Making a Difference in Your World by Making a Difference in Your Library

Being a new professional in any field can be difficult—the feeling that you’re an imposter or shouldn’t make waves can be strong. This has certainly been true in my experience working in libraries, and it’s understandable. As a new librarian, your colleagues may have years of professional experience on you, and when they say, “We already tried that and it didn’t work” in response to your idea, who are you to argue?

Taking on that feeling of imposter syndrome and working with your colleagues to make productive changes at your library could be the subject of an entire workshop. However, I would argue that, despite the challenges, new librarians are also at an advantage in some important ways when it comes to inspiring change at their libraries. New librarians often can skirt years-long animosity between departments or organizations and the library. We can draw on our recent MLIS experiences to inspire our colleagues. And our interest in trying new things is seldom a surprise, and therefore may be more willingly accepted by our more seasoned colleagues.

As a new librarian, you may be interested in taking advantage of your “new person” status to introduce meaningful programs at your library. I would argue that a sustainability initiative would be a great candidate for this attempt. There are plenty of reasons why tackling sustainability initiatives should be a top priority for libraries, archives, and other information agencies. Evidence shows that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for the climate change crisis we are currently experiencing, is higher than it has been in the past 800,000 years (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalWarming/page3.php). Americans are the second highest contributor to CO2 levels in the world, although we make up only 4.4% of the earth’s population (http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=2&series=EN.ATM.CO2E.PC&country=#). The effects of these high CO2 levels has already had devastating consequences for many around the world, and  threatens to be catastrophic for the entire planet. The effects include sea level rise, increased risk of extinction for 25-35% of plant and animal species, collapse of entire ecosystems, and many other negative effects (https://www.nwf.org/Eco-Schools-USA/Become-an-Eco-School/Pathways/Climate-Change/Facts.aspx). In the face of these facts, it’s very difficult—at least for me—to sit by and do nothing, especially when I see ways that my library can make a difference. New librarians who feel the same way might choose a sustainability initiative as a way to begin experimenting with introducing new programs in their libraries.

You might be thinking, “Well, that’s all well and good, Mandi, but my library would never go for that.” It’s true that, even if you do feel strongly that sustainability should be addressed immediately in libraries and other institutions everywhere, it doesn’t mean that your own colleagues are ready to take on these issues. If it’s helpful, I also experienced some initial resistance at my library, and I’m happy to say that the library is now becoming an important sustainability partner on my campus.

I work in an academic library in the Midwest. Over the summer of 2017, I became increasingly aware of the magnitude of the problem of climate change, and I couldn’t help but notice the unsustainable behavior happening all over on my campus. Earlier in 2017, my university had hired a sustainability officer, and I decided it couldn’t hurt to meet with her to see what the library could do to help.

Besides being very excited to meet someone else who was passionate about reducing our impact on the environment, I was inspired by my meeting with Jenn to take action. After our initial conversation, I polled all of the library staff to see who would be interested in forming a sustainability interest group, not expecting much response. I was surprised to find that seven of my colleagues wanted to be involved! At our first meeting, we were overflowing with ideas about how to improve the library’s sustainability. From recycling barely-used printer paper and fixing our bathrooms’ leaky faucets, to encouraging staff to bring their own dinnerware to library parties to avoid producing waste, we found many ideas for reducing the library’s environmental impact that wouldn’t cost the library a cent. Our efforts resulted in collaborations with the custodial staff as well as the student sustainability group on campus. Despite initial resistance, the custodial staff agreed to reduce the number of garbage bins and increase the number of recycling bins in our busiest library lab. In addition, I co-authored a local government grant with Jenn to add two plastic bag recycling receptacles to the library’s first floor, and we were very pleased to win the grant!

Those library staff members who had not wanted to join the sustainability interest group did not initially agree with some of the ideas the interest group presented. We suggested that the library might purchase compostable dinnerware for parties, rather than dinnerware composed of non-biodegradable plastic, such as polystyrene foam (a.k.a. Styrofoam). We were told the cost was too high, and that it wouldn’t be possible. However, weeks later, in preparation for our library holiday party, I was surprised to receive an email from our Program Planning staff member asking how we could get a compost bin, as they had ultimately decided to go with compostable dinnerware! This success was compounded when our sustainability officer volunteered to donate additional compostable dinnerware to our party as a thank-you for the library’s  contribution to promoting sustainability this semester!

