Critical Information Literacy

I’ve been taking an online course from the ALA called Introduction to Critical Information Literacy: Promoting Social Justice Through Librarianship. It has been really interesting, and even though I had a basic understanding of critical information literacy, and have been interested in social justice all my life, the class discussions and assignments have opened my eyes to new ideas and possibilities.

The idea of critical info lit is to work with students to put research in context in terms of whose voices are included or excluded, what power structures prevent participation in or access to research, what inherent biases exist in publishing,  and in librarianship’s frameworks, like cataloging and classification, and so forth. Even though I do some cataloging, it’s mostly from existing records, not from scratch (also known as original), so I haven’t noticed that there are a lot of words missing from the Library of Congress Subject Headings — mass incarceration, for example, as I used The New Jim Crow in one of my assignments.

There’s been a lot of conversation online about whether libraries are neutral — they aren’t, of course. Nothing humans do is neutral, when you get down to it, which is ok, as long as we think about how we’re biased and who it’s impacting. For example, some core principles of librarianship are to make information and services available and accessible to all, and to welcome everyone — which are biases, even if they are well intended, and as public librarians know they sometimes upset patrons who wish “everyone” wasn’t quite so inclusive.

Since this was a class aimed at college and university librarians, we also looked at peer review, which as you know I have been looking at critically anyway (see my last post about Retraction Watch) at work and in my courses for the MSc in Science Communication & Public Engagement at University of Edinburgh. The more I learn about it, the more I wonder if it can be fixed, especially since people deeply involved in trying to make it better agree that it might not ever be.

We talked in this course about fake news as well, and interestingly, how our desire to teach students to question everything has led to more and more people questioning legitimate sources. I maintain that if the questioning is systematic and is meant as a way to test whether a source or an article has been produced in a way that strives to be factual, accurate, and clear, and isn’t a kind of ‘trust no one’ questioning, this won’t happen. I prefer to tell students to think carefully about everything — they’ll be able to tell whether something is unfair, misleading, inaccurate, or biased if they think.

And we talked about zines, something I hadn’t really thought about much. I know of them, but hadn’t thought of zines being in libraries, or turning up on works cited lists. But zines are, like letters, diaries, blogs, and other first person accounts, primary sources. They often tell stories that have been left out or haven’t yet been discovered by mainstream researchers. One of my classmates offers the option for students in a composition class to create a persuasive zine rather than an essay, using many of the same rhetorical techniques. That seems like a pretty creative idea to me. I like the fact that zines could be an entry point into scholarly conversation for people who don’t feel like they belong in that conversation.

For our final project, we had to create a zine about the class. Below is one of my pages.

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College in the public library

An article caught my eye this week about a “microcollege” run by Bard College in the Brooklyn Public Library. it sounded intriguing, bringing college to people who otherwise might not have access to it, via a pubic service they already use. When I read the article, I learned that only 17 students are enrolled this year, although Bard plans to expand on that number. And one of the classes is an ethnomusicology course, which although it sounds interesting, didn’t strike me as necessarily something everyone would want to take.

Bard, of course, is a private liberal arts college where classes like that are probably commonplace. But the whole notion made me curious, and I wondered whether community or other public colleges and public libraries are pairing up anywhere? That led me to the utilitarian sounding Joint Use Library, which “is a unique collaboration between Tidewater Community College and the City of Virginia Beach to combine in a single, dynamic destination the collections, services, programs, and resources of an academic library and a public library to create a new model for lifelong learning and provide synergistic opportunities to enhance personal growth, academic achievement, and quality of life for the College community and for the residents of the City of Virginia Beach. ”

After a quick search, I couldn’t find any other public libraries offering actual credit-bearing college classes, although plenty offer information about MOOCs, continuing education in their community or through vendors they’ve contracted with (like Atomic, Lynda, or Recorded Books), etc. I did come across Life Skills Academy at San José Public Library, which is aimed at helping young adults with everything from “Your First College Class,” to how to find an apartment and how to “not get fired from your first job.” Huh. It seems packed with practical tips and refers readers to books and websites for more information.

