Listservs: Think Tanks or Shark Tanks?

When you decided to become a librarian, did you know about the power of listservs? I certainly did not. During my premiere week as an “official” librarian, my coworkers provided me with a laundry list of recommended listservs. Eager to learn from the collective wisdom of librarians across the country and world, I joined the ones I felt best suited my position, research interests, and institution.

Overall, I find  the listservs to which I subscribe very useful. In addition to sparking new ideas ranging from library instruction to organizational culture, listservs provide a continuous, professional pressure cooker for collaboration. Depending on the size and location of your library, you may feel as though you’re on a deserted island with limited flares to signal for help. Listservs not only bring the professional community to you, but you also have the power to decide how much you choose to interact with the community. You can simply be a receiver of the collective wisdom or you can actively contribute.

Because of the lack of immediate feedback that comes with email communications, your first contribution to a listserv may require a tremendous act of bravery. Your name and institution are attached for all of your colleagues to read. This could inhibit someone from asking a question they may deem as “stupid.” But as the old saying goes, there are no stupid questions except those that aren’t asked. While feedback is expected in these forums, feedback in the form of criticism should always remain constructive, not destructive. When feedback becomes destructive, it not only discourages participation, but it generally reflects poorly on both the criticizer and the profession as a whole. Additionally, when you provide constructive criticism, you should think about whether it’s appropriate to reply on or off list. Place yourself in the shoes of the recipient and ask yourself if you’d want to receive your comments individually or for the entire listserv to read.

Recently, a thread in one of my subscribed listservs experienced this jump from collegial to antagonistic. It began with a librarian asking if we would complete a short survey about librarian demographics and attitudes for her MBA market research class. The survey had standard demographic questions, but then asked a series of questions related to cats – whether or not you owned one, your attitudes about them, etc. You could see where she was going with the survey. The survey evoked a series of responses that ranged from amusement to pro-dog outcries to anger. The outraged questioned statistical methods, offensive stereotypes, and what they perceived as a misleading introduction to the survey. After a few days, the surveyor notified the group that 1600 self-identified librarians responded and that her group’s hypothesis, one to which the listserv was not privy, was proven mostly wrong. She concluded her summation by mentioning the possibility for publishing the study, which incited a series of critical responses regarding IRB approval, institutional affiliation, survey transparency, and the differences between data collection for research vs. educational purposes (as though the two are not inherently bond).

Although some of the questions asked by respondents are pertinent, I struggle with how they were posed. The tone was largely condescending and demeaning. They were destructive, not constructive. In many of the instances, respondents probably should have provided feedback off list. However, a handful of librarians quickly defended the surveyor. One such defended perfectly expressed my feelings:

Is it possible to ask these questions with a little humility? Why would anyone attempt anything new, let alone share it with a group of peers if they knew that any slip would be seized upon by a heavy dose of tactless criticism?

My fear is that if listservs continually see aggressive, self-satisfying, and humiliating responses, librarians may hesitate to participate. That would be the real tragedy.*

Finally, what if I and the handful of defenders are mistaken? Is it possible that we inferred a tone that wasn’t intended in the criticism? Were the critics truly attempting to be constructive? Was something lost in digital translation? How can we use this as a self-teaching moment? More specifically, can we use these digital miscommunications in our professional interactions to inform our instructional design choices when creating online courses and tutorials for distance learners?

When creating information literacy tutorials or interacting in an online course as an embedded librarian, there are plenty of opportunities for miscommunication and misinterpretation. When a simple question or statement can easily be misinterpreted in a face-to-face environment, just think how a seemingly straightforward question or comment can be misinterpreted by an audience in a digital environment.

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Miss Congeniality, 2000

* I’d be curious to research how many and how often threads divert down such negative paths, but I’m pretty sure I’d refrain from mentioning it on any listserv for fear of inciting an ironic series of antagonistic replies.

Librarian, Instructor, Advisor: Decision 1 of Many to Follow

On top of my summer library projects, which include a redesign of Reinert Library’s modular online tutorial, I will be preparing to teach my first credit-bearing course. In an effort to expand the reach of the information literacy program at Creighton University, I volunteered to be a faculty preceptor for the Ratio Studiorum Program (RSP) at Creighton. RSP 101 introduces freshmen to academic life in the College of Arts & Sciences at Creighton. In addition to teaching students about the value of a liberal arts education and the Jesuit mission, I will also be the students’ advisor until they declare their major.

