The Information Literacy Agenda

Goal SettingEveryone has an agenda. We have official, institutional agendas that guide us and help those who hold the purse strings to determine where the money flows and where it doesn’t. I believe, in general, the overarching agenda of an academic library is to be indispensable to the university community. We will have an indispensable collection, an indispensable reference service, an indispensable staff, and indispensable librarians.

We also have personal agendas. Librarians want to do their job well, be well-regarded, and accomplish their goals. Faculty have research and publication goals, and largely want to get their work done as painlessly as possible. Each individual has their own agendas and needs; we spend most of our lives parsing each other’s agendas. They shift and change over time. Agendas are a fact of life.

I had the experience recently of being trained by someone with a very clear agenda. That agenda had nothing to do with me, my goals, or our library, but she was bound and determined to do what she was there to do. The experience was alienating, frustrating, annoying, boring, and frankly offensive. She might have had something to teach me in there, but I was so put-off by the approach I wasn’t ready to hear it. Rather than being a partner in learning and working with my goals, she was forcing me into her rigid expectations, which she clearly felt was for my own good. She knew what I need to know, and what I needed to do: she’s the trainer, I’m the trainee. She wasn’t interested in my agenda; she was going to follow her own come hell or high water.

That experience made me revisit pretty much everything I do. I don’t ever want anyone to see me as rigidly enforcing my own agenda upon them. That made me question our commitment to information literacy as a standards-driven, independent program. It frequently appears to be an agenda that bears no clear relationship to the agenda of the faculty or the students. It is a broad-based project with excellent goals that does little to make the right-now, hands-on experience of being a course instructor any less painful, which probably goes some way toward explaining why it so often fails. It might be as alienating and off-putting as that woman who trained me.

This is what I see: librarians ask faculty to give them a “library assignment”, where the librarian can work with the instructor to construct an assignment that will further the kind and human goal of making students one tiny step closer to being information literate, and to make them better citizens and better people. I have seen librarians successfully secure these assignments, only to have them taken away a year or two later when another, more pressing need appeared in the agenda of the instructor.

Charity enriched Lemon-AidThese concessions on behalf of the instructors read to me like charity. The instructors like and respect the librarian; when she asks for a slot in the syllabus, they want to give it to her. They can’t see the relationship between that assignment and their own immediate goals (other than building a smoother and better relationship with the librarian), but they’re willing to give up 5% of the final grade as an act of goodwill. Like all charity, that goodwill dries up when a more pressing need appears, or when the course changes hands. It’s not that the instructor doesn’t think information literacy is a good idea, or that they can’t get behind creating information literate citizens and life-long learners and all those great motherhood goals; it’s just that the specific goal doesn’t figure directly into their immediate, overriding agenda: it’s not contributing to making the process of teaching the course as painless as possible. No wonder so many faculty leave the room when library instruction is going on in their classrooms. They’re busy, and you’ve given them a break. The break is more important to them than the content is.

Information literacy, on its own, is too weak an agenda to hold its own on a daily basis without allies in a university environment. It gives librarians a potentially-alienating agenda separate from the mission of the students and the instructors.

It’s not that the ideas are necessarily bad (though I could go on a long screed about the absence of web literacy in the information literacy paradigm, but I’ll leave that for another day). It’s not a bad thing to be guided by ideas about exactly what kind of impact you want to have for the greater good. I believe in the civic responsibility of librarians. But in practical terms: we’re not sufficiently addressing the needs of our allies. Without their buy in, our agendas are meaningless.

I know there are some amazing information literacy librarians who do get buy in from faculty on information literacy issues and have successful programs. This is only praise for them. You, successful information literacy librarian, you are managing to reinterpret this rather painful and pedantic structure into something that fits into the goals and agenda of your university and your teaching faculty. A gold star to you: the standards don’t tell you how to do that. None of the workshops on information literacy that I’ve attended have come close to explaining how to do that. There seems to be a dearth of understanding about how important this is, and the fact that you’ve worked it out means you have excellent salesmanship skills. Probably far better than mine.

