh
  • The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy – Malone Dies – The Unnamable (that’s been ongoing for a while now)
  • Murder on the Flying Scotsman by Carola Dunn (with rising irritation)

I guess another time-saving strategy (see above) could be just reading one book at a time, but why would I want to do that?

What do you listen to while you work?: The general conversation in our open plan office – by turns funny, informative, supportive and just plain bonkers. It’s the best office environment I’ve ever worked in.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?: A very highly-functioning closet introvert.

What’s your sleep routine like?: Erratic.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see Helen Webster answer these same questions.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?: “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”(Full disclosure: Thich Nhat Hanh didn’t actually say this to me personally.)

Is there anything else you’d like to add?: Metaphors around ‘being productive’ are often based on motion: spinning all the plates, juggling all the things, dashing around getting things done. In contrast, every research skills session I give is based on stopping and being still for a little while. They’re an invitation to pause and take stock, to look unjudgementally at how you do what you do.  Paradoxically, the best way to be productive as a researcher may be to periodically stop doing and allow yourself to reflect on where you are:

“Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

(T.S. Eliot)

 

Image by Rama V, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

On not working with books (or, on having *that* conversation)

We’ve all had it. Every member of library staff ever, anywhere, has undergone some variant of this conversation. Y’know, this one …

Me: “I’m a librarian.”

Other [big smile]: “Oh, you must read a lot of books!”

There are varying responses you can offer depending on whether you want to perpetuate the stereotype or burst the bubble. For the record, here’s mine – you can decide for yourself which, if either, it does …

Me: “I don’t have anything to do with books. I work with information.”

Other: “Oh.”

Me: “In fact, I don’t even work with information in the generally accepted sense of the word – meaning knowledge that’s been recorded, published or otherwise externalised. What I work with is the information that’s still inside people’s heads, that’s not yet structured or fully articulated, that’s the result of the creative encounter between an individual and a learning context. It’s a chaotic, innovative, ongoing engagement, and it has to hold in play many sophisticated arguments and conflicting viewpoints. And on top of that, in the academic world we demand that this creative simultaneity be converted into a linear and sequential argumentative form and presented according to stringent, highly formalised yet generally very badly explained academic conventions.”

Other: [opens mouth. Thinks better of it.]

Me: “So you see, most of what librarians have done traditionally has been about organising and curating information that’s already been expressed – stuff that’s been published in containers like books and journals. And most of my colleagues still work with that stuff. But what I get to do is work with the people who are working with the stuff and making new information and knowledge.

“Isn’t that the most amazing job ever?”

By this point, of course, quite a few of my interlocutors have been desperately finding an excuse to edge away from the mad librarian. But every now and again – and more often than I would ever have expected – I get this response:

“Yeah, that really is the greatest job ever.”

:-)

Here be dragons: of libraries and the information landscape

I was invited to give a presentation on libraries and information to new undergraduates at Clare College back in the beginning of October (you remember, all that time ago when term started). It was the 09:30 slot in a day of study skills sessions, and the last thing I wanted was to bore the students to tears from the get-go with a catalogue demonstration. Thinking about the transition from school to HE gave me a different focus for the talk – one that revolved around the students’ own experiences and expectations of libraries.

Image credit: Adib Roy, flickr.com

First up: challenge the concept of libraries as temples of deathly quiet, defended by shushing librarians – just in case that one’s still out there.

The dragons I’m talking about are not librarians, but the kind that inhabit unknown territory on old maps: the ones that might possibly lurk in the new landscape of knowledge across whose border, in entering university, you step. Some of this landscape has already been explored and charted, and is only new to you; but at some point, in some hitherto overlooked corner, it’s your viewpoint – your mapping of the terrain – that will count.

How do you become informed about your landscape? What acts as your compass? The library is a good place to start – because while the library’s physical manifestation is finite, libraries link to whole worlds of information.

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries …. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors …
I say that the Library is unending.

(Borges, ‘The Library of Babel’)

From this perspective the library’s resources – the catalogue, the eresources portal – become tools that scholars can use to orientate themselves in the knowledge landscape and discover new territory. Yet no resource comes close to be as important as the scholar’s built-in compass: critical vision. It is the ability to analyse and evaluate information, whatever its source or format, for accuracy, reliability and scholarly worth that ultimately enables the academic endeavour – whether you’re an eminent researcher or a fresher undergrad.

Oh, and the dragons? They were vanquished by some scholarly research by Erin C. Blake: there has never existed a map bearing the words “Here be dragons”.