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I never thought I would be so interested in the placement of garbage bins and the material composition of certain kinds of dinnerware, but the process of working with my colleagues to make these changes has been rewarding and exciting. These are small steps, but they’re bringing the library staff together toward a common goal. And, in the process, the library is developing campus relationships and increasing our profile as a forward-thinking, environmentally-responsible leader in our institution.

Facilitating sustainability initiatives at your library is just one way to make a difference (and one I happen to believe is incredibly important), but it requires perseverance, political diplomacy, and collaborative skill. Tackling sustainability efforts gives new librarians the opportunity to gain experience developing and sharing new initiatives, and it allows the entire library staff to join in making a difference, not only for a better library, but for a better world.

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Learning Outcome Profile: Self-Evaluation

This learning outcome is a little confusing to me. I think this one would be challenging to present to a faculty member as a potential library session topic, unless the subject of the class was social media or communication.

Frame: Scholarship as a Conversation

Outcome: Students will be able to critically evaluate contributions made by others and self in participatory information environments.

Base Time: 5-20 min.

Primary Strategy: The librarian gives students a rubric for evaluating a discussion board and/or comments of their classmates and themselves. This is especially useful if the librarian is teaching the course, but could possibly be done by an embedded librarian.

Additional Strategies:

  • Find an article on a platform with commenting features and ask the students to both evaluate 1-2 comments using a rubric and write a draft response (which each student can then choose to post if desired).
  • Have a discussion as a class about online etiquette using good and bad examples.

Why this learning outcome is important:

Contributing to conversations among groups of colleagues online is an important skill which requires preparation, practice, and critical thinking skills.

Key Points

  • Students should consider themselves contributors to the scholarly conversation.
  • Being a contributor to the scholarly conversation comes with responsibilities.
  • Contributions of others to the scholarly conversation should be evaluated critically.

Subject-Specific Tailoring

  • This could be an opportunity to show students a resource in which scholars from a particular discipline respond to one another.
  • Let the faculty member share how she/he contributes to the scholarly conversation and what kind of contributions are considered appropriate.

Real-World Application

Students will continue to contribute to conversations of experts, and they need the skills to contribute thoughtfully and evaluate other contributions critically.

Potential Assessments

  • Post evaluation rubrics (to be completed by the students)
  • Drafts of comments to be shared on an online platform
  • Formative assessment

Use of Technology

  • Students could use a rubric to evaluate comments on a VoiceThread lecture or presentation.
  • Using a real social media site or a fake one like Twiducate, students could evaluate comments posted, discuss the attribution and dissemination of information in social media, and compose well-constructed social media posts to share.

Some musings about authority

I’ve been following a lot of dialogue about the “Authority is Constructed & Contextual” frame, and I’ve found it very interesting and, frankly, sometimes over my head. Much of the discussion seems to revolve around two issues: the idea that the traditional authorities that we may have unquestioningly accepted in the past are often built on hetero-normative, hegemonic foundations (i.e. academic perspectives of old white straight guys), and the idea that students need help learning that they are also authorities in their own way, or at least they they are on their way to becoming the authorities which they study in their field.

This has been a really radical new way of thinking about authority for me, one that really started a couple of years ago when I started my education degree. There is so much I took for granted in the rhetoric of academia that I’ve started to question, and it has been a refreshing, exhilarating experience.

However, I think it’s important to note that this critical theory perspective is not the only one that it’s really important for us to accomplish through the “Authority is Constructed & Contextual” frame–in fact, there is more to learn about authority that may not even fit into this frame.

In my experience, students often do consider themselves experts. In fact, there is a phenomenon whereby the less someone knows about something, the more he or she believes him/herself to be an expert. When I introduce my first year students to something like the paleo diet, they already have strong opinions about it, and confirmation bias leads them to often put their trust in sources that support what they already believe. I start the class with these students asking them to compare some sources and decide which to trust most. I am always shocked to find that some students have ignored all traditional signs of authority to choose the source that supports their own beliefs.