I do recall that there is an MLS program that partners with libraries in New Hampshire (and probably elsewhere) offering future librarians a hybrid master’s degree program that takes place both online and in libraries. But I wasn’t able to find any other programs like Bard’s. Do you know of any college credit courses available to public library patrons? Leave a comment below.

Information literacy in real life

I’ve become a student again this fall, taking an online master’s degree program at University of Edinburgh. Approaching research and citations (in Harvard style, something I’d never seen before) from a student viewpoint has made feel for my information literacy students even more than I already did. It really helps to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

One thing I’m surprised about is that while some of my classmates cite academic sources, others — almost all scientists and all working in jobs that require them to seek and use information — choose what I would consider weak sources, such as websites that wouldn’t pass the CRAAP test.  On the plus side, I have some new examples to show colleagues in a couple of weeks when I present an introduction to information literacy to fellow administrative and academic support staff at work. But I’ve also gained a new appreciation for how people in their daily lives and work could benefit from thinking critically about how and where they find information and how reliable it is, which are the keys to information literacy.

Yes, I did pay attention during the last national election and realize that people relying on poor sources of information is nothing new. But I thought much of the “fake news” problem was related to the way news is shared and also the way it is marketed today. I’m aware of the importance of teaching undergraduates information literacy, as they are emerging adults who don’t have much experience thinking critically. I hadn’t considered that basic information literacy could be enormously beneficial to adults and to their workplaces and communities.

Public libraries are offering more “how to spot fake news” programming and resources, which is useful, but again this puts the emphasis on news as the sources that might be misleading or counterfactual. Perhaps this should go further. Not all adults go to college or use libraries, so who can or should teach people to find and choose better sources of information in real life — work, volunteer positions, or even just looking stuff up at home? I know that high schools are not all teaching this, since most of my students have never thought much about evaluating information. Should there be public service announcements? Training in workplaces? Pop-up workshops in public places, led by librarians? “How to find reliable information” handouts for every registered voter, or enclosed with every drivers’ license?

What do you think?

 

 

 

Three ways libraries are serving the world

I read three stories this week that caught my eye — at the same time that I was asked to answer some questions about why I work in my library for a display going up later this month to help students at my university get to know library staff. In doing this I noticed that the university’s mission, “Transforming hearts and minds to serve the world,” is actually similar to core values of librarianship, a profession also dedicated to transforming and serving the world.

In Kokomo, Indiana, the public library is serving the world by displaying a rescued piece of street art by Banksy. The unusual exhibit is bringing people together to talk about street art and its place in culture. Fostering this kind of public conversation is definitely a transforming act.  Getting people to talk — especially about something controversial like Banksy’s art — is valuable public service.

In Germany, several libraries are welcoming “provenance research,” which is the ongoing work of locating art and other cultural and personal property looted by the Nazis, determining who it belonged to and returning it to victims and their family members.  The Lost Art Foundation is conducting the work, which is publicly funded. Imagine the U.S. government funding a massive effort to return items seized from other cultures. Yeah, I can’t imagine that either. Anyway, the German efforts are another example of libraries at the forefront of cultural and social transformation — serving as a conduit of reconciliation for their communities and the family members of those whose property was stolen.

Finally, two young women have managed to start a bookmobile style library in Greece to serve refugee communities. They kitted out the mobile library and stocked it entirely with donations, and run it for free. I was shocked to read that there are communities where their efforts are not welcome — I assume because some people must resent the presence of refugees, but who shuts down a library? Not only do these lovely human beings continue their work, but they also dream of this idea taking off throughout the world wherever displaced people are living. Two quotes in this story caught my eye: “Naude and Zijthoff were determined to provide a quiet space, amid the upheaval and uncertainty, where people could use their time rather than just fill it. ” And, “But those who come to the library love it: children say it feels like home . . . .”

