The Victim of Library Instruction

Last time I wrote about librarian-instructor collaboration, and that got me thinking about why those collaborations don’t always work out. In this context, I’m thinking more about collaborations on first year writing classes, where there’s often a library instruction component offered.

Some instructors are resistant to having librarians in their classes, or giving any time to the librarians. Librarians sometimes don’t understand this. The attitude is, "but I could help so much. Why won’t they let me in?" The librarians really want to help the students, and most of them probably would. But I can also see this from the other side of the desk, or of the classroom, or whatever is between the librarian and the instructor. Some instructors are reluctant to let librarians in because they have been the victims of library instruction.

I speak from experience, because I myself was a victim of library instruction. I’m offering a cautionary tale. When I was a wee writing instructor at Big State U., it was part of the routine to take the class to the library for some instruction in preparation for the research essay. For a couple of semesters, I dutifully followed orders. Before that, I’d had almost no contact with any librarians either in college or grad school, and had always managed to find my way on my own. English and philosophy majors don’t do a lot of research in general, so I’m not saying it was any great feat to get through without help. But I did. However, I was glad at first to have the experts talk to the students.

The experts didn’t talk to the students. I think the people delivering the instruction were graduate assistants who were in library school at the time. This might or might not be relevant, because GAs differ so much in their backgrounds. And I know that many GAs there were fantastic, such as myself and all my friends when I was in library school there. But I got a clunker, two semesters in a row.

We showed up at the library, and went to the well appointed instruction room, consisting of 2-3 tables, 25 or so chairs, and an overhead projector. This was 1992, and the library had a telnet catalog and Infotrac and some other databases. But the students saw none of that in action. I’m not sure if they saw much of anything. The library instructor dimmed the lights, and began putting transparencies on the overhead projector explaining Boolean logic in great detail, showing what the catalog would look like if we were in fact searching it, etc. And all this in a monotone for 50 minutes. To lend the library person authority, I tried to stay awake, but it wasn’t always possible. Dozing off was the only way to escape the excruciatingly boring presentation we were all subjected to.

The students naturally complained. This is especially significant, since I myself at the time was a novice teacher and embarrassingly bad according to my own standards. I later grew a beard and began wearing big hats so that my students from that year wouldn’t recognize me later and throw rocks at me. I was bad, but the library person was much worse. After a couple of semesters I said "to hell with this" and taught the library portion myself. There was no way I would have let someone from the library into my classroom.

Obviously much has changed since then. More classrooms have computers in them and are set up for hands-on learning. More librarians actually get the students searching for and evaluating materials right there in the library session. There’s more active learning in general going on.

But how many librarians out there still do the equivalent of what I described? PowerPoint presentations to unengaged students? Monotonous lectures about Boolean logic to students updating their Facebook status? (Jane Smith "is lulled into a peaceful sleep by the librarian.") How many of us think library instruction consists of conveying information about using the library? Library instruction should convey information about using the library, but this is not the only, or possibly even the most important thing about it. It’s not about conveying information, but about engaging an audience. It’s not us teaching, but them learning that matters.  In short, how many of us are just plain boring and don’t make an effort to engage the students?

Also, despite how good you might be, and all your colleagues might be, how many instructors have been the victims of library instruction in the past? Some resistance has nothing to do with the way things are now. It might not be completely rational to dismiss library help because of a few bad sessions, but it’s not completely irrational from the instructor’s perspective, either. A few bad sessions are enough to turn a new instructor off the library for good, and bad experiences from the distant past still inform the thinking of instructors in the present.

Anyway, it’s something to think about.


The Agent of Library Instruction

We’re doing some experimenting this year with our library instruction for the Princeton Writing Program which is making me wonder who should be the agent of library instruction. As part of our current experimentation, some of the burden for the most basic parts of the library instruction will fall on the experienced writing instructors, all of whom are experienced researchers in their own areas and all of whom have seen their assigned librarians go through the basic library research drill at least twice. They would also be given training and support by the librarians. The idea is that the simplest skills–the basics of searching the OPAC and an article database–would be taught by the writing instructor in an early library "discovery session," and the librarian would collaborate in a later "research clinic" and possibly meet individually with students for the most advanced portions of their research once they really got going on their projects.

I’m trying to think through the benefits and burdens of this approach, and also put the question out to my readers, many of whom do some sort of library instruction and have worthwhile perspectives to add on this.

There are certainly some possible downsides, depending on how the experiment works. Some writing instructors will probably not want to change a library relationship which has worked well in the past (though I’m sure there are other instructors who have been less than satisfied in the past). Some librarians might not want to change what they think works, either, but for this situation I think the satisfaction of the students and instructors should weigh more than our own, but I could be mistaken. About some things I tend to be a philosophical conservative; if things are going well, I think it’s better not to mess with them. But it’s not clear what’s going well, or what is going well uniformly. Regardless, the dislike of changing the familiar and satisfactory is a psychological cost worth considering.

There’s also the argument that this takes away some of the little time librarians get to work with students. If their instructors are teaching some of these skills, often not in the presence of the librarian, then that’s one less place where the librarian is needed. This is met by the counter-argument that the librarians will be seen as more valuable because they will be entering the process when the research gets more difficult, and thus be able to show their expertise to the students and win them over.

