Libraries and Learning

Reframing Libraries

March 23, 2016

We’re doing some soul-searching at my library about how we support student learning and whether the ways we’ve done it for years are working as well as they could. As at many libraries, the reference desk is seeing fewer consultations and our liaison work with departments could use a reboot. So we’re asking big questions: what do we think students ought to learn by the time they graduate? What structures and practices would advance that learning? We’ll be drawing on the Framework for Information Literacy and on the conversations we’ve had with faculty about what they feel are the most important and complex concepts they want students to grasp.

But it has occurred to me that the ideas about information articulated in the Framework have more far-reaching implications than our instruction programs. Maybe the change in emphasis from individuals finding and using information to understanding information systems and one’s own place in them can help us rethink how we support faculty research, build collections, and design our physical and virtual spaces – or, if nothing else, clarify our priorities.

Here’s the old definition of information literacy:

Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.

And the new one:

Information literacy is the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.

There’s an emphasis on information as something that is socially negotiated, that is complex, that isn’t merely something you find and use but is created by people – including our students. We need to think about this as we design our collections and services.

One of the big shifts in the field that deeply affected everything we do in my small library was the shift from ownership to access, spurred by the rise of the internet and the massive switch to electronic access to journal content. We went from buying what we could afford to licensing year-by-year as much as our budget allowed. We increased immediate access to the journal literature enormously in a few short years. We also benefited from the development of platforms and infrastructure (thank you, Minitex!) that made requesting books and articles that aren’t in our library much easier and faster. Rarely do people need to go to shelves to locate articles these days. Rarely do they fill out a form with bibliographic information to make an interlibrary loan request. Our website has made it close to automatic. That’s good. Saves a lot of time and trouble.

At the same time, two other things happened: Google and Amazon changed the way people search and shop, combining convenience with previously unimaginable amounts of consumer choice, making libraries scramble to keep up with expectations. And academic publishing became more and more concentrated and profitable, with libraries paying the bills as faculty faced higher demands to demonstrate productivity and feed their work into the databases we subscribe to. End result: the library became a shopping platform. Knowledge became a commodity. Search became flattened, disconnected from context, journals unbundled and thrown into a vast search engine.

It’s kind of hard to see scholarship as conversation or to grasp how authority is contingent and contextual when the sources you need can be called up with a simple keyword search, when the context is not visible, when typing in a topic is so much easier than reading the fine print at the end of an article to discover related research. It’s so efficient, but something is lost.

So many of our decisions as librarians in the past decade have reinforced the information-as-a-commodity, research-as-consumerism model that Google and Amazon have made a part of everyday life. Our databases offer more stuff and less context. Results are relevance-ranked by a black box algorithm we cannot review or shape. We want to be of service to the faculty and the curriculum, so we try to hide as much as possible the costs and hassles involved and, as a result, scholars have little idea of the commercial forces that control who has access to the research they do. That deal their society struck with Wiley seems like a smart move. Those chemistry articles they just downloaded, triggering a $15 token payment per article, well – they need them, and they need them right now. Except, of course, for the seven articles and  that turned out not to be useful after all – but that’s something they can only judge after they downloaded the article.

As librarians, we don’t want to stand in the way of research by exposing the ugly underbelly of the system or adding any friction. We know faculty will bypass the library if it’s at all inconvenient (and they already do). We want students to have as much choice as possible, but they might be unhappy if they realized how that abundance of choice is funded by their tuition dollars, enriching a handful of corporations. So we make the costs as invisible as possible, the acquisition of stuff as easy as we can. A commitment to cheerful service regardless of cost is a hard habit to break.

But I see some promising changes that align with the emphasis in the Framework on creating rather than consuming, on understanding systems of information rather than how to find stuff, on context and making critical judgments that go beyond making convenient consumer choices. If we think about information as something communities create in conversation within a social and economic context rather than as a consumer good, we may put less emphasis on being local franchises for big information conglomerates and put more time, resources, and creativity into supporting local creativity and discovery. We may begin to do better at working across boundaries to support and fund open access to research rather than focusing most of our efforts on paying the rent and maintaining the security of our walled gardens. And as we make this shift, we may be able to stop teaching students how to shop efficiently for information that won’t be available once they graduate. We may help them think more critically about where knowledge comes from and how they can participate in making sense of things.


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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.