February 17, 2018

Authentic Librarianship and the Importance of Eating One’s Peas | Peer to Peer Review

Recently I attended a lecture by Roger Altizer, the Director of Game Design and Production in the Film and Media Arts Department at the University of Utah, where I work. He talked about a number of very interesting things related to gaming and pedagogy, but one thing in particular really struck me.

First, he pointed out that what separates play from a game is a structure of rules and a goal. A bunch of kids kicking a ball around are engaged in play; if they agree on a set of rules and on the definition of a goal, then their play becomes a game. That’s all pretty obvious.

What struck me as very interesting was his next point, which drew a distinction that was new to me: he talked about the difference between games and serious games. What distinguishes a serious game is that it has an ulterior motive: the teaching of skills or the accomplishment of therapeutic goals that are external to the game itself.

For example, he showed us a game called Color Caster that teaches grade-school children how primary colors blend to create secondary ones. Getting good at the game, which is fun in and of itself, makes the students good at something external to the game as well: basic color theory. The learning is real, but is experienced by the player as incidental—in fact, it may not be consciously “experienced” by the player at all. You play the game, and when you’re done, you find that you’ve gained a skill. More impressive examples involved a video game that entails certain kinds of muscle movements that act as physical therapy for people recovering from surgery, and another that is organized around a story that teaches young cancer patients how their chemotherapy works and has been shown to increase dramatically their compliance with medication regimens—playing the game leads the kids, when taking their meds, to see themselves as warrior generals sending ammunition to a defending army.

Here’s the thought that occurred to me. Suppose that someone were to come up with a game that teaches the principles of algebra or grammar or the scientific method more effectively than a professor can. Now suppose a process that were indistinguishable from play could teach a much more advanced academic principle more effectively than traditional academic methods do. Would that be a good thing or a bad thing?

Now let’s put that question aside and ask a similar one from a more library-specific perspective: suppose that we had the power to make research so easy, intuitive, and straightforward that it was not experienced as research at all. What if someone invented an app that could read the student’s or researcher’s mind, anticipate her needs, and deliver relevant and high-quality content with no effort at all?

How would we, as librarians, feel about that?

I think the way each of us answers that question says something about the way we think about the deep principles of librarianship—the “ultimate goals” I suggested in my first column. Granted that education ought to be a challenging, mind-expanding, and in many ways difficult experience, would we be selling our students short by making the library too easy to use?

The question may seem facetious, but it isn’t. One concern one might reasonably raise concerning game-based curricula (and those do exist) is that there are important skills kids learn at school that go beyond the subject matter of their classes. They learn how to pay attention to things that may not be immediately or intrinsically interesting to them; they learn how to sit still for extended periods; they learn how to control their impulses; they learn to wait for playtime until worktime is over. These are arguably essential human skills, and they may not be learned very effectively in an environment that elides the distinction between work and play. Just as we encourage kids to play team sports in part so that they’ll become good at being teammates, we also send kids to school in part so that they’ll learn how to do things that aren’t fun.

On the other hand, some might argue that social skills and self-discipline ought to be taught by parents, leaving the school free to focus its energies on teaching academic subject matter by whatever methods are demonstrably most effective, regardless of whether those methods look and feel like what we traditionally think of as “schoolwork.” And it’s also possible that game-based curricula help to socialize students in ways that traditional classroom learning doesn’t: by providing direct and immediate rewards for effective collaboration and for good critical thinking, for example.

Coming back to the library, we might ask ourselves: instead of trying to turn our patrons into better library users, what if we decided to spoon-feed? In the absence of a magical research app, what if the patron who approaches the reference desk looking for ten articles from peer-reviewed journals on a specific problem in molecular biology were simply handed ten good articles by someone who is better at finding them quickly and easily, thereby freeing up the patron to spend all of his time engaging with the content?

I can imagine any number of reasons that we might object to that approach. Some of those reasons would reflect what I’m coming to think of as “authentic librarianship”; others might not.