A related concern is about division of labor. Library research is within the domain of librarian expertise, and the instructors should stick to their area of expertise, which theoretically is the teaching of writing. This could be seen as a loss of professionalism, I suppose. If the instructors are successful, why do we need librarians? That sort of thing. There’s also the consideration that the instructors very well might not be able to do this as effectively as the librarians, for whatever reason.

An instructor I’ve worked with for years said that as an experienced researcher and teacher, she felt comfortable teaching the basics and knew much of the advanced stuff quite well, but nevertheless each time I’ve taught a session for her class she’s learned something she didn’t know about before. The issue here is possibly one of keeping up. Things change in the world of information technology in general, and in the organization of resources and services in our library in particular, and it’s the job of the librarian to keep up with everything, to know what’s changed and how best to navigate the available resources. As she put it, sometimes the things people don’t know aren’t the esoteric things, but the simple things. I have a feeling this would all be dealt with in the second session, but it’s certainly a concern.

I can understand the concern on the part of some librarians, but I see things from a slightly different perspective, since I teach one of these writing seminars and act as my own librarian. Undoubtedly, this is the ideal. In my own seminar the distinction between instructor and librarian disappears, and I can teach the research process much more seamlessly than most instructors. We don’t have our regular classes and then these classes where the alien librarian comes in and does "library stuff." I know what the students need at the time they need it. I can help them with whatever question might arise at any time.

In the version of the "research clinic" that I have already held for years with other seminars, the questions always vary. Sometimes the students need to talk to the instructor about the shape and possibility of their topic, and sometimes about finding stuff, supposedly the area of librarian expertise. Ideally, these things could be dealt with by the same person. Someone who knows the subject area of the assignment and also the library resources appropriate for research in that area equally well would be the ideal. (It’s a pity that training the trainer can’t go both ways, because I also find that my experience teaching both writing and research so extensively helps me immensely with my other research consultations.)

This symbiosis doesn’t occur in the normal classroom where the librarian is this person who comes in to work with the class in a limited role. Then again, the instructors themselves just aren’t as knowledgeable about the library portion of the research, and, depending on their areas, they might not be as knowledgeable about other aspects of academic research either, especially in any systematic way. For the process to work best, part of the class must be team taught, with the instructor and librarian each contributing. This does happen sometimes, and I’ve worked collaboratively with many instructors in limited ways, but how often does it or can it happen? The librarian can’t just show up to every class during research essay time and chime in occasionally when research advice is called for. A train-the-trainer model at least gives the students easier access to both writing and research help.

At this point I’m not sure what I think, and am conducting the experiment in a spirit of inquiry and just waiting to see how it turns out.

Two Schools of Instruction

Fortunately that time of the year isn’t here yet, but I’m still thinking already about teaching of all kinds in the fall, including library instruction. Though there are busy times, even busy seasons, when I coast on my experience and skills, I try to be a reflective instructor when I can. A conversation with a friend the other day centered around library instruction. We were arguing about (discussing?) a couple of different schools of instruction, which I might call Kitchen Sink and Minimalist.

The names both explain themselves and hint at my own preferences. The Kitchen Sink approach wants to turn students into little librarians, though the Kitchen Sinkers would say "independent scholars." As a long term goal I have some sympathy to this approach. Within certain parameters, we should want students to become independent scholars, or maybe independent "scholars." The problem comes in the practice, and in the definition of scholar.

For example, I have seen good librarians spend 45-50 minutes explaining the intricacies of the OPAC to freshman in a composition course preparing to research a 10-page essay. I’m not sure if you’ve ever read a 10-page research essay by a freshman, but I can tell you from experience there’s just not that much an essay like that can cover. To do the research for an essay like that, freshman don’t need to know every nuance of the OPAC, or even every nuance of searching. Spending that much time on any one activity is a mistake, but I’ve seen it happen over and over.

Just at the technical level, I’ve seen the similar activities with online indexes and databases. Some librarians go through several in a session, as if there was any great difference in technique among them. For the purposes of search, a database is a database is a database.

The Kitchen Sinkers approach more theoretical applications in the same way. They want every student to come out of every one-shot with a mastery of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. I guess the thinking is, I’ve only got this one hour, I’m going to make it count!

Needless to say, I’m not a Kitchen Sinker; I’m a Minimalist.  A former colleague (who hated most things about me professionally and personally, I should note) said that I should go into a BI, hand out my business card to students, and suggest they take notes on that. She meant this as a rebuke, no doubt, but it was an accurate enough description of my library instruction then and now. There’s only so much one can do in an hour (or 80 minutes, which is our typical freshman instruction session length). Even with 80 minutes, I might spend only half an hour on formal demonstration. The rest of the class I let the students start researching and I wander around consulting.

And in that half hour, I still try to minimize what I do. I certainly don’t cover every nuance of the OPAC, and typically I might demo one other database. Instead I emphasize what I call the geography of information. If you want this kind of thing, you look in this kind of place. It’s all abstract, but similar to some reference training. After all, if I know there’s such a thing as an historical atlas, I know all I really need to know about that topic to answer reference questions.