Julian Sheather, the Guardian reporter who wrote those words, is spot on — the article really sums up the essence of what a library is for me. In fact, in my response to “Why I work in the library” for the display I mentioned, I used those exact words: Libraries feel like home to me. And libraries of all kinds, public, academic, private, mobile, current and past, intact or lost to conflict or other disasters, represent the transformation of lives — the lives of people who come together in libraries to learn, find quiet, pursue their hopes, strengthen their communities. Whenever I feel bogged down by everyday librarianship (hey, it happens, it’s not all glamorous, you know), I recall this sense I have that what we do is powerful, transformative, and in many ways radical service.

 

Millennials rock

As longtime readers know, I used to work in a public library and transitioned back to academia a little over a year ago. In both cases I’ve been in management roles, and have been bothered by the negative stereotypes attributed to millennials. So I was pleased to see a new report by Pew Research Center that notes “Millennials in America are more likely to have visited a public library in the past year than any other adult generation.”

Wait, didn’t I just say I’m a university librarian? Yes, but I have always been and will always be a public library advocate — if you’ve read Nocturnal Librarian before, or scroll through my older posts, you’ll see I believe strongly that public libraries are the most important public institution in America. Plus, the report said some things that academic librarians should note:

Pew defines millennials as 18-35, which is also the age of many (although certainly not all) college and university students. The survey asked about public library use, and Pew makes sure to explain: “It is worth noting that the question wording specifically focused on use of public libraries, not on-campus academic libraries.” So, even if they are visiting campus libraries, they may also be visiting public libraries. Or — and this is growing more likely all the time — they may be taking courses remotely and visiting their local public library. They may be using the college or university library’s website; in fact, a link to those resources is very probably embedded in their course management systems and in syllabi. I’d be very interested to know if students consider a visit to their college library’s website, full of eBooks, eJournals, and databases, a visit to the library?

I saw my public library’s website as a virtual branch and that view was becoming more widespread among my colleagues, and I am beginning to hear about this idea in academic library circles as well. I think it’s important to let students know that they can “enter” the library online and in most universities, access whatever they need to be successful. Accrediting bodies are looking at whether the same academic resources are available to online students. it just makes sense to design and promote the website, then, as an extension of the library.

Which bring me to the other point I found heartening in the Pew report: “College graduates are more likely than those whose education ended with a high school diploma to use libraries or bookmobiles in the past 12 months (56% vs. 40%). And a similar gap applies to use of library websites.” So those of us who work in academic libraries may be contributing to lifetime library use. And that is good for all of us, and our communities.

Millennials rock for many reasons — and I’m not just saying that because I am the parent of one (or two, according to Pew. My younger offspring is either a millennial or a Gen Z, depending on whose demographic definition you believe). But their use of libraries is one of my favorite reasons.

 

Ties in the library

I’ve written here at Nocturnal Librarian about libraries that lend more than books, including one NYPL branch that lets kids borrow dolls, and other libraries that lend cake pans, telescopes, tools, art, and park passes. Yesterday I read about an unusual collection that might make sense for academic libraries to consider: interview wear, in this case, ties.

A public library in Philadelphia and another in Queens do this — turns out the librarian who started the collection in Philadelphia had visited the library in Queens. I read it and wondered “what about women’s interview wear?” but realized it’s different, a woman seeking a job can wear a broader range of clothes and still looked dressed up. We recently interviewed several candidates and only one of the men wore a tie. I wouldn’t choose someone because they dressed up but it does signal that the person felt this meeting was worth making an extra effort.

Some people in academia will say that teaching students to “dress for success” is really the responsibility of the career advising office. True, but libraries are uniquely positioned to lend things and manage lending collections, so we’d be a natural partner.  I haven’t found any academic libraries lending ties, but I did discover that Columbia University’s career center lends entire suits, for both men and women. Corporate partners donated the suits and a dry cleaner donates cleaning.

Lending interview clothes might help give students an edge when job hunting. It also might be a nice symbol of a university’s empathy and good faith toward students as they try to translate their educations into paying jobs. Whether libraries or career offices take the lead, this seems like a student-friendly initiative. I like the idea of ties, because they are smaller and simpler to store than suits and probably don’t need to be cleaned after each wearing. But I wonder what women students would think of that.

