Republic of Letters

There is not such a cradle of democracy on earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration. — Andrew Carnegie



Source: justinplambert on Flickr

Librarians are the quintessential “uber-generalists”. Our training and the nature of our profession require us to have an understanding of information and knowledge, research acumen, and familiarity with information creation, storage, retrieval, and usage, but does not require us to have extensive training, education, or expertise in any one “academic field” (with a few notable exceptions). Although some librarians possess additional “specialist” degrees, especially true in law, medical, music, and academic librarianship, a law librarian may be asked to help a student research more than law, and a social work librarian will have something to add to a discussion on interlibrary loan.

The day-to-day work of librarians is extremely varied and this is what drew me to the profession. As someone who has the propensity to bore easily, librarianship has allowed me to guard against this quite nicely. I enjoy my work as a librarian and enjoy the varied number of venues and subjects in which I have labored. I have worked in software development and implementation, in academic law librarianship, and now at a small regional campus of a large top-tier university where I am asked to do everything from facilities management to budgeting to research help to library instruction. We “generalist librarians” may not know as much sociology as a sociologist, biology as a biologist, law as a lawyer, or music as a concert pianist, but we have a “wide angle” view of all fields (and most everything else), and make good use of this generalist approach to our career and vocation.

For a long time this “generalist” approach to librarianship bothered me, mostly because I was not an “expert” in anything. Being a generalist left me feeling like a “jack of all trades, but a master of none”. As I have gained professional wisdom in the field, I realize that the generalist nature of librarianship is a blessing, rather than a curse. Most librarians, whether academic, public, school, special, or other, are free to set their own agenda, be creative in what interests them, and serve the public in many different ways, from specialized story hours, to a focus on a certain underrepresented group in the community, to tackling a large issue facing the library or the profession today. In being a generalist, we are free to “think outside the box” and be creative, pulling in resources and ideas from a number of different professions. And this is what truly makes me glad to be a librarian. The uber-generalist.

Digital Nativity?

Digital Nativity?

There has been much ado made in library and information studies and higher education about meeting the needs of “digital natives”, those born around or after the nascence of the Internet and due to the ubiquity of the Internet during their formative years, are thought to possess an innate digital skill set. There have been many articles, studies, and posts debunking this myth, but we information and education types are still buying into it in full force.

Take, for example, the postcard I received today about an upcoming book “The New Digital Scholar: Exploring and Enriching the Research and Writing Practices of NextGen Students” published by Information Today, Inc. A note about this book up-front: I have not read the book (and don’t own a copy) but am simply basing my observations on the marketing postcard and associated write-up. Not only does it use the ever-so-trendy moniker of “NextGen” to describe these “digital natives” but calls upon us as educators to throw out decades of good pedagogical research because the “practice of research-writing is mired in practices poorly suited for digital natives”. This book is ostensibly “designed for the information universe that NextGen students inhabit”. And that would be the universe of Angry Birds and texting?

Yes, it’s true that this “NextGen” may have a smart phone with them at all times. And yes they know how to text and play games. And they like to think themselves savvy consumers of all things “digital”. In my experience, however, many of these students know little beyond the superficial in the “information universe” and are much less savvy that they appear to be on the whole, especially with information gathering, writing, and the formation of ideas. I would argue that instead of pandering to these “digital natives” by throwing out traditional pedagogy around research and writing, in favor of “digital” projects that this generation is neither interested in or has the skills to complete, we ought to be assessing the needs of this  generation of “digital natives” and finding ways to make tried-and-true methods and theories of pedagogy speak to this generation.

Assessment is the key to creating both pedagogy and information services and products that speak to a target group of individuals. As soon as we abandon this myth of “digital nativity” and determine the real wants and needs of this generation, we will have a real nativity of new ideas and methods of teaching research, writing, and other subjects to the NextGen.