Here’s what I do feel confident saying, though: authentic librarianship is more concerned with scholarly ends (the creation and transmission of knowledge) than with academic means (the research process). Means do matter, but when it comes to research and scholarly work, we can’t let them become more important to us than ends.

Rick Anderson About Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson (rick.anderson@utah.edu) is Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. He serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards and is a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog. He currently serves as president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, and a collection of his essays titled Libraries, Leadership, and Scholarly Communication was published this year by ALA Editions.

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  1. Carol Goodson says:

    I have been advocating what you suggest
    “In the absence of a magical research app, what if the patron who approaches the reference desk looking for ten articles from peer-reviewed journals on a specific problem in molecular biology were simply handed ten good articles by someone who is better at finding them quickly and easily, thereby freeing up the patron to spend all of his time engaging with the content?”
    for many years (“Putting the Service Back in Library Service.” College & Research Libraries News 58 (3), March 1997: 186-187.)

    We are shooting ourselves in the foot by trying to convince users that they can get the same results we do after a few minutes of instruction at the Reference Desk. NOT HAPPENING.

    • It may not be happening, but one very clear sign of an educated person is the ability to discover information and generate knowledge. If we don’t give our students opportunities to learn how to do so and practice their skills, however weak they many be at the beginning, they emerge at the end of our process uneducated. Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t we simply drive our teenagers everywhere they need to go instead of letting them take driver training and get their licenses? We are better drivers than they are, and isn’t the goal of getting where you need to go more important than the process of driving?

      I would rather see a faltering but persevering student navigator of the information world than a thousand students who have been hand fed their bibliographies. Engagement with subject matter is all well and good, but not at the expense of fostering research skills like problem identification and search.

    • Carol Goodson says:

      I think it depends on what the skill is. Obviously, driving is something that most adults need to be able to do. Using databases, not so much. Do you go to a lawyer and ask them to teach you what you need in order to represent yourself in court? No, you engage one to do that for you–s/he is the professional, not you. Do you ask a CPA to show you how to do your complicated tax return? No, you engage one to do it for you, because s/he is trained to do it and you are not. We fret about not being treated like professionals, when we refuse to act like them. Doing research is not rocket science, but doing it well requires lots of training and experience.

  2. I would like to submit that finding the information we need to accomplish the tasks before us is both a key factor in being an educated person and a key demand in the workplace. Most of our students do not have librarian assistants at their elbows when then go into their careers, many of which will be heavily influenced by the information economy. Maybe our expertise is in developing students as researchers rather than merely doing their research for them during the brief time they are in our institutions.

  3. William Badke is right, the rest of you are r-o-n-g wrong. Learning how to learn and evaluate is the purpose of education.

  4. Rick Anderson says:

    It’s fun to watch the commenters arguing about this, because their exchange represents the same kind of argument that is constantly going on in my own head between different parts of my brain. I tend to lean in the Carol Goodson direction, but I don’t think William’s points are necessarily wrong, at least not completely. (I will point out, however, that we as librarians have a tendency to greatly overestimate our ability to “develop students as researchers” — the scale simply doesn’t work. Way too many students, way too few librarians.)

  5. Actually, I see it the opposite way–there are way too few librarians for us to search for and evaluate ten articles on every conceivable topic a student might be looking for and, in fact, evaluating the material is a key part of learning. If I’m selecting and evaluating the possible articles, I’m the one who is researching and learning; the students role is passive in this scenario. The best thing we can do is get the students started and get out of their way as much as possible. Vocational education aside, my sense of education is that the actual facts you are being taught are secondary to the experience of learning and researching.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Teetop, you make a good point about the scalability argument cutting both ways. I’m less convinced by your position on librarians’ centrality to the “experience of learning and researching,” though. It seems to me that it’s professors, not librarians, who are really going to teach students how to evaluate and critically assess the resources in any kind of meaningful depth. I share your desire that students engage actively with the documents, and that they be challenged and stretched by them. That’s why I tend to think that they’re better served by spending a maximum amount of time with those documents, and a minimum amount of time in dealing the the kinds of crappy search interfaces that vendors (and, let’s be honest here, libraries) tend to make them deal with on their way to the documents. I’m not saying that there’s no value in the process of wrestling with those interfaces — only that I think there’s more value in the time spent reading and thinking about the documents. And, if I’m being brutally honest, I think we in libraries tend to greatly overstate the intellectual value of the search process itself (maybe because we’ve invested so much of ourselves in trying to shape it).