What do you think? Do you work in an academic library that lends anything unusual, or anything that you acquired to help another department on campus, like career services?  Is there an equivalent item to ties that women could borrow for interviews?

 

Creating lifelong information seekers

On a library instruction email list I read, there was a recent discussion that included an interesting point: when we teach the use of databases to college students, it’s both worthwhile and in line with our mission of producing lifelong information seekers and users to note that once students graduate, they can often access databases through their public libraries.

The thread stayed with me. First of all I like the idea of fostering a continuum of library use. There’s a natural progression from toddler story times to college library users (although we often lose them in their teens), and if we can pay it forward in academia by encouraging our students to return to their local libraries when they need information in the future, we should.

Second, I think it’s useful to think of what we’re doing in larger terms than just helping students learn what they need for the current assignment. Informed citizens are good for our country and our local communities. If we can play a part in preparing students to find, evaluate, and use information well, and also influence those students to become lifelong library users,  it will hopefully be helpful to them, good for society, and good for our profession.

As I prepare for my first full semester of library instruction, I’m going to keep these things in mind and be sure to remind students that the skills they are applying to their papers can be just as helpful later when they want to learn a new skill, research places to live or work, find out about health concerns for their parents and schools for their kids, and much more, and that their local library will be a resource for them as they go into the world. Do you talk about these kinds of things in your information literacy program? Leave a comment and share your ideas.

 

Responding to violence

Last year when I worked at a public library, I suggested we do more displays on current topics in society — racism, refugees, gender issues, etc. This was met with resistance as the city I worked in didn’t want the library to appear to be taking stands on issues (more on that later) but I was permitted to do a display on drug addiction. New Hampshire is one of the states dealing with rampant opioid addiction, and has one of the highest rates of prescription painkiller use in the nation. It was very popular, by which I mean people took books from the display and we had to restock it. That to me was a strong indicator that people want to learn more about what’s happening in the world.

Friday (when the news of the Dallas shootings was fresh) at the academic library where I now work, I discussed with a co-worker how shell shocked I felt from the week’s news — it was awful to wake up to news of one violent act after another. I told her it seemed like a good time to make a display about nonviolence and racism, something for people who also felt overwhelmed by the news. She agreed that would be a good service to the community and that she’d like to work on it.

I went back to my office. A short time later one of our coworkers called me from the front desk to say the two of them had imagined a problem: wouldn’t people come in and ask why now that it was police who were victims were we putting up a display, and where were we when innocent black men were killed earlier in the week and when mostly hispanic and gay victims died in Orlando? I said that wasn’t the intent at all, it was the groundswell of violence that had caused me to feel we needed to offer a display. Heck the bad news wasn’t even limited to America. There were innocent victims of violence and racial, religious,or cultural intolerance in Dhaka, Baghdad, Syria, Istanbul, Europe, Britain.

We agreed tentatively that they would also put out books on homophobia, extremism, Islamophobia, etc. But the conversation unsettled me — was I unconsciously reacting because cops were killed, even though I don’t like or agree with media coverage that seems to favor the lives of cops or members of the military over civilians?  (I say that as the wife of a former Marine who hates that implication.) Trying to take a detached look at it I decided my initial sense was that we needed to offer resources on nonviolence and a historical perspective on how America has reached this point. I was inspired by something the Bishop of New Hampshire shared on Facebook: an article I read just before work, on how to be a peacemaker.  I wanted to make a display that would help people understand each other and the world.

No, I didn’t value police lives over other lives. Why now? Because news of gun violence, as well as racism, was incessant this week. Should we try to retroactively respond to all the other violence that has been in the news this summer? I guessed that was an OK compromise, but it made me feel as if my instinct was selfish, and also made me wish I hadn’t suggested the damn display in the first place. Still, my feelings weren’t what mattered, being inclusive seemed like a good thing, so I just hung up and got on with my work.

But later the first colleague came back to me and said we needed to stick to the initial scope of the display: nonviolence and racial injustice in America. She felt it would just look like we were covering all the bases to include other issues, and that she’d rather have a substantive conversation with anyone who asked “Why this display, now?” She got why someone might ask us about it, but was comfortable articulating that whether we should have a display every time something bad happens or on every issue isn’t the point, the point is that yesterday, we just wanted to help people who feel pained by the events of the past week. Like we did. She thought we should honor that, rather than cheapen it by trying to be all inclusive.