Search technique is easily enough dispensed with. I usually mention five things to do with a database:

  1. Search by Keyword
  2. Search by Subject
  3. Limit by date, language, etc.
  4. Mark the records you want to save
  5. Email citations/articles to yourself

How much more do students need to get started? I also discuss approaches summarized from Thomas Mann’s Library Research Methods:

  1. Keyword searches in online and print sources.
  2. Subject searches in online and print sources. 
  3. Citation searches in printed sources. 
  4. Searches through published bibliographies (including sets of footnotes in relevant subject documents). 
  5. Searches through people sources (whether by verbal contact, e-mail, electronic bulletin board, letters, etc.).
  6. Systematic browsing, especially of full-text sources arranged in predictable subject groupings.

Again, if students master the basic theory, do they need to be completely "information literate"?

There are a couple of possible objections to my approach. First, one might say I really am trying to get the students to be little librarians. Thomas Mann? He’s the reference librarian’s reference librarian! There’s some truth to that. But what I give students in a very brief time are guidelines. I don’t attempt to reinforce them all with extensive searching in a joint demonstration. Another possible criticism is that the students don’t leave with much. It’s true. They don’t. And they don’t leave with much in other classes, either. That’s because there’s only so much students can absorb in one class. They leave with enough to get started, to solve some problems, and to build from there.

The Kitchen Sinkers are motivated (I suspect) by the crisis of time. Unlike professors in a class, librarians don’t have much time with students. (I suppose there are those semester long information literacy courses, but those aren’t very common, which might not be a bad thing.) One doesn’t learn how to research quickly or abstractly, though. It takes not only time, but practice. This is the difficulty we all face. We can try to pack everything into one session, thus ensuring not only that the students won’t learn much but that they’ll be bored in the process. Or we can hint at the complexities of research in the class and get them started, with the hope that if they need more skills later on they’ll develop them through practice. Maybe we’ll be there; maybe we won’t. But there’s nothing we can do about it in a one shot class.

Research skills are learned over time with practice, even for librarians. Would we consider a new graduate student equal to a senior professor in research knowledge in a field? No. Nor would we consider a new library school graduate equal to a very experienced reference librarian, especially one who had also done her own research.

The good news is that most students will never need to be little librarians, or even big professors. Most students will need the sort of minimal research skills necessary to navigate their way through life, which outside academia rarely requires long research projects. Most students won’t ever be real scholars, nor do they need to be. The bad news is that in a lot of schools, there’s no guarantee that as the students progress, the librarian’s help will be consistently offered or sought when needed.


English Only, Please

A couple of weeks ago my colleague Mary George published an article in Inside Higher Education about student confessions related to what they didn’t know about research. (For the record, I am not the "Academic librarian" in the comments section.) Some of these are typical missteps many of us probably see with students all the time. They try to find periodical articles in the OPAC, or believe (or maybe just hope or even pretend to believe) that if an article isn’t digitized they won’t be able to get it. It’s a good list of some of those tidbits of knowledge both professors and librarians might take for granted, but that somehow never got passed on to the students.

This could signal many things, such as a breakdown in communication or instruction or a failure to integrate research skills into the curriculum. I suspect as much as anything it signals our inability to unlearn and get back into the mindset of a novice researcher, especially one used to Google or Yahoo who suddenly encounters the sometimes unnecessarily complicated world of the academic library. (I mean unnecessarily complicated in a theoretical sense, because after all why shouldn’t students search for periodical articles in the OPAC; had librarians begun indexing a century ago instead of relying upon commercial indexes, how different the library world might be.)

One topic that didn’t make it onto Mary’s short list of misunderstandings is language, but it’s one I’ve seen many times. We’ve all encountered the students who believe that everything is online, whether it’s a recent article from the New York Times or a church bulletin from a small parish in England in the late nineteenth century. In some ways this doesn’t surprise me as much as the double assumption that everything will be both online and in English, no matter what it is or when or where it was published. Long after I’ve gotten used to the misconceptions related specifically to library research, I have to admit this one still astounds me.

I know I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, there’s the old joke: "What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. Two languages: Bilingual. One language: American." Still, I am surprised, not because students seem to have no familiarity with any foreign languages. I think I’m more surprised by the assumption that there’s some organization somewhere that takes every document created anywhere in the world at any time and immediately translates it for American college students. The Babelfish Institute does this for everything, regardless of the origin or likelihood of being used.

The reasons for the misunderstanding seems to vary. One I heard recently made at least some sense to me. Someone had seen citations from a conference proceeding and wanted to track down the articles. The proceeding was from a technical conference in Germany in 2007. According to Worldcat, only two libraries held the proceedings, both in Germany. It looked like they were available from the institute that hosted the conference, and had time not been a factor I would have suggested requesting we purchase them since they weren’t expensive. Then I discovered the student didn’t read any German, but thought that since some American scholars had cited them maybe they had been translated. This definitely shows a misunderstanding of the world of scholarship, but I could sort of see the logic in this, because often scholars not writing in English have to be translated to make an impact in America. In all seriousness, how much of an impact would existentialism or poststructuralism or other French philosophy have made in America had not Sartre or Derrida or Foucault or Lyotard been translated into English?