It should come as no surprise that as a reference and instruction librarian I find teaching to be the most rewarding and gratifying aspect of my job. Unfortunately, with the exception of institutions that teach a credit-bearing information literacy course, librarians rarely have the opportunity to teach outside the one-shot format. While RSP 101 is not an information literacy course, there is a good bit of flexibility built into it. In addition to my teaching style and preferred teaching strategies, I can personalize my section through a book or series of articles.

Playing to the age-old stereotype of the bookish librarian, I spent a healthy amount of time attempting to pick the perfect book. Since RSP 101 is a one-credit course, the recommended length is 200 pages, which narrows the pool considerably. I was also advised to choose a book that both engages students and plays to my research interests. The information field offers plenty of interesting options, but I struggled imagining 18 year-old students feeling the same enthusiasm for The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains or The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption as I do. One could argue that given the academic nature of the course, students don’t have to love the book, but I also don’t want students to look at the class as just another boring requirement. So after staring at my bookshelves for what felt like an eternity, I landed on Peter Rock’s My Abandonment

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My Abandonment by Peter Rock

Perhaps an unconventional choice, but let me explain. The goal of critical thinking skills inherent in information fluency is transferability. We want students to use the search skills we teach them across multiple platforms, not just an EBSCO or ProQuest interface. We want to teach them how to critically evaluate all types of information, not just a website or scholarly article. My Abandonment is inspired by the true story of a girl and her father who lived in Forest Park in Portland. Rock has created a beautiful and gripping coming of age tale from the newspaper stories that emerged upon their discovery. I envision using this novel as a gateway for students to think about how we interact with information, both available and missing, in our daily lives to draw inferences and create knowledge in the world around us. Fiction is not a popular option for RSP 101 texts. I chose fiction because just as dystopian literature can help young adults understand difficult social issues, I believe that fiction can generate questions and conversations in more profound ways than nonfiction.

Choosing a text is just one of the many pedagogical decisions I’ll have to make this summer. I look forward to developing the class and the opportunities it will allow for experimentation with different teaching strategies and tools. I am particularly interested in utilizing the flipped classroom model. Developing a class, mastering the College of Arts & Sciences curriculum, and advising approximately 12 students will not only challenge me  as a teacher, but I also envision it as an exciting opportunity to demonstrate one of the many ways in which the library can help serve the students (and faculty) at Creighton.

Do We Need to Teach This?

As Reference and Instructional Services Librarian, a significant percentage of my work focuses on assessment. One of my favorite classes to teach as the social science liaison is Communication Studies 152: Civic Engagement through Public Communication. Throughout the semester students produce a series of informative, persuasive, and group speeches. Instructors encourage students to speak about topics that not only interest them, but that also engage with the current civic discourse.

Because topics generally focus on current issues, sources run the gamut from open web sources to scholarly articles. Most speeches utilize an array of government statistical sources, local newspaper articles, and scholarly, peer-reviewed material. On top of this breadth lies the fact that a majority of COM 152 students are freshmen, many of whom have never been exposed to college-level research or library databases. This leaves 50 minutes to teach students the information cycle, the difference between scholarly and popular, how to effectively use databases (and a wide variety of them, since topics can fall under any discipline), and how to critically evaluate the information they find. A daunting task, but one that instruction librarians regularly face.

Working with course instructors, information literacy librarians make tough decisions about what to teach and what not to teach on a daily basis. Creating clear, relevant, and measurable learning outcomes helps us prioritize and focus our learning objectives. Assessing these outcomes illustrates if students learn what we teach. We then close the assessment loop by using the results to inform our future teaching. But what do we do if the results continue to show students aren’t grasping a particular concept? We can incorporate different teaching techniques. We can ensure we’re teaching to various learning styles. We can develop different active learning exercises. In sum, we go back to the drawing board. We don’t give up. But how often do we take a step back and ask ourselves, “Is this a skill a students (still) need? Do we need to move on and focus our attention elsewhere?” After all, time is precious and we may be letting one piece distract us from the greater puzzle.

This spring I piloted a pre- and post-test assessment piece in four of the sections of COM 152. I learned a lot about the effectiveness of my teaching and how students conceptualize some of the material. The tests also revealed that students repeatedly failed to grasp the difference between keywords and subjects. A handful of conclusions can be drawn from the results, but I began to wonder if this was an essential skill for students in this course to master. A large portion of students’ sources (for better or worse) come from open web sources and newspapers, both of which typically do not use controlled vocabulary and often allow for full text searching. Recognizing the difference between subjects and keywords might prove useful when searching for scholarly articles or using the catalog, but since sources need to be within the past 5 years, students often ignore the catalog and their scholarly sources trend toward broad pieces on general issues.