I feel that it’s less important for me to ask students to “question everything” and more important to ask them to contemplate *carefully* what authority they *should* consider more trustworthy. Which people and organizations *do* have authority? Can a single person have authority? Can a group? Can a group’s expert opinion about something change? What does that mean for authority? If we focus on telling our students to question authority without helping them understand why academics are traditionally considered authorities, then we risk confusing them and alienating them from the beginning.

This frame is an opportunity for us to build students’ critical thinking skills. Critical thinking involves more than just being critical of information–it also involves building a tool box for recognizing information that deserves trust and supports an argument or claim more strongly. When we often only have 50 minutes with students, I want to teach them how to question the patriarchy, but I need to teach them how to recognize good sources and the authorities that produce them. The transformative learning experience happens when the students recognize their own limitations as authorities and become critical of their own thinking.

Learning Outcome Profile: Contribution

Another learning outcome profile – this one is especially challenging to accomplish in a one-shot library session, but it can play a key role in assessment.

Frame: Scholarship as a Conversation

Outcome: Students will be able to contribute to the scholarly conversation at an appropriate level, such as in a guided discussion, undergraduate or graduate research article, or conference presentation/poster.

Base Time: 40-50 min. or several months/weeks

Primary Strategy: The librarian asks students to use the results of their research to create an appropriate, often technology-based and/or creative product to share with classmates.

Additional Strategies:

  • The students create visual products to share at a public research fair on campus.
  • Students create virtual exhibits using a web 2.0 tool.
  • Librarian works with a department to create an undergraduate research journal which students contribute to every year.
  • Students evaluate their classmates contributions to a virtual discussion.

Why this learning outcome is important:

Without the ability to effectively communicate and synthesize the research they have conducted, students lack the ability to make use of that research in a productive way.

Key Points

  • Information literate students are able to effectively communicate information.
  • Students are contributors to the scholarly conversation.
  • There are a variety of ways in which students can contribute to the scholarly conversation.

Subject-Specific Tailoring

  • Students in a department could create and run a peer-reviewed journal.
  • Students could collaborate with faculty to conduct research projects and/or present their projects to faculty.
  • The librarian could have a discussion about how professionals in a particular field tend to share their research.

Real-World Application

Students will often be called upon to contribute their expertise in an appropriate format in the workplace.

Potential Assessments

  • Projects, final products, presentations (assessed with a rubric)
  • Scholarly journal
  • Research fair
  • Formative assessment of a class discussion

Use of Technology

Teaching through Stories

In high school I had calculus class with my brother, which was not fun and didn’t make me feel very smart (he’s two years younger than I am). Our teacher, Mr. Blank, was a tall, stocky man with a pinched face and a big smile. He often would get visibly excited about the mathematical concepts he was teaching us and his face would go red with excitement. We really respected Mr. Blank’s enthusiasm for the subject matter (even while we groaned about going up to the board to prove our own understanding), but what we really liked were the stories that Mr. Blank told. I don’t know how you remember high school, but for me it was one attempt not to fall asleep after another with some pimples and dumb hairstyle choices thrown in. When Mr. Blank told a story, though, it woke us up. It got our attention and held us – fixed. It compelled us to stop chipping away at the desk or starting the homework for next week. Mr. Blank’s animated face, his hands gesturing, and the humor, joy, and fascination that oozed out of his stories are things I’ll never forget. And, believe it or not, it didn’t just entertain me–it helped me learn calculus.

Mr. Blank is just one of many teachers I’ve had over the years who used storytelling to help me learn, and I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. It turns out there are a lot of ways that teachers can use storytelling, beyond just as a tool for entertainment. I recently read a really interesting book by prolific scholar Jennifer Moon called Using Story in Higher Education and Professional Development. According to Moon, storytelling in higher education can help teachers communicate, teach students how to learn, shape social behavior, construct new knowledge, simplify a complex concept or situation, give students an outlet for learning after an experience, strengthen memory, or transmit cultural knowledge, among other things.

