Can the Stacks Save Us?

Can the Stacks Save Us?

An interesting anti-technophile rant from Chuck, a systems librarian in Kansas City, titled Primitivist OR Luddite AND Librarian:

How about this innovation: libraries should be tools for social change, especially when it comes to fighting ignorance and illiteracy. Most people in this country (the USA) aren’t intellectually curious. More and more of them are becoming functionally illiterate. Making motherfucking RSS feeds and XML metedata available in your public library aren’t going to educate the majority of your neighbors who think that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. New techonology innovations are a fucking waste of time if your patrons can’t find Pakistan or Venezuela on a map.

I understand where he’s coming from. It must be extremely difficult for a socialist person to live in the heart of the United States right now; information literacy takes on all sorts of new dimensions when you think about it in light of the realities of citizenship. The statistics show us that someone has managed to bamboozle the majority of Americans into believing things that aren’t true. How can anyone consider things like podcasts and RSS newsfeeds when basic literacy and misinformation are becoming an increasing problem in middle America?

But are books going to save them? If you throw out the technology, go back to the card catalogue, bring the books forward into those spaces they once vacated in order to add more computers, how are you moving closer to literacy or information literacy? How is that priority, the printed page, more useful to the mission of targeting and eradicating misinformation? How are the stacks going to change the world?

This rant isn’t about technology at all, though it’s been billed as such. This isn’t even about books, strangely enough. This is about the idea of that librarians should be educators, a highly contested role that many librarians refuse to embrace. From Chuck’s Addendum:

I’m of the opinion that libraries exist to serve a diferent purpose, which include things such as literacy, teaching critical thinking skills, promoting big picture understanding through reading, and providing the printed resources necessary for the survival of a healthy society.

While I am on the side of that supports the idea of librarians as educators, I must ask the obvious question: what makes librarians think they’re qualified to teach?

In my experience, most librarians don’t know the first thing about pedagogical theory or practice. Librarians have not been to teacher’s college (generally). While instruction is an element of reference service, librarians are not teachers. If this is something we have decided is crucial to the enterprise, we need to re-evaluate how we educate librarians. We should be studying pedagogy. We should be practice teaching. We should be engaged in the global conversations about teaching and learning with the experts in the field. Which part of library school education tells us anything about critical thinking skills and how to impart them to others? I learned how to catalogue in DDC and LC, how to provide reference service, how to make sense of statistics, some basic computer skills. I learned a bit about management and strategic planning, legal issues, and so forth. Where was the class on even defining critical thinking let alone teaching it?

Classically, librarians help link up individuals with the information they are looking for; the job of library staff is to find and provide sources for people so that they can do their own thinking. We don’t interpret their questions for them, we don’t proofread their papers, we don’t even criticize the basic ideas they bring to their information search. If someone comes into a library wanting to write an article denying the holocaust, the job of the librarian is to help them do that with whatever sources they can find. The sources are supposed to do the educating, not us. The goal of the objective library, the objective catalogue, the objective librarian, is still very much current.

What is the relationship between the public library and instruction? When I finished up library school, I suggested that instructional method and pedagogical theory should be more prominently placed in the core curriculum, but one of the administrators told me it was unnecessary for public librarians. They have no instructional role. I tried to argue with her, but she was (and still is) an important member of the faculty. I mean, what do I know, it was my exit interview. Clearly my experience was pretty limited. Who am I to say she’s wrong?

The people who can and are making themselves useful in an instructional context are the academic librarians. The higher up you get on the educational ladder the less instructional training anyone has had, so librarians can burst into that sacred classroom with some legitimacy. At least if they’ve done a bit of reading on the subject. Since undergraduate students are largely hung out to dry on the subject how to interrogate the information they find themselves swimming in, academic librarians can offer a welcome and needed helping hand. They can become an integral support service for instructional faculty, introducing pedagogical ideas, taking care of instructional software, troubleshooting, training, and providing general assistance. They can be on the lookout for new and interesting innovations that might help improve the teaching/learning experience. Librarians can be the filter; we can do the legwork and offer up the solutions to the teaching faculty. We can help train TAs. We are already part of the institution as a service. Inching into instruction comes almost naturally.

Where exactly does this leave public librarians? Is there a place in the traditional classroom for a librarian, one who is not paid by the school board, one who has not had the training required of everyone else involved in the education of the community’s children? On the basis of insurance alone I suspect they are left out in the cold. Their role in formal education is restricted to helping students find books on frogs for their report.

But what if we think about pedagogy in a larger sense, in a lifelong learning sense. What if the library is in fact an educator, not necessarily for the ones officially being educated, but for the rest of the community? How can the library as an institution fight against misinformation?

And this is where Chuck both has and loses his argument. On one hand: librarians are (according to him) too dazzled by the shiny new toys that web applications are bringing us, and are spending too much time trying to play with them in a way that looks institutionally significant when they should be fighting the demons of misinformation. On the other hand: maybe those librarians are seeing something you aren’t, and are using those dazzling new toys in the fight against ignorance? Increasing the presence of librarians in the world in every way, including every digital way, can only help in that end goal. What if the public library takes its educational role as seriously as Chuck does and decides to become an alternative news outlet, using the technologies available to piece together something to shake up the status quo? What if technology (like those darn RSS feeds) are a way to bring together and present alternative opinions and perspectives, together with a space for members of the community to add content, ask questions, interact and question the information around them?

While in some ways I feel as though Chuck is pointing a finger precisely at people like me, I sympathize with him. But it’s not the webmasters and the programmers and the RSS-pushers that are the problem. If librarians need to have their core values and goals readjusted, then more power to him for trying to initiate that conversation. But blaming technology is not the answer. Possibly revisiting library curriculum is.

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