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Month: June 2005

Keeping a Blog and Keeping your Job: Not a Guide

Keeping a Blog and Keeping your Job: Not a Guide

To start, the reason I have not been updating as much lately has nothing to do with the issues I’m about to peruse; I currently have no internet connection at home, and writing lengthy blog posts while at work seems inappropriate.

But my questions have changed now that I’m seriously on the job and completely open abou the existence of my blog while at work; how do you manage the line between being honest, tackling the issues, and not ruffling the feathers of the people you work with? Not just your boss, not just the chief librarian or the head of your department, but your colleagues, the faculty you work with, and the people you argue with in meetings? A blog should not be a ranty response to these people. A blog should not be the place where you post the things you wish you could say, but might have gotten lynched for. The last thing I want is for someone to return from a meeting, check out my blog, and see that I’ve responded negatively in public to an idea she presented in private.

Maybe this is why some people think there are no academic librarians with blogs. Is that what they’re waiting for? For us to dish about the dark corners of our institutions, to pillory those among us who are standing in our way? To reply in a forum like this against the vendors who want our budget dollars, the faculty members who don’t want to replace their overhead projectors with document cameras, the librarians who can’t move past the practices established twenty or thirty years ago? The hotshot new IT folks who think they have a clue and start pushing for changes that will not solve a thing?

I still intend to keep my blog, and to keep it in the same fashion I have been. But I am very aware of the changes to my own perspective on it. I embrace those changes in many ways; being careful about other people is never something I’m going to back away from. But I need to underscore that this blog does not reflect the inner workings of the library where I am employed; it does not uncover the dark sides of meetings I attend, and it does not even cast too much light on the directions my own library will take. How do you distill what is entirely of yourself when you spend most of your day in the midst of the issues you also want to talk about, among incredibly knowledgable, thoughtful, and optimistic people? Take everyone else out, let your voice only be your own? Let your opinions on issues be only yours? Not easy. Is it even possible?

My new struggle with this blog is to remain as honest as ever, as optimistic as ever, and to speak with a voice that stands a step away from my job. Not that my job won’t affect what I think or what I say, but I want my voice to remain purely mine, and with an audience that is not only external and not only internal. This may be more of a struggle about retaining a sense of independence than one of toeing the party line.

I can understand why lots of professionals feel unable to keep a blog. No one wants to keep a journal that’s so institutionally correct that they can’t express what they think; but no one wants to make enemies because of their hobbies, either.


Radical Reference and the Future of Academic Librarianship

Radical Reference and the Future of Academic Librarianship

If you distill it down to its essentials, what is it that an academic librarian does? The whole thing, wrapped up in one simple concept? It’s certainly a mission that plays out in all kinds of different ways, but essentially, academic librarians provide tools that allow rest of the academic community can get on with the business of learning, teaching, and creating knowledge. We stand at the ready to provide faculty with the journals they need to keep up with their discipline; we collect the books that are the backbone of scholarship. We assist in the day-to-day questions that come up when students and faculty engage in academic work. We allow them to have reliable access to proprietary databases; we also make sure everyone is aware of those databases and how to use them. That’s it: academic support. We provide the infrastructure so that the learning can happen, voices can be heard, paradigms can be shifted.

The future of reference service is not behind a desk. Truly radical reference is coming out from behind that desk and bringing that crucial resource of answers into real life, into that space between having a question and the topic shifting over to something else, into the space between half-way done and handed in. Radical reference is not about waiting for the question. It’s not about simply being as good as we are and being the only ones who know it. It’s about handing out those answers where they’re needed. It’s about being there with help at the point of need, not under the “info” sign. It’s about being a part of the process rather than an appendage that might be useful if it occurred to you to put it to use.

Librarians always do their best work when they have a chance to understand the information needs of the person they’re trying to help. You can’t very well give the best answer to someone who hasn’t figured out her questions yet. Entering a classroom to explain how best to use JSTOR isn’t giving anyone the best of anything; the librarian isn’t certain she’s giving the sort of instructions that are going to be useful, and the student never gets a chance to vocalize what it is he actually wants. We end up looking boring and they end up bored. This is not the best display of our skills.

So what is? What does radical reference look like? In an ideal world, every university instructor teaches with a librarian in the room. When a student proposes an essay topic, a librarian looks over the instructor’s shoulder and says, “Actually, we can support that topic. We’ve recently acquired a great new database that covers African history very well.” Or “Yes, we can get access to those sources, but only through interlibrary loan. Do you have that kind of time for this assignment?” When students hit a wall because they can’t find something they need, or they think something doesn’t exist at all and considers changing topics because of it, that’s where librarians need to be. Radical reference is providing answers well before the question arrives at the desk, being part and parcel of the learning process and providing real assistance, not just to the people with phds or the people who have learned how to walk up to the reference desk. To everyone. Radical reference is about answering questions as they emerge, where they emerge.

How can we accomplish this? Instructors are unlikely to want us sitting in on all of their classes, looking over the assignments and offering advice regularly. And what librarian has the time to do all this, not just for one class, but for all of the classes in her subject area(s)?

This is where technology can help us. So many of the tools we have to offer are becoming digital; there’s a sense that we are becoming increasingly cut off from each other and from the idea of a permanent, stable (paper) collection. But internet technology is not a thing unto itself. The idea of “web” technology is to connect us to information and to each other. We need to build ourselves into a system that allows us to physically enter a classroom to speak, and also to digitally enter a classroom through the learning management software, through virtual reference, through audio and video. To provide the kind of support we offer when someone they wander into our offices with a stack of questions to fire at us, we need alternative ways of entering into the discussion. We can’t keep replicating traditional reference service; we need to radicalize it.