April 19, 2018

LJ Teaching Award 2007: Toni Samek

The winner of the first annual LJ Teaching Award, sponsored by ProQuest, is a light for human rights and core values

Her work goes far beyond the three standard measures of academic performance: teaching, research, and service. Her teaching “is deeply informed by her commitment to, and scholarship in, human rights and the core values of the profession,” says Kenneth Gariepy, who nominated her for LJ‘s award. Her career is defined by her activist dedication to student understanding, learning, and success; the ethics of the information professions; and, most important, the application of these elements to the pursuit of social justice and the engagement of librarians and information workers in that effort. For this, Toni Samek, associate professor at the School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS), University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, has been chosen by LJ‘s editors as the recipient of the first annual LJ Teaching Award, sponsored by ProQuest. (For other nominees, see Editorial, p. 8.)

Where rhetoric meets reality

“I am a teacher first!” Samek declares, adding that she learned that from the best teachers who taught her at both Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS, and as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“It is very important for library educators to teach both the rhetoric and reality of our field. I like that part of the criteria for this award, about connecting to current issues,” says Samek. She more than meets the award criterion she cites, which describes the winner as one who “effectively integrates theory, practice, and research, infusing teaching with real-life librarianship.”

This has meant that her students have studied in the “foundations course” the way homeless people use public libraries, with a focus on the housing crisis in Edmonton. In this way, says Gariepy, “Samek took homelessness out of the traditional context of problem patron policies and customer behavior expectations to make it an integral part of critical library discourse on natural and human-made disasters.”

The same class looked at the need for information and library service in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and in war-torn societies in other countries.

“We have to be sure students learn about the reality of the field,” says Samek. “The education we give them has to help them be better able to negotiate that changing library world. They have to be able to advocate for what it is they can do, in any number of kinds of library and information work.”

She has taught traditional courses in reference and information sources, collection management, electronic reference, and information retrieval. She developed a course called Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in Librarianship, unique in its linking the two core values, and has taught it for several years. She has integrated principles, values, and cases from it into her other courses. Her deeply moral, human-centered teaching always employs material from her research and professional service.

The methods and processes in Samek’s courses combine student peer review, collaborative case study analyses, and community studies and critiques of professional statements and actions.

For Samek, teaching goes far beyond the classroom into the practicum work students do in libraries as part of their SLIS education. Her mentorship extends to their career decisions and much more in and out of the field.

Samek has directed individual study for dozens of SLIS students in addition to all of her informal interactions with them and has worked with dozens more in her special courses at SLIS. She has even served on Ph.D. committees for candidates in other universities.

She gives students leadership and guidance in selecting courses, finding part-time and summer work, choosing career paths, and preparing for job seeking.

“She tirelessly and enthusiastically helps students…by keeping one foot firmly planted in the real world of the professional community, both on and off campus, at home and around the world,” says Gariepy. “She considers teaching a privilege and an important responsibility. She’s a teacher first. Her students are her first priority.”

Research and service

An incredibly productive member of the Alberta faculty, Samek includes among her output her book Librarianship and Human Rights: A Twenty-First Century Guide (Chandos, 2007) and her dissertation, Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in American Librarianship, 1967–1974 (McFarland, 2001), plus more than 50 chapters and articles (mostly peer-reviewed, but many in more popular professional journals) and dozens of reviews. Her more than 50 scholarly presentations span the globe, most outside of Canada and the United States, but many at state, provincial, and local gatherings. To them add another 50 more popular presentations for international, national, and provincial and local information and library organizations. Her proposals have attracted more than a dozen grants from foundations and other entities to pursue or disseminate her research.

Samek also serves as the graduate coordinator for SLIS. As the school’s liaison with the faculty of graduate studies, she must make sure the program meets all the requirements of the university and that SLIS students meet all requirements to graduate.

Her work on committees at SLIS and local, national, and international organizations is too extensive to list here. She has served on the key committees of both SLIS and the university, along with those of the Canadian Library Association (CLA), American Library Association (ALA), and Canadian Association of University Teachers. Among those efforts, her job as convenor of the Association for Library and Information Science Education’s Special Interest Group on Information Ethics stands out. She was a leader in the development of its Position Statement on Information Ethics in LIS Education, bringing a new values-based focus to that organization.