Sometimes the assumption seems considerably less grounded even than this. "I’m looking for primary documents in Soviet archives written by Russian spies." "Do you read Russian?" "No. Would I need to?" "I want to study the local French response to riots in the banlieues of Paris." "Do you read French?" "I need newspaper editorials from Mexican newspapers about the drug wars." "Do you read Spanish?" I think you get the idea. In some cases, the fact of sources being in English or even translated into English would seem inplicit in the request. Russian spies wrote in Russian. The French respond to things in French. Etc. If we find news articles from Djibouti in English, they’re probably from the BBC World Service.

So many questions suggest themselves to us that probably don’t occur to students. Why would this particular document have been translated into English? Who would have translated it? The same questions apply to digitization. Who would have taken the trouble to digitize this obscure document from this relatively poor part of the world? Do students have any sense of the time and effort that goes into digitization or translation, how many people have to work together to get something digitized or translated, how much funding would be involved, or how that typically there has to be some commercial benefit or assumption of broad appeal before such projects are launched? Of course they don’t, and there’s no reason they should have thought about this. I’m not ridiculing the students, but only pointing out another area of understandable ignorance that has to be dealt with.

Thus when I work with students, I’ve learned to counsel them about a neglected rule of scholarship. if you’re going to work on historical or cutural topics about some other place in the world, you need to learn the language. If you don’t know the language, either learn it or change your topic. I try not to make it a harsh lesson, but somewhere along the way students have to learn that despite the popularity of English, most people in the world are not communicating in English in their local communities, and that a lot of people even in the United States don’t communicate in English in their local communities. People in non-English speaking countries are involved in living their lives and being in their worlds, and never pause to think that some American college student might want to study them for a research essay.

This lesson might be hard to communicate to most students. It might be easier to just digitize every document in the entire world and have it translated into English. Maybe Google can take care of that for us.

Humor in the Classroom, or Wherever

The other day I was chatting with a friend and fellow librarian about using humor in presentations and in the classroom. Whenever we’re working on presentations, we’ll run ideas by each other, and she has to endure comments from me like, “I have the basic outline, but I can’t figure out where to put in any jokes.” This may sound unnecessary, but I’m a firm believer in using humor in presentations as well as in the classroom. Humor engages listeners and reduces their anxiety.

Though I said “jokes,” I don’t really mean jokes in the general sense. I’m not very good at telling jokes, mostly because I can never remember any. Humor (or if it’s extemporaneous, wit) is more what I’m talking about. I know a few jokes of the “guy walks into a bar” variety, but I can’t imagine they would be very useful in a presentation to librarians or to a group of students in a class. Possibly I could develop some “guy walks into a library” jokes, but they probably wouldn’t be funny and wouldn’t blend into the material being presented. (I’ve appended my attempt at a “guy walks into a library” joke below, based on another joke I know.)

Sometimes I can actually plan a joke. I gave a talk on Google this summer, and was briefly comparing the now defunct Lively to Second Life. I’ve always been skeptical about Second Life, which seems to be losing its buzz (pace the claims of the SL people). In my presentation I said: “I haven’t seen any reason to use Second Life yet. Every time I’m there, I just end up naked and bumping into walls.” So far, so good. There were several head nods and a couple of titters, because anyone who’s used or read about SL knows this stuff happens. Then I followed with, “Since that’s how I spend a lot of my time in real life, I don’t see much point in going online.” I thought the joke went well. It highlighted my sketicism about SL as a useful tool while keeping the audience’s attention.

Usually whatever jokes I make are spontaneous. Recently, I was talking to a group of librarians about my theories and experiences weeding the collection for offsite storage. If anything cries out for levity, it’s this subject, which can manage to be boring and contentious at the same time. I was speaking off the cuff, but in discussing what kinds of little used materials I might send offsite, I remembered that I’d once discovered in a tight area of the stacks a whole shelf of books about Albert Schweitzer that hadn’t circulated since the 1960s. They were easy to send offsite. “So Albert Schweitzer, years after his death, was still performing good works by creating space in my stacks.” This joke might not work with college students, because it assumes at least a minimal familiarity with Schweitzer.

Audience is important. At another recent talk I was recalling a discussion I’d once had with one of my superiors about the way philosophy students work. I was being pressured to perform some library-related activities for which there was no need. For some reason, the Marshall McLuhan scene from Annie Hall popped into my head, and I did an impersonation of him in that scene. “You know nothing of my work.” I was just playing around, but a lot of the audience had obviously seen Annie Hall, which wouldn’t have been the case with most college students, especially freshmen.

In general, librarians are an easy crowd, though. Freshmen writing classes are another story. For those, I have almost no canned humor, but look for spaces to insert a witty comment. I’m not looking for belly-laughs, but simply want to hold their attention so they’ll listen to what I’m trying to communicate. Sometimes this is a joke about a book or article title we find. Or sometimes I tell them that while they might wait until the night before to write their research papers, they sure don’t want to wait until the night before to research them. I think it shocks them a bit that I say this, and it allows for a game instructor to jump in and reinforce lessons about time planning.