The benefits and versatility of storytelling are easy to observe. However, it can be challenging to actually implement storytelling successfully in the classroom. One example of using storytelling for instruction that Moon provides is the graduated scenarios activity. In this activity, students are presented with 3-5 scenarios which demonstrate a progression – perhaps from poor practice to high quality practice, or from superficial writing to deep, complex writing or ideas. Students can be asked to describe what is different between the scenarios and which scenario they find most effective. To take it further, students could then be asked to write their own scenarios, or to mirror the best or worst of the scenarios you have presented. This activity encourages critical thinking (comparing, evaluating, creating) and it brings the students into the story you’ve created, motivating them and capturing their attention.

I could see this activity being used for library instruction when teaching students about information ethics, search strategies, or evaluating sources. Taking a story and presenting it in the various ways it might be portrayed by different source types (in a blog, in a newspaper, in an academic article, etc.) could help students see how one topic can be treated a number a ways depending on the source’s creation process. It would then be interesting to ask students to read the original story as experienced by the people in the story and compare it to the interpretations by various authorities.

Another method Moon describes is called patchwork texts. While this teaching method does not necessarily need to involve a distinct story, it requires the use of a variety of creative pieces about a topic to tell a broad story about that topic. For example, students might be asked to create a dialogue, write a poem, write a review, and create a visual piece of art to tell the story of a specific topic. This activity allows students to both build a deeper understanding of their topic, and also to find a creative voice in expressing their understanding.

In library instruction, this activity would, clearly, take more than a single one-shot session to complete. However, given a full semester with students, librarian instructors could ask students to choose a number of ways of expressing their research journey and compile them in a portfolio. Students could be asked to research a topic and, upon encountering new sources, find creative ways to express the new perspective. Video and audio artifacts could also be included in this activity.

Stories can be used to serve a wide variety of other purposes, as described in Moon’s book. From showing multiple perspectives, to demonstrating the ethical dilemmas in everyday decisions, stories can help students more readily and successfully grasp taught concepts. Even throwing in examples from life into library instruction can humanize the librarian instructor and increase the motivation of students to listen.

Moon warns, however, against allowing ourselves and our students to tell stories too easily. Fitting reality into a story is often tempting and comforting. A responsibility of instructors is, often, to disrupt our tendencies to fit lived experiences and encountered facts into the familiar outline of a story, complete with symmetry, distinct good/bad outcomes and characters, and a clear ending which results in justice. Reality is, sadly, often at odds with these elements of stories. The evaluative, critical thinking skills that instruction librarians teach can help students both create stories and productively question the stories they encounter.

Moon. J. (2010). Using story: In higher education and professional development. New York: Routledge.

Learning Outcome Profile: Scholarly Conversation

Here’s another learning outcome profile for the Scholarship as a Conversation frame, and I think it’s the only one I’ve successfully tried in the classroom. This one is very challenging to address with first year students.

Frame: Scholarship as a Conversation

Outcome: Students will be able to recognize that they are often entering into the midst of a scholarly conversation that is ongoing.

Base Time: 30-50 min.

Primary Strategy: The librarian asks students to trace an article’s citations backwards (by determining what sources it cites) and forwards (by determining what other sources cite this one). This can be done using the references list and a tool like Web of Science or Google Scholar. Then students are asked to reflect on how the central argument of the original article fits into a larger conversation of arguments about this topic.

Additional Strategies:

  • Revisit a current scholarly debate at various times throughout the semester. Bring in contemporary news articles or even new academic articles found using Google Scholar alerts to illustrate the change in the conversation. Or, ask the students to find articles and bring them in.
  • Provide examples of how previously contentious scholarly conversations underwent change over time. This can be done using narrative (see my post about storytelling in instruction).
  • Use a “scholarly tree” to illustrate the influences past ideas have had on an article and its influence on later articles. This can be done using a concept mapping tool..

Why this learning outcome is important:

Students may understand the credibility of authorities/experts, but it’s important that they understand the larger context in which these experts speak and that not all experts agree.

