February 17, 2018

Taking It To The Streets | From the Bell Tower

There’s a new trend in higher education – academics for the layperson. It’s catching on as a popular social activity. Would the public want to learn more from academic librarians?

Though the primary mission is to serve their students and faculty, academic librarians may have more to offer to the masses. Realizing of course that the primary mission of the public library is to serve the broader community, I had an experience recently that got me wondering about the unique perspective academic librarians might provide in helping the general public to explore and discover research in new ways. These ideas should mesh nicely with a new trend in which academics are taking their knowledge and research to the public with carefully crafted non-academic tones delivered at non-traditional off-campus locations, a/k/a the neighborhood tavern.

I had the pleasure to appear as a guest on the “Radio Times” program that is hosted by Marty Moss-Coane. The studio is located in Philadelphia and they were looking for a local librarian to talk about the demise of the print Encyclopedia Britannica, and what that meant for 21st-century research. As a local academic librarian, I was able to fill the bill for their resident expert on how research is changing. It was typical radio interview fare and you can listen for yourself. The other guest was a MacArthur Genius from who you might actually learn something new.

Here’s what happened

During the listener call-in period a question was asked. The caller said she was trying to find some basic information about how wounds heal, but was frustrated by bad search engine results. She was getting way too many commercial sites offering wound-healing products. Sounds familiar. Moss-Coane put me on the spot, going right to me instead of the Genius. The first thing that I blurted out, in an effort to buy a few seconds until my mind could actually construct a halfway decent response, was that the caller should make use of the advanced search to limit the results to .GOV, .EDU and .ORG sites. Lots of people know that one.

Then I pulled another suggestion from the librarian’s bag of tricks – and you would have offered the same idea. I advised the caller to forget about standard search engines and head over to YouTube. I explained that it was highly likely that someone had already created and shared an instructional video about the wound healing process. While that’s all in a day’s work for librarians, there was a muted sort of “now that’s a pretty radical solution – why didn’t I think of that idea” reaction. You’ll have to listen to the program to hear what the MacArthur Genius recommended. Back in the office I did a quick YouTube search. A darn good video on how wounds heal showed up in the top ten results.

A larger audience

What else do librarians know that might help the public save time, work smarter or get the results they need? I’m guessing there are more than a few things we could take to the public that would be well received. The reason this is not already happening is that we are sadly undervalued, terribly misunderstood and burdened by outdated stereotypes–and we tend to give ourselves too little credit for what we have to offer. The public just has no idea of the magical powers we possess, except for the couple of smart ones who really get to know us. We should bear the bulk of the responsibility for failing to communicate who we are and what we really do–and I’m hardly the first person to say that or try to do something about it. What I do realize is that our profession is not the only one with this public relations nightmare. Just look at our faculty colleagues. If they’re not being accused of hardly working while pulling in big bucks, someone will portray them as ivory-tower dwelling eggheads completely out of touch with the common man. But at some institutions the faculty have come up with a great idea to change these attitudes–by connecting with the public in a friendly way to share what they really do and know. Our faculty are taking it to the street, and maybe we should too.

Reaching out

Our faculty notices the general public’s increasing thirst for knowledge and learning. Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are tremendously popular, attracting thousands of participants. Strangely enough, science appears to be the subject of the moment. People want to better grasp scientific principles, and how the theory translates to the everyday things in our lives. What the layperson failed to learn in high school or college chemistry and biology courses, is now something that he or she yearns to understand. One way in which this new trend is playing out is in the fast spread of science cafes. The cafes are small-style lectures held at local eateries, where a faculty member shares what he or she knows about complicated topics over wine and cheese. To succeed, the lecturer must simplify things in a mainstream way that offers equal parts of entertainment and charm while being eminently practical. As one science café lecturer described in this newspaper article:  “That’s the goal: to explain what scientists are doing with all that federal money they’re getting to do research, and how it benefits the rest of us.’’

Grassroots learning

That statement nicely captures the value of communicating about research to the community. While science cafes are fairly inexpensive and are more of a social gathering, others are envisioning profits in satisfying the desire for informal learning. Two Brooklyn-based startups offer inexpensive courses that offer ease of access to higher education. The  Brooklyn Brainery and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research believe they can entice faculty to teach courses to mostly adult students who enjoy learning and are willing to pay for the privilege. Like the science cafes, these courses are held in neighborhood bars and the atmosphere is intentionally informal. According to this article, the trend is now extending beyond science and into the humanities and social sciences. Some believe these grassroots institutes of higher learning could grow into a substantial revenue source for faculty looking to supplement their incomes. For now, they offer an opportunity for the public to experience a unique form of continuing education.

An opportunity for academic librarians?

My little radio adventure got me thinking about the possibility that there might also be a grassroots learning market for the kind of knowledge that academic librarians could offer. Given that we struggle mightily in the effort to freely share our special skills on our own campuses, what could possibly make me think the average citizen would come out for the night to learn from an academic librarian? Chalk it up to a nagging suspicion that those folks might really enjoy learning some searching tips and research strategies that could save them time, but also allow them to play the expert with their families and friends. I also suspect that given some of the bizarre questions we get and the odd situations in which we sometimes find ourselves, we might have some good stories to share. Science cafes and other types of grassroots learning experiences look to be catching on with the public. Perhaps it’s just a trend that will fizzle out before it grows beyond the fad stage. On the other hand, it might signal that people are ready to learn in all types of ways that are far afield of the traditional classroom. If that’s true, and there is indeed a just emerging thirst for all types of knowledge, then why not library education for the masses. A few savvy academic librarians might want to be ready – just in case.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Thanks for this article, Steven. I haven’t thought much about the role librarians might play in an organization like the Brainery, but after reading this, I’ll definitely be reaching out to some and think there are a lot of possibilities for collaboration. Thanks too for the great search tip re: YouTube and .gov/edu/org site.

  2. I’m a longtime Philadelphia-based library lover and ardent supporter who routinely finds herself serving as the de facto librarian in her circle of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. (When I offer the two tips you mentioned and others along those lines, people respond as if I’ve pulled a rabbit out of their left nostril. Magic!) I also used to work for Marty Moss-Coane, so I’m contractually obligated to listen to any episode that promises to break it down for the masses. :) I’m in the process of making it official–choosing a library school program–so this was a particularly great listen. Thanks for the article and for participating in the show.