Friday, February 25, 2011

Article Note: If all libraries became teaching libraries

Citation for the article: 

Palmer, Catherine,  "This I Believe. . . All Libraries Should Be Teaching Libraries." portal: Libraries and the Academy 11.1 (January 2011): 575-582.

Read via Project Muse. 

The title grabbed me right away, and I have to say it is a neat idea. Much like Palmer said, if Elmhurst College (the place the article discusses) had an opening, and they needed an instruction librarian, I would love to apply. Because I love the idea of making our libraries teaching libraries. You would think in academic libraries (the setting I work in), this would be a given, but at times the idea of a teaching library is only given lip service. This may be because academic libraries do reflect their institutions, say a teaching college (where teaching undergraduates is the core of the work) versus a big research campus (where research is the core, and undergraduates are sort of an afterthought, often taught by TA's so the professors can do the "real" work). Given my experience in academia, I can say I have seen both ends. At any rate, I found some of the ideas in the article intriguing, and I think for some libraries, those ideas could at least serve as conversation starters.

Palmer says that it may not be obvious initially why making teaching a central mission of a library is significant. She discusses sample statistics comparing reference transactions versus library instruction sessions, and she finds that the number of patrons reached by library instruction is very low. This is a conversation I have had with our instruction librarian here a few times who struggles with getting into more classrooms to help integrate information literacy into the curriculum. In some cases, the best she can do is promote her services and have the professors send their students. So she often ends up doing a lot of individual research consultations, teaching students one on one. Nothing wrong with that; back in my days as instruction librarian I did a lot of one-on-one teaching as well (best part of my job back then, and it is something I wish I could do more these days). But the point is that we would be able to reach more students proactively if we could offer more library instruction and get integrated into more classes.

However, what came to mind right away when Palmer made that observation was that we indeed do need to be teaching libraries. My argument is simple: just look around at the large amounts of misinformation, ignorance, and just plain lack of critical thinking in society these days. If there is a time when we need libraries where teaching is the central mission, this is it. I would add that to any argument on why we need to keep our libraries open. It goes with that whole safeguarding of democracy thing.

Palmer goes on to discuss something I have considered before, though I probably have not expressed it as eloquently as she has: considering instruction as a marketing tool of the library. She writes:

"We need to embrace instruction, whether provided in-person or online, as the most effective marketing tool we have at our disposal. The best way to ensure that the patrons (the majority of whom are undergraduates) who come into our buildings in the thousands, based on gate counts, have some idea of what libraries can offer-- besides a safe, clean, quiet place to study-- is to have an engaged, enthusiastic, knowledgeable librarian teach them" (576). 

This is applicable to encounters at the reference desk, instruction sessions in a classroom, and even online interactions.

A few other notes from the article:

  • "We cannot possibly address each individual student's information need during a class session in the way that we can during a reference transaction. We can ensure that students have a baseline knowledge of the resources and services available to them, however; and, perhaps most important, we can give them a vocabulary that will help them ask better questions when they do need individual help" (577). Given things like the limitations of a one-shot session, emphasis on getting students to know our services, and more important for us, for them to know that a librarian is always there to help, is a big part of any instruction session. For me, it is not uncommon to use a bit of humor and tell my students, "you may forget half of what I taught you here today, but you do have my contact information. Feel free to use it." 
  • Why the research model for universities and teaching students as if they are all going to be grad students and researchers (replication) is not exactly the best idea. Having said that, I am not saying we end research, or just go vocational all the way at the expense of things like humanities (like some people do). But higher education does need to understand that not all students are going to be clones of their professors. Palmer writes, "the fact is that most undergraduates go into the workforce, not on to graduate school. If we expect our society outside the academy to understand what it is that its tax dollars allow research institutions to do and to make informed decisions on how to support those institutions, then it is undergraduates who are most in need of understanding how universities 'make knowledge'" (578). This also made me think back to a piece Rory Litwin of Library Juice wrote a while back on "Get Out the Books, Not the Vote." I am also thinking this goes back to how we market the library, or how we make an impression of the library for our undergrads. After all, they will graduate someday and be making the big decisions. Planting the seed of good experiences, teaching them solid lessons in critical thinking, how information works, is accessed, and used, will pay off in the long run. 
  • "Without our collections, we would have little to teach; but without teaching others how to find, evaluate, think about, and use those collections, there would be little need for the collections we have and little support for allocating scarce resources to acquire more" (578). I am thinking that a teaching mission can go to the idea of how does the library add value to its campus. 
Palmer goes on to discuss what a "teaching library" would look like and what kind of things would need to happen for it to become a reality. Some things would not change, or they would change very little; things like good collection development would certainly continue. But other crucial changes would take place. For one, and this is something I find intriguing in terms of library marketing and outreach as well as instruction, is that we would have to develop new stories and narratives about what we do; we would also have to look at ourselves differently. Palmer provides a list of other important changes that is worth a look. We must keep in mind that the transformation may not be an easy one. Just because you relabel some things, it does not follow that the changes will be embraced or adopted. Buy-in and serious commitment are needed.

The master teacher idea also intrigued me. However, I wondered how Palmer's idea of librarians who are master teachers teaching others would work in a smaller setting where every librarian has multiple tasks; Palmer suggests having a designated instructional services department for this work (by the way, working in such department would be a dream job for me. Heading one might actually make me reconsider my negative view of wanting to manage anything). Also I wonder what about if you have only one or two librarians committed to the teaching mission, but the rest of the librarians do not really care, or just do not want to change, or worse, simply don't think anyone should be telling them how to teach. I think this is where administrative support and commitment is going to be crucial; if the library administration does not provide direction and vision on this to get others on board, it likely may flounder. Having asked that, I still think the idea of a "mini immersion" experience created locally has a lot of value, and it should be replicated. In fact, as I understood things when I went to ACRL Immersion on the teaching track, teaching others what I have learned was part of the model and mission (by the way, that idea of teaching others is a core tenet of the National Writing Project, another program I was honored to have attended).

A few more notes from the article:

  • "But, by acting programmatically, the libraries could slowly inculcate the expectation that all students, regardless of their major, would graduate with a sense of how knowledge in their chosen discipline is created, shared, evaluated, and archived for use by future scholars" (581). 
  • "Finally, it would help to develop an institutional memory for instruction and allow the library to develop new leadership for this important function" (581). 
  • "It is no longer enough for librarians to simply respond when asked for information; they must continuously promote library resources and services in a manner that engages and addresses the needs of the appropriate audience and reinforces the role of the library and librarians in the intellectual life of the campus" (582). 

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