I’ve never set out to try to be funny in presentations, and I’ve tended to use humor more as I feel more comfortable being myself in front of groups of people, which has been a long time coming. I like joking around with friends, but for much of my life found it difficult to allow myself levity in public performances. Some people think funny can’t be taught, and to some extent I suppose this is true. Plenty of people have senses of humor without being funny themeselves. Some funniness possibly can be taught, though.

There are a lot of instructional materials to learn to be funnier, but it turns out that there’s a bit of library literature on the topic of using humor for library instruction as well. I found the recent Walker article in Library Lit, and that led me to the Trefts/Blakeslee article, which in turn led me to the Booth-Butterfield article in the communications literature (citations below, all available through ProQuest). Walker discusses the benefits to using humor in the classroom, like keeping students’ attention, increasing their retention of material, and reducing their information anxiety. She also summarizes someone’s suggestions of how to cultivate humor in the classroom (p. 120):

  • Smile/ be light-hearted.
  • Be spontaneous/natural.
  • Foster an informal climate/be conversations and loose.
  • Begin class with an ice-breaker, a short anecdote, or a humorous climate.
  • Encourage a give-and-take between yourself and students. Play off their comments.

These all seemed good recommendations to me, and in line with my experience.

Trefts and Blakeslee enrolled in a comedy course to see if they could become funnier. Their instructor divided people into two kinds of people: those who divide people into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. No, I’m kidding. He divided them into Fog People and Comedy People.

He says that the Fog People are people who “just don’t get It” (humor), and Comedy People are the ones who “reveal It” to the Fog People. From Greg Dean’s comedy tapes we learned that there is a distinct difference between having a sense of humor and being funny, or, as he describes it, having a “sense of funny”. Many of us probably feel we have a pretty good sense of humor, but that we are not particularly funny. Being funny, or having a sense of funny, is having the ability to make other people laugh; knowing what is funny in certain situations; and being able to look at the world, to observe, and to find humor in everything – even libraries! Therefore, Comedy People, the ones that can make people laugh, have both a sense of funny and a sense of humor. The Fog People only have a sense of humor.

To use humor in the classroom, the goal is to move from being a Fog Person to being a Comedy Person, the person who sees what is funny in a given situation. They have several tips tips to pass on:

  1. Do not give up after one try.
  2. Practice, practice, practice.
  3. Be yourself.
  4. Think about your audience.
  5. Keep a comedy journal.

They discuss each of these in turn. For me, 3 and 4 have been the most useful. They also do a good job of enumerating and discussing various practical ways to introduce humor: jokes, icebreakers, audio, questionaires, videos, cartoons, the unexpected, spontaneous wit, planned wit, and active learning.

The Booth-Butterfield article is much more abstract and less specifically applicable to library instruction. It does have a Humor Orientation (HO) scale that Trefts and Blakeslee use, though. It uses a Lickert scale to see if you agree or disagree with seventeen statements such as “1. I regularly tell jokes or funny stories when I am with a group” or “10. Even funny jokes seem flat when I tell them” (207). They also have an impressive taxonmy of types of humor with many examples. The types include Low Humor, Nonverbal, Impersonation, Language, Other Orientation, and Expressiveness, and gives examples of when these types are in play (212). Like most discussions of humor, the article itself isn’t very funny, but it does tell us a lot about funny people, or high-HO people. Unsurprisingly, they see potential for humor in more situations than low-HO people, and communicate more specifically what that potential is.

A large cognitive difference exists between a description which states “I’d tell a joke,” versus “Did you hear the one about…” It is the difference between “I’d give a great speech” and “Fourscore and seven years ago…” People who report high humor use know more exactly what they can say and do to elicit the laughter response, while low humor use people must describe that behavior in general and abstract terms. (215)

It’s also the difference between “I’d tell a joke about Second Life,” and “I’d talk about being naked and bumping into walls.”

Based on my own experience and the studies I’ve cited, the use of humor in the classroom or in presentations has many benefits, though it can’t be taken too far. There are some caveats in the articles I’ve been discussing, such as that the use of ethnic humor, culturally specific humor, or sarcasm can be problematic. One must also avoid the shift from being funny to just being a clown. This is well captured in a vignette from The Elements of Teaching (which I highly recommend as a thoughtful analysis and discussion of said elements). The book has chapters discussing Learning, Authority, Ethics, etc. Each chapter ends with a case study of a fictional, but plausible teacher. The chapter on Character finishes with a professor who conveyed no content and engaged no learning, but who was very popular with students because his class demanded little and had the nature of a vaudeville routine (115-19) which always left the students laughing, but not learning. I don’t think there’s any danger of that happening with librarians in instruction sessions, but it still is something to look out for if you want to use humor in the classroom.

Addendum: A guy walks into a library wearing a duck on his head and wants to use a computer. The librarian says, “We don’t allow pigs near our computers.” The guy says, “That’s not a pig. That’s a duck.” The librarian says, “I was talking to the duck!”

Banner, Jr., James M., and Harold C. Cannon. The Elements of Teaching. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Booth-Butterfield, S., and M. Booth-Butterfield. “Individual Differences in the Communication of Humorous Messages.” Southern Communication Journal 56, no. 3 (1991): 205-18.

