Whither the workshop?

Academic libraries have long provided workshops that focus on research skills and tools to the community. Topics often include citation software or specific database search strategies. Increasingly, however, libraries are offering workshops on topics that some may consider untraditional or outside the natural home of the library. These topics include using R and other analysis packages, data visualization software, and GIS technology training, to name a few. Librarians are becoming trained as Data and Software Carpentry instructors in order to pull from their established lesson plans and become part of a larger instructional community. Librarians are also partnering with non-profit groups like Mozilla’s Science Lab to facilitate research and learning communities.

Traditional workshops have generally been conceived and executed by librarians in the library. Collaborating with outside groups like Software Carpentry (SWC) and Mozilla is a relatively new endeavor. As an example, certified trainers from SWC can come to campus and teach a topic from their course portfolio (e.g. using SQL, Python, R, Git). These workshops may or may not have a cost associated with them and are generally open to the campus community. From what I know, the library is typically the lead organizer of these events. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Librarians are often very aware of the research hurdles that faculty encounter, or what research skills aren’t being taught in the classroom to students (more on this later).

Librarians are helpers. If you have some biology knowledge, I find it useful to think of librarians as chaperone proteins, proteins that help other proteins get into their functional conformational shape. Librarians act in the same way, guiding and helping people to be more prepared to do effective research. We may not be altering their DNA, but we are helping them bend in new ways and take on different perspectives. When we see a skills gap, we think about how we can help. But workshops don’t just *spring* into being. They take a huge amount of planning and coordination. Librarians, on top of all the other things we do, pitch the idea to administration and other stakeholders on campus, coordinate the space, timing, refreshments, travel for the instructors (if they aren’t available in-house), registration, and advocate for the funding to pay for the event in order to make it free to the community. A recent listserv discussion regarding hosting SWC workshops resulted in consensus around a recommended minimum six week lead time. The workshops have all been hugely successful at the institutions responding on the list and there are even plans for future Library Carpentry events.

A colleague once said that everything that librarians do in instruction are things that the disciplinary faculty should be doing in the classroom anyway. That is, the research skills workshops, the use of a reference manager, searching databases, the data management best practices are all appropriately – and possibly more appropriately – taught in the classroom by the professor for the subject. While he is completely correct, that is most certainly not happening. We know this because faculty send their students to the library for help. They do this because they lack curricular time to cover any of these topics in depth and they lack professional development time to keep abreast of changes in certain research methods and technologies. And because these are all things that librarians should have expertise in. The beauty of our profession is that information is the coin of the realm for us, regardless of its form or subject. With minimal effort, we should be able to navigate information sources with precision and accuracy. This is one of the reasons why, time and again, the library is considered the intellectual center, the hub, or the heart of the university. Have an information need? We got you. Whether those information sources are in GitHub as code, spreadsheets as data, or databases as article surrogates, we should be able to chaperone our user through that process.

All of this is to the good, as far as I am concerned. Yet, I have a persistent niggle at the back of my mind that libraries are too often taking a passive posture. [Sidebar: I fully admit that this post is written from a place of feeling, of suspicions and anecdotes, and not from empirical data. Therefore, I am both uncomfortable writing it, yet unable to turn away from it.] My concern is that as libraries extend to take on these workshops because there is a need on campus for discipline-agnostic learning experiences, we (as a community) do so without really fomenting what the expectations and compensations of an academic library are, or should be. This is a natural extension of the “what types of positions should libraries provide/support?” question that seems to persist. How much of this response is based on the work of individuals volunteering to meet needs, stretching the work to fit into a job description or existing work loads, and ultimately putting user needs ahead of organizational health? I am not advocating that we ignore these needs; rather I am advocating that we integrate the support for these initiatives within the organization, that we systematize it, and that we own our expertise in it.

This brings me back to the idea of workshops and how we claim ownership of them. Are libraries providing these workshops only because no one else on campus is meeting the need? Or are we asserting our expertise in the domain of information/data shepherding and producing these workshops because the library is the best home for them, not a home by default? And if we are making this assertion, then have we positioned our people to be supported in the continual professional development that this demands? Have we set up mechanisms within the library and within the university for this work to be appropriately rewarded? The end result may be the same – say, providing workshops on R – but the motivation and framing of the service is important.

Information is our domain. We navigate its currents and ride its waves. It is ever changing and evolving, as we must be. And while we must be agile and nimble, we must also be institutionally supported and rewarded. I wonder if libraries can table the self-reflection and self-doubt regarding the appropriateness of our services (see everything ever written regarding libraries and data, digital humanities, digital scholarship, altmetrics, etc.) and instead advocate for the resourcing and recognition that our expertise warrants.

2 thoughts on “Whither the workshop?”

  1. “Yet, I have a persistent niggle at the back of my mind that libraries are too often taking a passive posture.”

    Your niggling feeling is correct. Libraries and librarians have a tendency towards passivity in several areas, particularly technology.

    Speaking as a librarian, I have to say that we are no longer masters of the information domain, and haven’t been for some time now. We were at one point, but when the World Wide Web and other resources first became available in the early to mid nineties, the library world as a whole allowed itself to fall behind. That gap has widened steadily each year, and continues to do so.

    Data and information specialists need to be experts in data sharing, manipulation, creation, and extraction. Most librarians – even academic ones – are not even up to “power user” status in those areas, much less being experts. We use data formats (ex. MARC) that were created for mainframe computers 40+ years ago and which aren’t widely used outside of our profession. Those should have gone away by the 90s, at least. Many libraries even pay ridiculous prices to get these records. We allow ILS companies to charge exhorbitant prices for software that would have seemed outdated to people in other industries 20 years ago. We sit by hoping they will add certain features to their software. If we are lucky and they agree to do so, development proceeds at a glacier’s pace.

    Money really isn’t the issue when it comes to a lot of the issues with library technology. It’s lack of expertise on the part of the libraries and librarians, coupled with a lack of basic skills needed to avail ourselves of all the free, open-source options out there (much less actually develop our own). Until more librarians accept that they need to learn more tech skills, on their own time, without training (as most IT professionals do), we are going to continue to fall farther and farther behind today’s information world. We can’t rely on the library schools to provide that training – they SHOULD, but most don’t, to any appreciable degree. Even if they did, keeping up with new tools and discoveries related to information, data, the Internet, etc. takes ongoing study.

    When some middle school students understand data extraction and use of open source tools better than most librarians, there is a problem. We can’t call ourselves information or data experts when that is the case.

Comments are closed.