Wednesday, February 25, 2009

slight glumness about the future of libraries


Mostly I am thrilled about libraryland, but occasionally I see libraries mirrored by people who do not use them or do not understand their value. The whole 'why do we need a library when everything is online' way of thinking. Plus, days when I answer more computer questions than library-related questions at the reference desk make me sad. Not to say that computer support isn't needed, but it usually does not require my master's degree in library and information science (MSLIS).

So this week, in the spirit of spring cleaning, I thought I would expand on some ideas that have been rattling around in my head:

-Libraries used to collect information by collecting printed books. How beautifully organized! Now, people are expressing their thoughts in books, videos, on the web, in online databases, etc. etc. etc. It's like watching a building turn into sand before your eyes, with the sand being blown to the four corners of the earth. How can you stop/control/organize/collect all of it? You cannot. All you can do is watch and try to maintain some kind of understanding of what is happening. (Or maybe you choose to ignore it and continue with what you have always done, assuming that anything important will make its way into a book eventually, until the building has completely disappeared?)

-So information is becoming dispersed, there is no obvious standard, inexpensive, efficient way for libraries collect and preserve new content, and suddenly libraries are far more limited in their scope than they once were. At times I wonder whether we are returning to a time when (wealthier) individuals maintained their own private collections, rather than funding institutions to do the same. In some ways this is very democratic, but it also forces the individual into a position of real civic responsibility -- free from having to go to the library, true, but ultimately playing a very serious role in the life of the world's information.

-Over the past few weeks I read these articles:
Where Have All the Bookstores Gone in LIS News
The Library Web Site of the Future by Steven Bell
Wall Street Journal to Close Its Research Library as reported in American Libraries online,
all of which seem to increase a certain gloominess about the future.

-Obviously, as libraries change so must librarians. We are no longer simply collectors and maintainers and gatekeepers. As pertinent witnesses to what I described above, we are responsible for explaining what has happened, and for clarifying and assisting those in the new (dusty) landscape. I am referring to instruction librarians in the traditional and the online classroom, librarians responsible for plagiarism prevention, and librarians as the sole instructors for classes such as basic reading, basic computing or basic research. We are also responsible for evaluating any new standards that may emerge. And obviously, we need to keep maintaining our collections to the best of our abilities, as well as the systems surrounding those collections.

Most of what I'm saying here I heard in library school. In fact, mid-semester it's so busy right now at the library that it almost seems ridiculous for me to bring this up. And I for one still use books very frequently -- but only as one of many sources of information available to me.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Community in the (online) Classroom

sign of life

I've been taking an online class on the topic of ... well, online classes (specifically, instructional design) for the past few weeks, and I've come to what seems to be a glaring realization. Unless you are *highly* motivated (i.e., a graduate student or taking the class out of personal interest), online classes are no fun. But why is 'fun' a requirement of a class, you may ask? Well, it's not. But here's what I'm thinking:

One of the perks of going to class for many students is to see their friends. Yes, yes, they may learn something along the way (yawn), but what really gets students out of bed is to see what's happening with their peers. Now, current online classes are adept at providing all of the content of the class, but very little of the community. I can predict the type of people who do well in online classes: self-motivated, self-disciplined, self-directed learners who actually enjoy reading and writing and sitting quietly on the computer. Discounting yourself, how many students does this describe? What about all of the other students, who for whatever reason opt to take an online class and find the process so grueling that it turns out to be easier to take the class in person?

For online courses to reach their full potential, a course management system must provide options for students to customize their classes. This means students should be able to create an online identity, should be able to create forums for discussions, share files easily, and interact with other members of the class. A class is a community, and online classes are lacking in personal interaction and acceptance of user-generated content outside of text-based discussion posts and assignments.

Online classes are choosing to push course content to students and wash their hands of all other aspects of the traditional classroom. Online communities are flourishing on the web, while the atmosphere of most online classes is deadly. In the online classroom it's all business, and interactions are often cold and formal. The atmosphere is more like a 19th century schoolroom than a modern one. I'm surprised there haven't been riots. Instead, there has just been a widespread rejection of the notion that online classes are comparable to in-person ones. I hope this can change.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

My Own Information Literacy Lesson

the woods right now

This week I got burned on Twitter. Here's what happened:

1) I read about how the Dalai Lama has a twitter account, on a blog I follow called iLibrarian.

2) I looked at the Dalai Lama's twitter account, noticed there were approximately 13,000 followers (usually a good sign of legitimacy), and read a couple of tweets about freeing Tibet and trying to reach a younger audience. Sounded possible and interesting, so I propagated the information with a tweet of my own.

3) Turns out it was an impostor: The real Dalai Lama contacted twitter admin, who swiftly took the site down. (The original is not there any more now -- you can check.)

4) I tweeted a correction of my own & have been feeling like a complete sucker ever since.

So over the past few days I've been pondering this chain of events, and it's no comfort at all to think about those other 13,000 suckers (they'd probably say they knew he was a fake all along), and that the whole situation has been corrected now. In the classroom, I'm regularly responsible for showing students how NOT to do exactly what I just did -- make the mistake of assuming everything online is true. Oh, the irony.

The fact is, usually I'm pretty savvy about this sort of thing. (I mean, the sheer INDECENCY of pretending to be the Dalai Lama on the internet is appalling, right? Is nothing sacred, literally?) But really, nobody's immune from being fooled. It happens to librarians, even the most earnest & well-meaning ones. Maybe this is the hardest information literacy lesson of all...

Monday, February 2, 2009

Library Instruction Realities

melt, sunshine

The spring semester is in full swing, and so I'm back in the classroom trying to teach information literacy to our college students. As I think I've mentioned before, I'm glad to be working in a library that doesn't teach information literacy as an abstract idea but tries to integrate it into specific assignments for classes. So our instruction program doesn't spend much time and energy on the 'how to use the library'-type of classes; rather, we teach students how to use the library in the context of an assignment, and let them explore independently from there.

As this is a fairly big part of my job, I've taken on the responsibility of learning a few things about pedagogical theory. I won't bore everyone with that here, but I'm finding that theory is frequently unhelpful when it comes to physically being in the classroom. Here are some examples of what I mean:

First, creating interactive lessons can be REALLY hard when I'm smashing everything into 20-30 minutes. (The famous one-shot library lesson.) I'm all for inspiring students to be independent learners, and trying to make research interesting, but I'm lucky if there's sufficient time to cover everything -- just the basics! -- never mind do anything interesting like play a game or get a little discussion/audience participation going. (Sometimes this sounds like an excuse to me, though.)

Second, it's very easy to let extraneous details creep into the lesson. When I try to integrate past students' questions into what I'm talking about, I end up covering certain 'how-to' details that are less relevant to the overall lesson and may instead be confusing and overwhelming. (I recently heard this attempt to tell the students everything called 'librarian mouth.')

Third, I'm noticing that what motivates students to do well in a class is the grade, rather than some touchy-feely desire to become better people and lifelong learners. At least, they're fine if they become lifelong learners, but only if they get a good grade for it. (And this reflects our standards-driven culture, so it's not the students' fault.) But I can play that game: rather than expect them to naturally be in the thrall of the library, I only teach classes where the library component directly applies to a graded assignment. (Very glad to be backed up here by my department. On a side note, why is it so hard for us to admit that hardly anyone wants to learn information literacy for fun?)

In any case, I'm always trying to be a better instructor & teach information literacy more effectively, so I'm sure this topic will come up here again in the future...