Libraries and Learning

Belonging Online and In the Library

June 12, 2017

Librarians have been thinking quite a bit about their library as a place in the last decade or so. They also try to make their digital spaces convenient for users to orient themselves and get to the information they seek (while also placating the marketing folks who decide what the institutional website should look like). Though we try to make the library where I work a hospitable place with a user-friendly website, I wonder what it looks like to students who are new to the place. When I was an undergraduate I made a nest in my university library. I actually liked writing papers and when I needed a break I’d browse some random part of the stacks: Hakluyt’s Voyages – that looks cool. Huh, An Elementary Welsh Grammar. Wonder if I could learn Welsh? I didn’t like it when a uniformed guard busted me for having food in my carrel, yet I never felt like I didn’t belong there. He was the one who seemed out of place. But I was a weird kid, and privileged, growing up with the unquestioned expectation that I would have a university library in my future and it would feel like home.

Kate Bowles, who writes elegantly about higher education at Music for Deckchairs, recently posted an essay on “kith,” the sense of place and belonging that goes along with kin, our family relationships. (I’d never actually thought about the meaning of the first half of “kith and kin.”) She quotes Susan Beal: “Kith is not only the place you know and love, but the place that knows and loves you back.” In the essay Bowles examines what that means in terms of “digital citizenship” from her perspective in Australia where actual citizenship has become a fraught subject, a category of exclusion, as perhaps it always has been though not necessarily recognized as such. I’m thinking about this as I start to plan a course that will use digital humanities tools to explore identity and the internet. I know from experience that what seems obvious and comfortable to me is a matter of familiarity. It’s hard work for many students who would rather not be doing it anyway, and thinking about what happens to their data when they use social media is deeply uncomfortable, as is discussing their multiple social media identities. Those are private except for their close friends and the numerous invisible data-mining companies that exploit those identities and relationships.

Bowles concludes with some thoughtful questions:

Are there places that we love online, environments where we feel at home, that seem to love us back? Is this about user experience, or ethos? Is it about the trust we’re willing to place in design, in what data is kept and what is done with it? Can we feel at home under conditions of continual digital surveillance? Can we love a place that is manipulating us for business or political gain? Is it ever possible to experience kith when the whole thing is set up, controlled, regulated and organised in service of values we don’t share?

I often ask questions like those about the digital tools I use and the social spaces I visit online, but they seem like useful questions to ask widely about higher education as well. Do our students feel at home in our spaces, or do they feel like customers who get frustrated with the service or like investors who feel scammed or like imposters who will be kicked out as soon as they are discovered trespassing? What do we do to live out our values in our institutions, and what can we do about those intransigent barriers that thwart us? How do we approach proposed solutions to problems we may not understand historically? (See Audrey Watters on personalized learning as “freedom from the regulations that have been put in place in the last sixty years to try to force educational institutions to be more equitable.”) Why do we propose sweeping change without recognizing the problems staring us in the face? (See John Warner on the non-revolutionary “transformation” that could be had by simply hiring teachers full-time and paying them decent wages – simple yet somehow impossible.) How much of the difficulty students have using libraries is due to complexities of copyright and the legacies of traditional publishing that linger in the switch to digital and how much is due to barriers we librarians erected long ago and don’t even see? To what extent do we require students to comply with our established norms, or do we nourish conditions in which they can create their own?

Bowles’ essay is a response to an issue that came up in DigCiz, an ongoing online conversation involving scholars from around the world. It’s new territory to me, but I see a few familiar faces there. Maybe I’ll check it out and see if it’s a place where I would feel at home.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.