Her sensible offer to have conversations about the display is just what should happen when people have questions about tough issues or positions. That’s the only way forward — to calmly discuss things. I’m grateful for her perspective and a little ashamed that my own reaction (“fine, include everything and everyone”) was to cheapen the horror, even if I was diluting it with other, equally horrific things. I came by that in part because of my experience in the public sector, where taking a stand was considered taking a side, which was discouraged or even forbidden.

Should libraries, public or academic, create displays that present information about controversial or divisive issues? I think they should. People are hungry for something more than news bites, and books can provide more in-depth analysis. Libraries also, as part of our mission, collect resources that present varying viewpoints as long as they meet the standards set for our collections (well written, well researched, well reviewed, for example), and therefore we’re in a position to challenge people to read points of view that differ from their own. If we’re taking a side it’s the side of creating an informed citizenry. Will anyone question our motives? Possibly. But I have a good answer — I’m trying to learn how best to respond to this, and thought others might want to learn too.

 

 

Back to the beginning

Today I went to my local public library. As a patron, not a staff member. It was, admittedly, a strange sensation, not least because I couldn’t find my hold, which turned out to have been cancelled (yikes! I’ll have to read those emails more closely) but one I will have to get used to. I’ve left the public library world to return to the place where Nocturnal Librarian began — a small private liberal arts university where I’ll be the assistant director of the library. It’s a good move for me, career wise, and I will enjoy serving the academic community again. But of course, I will remain a champion of public libraries, and I’ll be in good company.  I know of at least two colleagues at the university who serve as trustees at their own local libraries.

Educators are big library fans, and at my interview I actually got into a great discussion with some professors about the future of public libraries and their role in society. I love that kind of discourse, which is one reason I feel good about making this change. I also love helping people find the information they need, and am looking forward to those “ah ha” moments with students that I remember well from when I was a night reference librarian at this same college a few years ago. Universities are pretty much entirely staffed by members of the book tribe, which I love. So I’m pretty excited to start!

Stay tuned to hear about my adventures in academia. And see what I’ve been reading between jobs over at bookconscious.

 

 

 

Being countercultural

A few weeks ago I had a conversation that’s stayed with me. I was speaking with a group of people when someone pointed out that libraries are countercultural. I think what he was saying is that the existence of a place where everyone, for free, can enter and read and learn whatever he or she desires is really pretty mind-blowing if you think about it.

But is what we’re doing really counter to the prevailing culture? I guess libraries are sort of a part of the “slow” movement. Like cooking from scratch or making things by hand, reading and learning are time consuming, in a culture where many people prefer to do things as quickly as possible – although James Patterson is trying to make reading speedier by publishing books that can be read in one sitting. Regardless of the cultural preference for speed, the Pew Research Center reports that Americans have a very strong affinity for lifelong learning. And there wouldn’t be slow or maker movements if people weren’t willing to invest time in these pursuits, so maybe slowness isn’t all that at odds with the culture. Nor is learning.

What about reading? The media likes to report that no one reads, but again, looking to Pew, that just isn’t true. In their report on reading in America in 2013, the center notes that a large majority of adults read at least one book in the previous year, and not just rich well educated adults. Across their demographic measures, readers were in the majority.

So if taking one’s time to do something worthwhile, learning, and reading are more common than not, what is it that seems countercultural about libraries? Perhaps it’s that we’re open to absolutely everyone, and funded by all for the common good? That we seek to provide diverse materials to every community we serve? That we not only offer public space, but also quiet — there are very few places in the world where people can enjoy relative silence. That libraries do not just offer books and other materials but cherish their existence? That free access to information is libraries’ birthright and highest ideal?

There are many ways libraries are countercultural, and every person will probably have a slightly different take on how this is so. But it’s helpful and to me, comforting, to note that in important ways we are more in step with the culture around us than not.