Thinking like librarians

So the other day I saw someone say that thing, you know that thing – where people say “we don’t want to teach them all to be LIBRARIANS.”

And now I can’t remember where I saw it or who said it. But it doesn’t really matter, right? Because we’ve all seen that before. Just like we’ve all seen “librarians like to search, everyone else likes to find.”

So I hit the limits of my tolerance for that search…find thing about a half-dozen years ago. It took me a little longer to hit the wall on the teaching everyone to be librarians thing. But you know what, I got there too.

Before I go any further, this is not going to be a piece about teaching everyone to be librarians. Of course it isn’t. But it is going to be a piece about why I don’t like that phrase — with a bit about disciplines and information literacy and survey courses thrown in.

To clarify where I’m coming from here (because I’m sure other fields and other schools have different contexts) — my background is in history, as are the survey courses I’ve taught. On every campus where I taught or took these courses, they weren’t really intended for majors. They were the 100- level courses; the “introduction to being a history major” courses were at the 200- level. Yes, they might attract majors, but they weren’t really about or for the majors.

students sitting in a large lecture hall

And they were kind of unidirectional, banking metaphor, broadcasting the truth type courses — after all, they weren’t intended to teach people to be historians. They were intended to share the insights of those who really did the history. They were more like textbooks than monographs, the way that textbooks eliminate all traces of authorial voice or point of view.

(See also, textbookese)

And that’s what a lot of the survey courses I have known and guest lectured for over the years have been about. We don’t want to teach them all to be biologists — we’re giving an overview of what biology knows. We don’t want to teach them all to be geographers — we’re giving an overview of what geographers know.

And here’s the thing. I got into libraries in large part because I didn’t like those courses. I was lucky enough to teach for some mentors who were very invested in the idea that first-year students in survey courses should still get to do some history. But even in their courses those activities were limited to one paper of many and the majority of work in the course went towards sharing a narrative or interpretation of the events under question. Sure, we always said “we’re open to your interpretations, you don’t have to argue what we do” but let’s face it. We were spending a lot of energy giving them one excellently documented, skillfully argued narrative that had been honed over years of study — they could choose to argue something else, but if they did, they were on their own.

Honestly, I never cared enough about the narrative we were teaching to be a good history survey teacher. I’m not saying that was a good thing. I think it is good that others did care. It’s good that they did the work, and dug into the sources and developed the story and cared about it enough to share it. For me, though, it was always about the lifelong learning – about what would happen when that student wanted to do their own history in 20 years. What I realized when I started working in the public library was that in the library I could do the kind of teaching I liked to do.

Increasingly, I think that old-fashioned view of the survey is just that — old-fashioned. The explosion of scholarship in the post-war years means that most survey courses cannot truly give a meaningful overview of a field anymore. More and more, I hear the people who are really innovatively thinking about gen ed talking about courses that give a sense of what it is to “think like a geographer” to “think like an oceanographer” or to “think like an historian.”

My husband teaches a course like this at Western Oregon. He organizes his survey of cultural geography around key concepts, and he’s designed a variety of “field exercises” that give his (mostly) first year students a chance to create their own meaning using the concepts and methods of the field.

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And earlier this year, my colleague Anne piloted a “history lab” approach with a faculty colleague in an Honors section of the American history survey here at OSU, to great success.

So that brings me back to that “teaching them to be librarians” comment we’ve all heard. It sounds to me like just another one of those one-way, banking metaphor, let’s share our truth ways of thinking about teaching. We’re not going to share how we think – just lay down the knowledge. It’s old-school, and not in a good way.

The recent revision of the Information Literacy Standards for Higher Education has led to some conversations asking if information literacy is a discipline. Information literacy as a discipline doesn’t make sense to me. The whole idea of information literacy as something that can be understood as something neutral, consistent across contexts and definable and understandable on its own – separate from institutional or other structures has never seemed useful to me. And it means that information literacy as a thing really can’t help define a way of knowing, or of inquiring, the way that a discipline or field should.

(Not to mention that the whole neutral thing seems to lag so far behind the far more complex and interesting and useful ways literacy is conceptualized in other fields)

Which isn’t to say that we don’t have a field. Information science or library science is a fuzzy and squishy field, but that hardly sets it apart. There are many fields that haven’t managed (or don’t want) a single common theoretical perspective, or dominant methodological approach.

(Though most are probably better than us at arguing about those things)

So, processes related to organizing, utilizing, preserving, sharing and describing information — these are widely applicable and certainly relevant to many, many fields. Marcia Bates suggests that “information science” means examining those processes through a particular lens – focusing on “the features that matter to the organization and retrieval of [information] rather than in terms of mastering its content.” Organization and retrieval might be too narrow (or really, might not, they’re broader than they seem). But if this lens adds some coherence to the field, does it also suggest what it means to think like a librarian? To think about information for itself, to think about the meaning and implications of what we do with it?

I think that that lens is important – and that that lens should be a part of the curriculum. Information and what we do with it shouldn’t be understood as something neutral, that can be understood the same way regardless of context. We should own it — and give students their own chances to think like librarians.

4 thoughts on “Thinking like librarians

  1. I’m pretty proud to consider myself an “amateur librarian” as someone still passionate about “organizing, utilizing, preserving, sharing and describing information” in both my media career and personal life.

  2. This is especially important as we expand in teaching writing instructors to embrace and enthusiastically (and effectively) teach Info Lit in their classes.

    • Hi Aaron! I don’t think that was it – that one has never bugged me so much because it’s about using the library, not teaching.

      I’m talking about the people who shoot down any teaching effort that involves the theory of information science (or even teaching the actual names of things) or information for its own sake, not grounded in an assignment or other disciplinary activity as “teaching them to be librarians, not what they need to know”

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