Trefts, Kristin, and Sarah Blakeslee. “Did You Hear the One About the Boolean Operators? Incorporating Comedy into Library Instruction.” Reference Services Review  28, no. 4 (2000): 369-377.

Walker., B.E. “Using humor in Library Instruction.” Reference Services Review  34, no. 1 (2006): 117-28.


Learning and Unlearning

One of the most difficult things for me as I grow older and presumably more experienced is unlearning what I have learned, or at least being aware of what I have learned since adulthood so I don’t make unwarranted assumptions about student knowledge. This might be the sort of thing the Beloit College Mindset List tries to do in a general way, but that list seems more to indicate what Boomers think is important that new college students have never heard of. I’m talking more about what the students themselves will eventually know about processes that will become common tasks for both the students and ourselves.

I was thinking about this in a small, specific way last week when I did an introductory research session for juniors about to begin what are most likely their first independent research projects since their first year writing seminar. Among other things, I discuss using WorldCat as a discovery tool because it shows so much that isn’t in our library as well as lets us easily distinguish between books, journals, archival resources, etc. Every year I ask who’s heard of WorldCat. Every year almost no one has. Afterwards, the professor expressed some surprise that they hadn’t, because for him, as for me, it was the first stop in any search for books. He joked that we have all these assumptions about what students know, even though the purpose of college that they come out knowing them rather than come in knowing them.

Something like knowing about WorldCat is minor compared to all the things I have to unlearn. It’s very easy for people well versed in the research process to forget that new college students aren’t. I’ve become much more minimalist in my instruction over the years, because I’ve come to believe that students have to learn how to do research by doing research, and trying to get them to memorize a treatise on library research for their first 10-page essay is folly. No one learned that way. I’ve seen librarians in instruction sessions who are of the kitchen-sink philosophy of library instruction, apparently believing that college freshmen really need a 45-minute introduction to the OPAC.

These librarians are certainly aware of the knowledge gap between them and the students, but have forgotten what it might be like to have an adult talk ad nauseum about any topic, much less one as dull as the OPAC. They’ve also forgotten that what they think is terribly important probably isn’t that important for the students, either theoretically or practically. They’ve forgotten what it’s like to be eighteen, like the author of The Dumbest Generation. And some librarians seem to resent students for not knowing as much as they do.

Many of us could spend hours talking about the research process. Some of us, like my colleague Mary George, write books on the topic. A lot of us even do some of it. For me at least, it becomes more difficult over the years to remember what would be most useful or relevant to new college students and also to remember what they don’t know. Part of me has to unlearn everything I’ve learned to go back to that previous state and see the library through the eyes of a novice.

I’ve had similar experiences teaching. Last year I taught an essay on feminist political theory for the first time at Princeton. After eighteen years or so of feminist awareness, it never occurred to me that the new college students would have had no exposure whatsoever to feminism. The concept of gender was foreign to them, so naturally someone arguing that a complete theory of justice would require a society without gender confused them somewhat. What are they teaching in the schools these days, I almost said to them. I went into the class with a lot of assumptions about what people "just know" about feminism or gender and ended up having to deliver an impromptu lecture on the feminist movement. (This episode is fresh in my mind because I’m teaching the same essay tomorrow, this time prefaced by an encyclopedia article on feminist political theory.)

Assuming we can accomplish this unlearning – and I’m not at all sure we can – how would we do it? If only I could offer a bulleted list of techniques, I could probably start selling myself on the library motivational circuit. Some of it is relatively easy. When students ask the same questions year after year, those are the things they don’t know. This is why I prefer minimalizing my contribution and responding to students as much as possible, so I can remain somewhat aware of what they don’t know.  I try to assume the minimum amount of knowledge while respecting their intelligence.  Some of it may be more difficult. Can we ever look at the library through fresh eyes?

There’s one place where I at least can’t unlearn. Once I finally drank of the Pierian Spring, as Pope puts it, I’ve tried to drink as deeply as I can, which would explain why I do the sort of job I do instead of some job without access to a large library. I doubt most of the students have the same assumptions I have about the centrality of learning, but I try to assume that if everything goes well, the spark will ignite, and they will discover the thrill of the life of the mind. Here is perhaps where I can’t unlearn but only try to model.

For the rest, I try think of how I might remember what it’s like not to know what I know, to remember how I felt the first time I worked in a library with ten million books or so, how daunted I was by the sheer size of everything and the scope of all I didn’t even know I didn’t know.  Then I remember why the Delphic Oracle considerd Socrates the wisest man in Greece, because he was the only one who knew he didn’t know anything. To put it more mildly, he was aware of how much he didn’t know.

This makes it a little easier, I think, for me to look through fresh eyes and avoid the jaded cynicism of the old and experienced. Everyone’s ignorant about most things, but it’s always easy for me to see how little I know even about subjects I’m interested in. However much I might know, I always have the feeling that it isn’t nearly enough. Achieving that humility is a first step. We’re all novices in most areas, and perhaps that common ground makes it easier for us both to strip away our assumptions and not to mind so much that yet again we’re going over the same material we’ve covered a hundred times for students who seem to change only in that they always look younger than they did the year before.