  6. Barbara says:

    I think we should do everything we can to make it easy to find good sources. I don’t think that means “ask a professional to do it for you properly.” (And that response would not go down well with our students, who much prefer to help themselves.)

    It may be that a ball we have dropped in pursuit of access to as much published information as possible is adding value to that access. I’m not saying we should curate everything and keep every gate – but we should at least think about better ways to help people find what they’re seeking rather than making it easy for them to find 10,000 things that may be what they’re seeking.

    When Vanevar Bush dreamed up his hypothetical means of taming the web (before there was a Web) he assumed the organizing principle would be making trails of association, either ones you make yourself or ones you use that were created by people known for creating good trails. We librarians haven’t done much of that kind of trail blazing. Mendely seems more like Bush’s Memex than our databases are.

    Still, as crappy as our UX is, students find information. They even find pretty good information, sometime excellent information (usually in cases where it matters to them). That’s not the part of the process that they find difficult. Framing a question, understanding the nuances of the various approaches they encounter, and deciding how to negotiate those approaches while saying something meaningful of their own – that’s a bit trickier.

  7. There’s no question the instructors are doing more teaching then the librarians. But if I as a librarian do the search, evaluate the sources and hand them to the students, I’m doing the research and they aren’t. They can read a set of facts to regurgitate back to their instructor, but they aren’t doing much critical thinking IMO. Moreover, you and I don’t know anything about the subject material other than what we can get out of the student via playing telephone. So who are we to say whether we are giving them the right sources? We can help them make those determinations, but they need to be the ones to do that in the end.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Teetop, if you found the documents and handed them over you would actually only be doing a very small part of the research. It remains for the student to read the documents, think about them, and produce some kind of response — which seems to me to be the much more important part. (As for whether or not they’re going to do any critical thinking — well, that’s up to them no matter who does the searching. They certainly can’t do any critical thinking about the documents until they have access to them.)

      All of that said, let’s not get carried away with this scenario. Look at my column again and you’ll see that I wasn’t proposing that librarians should, in fact, do all of the searching for our patrons. I was proposing a thought experiment as a way of inducing some critical thinking on our own part as librarians, about our service models.

  8. Oh, my! Lots of thoughts stirred up.

    Are we talking specifically about *academic* libraries? Because we go to school and to work for different reasons. One doesn’t ask pupils to add 2+2 because one wants the answer, but because the pupils need to learn how to get answers for themselves.

    In the general case: is the goal of this patron’s present research to learn the research process or to learn something else, which learning will be facilitated by the research? I think one needs to know one’s patron before one can know how to help.

    I’ve sometimes wished for a checkbox somewhere on a library’s computers, by which I could consent to having the system study my habits, ask occasionally whether a search hit was especially useful, and learn how to direct my attention toward materials that I would likely find most useful. We probably can’t build your magic app. at our current level of understanding, but we might be able to grow one. It won’t be as smart as a librarian, but it could quickly become a hundred times as smart as today’s search engines. Think of it as a helpful friend who knows your mind well, rather than an expert.

    It seems to me that librarians don’t (in general) need to turn everyone into a master researcher, so much as to encourage patrons to develop a comfortable level of skill in mundane information-seeking tasks, so that the librarian can have more time to help a few with challenging (and more interesting) problems. Consider that we don’t consult a physician for every hangnail and paper cut, but a broken bone requires skill and understanding that most of us don’t have the time or inclination to acquire. There’s an optimal division of labor somewhere in here.

    • Rick Anderson says:

      Those are good comments, Mark, thanks. And yes, I probably should clarify: I am indeed talking specifically from an academic library perspective. I don’t usually say that explicitly (since the column runs in the Academic Newswire), but it doesn’t hurt to make that clear.