I’m advocating agendalessness here, but that’s a bit disingenuous. Let me explain.

I have an agenda of my own, as everyone does. But I have to tell you, I’m never going to lead with it. I’m not going to walk up to an instructor and say, “you know, I think your students are bored and motivationless. I find this profoundly sad. I think you need to redesign your course to make it more interactive and engaging. Remember your best educational moment, when you felt like you had something to contribute and you learned so much just sitting there with your classmates, wrestling through a problem? Why can’t the entire undergraduate experience be like that? It’s so much easier now, you know, look at all these tools. Why on earth are you choosing to use medieval teaching methods? Doesn’t that strike you as odd? You can do better than that. I can help!”

I’m never, never going to say that. That’s a terrifying amount of work I’m proposing there. That is the opposite of painless. But my real agenda is in there: I want the student experience to better than it currently is. The way I’m going about doing that is by helping faculty use technology better. That’s my piece of the pie. Once they understand that they have someone around to help them, they start to get really creative. The motherhood statement that is my actual agenda seems like something fulfillable once the supports are in place. They want the same things I want, in the end, but high on their agenda is to keep it painless. I can’t expect them to put my agenda first, ahead of theirs. My agenda is pretty painful. I have to help them get to painlessness first. That has to be my primary goal, because it’s how I keep my allies. Once we get that, then we can get creative.

I don’t bury my agenda entirely; it guides the decisions I make, the options I suggest, the places where I spend my time and energy. It is the basis for the consultation I give. It informs how I participate on committees. It guides me in how I think about and experiment with new tools. But I have to put other people’s agendas first if I want to be successful. Because I’m a librarian: I don’t have control over a course, or a program, or a division. I can’t dictate how things are done. Librarians are powerful in that we sit in the middle between staff and faculty, we aren’t beholden to the same things either group is. We have a lot of independence. But along with that comes a gap: we can’t do big things with big agendas without allies.

So librarians want to teach students to be information literate, and we can’t do that on our own.

We can’t impact students without buy-in from faculty. And why is that? It’s because of the student agenda: students have one too. They share the keep it painless agenda that the faculty have, but added to it: get the highest grade I can for the smallest amount of effort I’m willing to expend. No one likes this agenda. People criticize it all the time, but keep in mind: we constructed it. A grade is the only motivation we give them. We want them to be there because they want to learn, but that’s not good enough. Grades are the currency of undergraduate life, and until we reward anything other than grades, that’s the world we’ll live in.

So if we want to impact students, we need to either change the currency system (possible, but difficult), or we have to get into the existing currency stream. In either case, we need to work through faculty to accomplish anything with regards to students. (Or: through certificate programs run by departments. Those are an excellent example of providing an alternate currency for undergraduates, and it works.) Our motherhood statements are wonderful and well-meaning, but we need to make the connection to the individual faculty agenda in order to bring all that good knowledge and skill to the students. All librarians know this, but it’s not enough to just bring our agenda to faculty. We need to work with their agenda first. We need to be indispensable first. As indispensable allies, we have some leverage and influence.

We can’t be the terrible trainer who trained me. We can’t be rigid about what we want everyone to know, regardless of their own goals and circumstances. We can’t rely on charity and goodwill; we need to be indispensable. We need to understand the agendas of our allies, and tailor our services and goals to support them. That doesn’t mean information literacy goals can’t shape what we do, but I don’t believe we can lead with them. Information literacy can’t be an addition to an existing curriculum: it needs to be the solution to a clear problem presented by the instructor. It needs to be the solution that leads to painlessness. A painless solution isn’t one you let go.

This is my (perhaps mercenary) perspective. Information literacy is great as an internal mandate, but it’s a tough sell otherwise.

No one wants or needs to contend with another agenda.