Postmodern Librarians as Bricoleurs

Fortunately Stephanie the CogSci Librarian commented on a post of mine last week, or I wouldn’t have discovered the debate regarding better instruction or better interfaces that was going on within Facebook last week. Maybe I should hop onto the Facebook bandwagon and try to make more Facebook librarian friends. On the other hand, while the debate was going on I was helping prepare a Halloween party for my daughter. When it comes to an interesting library discussions versus party planning, I’m not sure where my loyalties lie.

My own preference would be for better interfaces, but it seems we have so little control over them. The world of information is so chaotic these days that sometimes I don’t even think better instruction will work well. A couple of weeks ago I gave research introductions to some juniors as they prepare to begin researching their independent junior papers, and unfortunately I had to acquaint them with the chaos without providing much order. I’m not cynical enough to think they all want to search nothing but Google, because I don’t find that to be the case with students I talk to. They perhaps all want to search Proquest and JSTOR, but even then they’ve moved beyond thinking that everything is on the free Web. Then I had to bring them back to the Web to show them how to find what we couldn’t find with traditional tools.

Teaching the traditional tools doesn’t bother me, either. Librarians for decades have tried to bring order to chaos, and scholars are familiar with catalogs, subject headings, and other standard library fare. The traditional tools still work up to a point, and they have to be taught, because otherwise much will be missed. In the world of printed books, still of great importance in the humanities, catalogs still serve a useful function unlikely to be usurped anytime soon. The structure of traditional indexes still works to some advantage. As painful as it might be for students, and I share their pain, to find some resources efficiently it’s still necessary to think like a librarian.

Add to this all the other useful ways to find books and scholarly information, from web-searching to footnote-chasing, and it’s easy to understand why students may be overwhelmed and want simpler, better, more powerful interfaces that organize information more effective. I do, too. I just don’t see how that can come about for a long time, if ever, what with so much undigitized information, so much proprietary information, so much expensive information, so much information, period.

It was typical that in a demonstrative search on one of the juniors’ topics we found a great article indexed in Worldwide Political Science Abstracts that wasn’t in full-text, and that the library didn’t subscribe to, and that didn’t show up in Google Scholar, but which did show up in Google and turned out to be in an open access, peer-reviewed scholarly journal. What lesson does this teach us?

The only hope might be more and better instruction, and even then the battle might be a losing one, because to thoroughly search these days requires becoming a Juke Box Hero, not a Guitar Hero, and who besides the serious scholars have the stamina for that? Most students have no desire to be serious scholars, and they never will be. I don’t think we can blame them for that. Try as we might, there’s only so much of the chaos we can teach students to control. That’s not a reason to get rid of instruction, just because it’s not perfect, but it might be a consolation for our inevitable failure to turn everyone into a human search engine.

As a postmodern librarian might say, or might have said back before we gave up postmodernism for whatever we have now, the grand librarian narrative that made sense of information has collapsed, and we live among the wreckage. One of the few useful terms I picked up from my mostly wasted years of studying postmodern theory was the concept of bricolage. Here’s the definition from the Wikipedia, which might be as good as any:

“Bricolage … is a term used in several disciplines…to refer to:

  • the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things which happen to be available;
  • a work created by such a process.

It is borrowed from the French word bricolage, from the verb bricoler – equivalent to the English “do-it-yourself”, the core meaning in French being, however, ‘fiddle, tinker’ and, by extension, ‘make creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are to hand (regardless of their original purpose).’

Bricolage as a design approach – in the sense of building by trial and error – is often contrasted to engineering: theory-based construction.

A person who engages in bricolage is a bricoleur: someone who invents his or her own strategies for using existing materials in a creative, resourceful, and original way.”

We are the postmodern, or perhaps post-postmodern, librarians. Of necessity we are bricoleurs. We use what tools we can and build where we are able, putting pieces of the information universe haphazardly together for each research project, organizing the chaos where we can, inventing our own strategies in creative and resourceful ways because we no longer have the safety of using only the old, known ways. Despite improving interfaces, my suspicion–neither a fear nor a hope–is that this will be true for a long time to come, until the World Brain digests and organizes all knowledge.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Bricoleurs can be artists practicing a useful trade or creating masterpieces. But it does mean giving up some amount of authority and control, which is alien to the librarian mindset. We like authority and control over information, but if such authority and control are these days necessarily limited, it does us no good to bemoan the fact. Rather than nostalgia for the days when we could master (or pretend to master) the information universe, instead we can get satisfaction from our bricolage, knowing that we’re doing what we can.

Reference is the Best Instruction

Today’s a reprint, because I’ve been rethinking the issue. What’s below originally appeared in LOEX News, Volume 28:1 (Spring 2001), 4, 8.

I’m trying to articulate what I think about reference and instruction, and this was an early pass at the issue. At the time I was playing around with a few catch phrases of the day (“just in time,” “point of need”) to argue that traditional BI wasn’t a good use of anyone’s time, and that reference provided better service to the students. I’m now coming to the conclusion that the reference service as traditionally provided is much less necessary than before, and I’d prefer an aggressive research consultation service and a train the trainer service, which I’m planning to write about during my next reference shift.

Still, for those curious about the reference and instruction views of a librarian just a year out of school at the time, read on. I like to think I’m a better writer these days, though.

