Why to love the library — but also go beyond it

Week 4 of DMIL is focused on the role that university libraries play in academic life, and how and why they have focused on developing students’ information literacy.

UoM library view
The University of Manchester’s main library

Whether or not you are reading this blog as part of your studies at Manchester, you surely already appreciate the importance of the library in academic work: both its physical space (the main building is pictured here), and its increasing use of digital tools to allow searching and reading of its great stock of information.

And it is the libraries which have been at the forefront of work to integrate information literacy into academic life. Even if you were unaware of these resources before starting on this unit, by now I have already pointed you directly to the My Learning Essentials site, an exemplary collection of resources addressing a wide range of ‘study skills’. In the week 4 on-campus class (and indirectly in the online session) Sam Aston of the UoM library will be coming to the class to talk about the development of MLE.

Pretty much every academic library worldwide is likely these days to have a version of such materials. As finding and sharing such resources is the focus of a later activity on the DMIL unit, I will not trouble myself to provide a long list here, but I will point you to the best single example of this kind of thing that I know of: the University of Bergen’s “Plagiarism Carol” (use the CC button to turn on subtitles, if you don’t speak Norwegian) — a superb piece of work and well worth 5 minutes of anyone’s time. (We will return to the idea of plagiarism, and how it fits in with other views of information literacy, from week 6 on.)

Chetham's library
The classic medieval library at Chetham’s School, Manchester.

It is also what a library like Bergen’s, or Manchester’s, does behind the scenes that matters to the preservation of information landscapes. Libraries do not just store books, they care for them. My forthcoming book cites up-to-date sources, rest assured, but to write it I also visited two medieval libaries: Chetham’s in Manchester, pictured here, and the library of Hereford Cathedral. The book and, in Hereford, the map that I consulted were important sources of information, not just for me but for (in this case) mapmaking history as a whole, documents about how the world was viewed centuries ago and offering insight which it would be impossible nowadays to glean through any other method. Much as I would have loved to have interviewed Richard of Haldingham, principal designer of the magnificent Mappa Mundi, alas, he has been dead these last 700 years. But thanks to Hereford’s team of librarians and other information specialists, his masterwork survives, and can be analysed and interpreted anew to this day.

If you were to visit that Mappa Mundi page you can see that the task of making this valuable artefact accessible and therefore usable involves more than just sticking the map in a box on a wall. The content and context —  both vital for understanding any piece of information — have also been digitised, and a system (the web page interface) put in place through which people can find the aspect of the artefact that is most relevant to their needs. Libraries attend to the collection and preservation of information in many forms, whether textual or not; they preserve not just books and maps but letters, photographs, accounts, pamphlets, musical recordings, sometimes even body parts: anything that may be of importance for later study and research. In 2012 I made a video about the work done in this field by the John Rylands Library, part of the University of Manchester: it is longer and much less well-made than the Bergen one (but then again, they had a bigger budget) but the four specialists who I interviewed and who appear in it have many interesting things to say about the work and importance of a ‘Special Collections’ library like this, both its ‘offline’ and digital aspects.

UoM library
In the UoM library

Librarians are therefore very far from being people who once upon a time might have put a date stamp in your borrowed book (but thanks to RFID, no longer need to do even this). They are information professionals, graduating from LIS (Library and Information Science) degrees for the most part (see this example from the University of Illinois: we don’t have such a school in Manchester), though sometimes a librarian moves in from a different subject when they begin to take an interest in the informational problems arising in their field, just as many in the discipline of Education get there via their pedagogical investigations of their original subject — as I did. LIS professionals are deeply involved in the construction of effective information systems, but in the library this has an explicitly human element: the librarian, but also the user, and the communications that pass between them.

This suggests a couple more things of importance. As for any good steward (here cf. Wenger, White and Smith 2009), the sustenance of a healthy information landscape involves not just technical knowledge (e.g. principles of information classification, metadata, retrieval etc., and the other matters spoken of by my interviewees at the Rylands), but of how to apply that knowledge to the particular community that the librarian serves. The librarian can be seen as a broker, engaged in a dialogue; serving as a portal between the user of the library, with their informational needs, and the stock of documented, searchable knowledge (the library, writ large) and its ability to fulfil those needs. (Indeed, one of the foremost journals in LIS is called Portal.)

Carol Kuhlthau
Carol Kuhlthau

In 1993 Carol Kuhlthau (pictured) published the original edition of her book Seeking Meaning, based on an in-depth study of how university students engaged with both information and the library. There is plenty to admire in this book, and it is a primary source for our understanding of information anxiety and how this means that information searching is not just a technical exercise, but invoves psychological challenges, uncertainty and emotion. While there is no space in this blog post to cover all these details, I recommend that students on DMIL read the following extract from Radical Information Literacy which spends a few pages summarising this aspect of the work: it is very useful insight both in terms of your own engagement with information searches as students, and that it also provides a way of classifying the different ‘levels’ of engagement that are possible in the librarian-user interaction. RIL_extract_discussing_Kuhlthau_Seeking_Meaning_1993

These five levels of engagement — that is, of dialogue — move beyond the low-level, ‘operational’ aspects of the library (that is, delivering the user the book, article or other resource they want) and up into a counselling role. Not all information needs are clearly known, at least, not down to specifics (e.g. a book title). A good information professional should be engaged in an iterative dialogue with the student (or other user), trying to establish their information needs and helping the user get through their inevitable information anxiety and reflect on these developing needs themselves (see the book extract). Like other forms of counselling, this also requires a certain level of awareness on behalf of the user; a desire to learn, to reflect on one’s informational needs, skills and so on. Earlier generations may have called this role of the library one of user education, but nowadays it would tend to be known as information literacy — meaning we here loop back to where I started this blog post.

QUT library
And another library — at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia

All in all then, it perhaps seems quite natural that the academic and professional library sector has a long history of involvement in IL education. In 2002, Hannelore Rader calculated that 60% of all academic journal articles published on the subject of information literacy discussed it in the HE sector (as opposed to the public library sector, schools, public health etc.) and in 2014, I came up with a very  similar 61% (see pages 77-78 of Radical IL). The frameworks which are summarised and linked to via the excellent infolit.org.uk web site draw largely on work done in academic libraries, or at least, the academic discipline of LIS.

Why, then, do I say in the title of this blog post that we should ‘go beyond’ the library when it comes to our considerations of IL? There are two main reasons in my opinion. Firstly because there is a danger that IL, and responsibility for developing it in students, risks being isolated, even ghettoised there, and not integrated into broader teaching and assessment processes. (More on this in weeks 6 and 7.)

More significantly still, not everyone goes to university: and even if they did study there in the past, most will not be returning to study there again in the future. As is quite obvious, most everyday informational interactions take place away from HE. Therefore, while I see the library view of IL as very significant to our understanding of the field, it can only ever be a subset.

I cannot end this post without noting the current threats to our library systems. It has become, unfortunately, politically expedient to announce that, thanks to the spread of Google amongst others, the library is no longer as relevant as once it was: and to withdraw public and/or organisational funding as a result. I hope this blog post has shown how the library and the people within it might in fact be ever more important in this era of mass information (and see also this article from the Huffington Post as one example of a positive response). Yes, the way we use libraries has changed, this is obvious: but that does not reduce our need for them generally, and certainly not in terms of how they help promote information literacy. But that latter point also shows how libraries are political, and the funding cuts they are subjected to are not just pragmatic, but ideological: an attack on fundamental rights of people across society. But more on that in later weeks.


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