By Barbara Fister
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 There’s nothing new about academic librarians perceiving their libraries as sites of learning. “A librarian should be more than a keeper of books, he should be an educator,” Otis Robinson wrote in 1876 (as cited in Holley, 1976). “No such librarian is fit for his place unless he holds himself responsible for the library education of his students . . . All that is taught in college amounts to very little, but if we can send students out self-reliant in their investigations, we have accomplished very much.”
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Though perhaps it is self-evident that academic libraries are meant to be educational, librarians have been avidly pursuing ways to make learning in the library a formalized and frequent curricular experience. Librarians feel committed to engaging with students as they learn to navigate information for school and beyond, though with rare exceptions, the practical limits of librarians’ teaching role leads to a focus on helping students be successful as students, hoping that kind of learning has life-long benefits.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 What we call this pedagogical role has changed over the years. An early name was “library orientation” (traces of which can still be found in the name of LOEX, the non-profit organization best known for its annual LOEX conference, first held in 1971). The term “bibliographic instruction” was used in the 1980s (and though it has fallen out of use, many librarians continue to refer to their classes as “BI sessions”). Now the phrase “information literacy” has been widely adopted to describe the library’s pedagogical efforts. Some have argued that “transliteracy,” the ability to communicate in multiple modes using various platforms (Newman & Ipri, 2011) or “metaliteracy,” which emphasizes fusing multiple literacies that contribute to producing and sharing content in a more participatory Web environment (Mackey & Jacobson, 2011) offer ways to supplement or broaden information literacy to embrace a full range of skills and dispositions needed today. But time will tell what terminology will be embraced in the future.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Library-directed instructional efforts are most strongly identified with programs that involve librarians in formal teaching. A common site for this teaching is within the context of courses taught by faculty in the disciplines, meeting with the class once or more to introduce research tools and processes that will help students with a research assignment or (in the case of first year composition) introduce them to the basics of finding sources for college-level writing. In some cases, librarians teach one or more credit-bearing courses. In other cases, they may be embedded in a course by co-teaching it, teaching a lab section connected to a course, or by simply being available and involved in the course throughout the term. Though librarians have long criticized the inadequacy of single instructional sessions within a course (colloquially known as “one-shot instruction”), that format remains a mainstay of many library programs and is particularly systematic in first year writing courses. Indeed, a recent study from Project Information Literacy about the first year of college found that librarians and writing instructors play a significant role in introducing first year students to college-level research (Head, 2013).
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 Support for student learning is not limited to the classroom. It also includes improving user experience design of the library’s Web presence, publishing subject and course guides, designing tutorials, creating spaces within the library building conducive to learning, and providing instruction for specialized resources such as archives, special collections, datasets, GIS, or multimedia. It’s interesting to note that the traditional site of one-on-one point-of-need learning, which James Elmborg (2002) called “perhaps the most natural constructivist teaching environment in our schools” (p. 463) – the reference desk – is on the decline. As basic information is more easily retrieved without special skills and as the overall number of positions in libraries decreases, scheduling librarians to be available at a specific location has increasingly been called into question. When projecting what areas would see growth in the next five years, library directors prioritized instruction over all other roles, but were nearly as likely to reduce reference roles as to invest in them (Long & Schonfeld 2014, p. 30). In many cases, the functions carried out at a reference desk have been relocated, with the time professionals have devoted to being available at a centralized location for a diminishing number of interactions reallocated to other instructional tasks, with tiered reference and reference consultations by appointment providing one-on-one coaching and personalized assistance.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Looking back at the literature of library instruction, it’s clear that encouraging deeper conceptual learning, designing effective active learning techniques, developing greater coherency in situating information literacy in the curriculum, and promoting transferable knowledge have been priorities for nearly as long as librarians have offered instruction. The current process of revising the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (ACRL, 2000) is attempting to formalize those ambitions by articulating cognitively challenging concepts to serve as the anchors of a new framework. Both the 2000 Standards and the emergingFramework for Information Literacy have been proposed as joint ventures, not as marching orders for librarians. Both documents attempt to articulate the complexity of what we ask students to do when they encounter, use, and create information. They both suggest in accompanying material that this isn’t something librarians will accomplish on their own. Yet when librarians embraced the Standards, they often did so as if all of them had to be taught and assessed by librarians, who didn’t always find them useful as an invitation to an institutional examination of the role of such learning in the curriculum – or who, perhaps, grew discouraged when such overtures were rejected. The new Framework is intended to promote cross-campus conversation, but it’s not at all clear at this point if that will be more likely with the new document than with the old.