The “L-Word”

Before I get to the matter at hand, I have a confession to make. I love being a librarian. Although I fell into this profession by accident, all the signs were there pointing toward my eventual calling. I was fascinated by the public library as a child. I put rudimentary Dewey numbers in my books at home and “played library” with my younger brother and date due stamp my Aunt Adele loaned us. I was the only one on my dorm floor in my undergrad career who understood how to do research, and I helped many through the required and dreaded “library skills workbook”. Connecting folks with the human record is what I live to do. Librarianship is in my mind and in my heart and in my soul and I cannot see it any other way.

In contrast, there are many in our profession who desire to be information scientists. The seek to run from the “L-Word” as fast as they can, perhaps because they feel librarianship isn’t a real profession or a real academic field. Perhaps they seek the greater prestige and financial gain that information technology brings. Perhaps they think that librarianship or library science is subservient or secondary to information science. Perhaps they don’t have the same strong feelings for the profession that I do. Whatever the case may be, we’re in a 50+ year struggle for the soul of librarianship, and if I’m being honest, it makes me sad that many good people that I know are willing to sell the profession out for a “few magic beans” much like Jack in “Jack and the Beanstalk”.

So why is Matt writing about this now? Well, the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign has decided to be the latest “library school” to drop the word library from the name of the school. To be fair, the GSLIS at UIUC is a founding member of the iSchool movement, and has been heavily involved in information science for a very long time. Additionally, the school is retaining a commitment to its ALA-accredited MS in LIS program. But something doesn’t sit well with me about this name change, and I’m not the only one based on recent Twitter conversations I’ve had since this was announced.

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Minerva, by Elihu Vedder at the Library of Congress. Photo used with CC BY-NC-ND license from travelrelationship on flickr.com

As I see it librarianship (and I use the term librarianship and library science interchangeably, more about the reasons why in a later post) and information science are two separate, yet related fields of research. Librarianship is, according to Michael Gorman in his Our Enduring Values Revisited,  “facilitating learning by fruitful and wide-ranging interaction with the human record”. Said another way (by David Lankes), “the mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities”. Information science, on the other hand, can be defined as a field primarily concerned with “the analysis, collection, classification, manipulation, storage, retrieval, movement, dissemination, and protection of information.” Wayne Weigand says it best when he posits that “the common misconception that libraries are part of the world of information is an inversion of reality”. The differences between these two related fields of study are important, and “information science” cannot assume the place of librarianship as a separate field.

But this is not a simple conflating of two related fields in the case of the Illinois “name change”. The underlying forces at play here are more nefarious than just confusion over librarianship’s place in higher education. It has been explained to me a few times in the discussion of the change with various groups that this was done to ensure the viability of the school and give it more “prestige” in the pantheon of academic programs. After all,  who wants to continue to fund a “library school”? Few, if any, grant-making organizations fund “library research”, but millions of dollars are given every year to research in information sciences and technology. After all, isn’t librarianship a dying profession? Who uses the library anymore anyway? All the information you’d ever need is on Google.

It bothers me that librarians have a) lost their way in the rush towards information science and technology, and b) see no future for librarianship other than as information scientists and technology mavens. Librarianship remains a vibrant and vital profession, apart from information science and technology. Librarians are called to create institutions and places that “allow every person in the communities served…to continue his education, to become more knowledgeable, and to live the life of the mind in the way in which he chooses…Through lifelong learning, libraries can and do change lives, a point that cannot be overstated.” (Gorman, p. 40) We librarians need to recapture and revitalize our profession and our course of study, especially at this time when the world needs us the most. Retreating into the relative “safety and security” of information science will not do. Librarianship must take its rightful place as the critical task of “facilitating human interaction with the human record”. (Gorman, p. 16)

Teaching Skepticism

Skepticism is “generally any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.” — Wikipedia

Yesterday I posted on the need to for academic librarians to teach college and university students critical thinking and critical evaluation skills during library instruction. I feel that the role of the academic librarian is not simply to teach student how to find information sources, but how to think critically about the information sources they find and evaluate information sources both for their research needs and for validity and purpose. Regrettably, these skills are not taught very often in secondary education, and students arrive as college freshman lacking the ability to be “discriminating consumers” of information, media, or facts in general.

Source: wburris on Flickr.com

I feel that we, as academic librarians, have a duty to not only arm our students with these tools, but to stress the importance of skepticism in dealing with the constant barrage of information, media, news, data, and facts that we encounter in the early 21st century. I find that many students I work with are simply willing to believe anything they see on television or encounter on the internet instead of approaching it with a critical eye and a healthy dose of skepticism. But let’s face it, skeptics don’t always command respect in out society that holds the ideologies of “blind faith” and “stand your ground” as law and “capital-T” truth.

This is where academic librarians enter the picture. As educators, our primary role is teaching skepticism. It is our job to instill the “questioning attitude toward knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs” and to teach students how to debate “claims that are taken for granted elsewhere”. As Michael Gorman argues in his book Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century,  rationalism is a core value of librarianship. As rational professionals, we are trained to be skeptical of information we encounter. We seek for corroboration of facts and strive for the most accurate data and information sources. We seek to debunk myths, half-truths, and falsehoods. And we seek to impart these values to the students we instruct. To me, library instruction is much more than just “showing students around the library resources”. Library instruction is teaching critical thinking. Library instruction is building inquisitive consumers of information. Library instruction is teaching skepticism.

Library Instruction is more than Teaching How to Fish

When I first started my career as an academic librarian over 10 years ago, my “teaching philosophy” when it came to library instruction was simple: Arm students with the tools they needed to navigate library databases, the online catalog, and find information sources needed to write good papers and create good projects. Working with both undergraduate and graduate students over the years, I have found that most students, when pointed in the right direction, are pretty good at searching and finding the sources needed for their own research. Even first-year undergrads and high school students taking college courses for credit can navigate the library’s home page, connect to a “discovery layer” or a large commercial database, and make it do what they need it to do and bring back good results. I credit this to growing familiarity with search concepts in the use of Google and other search engines, better instruction in secondary and elementary education on using library and Internet resources, and better search engines and user interfaces on the Web, on commercial databases, and on library systems.

Source: danguer on Flickr.com

Increasingly I found myself instructing students on “how to search” or “how to use the online catalog or discovery tools” only to find that many are coming to college with these skills. A trend that I am seeing much more often, however,  is a lack of critical thinking skills and the ability for students, undergrad and grad students alike, to evaluate information sources, intelligently and articulately describe why they used a particular source,  and lack of a reasoned explanation of why they searched a specific way on the Internet or on more “academic” sources. Students know the “hows” of searching, but not the “whys” of searching or how to determine which results are good and which results are crap. To this end, I have been spending much more time in my library instruction sessions working with students on information evaluation tools, critical thinking skills, and asking many more “why” questions than “whats” or “hows”.

The old adage of “Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime” needs refinement. We not only need to teach students “how to fish” but also how to determine which fish are poisonous, which are too small to keep, and why we are fishing in the first place. The most important skills that academic librarians can teach college and university students, are critical thinking skills and the ability to evaluate information sources effectively. The lines between “good” and “not-so-good” information sources have become extremely blurred, and it’s our job to teach our students how to evaluate the “good fish” from “the bad”. We’re not only instructors of search techniques and library research, but instructors in critical thinking and information evaluation. Let’s make our students discriminating fishermen.