The Samek roots

Samek’s roots are deep in libraries and academe. Her father, a Czech legal philosopher and law professor, met and married her mother, a librarian of Polish descent, in Australia, where Samek was born. When she was five, they moved to Halifax. Her father taught at the Law School at Dalhousie University, where Samek later earned her MLIS at what is now called the School of Information Management (SIM).

Her mother, Krystyna, who studied at Dalhousie’s SIM under such notables as LJ contributing editor Norman Horrocks, later served as a librarian at the Halifax City Regional Public Library.

Samek’s career combines the professions of her parents with their passion for political engagement.

“Go to Madison!”

“After about two weeks studying for my master’s at Dalhousie, I got the idea I might go on to get a Ph.D. I was deeply interested in access to information,” says Samek. “The MLIS is a kind of generalist program, and I was so interested, I decided I’d have to go on to study the information question in more depth.”

Samek asked faculty at Dalhousie and others around Halifax where to study for advanced degree. Her favorites on that faculty were former dean and also former LJ columnist Louis Vagianos, whose seminar, she says, “blew my mind.” Boris Raymond was a favorite, too. “Everyone,” including Dalhousie’s Raymond, Horrocks, and Larry Amy, advised her, “You must go to Madison!”

Once there, she had the quintessential graduate school experience. Jane Robbins was dean. Dewey biographer and library historian Wayne Wiegand, one of her mentors, was teaching. Louise Robbins, the current dean, arrived to study there the same summer. Diane Hopkins was teaching intellectual freedom. Crossing into other disciplines, Samek was heavily influenced by Jim Baughman’s courses in the history of mass communication and Michael Apple’s study of instruction. Kathleen McCook had been at Madison, and her lore was in the hallways. “She’s one of my idols. It was a perfect experience,” says Samek.

Samek started the Ph.D. in 1991, lived in Madison for four years, then left in 1995, and ultimately got the degree in 1998. During that period, she served as a teaching assistant at Wisconsin and in 1994 took a part-time position as visiting assistant professor at the Alberta SLIS. She joined the full-time faculty there in 1996 and was promoted to associate professor in 2002.

Heroes and influences

Samek speaks a great deal of the influence on her work, teaching, and beliefs of leaders in what she calls “critical librarianship.” Among her heroes in that group are my own LJ mentor, Eric Moon; ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table’s early leader Jackie Eubanks; Celeste West of Revolting Librarians fame; and the great leader and founder of ALA’s Black Caucus, E.J. Josey. Besides the faculty and people already mentioned, Samek is a deep admirer of the work of Sanford Berman of Hennepin County, MN, and Jim Danky of the Wisconsin Historical Society. She found a true intellectual freedom ally in current CLA president and SLIS professor Alvin Schrader; a mentoring colleague in SLIS director Anna Altmann; and a supportive colleague in SLIS assistant director Darlene Syrotuik.

Samek happily anticipates working with Ann Curry, who is coming to Alberta from the University of British Columbia to be director when Altmann retires in January. Curry, Schrader, and Samek are the leading intellectual freedom scholars in Canada. The trio will make a formidable team for Alberta. Samek dreams that they can build a small institute on intellectual freedom issues at SLIS, where a Ph.D. program is in the works. She sees intellectual freedom as a specialization in that program and the focus of a special niche for SLIS.

Next in LIS education

“A growing chorus in LIS education, voices on many continents, say that LIS education has become much too technomanagerial and far too disconnected from people,” charges Samek, pointing to writing from Wiegand, Christine Pawley, and Edgardo Civallero from Argentina.

“Another problem is that students don’t know what they are getting into when they come to LIS programs,” she says, citing the profession’s core values and intellectual freedom as gaps. “You have to assume that they do not know what librarianship stands for. I try to inculcate those values from the first day.” She starts with the meat of the matter: “This is a great opportunity to get meaningful paid work, a great thing in life,” she says.

Such a fundamental payoff comes with meaningful involvement with the profession. “I try to get them engaged in an effort to raise the discourse in the profession,” she says. “I tell them immediately that we advocate intellectual freedom for everybody else, yet we haven’t done that for ourselves within our own institutional settings.”

Libraries, she stresses to her students, “are shaped by the people who work in them…. I believe it is all about the people,” Samek says. “What excites me are students who want to work in a library and help people. I am traditional in that, and I really like people who are in it for the work and the meaning and not for the status.”


This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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