Key Points

  • Accounts from individual authorities give us an incomplete view of the entire, complex scholarly conversation.
  • Experts may be authoritative, but they don’t always agree with one another.
  • As students and scholars, students can contribute their own voices to the conversation.

Subject-Specific Tailoring

  • A session tailored to this learning outcome could be a good opportunity to explore key conversations and scholars in a discipline or disciplinary niche.
  • This could be an opportunity to discuss common “places” or platforms where experts in a particular field converse (i.e. particular journals).

Real-World Application

Students will encounter the testimony of single experts often, and they need the tools and skills to explore the scholarly context of that testimony.

Potential Assessments

  • “Scholarly tree” or “tracing an article” handout or concept map
  • Scoop.It page
  • Formative assessment

Use of Technology

  • Concept mapping software to make a “scholarly tree” like MindMup, Mindomo, or bubbl.us
  • Add “conversation bubbles” to a virtual collage like Scoop.It, Photovisi, Mural.ly, or Popplet

Learning Outcome Profiles

I was very fortunate to attend a session titled “The Other L.O.: Limiting Outcomes” as part of the Academic Libraries Association of Ohio (ALAO) Instruction Interest Group/Assessment Interest Group 2016 workshop in April. Besides giving lots of good advice for helping librarians constructively restrict the number of learning outcomes they agree to address in a one-shot session, the presenter, Melissa Engleman, also gave us a very handy template for understanding and planning to teach a learning outcome. The template, which I’m calling a profile, allows the instruction librarian to describe appropriate activities and assessments for that learning outcome, as well as a reasonable amount of time necessary to teach it. This profile can be shared with faculty as a way to help them understand the amount of time necessary to fully introduce a learning outcome, and it can serve as an organizing or brainstorming tool for the librarian during the instructional design process.

I recently spent a fair amount of time developing information literacy outcomes specifically for music students based on the ACRL Framework (see more about my presentation at ALAO 2015 here). I wondered what it would be like to develop these learning outcomes using the learning outcomes profile that Melissa gave us. Not only did I find the activity very helpful and interesting, I realized that breaking down learning outcomes in this way might be useful for others.

So in the next few weeks, I’d like to share with you some of my learning outcome profiles in the hopes that you’ll find them useful and become inspired to share your own ideas in the comments below. Here’s the first one–enjoy!

Frame: Scholarship is a Conversation

Learning Outcome: Students will be able to identify the contribution that particular articles, books, and other scholarly works make to disciplinary knowledge over time.

Base Time: 30-50 minutes

Why is this learning outcome important?

Students who understand research materials in context can better use them as evidence or support, understand the complex history of an issue, and evaluate claims regarding that issue.

Key Points:

  • Scholars are contributing to an ongoing discussion about particular issues within their field of study.
  • There is disagreement among scholars about disciplinary topics.
  • Consensus within a field of experts may change over time.

Primary Strategy/Activity

Students are asked to choose an article and trace it backward (what articles/books does it cite?) and forward (what articles or books cite it?). Students then reflect on how the argument has changed over time and what influence the original work may have had on the overall scholarly conversation.

Other Strategies

  • Do the primary activity above but using a “scholarly tree” or a concept map.
  • Ask students to find an example of a scholar refuting or challenging the voice of another scholar. Have the student find the work of the other scholar and compare.
  • Have the student find a reference to a study in a popular magazine article. Ask the student to track down the study and compare its thesis to the title or premise of the magazine article.

Subject-Specific Tailoring

  • Use a particularly important article or book in the discipline as an example (perhaps ask the faculty member for advice in choosing it).
  • Use the activity as an opportunity to point out important journals or databases for that discipline.

Real-World Application

When students encounter information in popular media/social media, they will better understand that a complex, expert-driven discussion may underlie the issue and will better be able to explore that discussion.

Potential Assessments

  • A handout or completed “scholarly tree.”
  • A reflection about the changing nature of a particular scholarly conversation.

Use of Technology

  • Concept mapping software to make a “scholarly tree” like MindMup, Mindomo, or bubbl.us
  • A chart tool like LucidChart to make a “scholarly tree”
  • A Scoop.It board of relevant articles traced from a single article