Reference is the Best Instruction

What is the best library instruction? I think a case can be made that the best instruction for students comes just in time (when they need it), at the point of need (where they need it), and is individualized as much as possible (what they need). At my college, we try to make sure every professor who wants an instruction session has a particular assignment in mind, and we try to schedule the session within 2-3 weeks of the time the assignment is due. That way, the reasoning goes, the students will have a reason to pay attention in class. They won’t just be going through the motions of typing keywords into boxes on the screen, but will instead be earnestly trying to learn how to research effectively. After all, they have an assignment due in a couple of weeks.

You’ve probably figured out by now that this model of library instruction, like all the others, has its problems. Of course the students should pay attention in class, and learn how to find research articles on their topic or background information in a reference book. Somehow it doesn’t always work out that way. I see many students from these sessions come back to the reference desk apparently clueless about what they were taught in class. Some may argue that if nothing else they learned they should go to the reference desk for help, but that tidbit of information is a bad trade for my time, if you ask me. I used to resent this, but then I realized that the students were acting on the philosophy we used to justify our instruction classes. We want to be there at the point of need. We want them to know what they need to know just in time to do their research. And we want to individualize the session as much as possible.

But the students are coming to the reference desk at the point of their need (even if it is a little late by our standards). At the reference desk we are giving them what they need just in time. And only at the reference desk do the students get just what they want, and what they think they need. For the individual student who needs to learn how to research a particular topic, which is the most effective: a library instruction session or a one-on-one encounter at the reference desk? Who would argue that the former is usually more effective? Put this way, the question arises: is reference the best instruction?

When the students go to a BI session, they may or may not be interested. Sometimes it seems the students are all but ready to fall asleep. This could be a comment on my teaching style, but I don’t think so. Most of the students just aren’t interested, no matter how politely they go through the motions. The general student opinion seems to be that library instruction is boring. We all know that isn’t true. Or we don’t want to believe it’s true. Either way, the students may think it’s boring because the session doesn’t meet their need when they actually feel their need. The student has nothing to do with scheduling an instruction session. The timing of the session is up the course instructor, sometime with a little negotiation with the librarian. If we want the student to “own” the instruction, then we should present it when they feel the need, which is usually right before they come to the reference desk. How often do students at the reference desk seem uninterested in what they’re being taught? It happens, but not as often as in the classroom.

The reference interaction provides the students with the help they need just in time. Sure, students often begin their research too late. They may do bad research because they don’t have time to take advantage of interlibrary loan. They don’t find the best resources. But the students will be doing that regardless of the instruction session. The motivated students won’t wait for the library instruction, and the rest will come up at the last minute. The last minute students may learn an important lesson about good research, a lesson they won’t learn just because we tell them to do their research early.

Finally, the reference encounter is the most individualized instruction possible. Some may counter that students may not like one-on-one encounters, or that the reference librarian may never really know what the student needs. That’s possible. But the negotiation at the reference desk is more likely to identify the individual needs of the student than the general BI session is.

But compelling reasons exist to focus energy on traditional instruction rather than traditional reference.

One reason is limited resources. Let’s say we teach an hour-long BI class to 15 students. To give each of them an hour would be just too much time. Even if each of them really needed only 20 minutes, that’s still 5 times the number of hours of a BI session. I can think of 2 possible objections to this excellent assertion. One, the time later spent at the reference desk helping those students who didn’t get it the first time should count against the total hours. Two, the reference encounter still provides the better service to the student. Which is more important, time or the student? In any real library, compromises have to be made, but I think the option that best serves the student is the one to try for.

Another good objection argues that the students need to know the overall scheme of research, and not just the exact particulars that help their immediate research. A BI session for an entire class makes sure they all understand the general organization of information for their topic. They know about good reference books, good databases, good bibliographies, even if they don’t use any of them for their own research. They have a broader understanding of a knowledge base.

I’m not sure how realistic this objection is. As librarians, we know the importance of understanding the organization of a field of knowledge, but for the students who don’t care, all our teaching is for naught. If they ever learn such a thing, the most likely way is through building up the knowledge step by step through work on individual projects.

One could also argue that the students may never get any instruction if left on their own. This is definitely possible, and they’re a couple of responses. The cynical response is, so what? They’re in college, and they need to learn how to do research on their own. This view has some appeal for me, but usually after a long day. The generous response is to publicize the reference desk more. Many students don’t know what reference librarians do, and they should. Instruction classes are certainly a great way to publicize reference services, but there are other good ways, and we would be helping our students by finding them.

I’m certainly not saying that anyone should give up traditional instruction. But I do want people to consider that some of the best instruction students may get happens at the reference desk. There may be reference librarians who don’t teach formal BI classes and think they don’t do instruction. But the reference desk is a great teaching environment. Some instruction librarians insist that we’re always doing library instruction, whether in the classroom, at the reference desk, or chatting with faculty about databases. I don’t want to fall prey to that variety of instruction monomania, but there’s a bit of truth to the statement. I don’t think there is any one best way to provide instruction, because the contexts for learning differ so much by student, librarian, institution, etc. But if our criterion for effective instruction is giving the students what they need when and where they need it, then reference might be the best instruction.