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Monday’s musings: Whoa…

Monday, May 16, 2011

My boss sent me this video the other day. It’s all worth viewing, but the what really broke my brain in a very, very, good way was the presentation on information literacy by Patricia Iannuzzi, Dean of libraries at UNLV. It starts around the 66 minute mark of part one. All of our librarians went into the conference room to watch it together the other day, and it sparked some great conversations and brainstorming. While you NEED to watch it in full, here are the most thought-provoking points that were made:

1. Libraries are moving from Collection-centric to connection-centric

Collections aren’t going away, nor should they. I’m a public-services librarian by inclination and job description, but I agree that a smart, well-curated collection is a vital part of the library and will stay that way for at least the next decade. However, Ianuzzi argues (and I agree) that  the collection will augment the mission that is growing for the library: facilitating the connections between students and information that result in critical thinking skills like information literacy that are vital for success and lifelong learning.

2. The Library is the center of student learning

The old catch phrase, coined by Harvard president Charles William Elliot, is that “The Library is the heart of the University”. I’ve been doing some research on that argument, and it’s actually fodder for its own post (maybe next week), but Ianuzzi says that in any case, it’s time to revisit that quote. In the evolving atmosphere of the modern university, she doesn’t think that the geographic location of the university matters all that much. Instead, the library, in either physical or virtual form, is a forum for student learning and must be accessible wherever that learning takes place, whether through subject specialists having office hours in their departments’ classroom buildings, or  in a dorm room at 3 AM.

3. Librarians are the Last generalists

At least some of you got into this business because you were curious about *everything* and becoming an academic librarian is one of the few truly interdisciplinary career paths left in the “knowledge professions”.  According to Ianuzzi, that gives us a unique perspective. Because we are connected to nearly every academic department on campus, we see both human knowledge and our university’s teaching activities from the 30,000 foot level. That unique perspective sometimes gets us written off by “real” researchers as dilletantes, but it also provides a unique understanding of our universities that is deeply valuable in its own right. Librarians also live in what postmodernist types would call a liminal space–not quite faculty, not quite administration. At its best, this  flexibility allows the library and librarians to move between worlds, foster collaboration, and make connections between concepts and communities. This big-picture skill isn’t just useful for our own continued relevance, it has the potential to foster the collaborations and creativity that universities as a whole will need to survive the coming cultural shifts.

4. Use strategic hooks to connect library to the university mission

At least in my experiences in business, social services, and the library, most strategic plans are written backwards. In general, an academic department will take a look at what they are already doing, or hope to accomplish, and shoehorn those goals into the institution’s mission statement or strategic plan. Ianuzzi claims, and I agree, that this is all wrong. Rather than walking into our planning process with preconceived notions of what a library is or does, librarians should take a step back. Look at the mission and strategy of the parent university as well as the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats facing the university as a whole–particularly the weaknesses and threats. Then think of it like a reference question: what resources or services does the library have that can help the university tackle the problems it faces? By focusing on those resources, and publicizing them using the buzzwords administrators, faculty, and students understand (rather than library jargon), The library becomes more indispensible to the university, and an active player in the university’s efforts to build a stronger institution. 

5. Library instruction Vs. Information Literacy

This was the bombshell for me, of the “drop jaw, scribble frantically, and rethink dissertation research problem” variety. Per Ianuzzi, Librarians are overselling ourselves in our claims to teach information literacy in its broadest form, usually defined as a set of critical thinking skills used to successfully “drink from the fire hose” and find, evaluate, and synthesize the information needed for academic, professional, and personal success. Ianuzzi argues that information literacy is learned in all aspects of university life, not just in the one-shot library instruction session.

What librarians can and should focus on is two-fold. First, we should ensure we’re doing a good job of teaching what she calls “library instruction”, all the familiar database and source evaluation skills that most COILers think they could probably teach in their sleep.* Second, we should combine our understanding of information literacy with the unique perspective mentioned above, and work to collaborate with every faculty and staff department to help them teach students how to think critically about information.

The most important skills our students leave with after graduation is the ability to learn and think critically on their own. Given the fast pace at which american industry has changed and will continue to change, I (and Ianuzzi) would argue that this ability is even more important than whatever job skills students pick up along the way.  The library and instruction librarians are at the center of this core activity of the university, and by helping faculty, staff, and students in their efforts to develop information literacy and critical thinking skills, libraries will continue to fulfill a educational mission that came before and will survive long after any collection format.

*If you can’t teach these skills in your sleep, or would like to teach them better, come to unCOILed 2011: Get Schooled this July 22. Watch this space or like COIL on Facebook for more details.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Corbett permalink
    Wednesday, May 18, 2011 5:22 am

    Great post Sarah !I will make a point to watch the video, but I really dig your analysis. I have been thinking for some time that information literacy is too broad–
    and unwieldy-for our one-shot world. I have been calling my instruction classes “Intro to Library Resources” for several years. Thanks for the great info!


  1. The Library & Student Learning: beyond information literacy? | The Infoliterate University

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