October 25, 2014

Practicing Freedom in the Digital Library | Reinventing Libraries

Barbara Fister newswire Practicing Freedom in the Digital Library | Reinventing Libraries

Barbara Fister

When we were creating our first strategic plan at my library, we held some focus groups with faculty. One of them said something that still resonates with me: “It’s not about technology, it’s about pedagogy.” He thought we were paying attention to the wrong thing.

A decade later, when we were putting together a new strategic plan, I noticed that the word technology had essentially vanished from our discourse. It was assumed, like electricity, to be part of the infrastructure in which we teach and learn. It was so essential that it had seeped into everything else and disappeared.

Along with this shift, something else has happened that is so pervasive it is essentially invisible. We used to build collections; now we enable access through annual licenses as a supplement to what is freely available on the web.

This is a good thing. Students at my college have far more intellectual content available to them than they did when we were first fretting about technology. The number of new books and printed periodicals that we own has decreased, but when we need something, we can borrow or buy it much more quickly than we could in the past, and locating articles is much easier.

It’s an era of abundance, but it has a downside. Libraries are now beholden to corporations that do not necessarily share our values. We can’t preserve what we don’t own; we can’t fight censorship when someone else controls the switches. Privacy—well, that’s over, or so we are told. We can’t always afford increases in the rent, and publishers have spats with vendors, so access to content shifts and dwindles.

Perhaps more profoundly, we are no longer perceived as essential parts of an intellectual commons. We have become artificially enclosed local franchises of vast and vertically integrated information industries that depend on cheap labor. Academic authors get a bit of personal advancement that they might be able to trade for job security (which 76 percent of faculty no longer have), and corporations get to turn research findings into their intellectual property. Like the institutions we serve, academic libraries have undergone a neoliberal transformation that urges us to market our services, improve our shopping platforms for a better customer experience, and make sure our value proposition is well understood by campus decision-makers who want to know what we contribute to faculty productivity and the retention of tuition-paying students.

This change in identity influences how we teach. Far too often, our instructional efforts go no further than helping our students be more efficient information consumers.

That’s a problem. We librarians have tried to integrate what we have to offer into the learning going on in the classroom and, ideally, the entire curriculum, in the belief that these skills will be useful in life after college. Yet we have little room to do more than assist students in completing assignments. We may be neglecting an important kind of learning that critically examines how knowledge is made and shared.

Beyond information consumption

I find myself returning often to an article by Christine Pawley in which she unpacks the problematic and contradictory assumptions in the phrase information literacy. She argues that our teaching must go beyond tools and skills, so that we can help students understand how information fundamentally works. This means exploring the moral, economic, and political context within which we create and share ideas. Access to information, she writes, is not enough. Our students need to see themselves in the context of “individuals and groups of people actively shaping the world as knowledge producers in a way that renders the consumer-producer dichotomy irrelevant.”

I’ve also been thinking about what Paulo Freire called the banking concept of education: the notion that students are passive empty coffers, awaiting deposits of knowledge. While research is meant to be experiential and engaging, it too often is represented as a matter of gathering up other people’s words and ideas. When we fall into the trap of spending 50 minutes helping students learn how to find sources, as if acquiring and displaying them is the point of research, we imply that knowledge is other people’s property, procured and exchanged but not influenced by the student’s own life experience, thoughts, or beliefs. Freire believed that education should instead be “the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

This connects to Michael Polanyi’s idea of the Republic of Science, a society in which the freedom to pose questions and explore alternatives is not a private liberty used primarily for personal advancement. Rather, knowledge is a collaborative effort to seek the truth for the greater good. Individual liberty, while essential, is not an end in itself.”

Our teaching practices should present libraries as more than the Bank of Sources, from which usable phrases can be withdrawn as needed. They should be workshops, labs, studios, or hacker spaces, where students engage with ideas and invent their own, through conversation with others interested in the same things. They should be places where students develop their own identities as they learn the critical habits that civil society requires.

Creating a conversation

While faculty in the disciplines are masters of the content in their fields, they don’t have the perspective librarians do on the complexity of the political and economic ecosystems that circulate those ideas. We are in a unique position to help students understand at least some of that complexity and help them see themselves as critical contributors to what we know about our world. That could mean discussing the implications of the Filter Bubble and why Google’s search algorithms are different from our databases, that Google’s business model depends on aggregating and mining personal information, something libraries don’t do for a good reason. It may simply mean changing our discourse, as Wendy Holliday and Jim Rogers suggest in a fascinating new article. If we talk about “finding sources,” we emphasize containers; if we talk about “learning about” an issue, it puts the focus on the ideas that spill out of containers and the student’s engagement with those ideas.

