“Librarianship is not a set of skills to be learned, or a set of degrees to be mastered. Librarianship is a conversation that has taken place over millennia.”
David Lankes recently had a great post about engaging in the big questions in the profession. He said that “bad conferences are filled with ‘how we do it good’ pieces.” His point is that what is really important is to invite others into a bigger conversation as opposed to talking about just what you do or how to do something.
There is a great deal of value in talking about how to do something. It’s practical and people can see the tangible effects right away. My posts on this blog about iPad apps or Twitter are by far my most popular. But our profession isn’t solely about keeping up on the newest tech or trends. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day of your job or focus on new technologies that you can bring back from a conference, but if we don’t regularly ask bigger questions we’re compromising our future.
I see this other places as well. In library instruction its easy to concentrate on tools or how to do things, such as how to successfully navigate the databases. We’re experts in these things and students need to know how to use them to succeed on assignments. But they are just tools. If we only spend time on them we’re giving students skills for the present, but compromising their future. Tools change. We have databases and catalogs and discovery and Google today. There’ll be things we can’t imagine yet. That won’t be true in the future. In addition to teaching students how to succeed now, we also need to give them the skills to succeed in the future. We don’t want them to succeed just in their upcoming assignment. We want them to succeed in life. And knowing how to use a database is not the answer, or at least not the whole answer.
We need to be helping students develop the habits of mind that are crucial in research and lifelong learning. These are things like critically evaluating different pieces of information, perseverance in the search for information (not just giving up after a failed Google search), and a spirit of inquiry and constant questioning. These skills will last much longer than learning a database whose interface will change in the next few months.
We need to be playing both the short game and the long game in teaching and in the profession. There are tangible, practical skills that students need and that we need as professionals to succeed in our short term pursuits. But we can’t get so caught up in what we are doing right now that we forget to teach habits of mind or have the bigger conversations that will shape our future.
We’ve been having a lot of students coming in recently working on a really challenging literature review assignment for their junior year Core classes (interdisciplinary common curriculum). They often need 20-40 sources about some technology related to globalization in human rights. This task often seems overwhelming to the students who come for help. But I have started using a really effective method to help students focus and get them to start structuring and planning their paper.
image via Richard Scott 33 on Flickr
I’ve begun using mind-mapping as a tool at the reference desk to get students to break their topic down into different pieces and begin seeing the connections between ideas from across disciplines. Once students actually see their topic broken down on a piece of paper it begins to take shape for them and they begin to feel a lot less overwhelmed. 20 or more sources doesn’t seem as daunting when they are about various aspects of the same topic.
Making connections is one of the things librarians do best. We’re the ultimate inter-disciplinarians. I admire people who have deep, rich subject knowledge and are experts in their fields, but I could never concentrate on just one thing like logical positivism or Emerson. The reason I got into librarianship is because I’m interested in a lot of different things. I read about and explore a variety of subjects from psychology and philosophy, to business and education, to science, space and dinosaurs. I got into librarianship because I’m curious, and want to further the cause of human curiosity.
We see, and help others see, connections that they might miss due to tunnel vision or simply being too immersed in the problem. If their topic is social media we might ask about the cultural or marketing impacts. If their topic is women and human rights we might bring up the recent example of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan. If their interested in biomedical technology we might mention nanobots or bring up possible ethical issues.
The silos of different disciplines continue to increasingly break down to solve 21st century problems that can’t be solved with a single way of thinking. In this environment, librarians will be well positioned to help people make these important connections between science and anthropology, between psychology and economics, not to mention previously unexplored connections between information problems and solutions. The world isn’t separated along clear fault lines, it’s richly interconnected. And being able to make those connections are skills that we can provide and help teach our students, so they can go out and solve the big problems.
I had the great pleasure of attending the Illinois Library Conference. I also got the opportunity to talk with Illinois librarians about the really cool stuff their doing whether it’s building a digital media lab or finding volunteer opportunities for teens.
I also got to present on the idea of Human-Centered Librarianship and the idea that we need to look at our work through the lens of people to be understood and served as opposed to problems to be solved or protecting our stuff. The presentation was really fun and there were some great empowering stories from the crowd about these ideas in action. I included the slides from the presentation below: