Libraries and Learning

On the Latest Docudrama

June 30, 2016

Did you feel that? That rumble that made all the furniture shake and threatened to topple the library stacks like dominoes (except that we made sure they are bolted securely after the last time)? Did you feel the world reeling around you?

You didn’t?

Okay. You’re good. Carry on.

There’s a bit of drama going on in some quarters of the academic library world over a couple of documents, the older of which was just officially rescinded at a conference. If you’ve ever been to a faculty meeting, you know how desperately important these battles feel. Every word, every comma is up for debate, and everything is charged with such importance because this document we’re working on will be accepted or rejected and it carries in it everything we hold dear. More to the point, it will determine what we will do in future. It will have authority! Except these documents almost never do. They’re proxies for what we believe and what we would like to do, and they take a lot of work, but in the end what we do will be something different anyway because teaching and learning is messy and every student, every teaching situation, every semester brings unexpected variations on “here’s what works and what matters most.”

These documents (in this particular case a Standards document and a new Framework document) were developed by librarians out of a belief that students’ learning about how information works is an important part of education. Most academics would agree, though they are not likely to agree on what to call that kind of learning, how best to provide opportunities for that kind of learning or even, in fact, what exactly is to be learned. In a sense, though, these documents are testaments of faith in the educational value of libraries, and faith is pretty fundamental stuff. It’s that star that you look for in the night sky to remind yourself which way to head when you’re feeling lost. I wouldn’t enjoy my job much if I didn’t have that faith that at least some of the time I play a part in students learning things that matter. But doctrinal disputes can get ugly.

These professions of faith are on the surface statements about what students should learn and say a bit about how we might know if that learning happens. They read differently because they were written in different decades, but they aren’t necessarily contradictory. Nothing in the newer document says “that thing we said students should learn? It’s completely wrong and they shouldn’t.” The dissonance between them is in how librarians describe what this learning looks like and how we should talk about it in public. But the real source of friction seems to be how librarians see themselves in the political economy of higher education. There are lots of arguments being made about the substance of the documents and the workings of the organization and the individuals involved, but I suspect most of the angst comes down to two things: What am I supposed to do now? And who has my back? Those two questions in turn make me wonder how we see ourselves as actors in higher education.

Are we subalterns who need detailed instructions and ready-made templates to do our jobs? Are we employees who need permission and guidance from a higher authority? Or are we free individuals who care about students more than we care about the logistics of program design and accountability? Is this a crisis of faith or a crisis of confidence?

If we have to write SLOs because our institutions require them, it’s not that hard. If we have to assess learning and write reports about how much we helped students learn because we have to demonstrate value, we can do that as well as any other academics who have the same burden. If doing these things in ways that actually help students learn is made difficult by your organization, either because of committee-based entropy or a bossy boss or both, then there’s a problem with the organization that is about something other than either of the two documents. If this internal squabbling is really an expression of fear that libraries don’t matter and librarians aren’t respected, then look for evidence to inform those fears and figure out how to respond. Arguing with other librarians or expecting your association to provide ready-made respect won’t help much.

There are loads of standards and frameworks out there telling us what we should be doing. These are the records of professional conversations and negotiations about groups of people think matters and what we should do about it. Those conversations can be valuable, but the documents aren’t powerful talismans. They aren’t rules or recipes. They’re a record of how a profession thinks about something at a given point in time. They aren’t what we do.

What we do is help students learn, and they don’t come to us framed or standardized. They have different beliefs, needs, interests, and goals. We’re not going to harmonize them into a single ideal student, and it’s a good thing, too. Churning out standardized people would betray the principles of liberal learning and the independence of thought that libraries should encourage.

Some of us are trying to help 40,000 students learn in giant, confusing research libraries, and that’s really hard. Some of us are the only librarian in a library with a shoestring budget helping 1,000 students, a significant percentage of whom are currently homeless or hungry, and that’s hard too. The discussions we have about information literacy and the documents that come out of those discussions can be helpful, but they don’t do this hard work for us. We each have to do that in the way that works best for our students. Those wonderfully unique people who are trying to learn under varying circumstances, helped by teachers facing all kinds of obstacles.

Let’s not get too angry with each other over doctrinal issues. We have work to do, interesting and valuable work that doesn’t come prefabricated. Wouldn’t it be awfully boring if it were?


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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.