Through working with students one-on-one in research consultations, I think students often discover controlled vocabulary serendipitously. They’ll search a database and begin to look through the records. They notice that within each record are hyperlinked terms that often reflect their initial keyword search. Since Millennials are so accustomed to URLs, they’ll click on the subject term and realize that the database has now returned more relevant records. Some students will ask why it happened, while other students don’t care why it happened but realize that they’ve “done something right.” They begin to notice the database limiters. Serendipity.

Is it possible to quantify which learning method is more valuable – learning within the classroom or learning by doing? Are the two separate? I can create active learning exercises that incorporate this same process, but the activity is divorced from the students’ point of need. Or is this all irrelevant? Knowing the difference between controlled vocabulary and keywords is a lower order skill. Should my efforts focus on higher order information literacy skills? Is this possible without knowing the difference between keyword searching and controlled vocabulary?

I believe it is possible. Teaching the difference between keywords and subjects may be a traditional learning objective, but its time may have run out. In an increasingly digital educational landscape where information overload is almost inevitable, this is one piece that I’m growing increasingly comfortable removing from the puzzle.

Tradition and the Rhetoric of the Modern Library

“Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

“…Tradition results from a conscious and deliberate acceptance.” – Igor Stravinsky

While at ACRL, I attended  “From the Periphery into the Mainstream: Library DIY Culture(s) and the Academy,” a panel session led by the librarians from In the Library with the Lead Pipe. I attended the session not only because I’m very interested in the topic, but I also wanted to see how/if they successfully flipped the standard panel session format. 

As the dust settled from the conference, a few commentaries about the session have emerged. In particular, I found the posts by Meredith Farkas and Brian Mathews both interesting and thought-provoking. They both left the session with quite different opinions on the DIY concept and the librarians who spoke at the session. I do not intend this post to be a response to either of those posts because I find facets of their arguments with which I  both agree and disagree, and I can’t seem to find a way to describe this dichotomy with any clarity. However, they both call attention to comments made during the session about the “traditional library.” As an audience member who made one such comment, I’d like to attempt to articulate in greater depth what I envisioned expressing.

Maybe it’s because I am a liaison for the Communication Studies department or maybe it’s because many of the issues my library faces can be attributed to ineffective communication of value, but in recent months I’ve found myself paying an increasing amount of attention to rhetoric. In particular, I have come to believe that librarians need to stop using the word “traditional” to describe what we do or what we are.

I want to be clear that I believe tradition exists and will forever remain an element of librarianship. Any profession that has survived as long as librarianship will maintain some sort of tradition. I’m not implying that we need to throw away the foundations of librarianship or what has brought us to our current state. What I wish to see happen is a transformation in the rhetoric.

My comment at the DIY panel session was along the lines of this: “We need to stop using the word ‘traditional.’ People often use that word and it generally implies something as static, but libraries have always been the opposite. We’re dynamic institutions, always changing.” In many ways, our tradition has been change – adapting to the needs of our users in an ever-evolving world, which is now highly defined by technology. As a profession, we understand this, but if an outsider was looking in, it’s my opinion that they’d hear the word “traditional” and apply the age-old stereotype of The Music Man‘s Marian the Librarian. These are the same people who expound about libraries not existing in the near future because of the internet. They hear the word “traditional” and think static. Unfortunately, these people seem to outnumber those who know what the true tradition of librarianship is, and these are the people who are more often than not making the administrative and policy decisions that affect how our libraries operate.

If we change the rhetoric, can we more effectively impact the administrative decisions being made regarding libraries? Communicating the value of libraries within our institutions has become increasingly important in an atmosphere of escalating costs among flat-lined or decreasing budgets, and initiatives like ACRL’s Value of Academic Libraries and ACRL’s Standards for Libraries in Higher Education perpetuate its importance. By changing the rhetoric of how we communicate our value, librarians can better position ourselves to create the change envisioned by those at the DIY panel session.

In many ways, this call for transformation in the rhetoric fits the attitudes of most of the librarians who commented at the ACRL panel session and what I believe is the essence of the DIY concept – the desire to transform our libraries outside of the traditional hierarchies, norms, and constraints, to meet the evolving demands of our users. What exactly this new rhetoric should sound and look like, I’m unsure. I do know that it needs to start within the profession and it needs to begin today. Until the profession as a whole decides to change the rhetoric, we cannot expect our surrounding external forces to buy into the vision of DIY culture.