In these days of mass surveillance and the massive transfer of public goods into private hands, citizens need to know much more about how information works. They need to understand the moral, economic, and political context of knowledge. They need to know how to create their own, so that they make the world a better, more just place. I’ve long believed that libraries are important for personal growth and enlightenment, but since the National Security Agency revelations, I’ve begun to think we need to do more to help students explore the ways that information functions in our complicated, troubled world, so that they will be aware of what’s at stake and empowered to change it for the better.

Thinking about the digital shift in libraries and the many invisible ways this shift has challenged our values, I’ve reflected on that statement a faculty member made all those years ago and made a few additions.

  • It’s not about technology. It’s about making meaning.
  • It’s not about finding sources. It’s about building understanding.
  • It’s not about skills. It’s about identity and relationships.
  • It’s not about individual success. It’s about participating in a society that values justice.
  • It’s not about finding and using information. It’s about the practice of freedom.
Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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Comments

  1. Dan Gjelten says:

    Barbara, as usual, I admire your thoughts and ideas. I’m wondering how faculty would respond to this essay. I was in a conversation yesterday that really stands as a contrast to what you are suggesting here. We were told that in a future conversation with faculty, the library should avoid using words like “teach” and even “assessment” since those were both responsibilities that faculty consider their own, and not the library’s. I think that perspective is a little more complex than simple turf protection or status defense. I think they see lots of “outside” forces trying to influence what they are doing in the classroom – there are now learning outcomes, diversity expectations, accreditation expectations, and then the library coming to them with our expectations, and there is this diminishing opportunity for them to develop their own curriculum. But I also think that in an environment where status is so important to people, and also seen as under pressure (and it is) there is a very human tendency to attack those who might be seen as having lower status. I don’t know if that is what is going on here, but it might be. I just wonder how many faculty would agree that it is the librarian’s role to “focus on the ideas that spill out of containers and the student’s engagement with those ideas.” If this ran in CHE, what kind of reaction do you think you’d get?

    • What an interesting question. Since we are faculty at Gustavus (and not just on paper) it didn’t occur to me that, when I suggest librarians can step back and think about what we’re really trying to do when we teach, that I would be treading on other faculty members’ rights and responsibilities.

      My faculty colleagues think of us as peers rather than as an administrative support function. When we talk about information literacy, we don’t frame it as a library initiative, something extra that needs doing, but rather (like writing) as something we all do across the curriculum and want to do as well as possible. We librarians are in a position to see the big picture, and have the luxury of focusing on it instead of the myriad things each program is trying to accomplish (conveying disciplinary knowledge, research methods, critical thinking, writing, speaking, civic engagement, etc.) So while we don’t have the disciplinary home base and all the status associated with that kind of expertise and training, we do have the sort of expertise that they respect, just as they respect colleagues with expertise in writing instruction. (There are a lot of similarities between librarians and writing instructors in terms of where their teaching is situated and rewarded institutionally. I’m willing to bet that if faculty who are most knowledgeable about writing instruction have low status on your campus, librarians do, too. And if so, it may not be because of the very real threats to faculty governance and responsibility for the curriculum, but rather old-fashioned snobbery.)

      I was mostly thinking, when writing this, of what we librarians are doing when we are with students. Even if a faculty member says “can you show them how to use X database?” we can do so in a way that give students a greater sense of their agency in making meaning – or we can focus on the finer points of using an article shopping platform efficiently.

      Even if we see ourselves in support of other instruction and limit ourselves to “here’s how to find the sources you need using library tools” we are conveying a particular ideology – that authority is found in a certain kind of publication but never in yourself, that the only way you can argue for something is to quote other people.

      To be perfectly honest, I wonder if more faculty are exasperated by that mechanistic attitude than they are by librarians who get a little carried away with the idea that libraries are where people come together to make new meaning and that this process of making meaning is important and exciting.

      The trick, it seems to me, is to start out by being very clear that information literacy is not something new to be added to the curriculum; it’s something faculty already do and care about. Nor is it a library program but it’s something that librarians want to support. Any suggestion to faculty that “you’re doing it wrong” or “hey, you should be doing this new thing” is both insulting to them and counter-productive.

      I do say this kind of thing at Inside Higher Ed quite often and once or twice I’ve had a “who do you think you are?” response, or “you realize we already know this, right?,” but more often it’s “that’s how I feel, too, and what I do is . . .” CHE comment threads seem to include a lot of angry people looking for a fight as well as well-meaning people making really smart comments, sort of like a High Table dinner with food fights.