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The Short Game And The Long Game

“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.

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Change Drivers in Higher Education

I just began taking another MOOC called the Current/Future State of Higher Education (CFHE2012). I’ve already talked about why librarians should join a MOOC, and this one is really relevant to our work. It has to do with the change taking place in higher education. It’s also not simply a linear course but uses connectivist learning where participants create knowledge as opposed to simply consuming it. The first week has been focusing on the different tensions in higher education and factors driving change. In my view, after doing the reading and watching the webinars, some of the most prominent are:

Value

The value that institutions of higher education provides is being called into question by parents, students, and society. Books like Academically Adrift ask the question, “Are students actually learning?” Consumers of higher ed are asking if huge costs and crushing student loan debt are worth it, especially as less new grads are finding jobs. A question that those in higher education need to be asking is, “how can we better demonstrate value and what are the places that we provide significant value over other options?” Jordan Weissman argues that professional help, formative experiences, a seal of approval for businesses are still things that students cannot get other places. I would say that experience as a whole is the main advantage for higher education. A degree is not simply a stamp of approval or a ticket to a job, but a life changing experience.

Increasing Options

Students now have more choice than ever in their education: two year schools, four year schools, public, private, for profit, certificates, free online classes, MOOCs, learning communities. More than ever, students are mixing and matching different pieces of their education, and in this way education is becoming unbundled. It is no longer a single package like an album, but much more customized like a playlist. Now instead of institutions vying just for a student, they are vying for a piece of that student whether it’s the sophomore transfer student or a student needing continuing education.

Changing Perspectives on What Higher Education Should Be

With the various disruptive factors at work today in the world — the economic slowdown, ever-increasing connectivity, high costs of education, political polarization, etc. — more and more questions are being raised about the role of higher education. Is it a means to a job or is it to help produce thoughtful engaged citizens? Is it a public good or a private good? Should higher education be accessible to everyone globally or only the elite who can afford it? Are those seeking higher education consumers or are they students? The way that we answer those questions, and the other questions we ask are going to dictate where we put our energy and what is really important in higher education.

I am really enjoying the class, readings, and videos so far and I’m looking forward to the next several weeks!

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Libraries Are In The Curiosity Business

I was at a conference last month and during a roundtable discussion one of the participants related that his dentist asked him about the future of libraries. The dentist wanted to know if there would be a library at all when his daughter went to college. People wonder if libraries will still be around in 10 or 20 years.

I can’t say I know what the future will be, but I did have an answer to his question. My periodontist’s office burned to the ground in a fire and they were without a home for several months. Finally they were able to set up temporary offices a few miles away. When I went to the new spot it was very different from other dentist offices I had visited. They had a really pleasant waiting room and when I got into the examination room they had massive LCD screens with my information and x-rays all ready to go. They had some really relaxing (non-elevator) music playing. When I sat in the chair I noticed something different there too. They hygienist told me that the chair was softly massaging my back and she could turn it off if it bothered me. It blew me away.

They had changed the experience of going to the dentist from one of annoyance and discomfort (and sometimes even fear) into something pleasant and comfortable. By paying attention to the experience they were able to overcome my  expectations and even surprise and delight me.

My answer to the question about what is the future of libraries was that similar to my new dentist’s office libraries evolve and adapt and improve. The best libraries are the ones that are most aware of and responsive to their community and it’s needs. Those are the libraries are doing amazing things. Libraries will not be the same in 10 or 20 years. If they didn’t change and weren’t responsive they wouldn’t last long.

Dentists are not going to run out of business anytime soon as they are in the mouth business and there are no lack of mouths. They do need to grow, improve, and make use of the latest technology though, to stay competitive. Libraries on the other hand are in the curiosity business. I don’t see human curiosity and desire to learn going away anytime soon. The way people learn is changing, but by paying attention to the experience of users and being responsive to their needs, libraries will be around for a long time.