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Susanna M. Cowan (2014) characterizes this conundrum as “the battle we won that we lost.” In her analysis, librarians began to embrace their pedagogical role in an era when information was scarce and finding it was hard. Cowan argues that information seeking is now woven into the fabric of everyday life. Indeed, in a June 2014 Supreme Court decision, Riley v. California, Chief Justice Roberts commented that cell phones are “now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy” (p. 9). Given that profound change in how people use information, Cowan questions whether our continual advocacy isn’t actually narrowing our focus by asserting a continuing special expertise that artificially binds what we teach to the library itself. “Information literacy,” she writes, “must, like so many other library services, enter the educational commons, in the sense of a collaborative network of pedagogies and practices that crosses internal and external institutional boundaries and has no “home” because it lives in no one place” (p. 30). She suggests that we either reinvigorate our efforts to give faculty and students ownership of this kind of learning or simply stop trying so hard to develop programs of our own and take the time to step back and observe how our communities discover, use, and create knowledge so that we can consider whether our efforts are actually contributing to information literacy.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 3 If Cowan is right that our long, successful establishment of information literacy programs as an important role for academic librarians has been overtaken by a cultural and digital environment in which information is ubiquitous, knowledge is abundant, and librarians no longer have a special responsibility for it, then what comes next? Is it possible that highly-developed library-led initiatives will actually defeat our purpose by making information literacy a library project, isolated from the wider world of information? To a large extent, this is a longstanding problem for librarians. We know this kind of learning is critically important. We believe opportunities for becoming information literate aren’t adequately provided in the curriculum so that students will gain systematic exposure to and get practice using and creating knowledge in multiple contexts. We have a wide-angle lens on the issues that our siloed disciplines lack. But we seem trapped in a model of servant leadership that sets up a tension between leading and serving. Our most common route to students’ attention is through service to the courses they take in other departments, but that route is circuitous and often reduces our contribution to introducing a database full of content our graduates will lose access to, or orienting students to the vagaries of a particular library’s organization, making it difficult to consider more cohesively where knowledge comes from, what social and economic factors influence it, how students can develop a sense of agency in posing problems that matter to them, and how they can develop a voice of their own within the framework of scholarly conversation. That work is most likely to happen in the classroom and in research apprenticeships, but we don’t entirely trust faculty to take it seriously or bring to it a wide enough angle on a changing information environment.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 While we have succeeded in making student learning a priority for our profession and have brought it to the attention of the academy writ large, seeing it adopted by higher education organizations and included in accreditation standards (only to see it disappear), we haven’t yet mastered the art of infiltrating the curriculum and sharing both ownership of the work and a belief that it’s fundamentally important with those who have the greatest influence over students. Perhaps the next step will be recognizing and exposing the value faculty see in this set of skills and dispositions that they care deeply about, but rarely identify as “information literacy.” Perhaps we can help them get a broader perspective on the information environment in which their scholarly conversations occupy a valuable but parochial territory, and think more intentionally about the value of this kind of learning for students who will likely leave that part of the landscape behind on graduation, equipped to find their way through unfamiliar, undiscovered lands.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In addition to local and national advocacy on the part of academic librarians, developing a better understanding of how students learn and why this learning matters will help make this thing we call information literacy a shared enterprise. At the local level, assessment (discussed below) can provide faculty with insights into their students and their learning provided it is driven by curiosity and an interest in improving learning, not by institutional self-defense (as “return on investment” rhetoric so often frames it). At the national level, Project Information Literacy (PIL) deserves special recognition. Though the library literature is full of published research, it suffers from its own parochialism. PIL is the first multi-institutional set of studies in our field to gather a significant body of data about undergraduates using sound methods, addressing its findings to higher education generally. From projects such as this, local insights gained through effective assessment, and a commitment to sharing findings and discussing solutions with faculty, perhaps librarians will be able to provide leadership that is not based on library organizational structures or on a suite of services, but on a shared commitment to making students ready to engage a world in which information is abundant and their ability to make sense of it and contribute their own insights might just make it a better one.