Library instruction in MLS programs

Last week at the ACRLog, StevenB shared results of a survey of what librarians might like to see in an LS Academic Libraries class. Instruction was high on the list. According to StevenB,

Those items that received the highest percentage of “essential” ranking were information literacy, instruction and higher education industry.

I’m not surprised, and commented as such in response to StevenB’s post. I suspect other librarians feel the same was as I do: it’s not so much that we think instruction should be included in a class on Academic Libraries, but that it should be included somewhere, anywhere in the MLS curriculum. (It is in some programs, I know.)

I attended the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It’s a great program according to the rankings, and I loved being in library school at my undergraduate alma mater. But that program is not keeping pace with what today’s librarians are doing at work.

When I was at SILS a few years ago, most students were LS and interested in academic libraries and archives, especially public services, but about half the faculty were IS. Perhaps that explains why user education was relegated to summer school, and taught by faculty for whom it wasn’t a primary interest. But aside from the particular quirks of SILS, I suspect library instruction isn’t getting proper emphasis in MLS programs across the country.

LS programs typically teach core issues of librarianship: reference, cataloging, management, and collection development, and then students may focus by taking specialized reference classes, archives, children’s literature, or databases and web design, for example.

But, I would argue that instruction itself is becoming a core area (and certainly not one to teach only in the summer). Just as every librarian should know something about the catalog, every librarian also should know something about teaching patrons to use library resources. Search tools are becoming more complex and bad information is everywhere. A good librarian can not only organize or retrieve this information, but can teach a patron how to weed through it herself.

As it stands now, libraries are full of very competent people and some pretty awful teachers.


Creating an information need

As I wrote about in an earlier post, each semester I teach two to three sections of a required library class here at AUC.

The class seems like a great opportunity for students to engage with library resources. We have about 13 hours with them… a dream compared to 50-minute one shots.

The problem, however, is that it’s hard for anyone to learn about resources outside of the context of a real information need. But how do you create a scenario where students are invested? At least in one-shot sessions, students have a paper coming up and know they need to research eventually.

Last fall, my colleagues and I decided to re-vamp the course for the spring semester. The class would be focused on students’ individually chosen research topics, with the hope that they’d be more engaged. Also, researching the same subject in a variety of databases could make the distinctions between those databases all the more apparent.

This worked, sorta. Some students got it: they came up with interesting, appropriate topics and used the semester to research them. They learned about stereotypes of Arabs as they related to the portrayal of terrorists; they learned about how marketers target young children; and they learned about how teenagers can benefit from the practice of yoga.

Others, not so much. As their teacher, I take the blame for this. I didn’t spend much time in class refining students’ research topics, so several students had topics that were entirely too broad (i.e. global warming, Italy).

Perhaps not surprisingly, some students who were really invested in their topic learned a lot and excelled regardless of the topic.

Interestingly, on my earlier other post, Jeff Pomerantz made a suggestion to do something very like this based on his experience teaching a class to information science students. I think this idea will work, but we need to spend time helping students craft better research topics.

My colleague Nancy encouraged her students to come up with a research topic along the lines of this: the effect of ______ on ______. This clicked with her class and helped them focus.

We have some more ideas for this fall, which I’ll discuss in an upcoming post. I’d be interested to hear from other librarians how they are tackling similar classes.

Back from Croatia

I spent last week in coastal Croatia, which must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. I was there for LIDA: Libraries in the Digital Age, an annual conference that attracts an international crowd of librarians and researchers to talk about digital libraries.

The conference itself, unfortunately, wasn’t completely analogous to my own interests (though fortunately Croatia was completely analogous to my interests), but there were a few thought-provoking presentations.

Invited speaker Kathleen Kern, who hails from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (the school with the great abbreviation UIUC), spoke on “The Mediated Digital Library.” Kern commented that we reference librarians are often all too content to leave digital libraries to special collections. We refer people away, even when the collection of interest might be fully available online.

This had me thinking. I agree that we non-archivists often send people down the hall or across campus quite readily. We’ll help students navigate databases til the cows come home, but, at least in my case, rarely dive into collections themselves.

But, what does the reference transaction with a digital library look like? Especially considering we wouldn’t necessarily need to limit our searches to our own institution’s digital content.

Britannica opens to users

Via the Chronicle’s Wired Campus, I read that the Encyclopedia Britannica online is now welcoming “greater participation” from its users. Hmm, an encyclopedia with user participation… sounds familiar.

The Britannica press release emphasizes how they are not Wikipedia (which isn’t named, of course):

Two things we believe distinguish this effort from other projects of online collaboration are (1) the active involvement of the expert contributors with whom we already have relationships; and (2) the fact that all contributions to Encyclopaedia Britannica’s core content will continue to be checked and vetted by our expert editorial staff before they’re published.

Of course, the irony is that oft-cited study by Nature which found that Britannica’s science entries, no doubt fact-checked by these Britannica experts, were only a bit more accurate than Wikipedia’s entries.

Britannica’s quest to be more like Wikipedia has me smiling as I’m a librarian who doesn’t hate Wikipedia and am frustrated by students’ reports of faculty refusal to allow students to consult Wikipedia in their research. I suspect students will use it regardless and it’d be a better use of our time to teach them how to 1) do their own fact checking, 2) use Wikipedia appropriately, and 3) find other good, reliable sources (which should also be used appropriately and fact-checked).

Because of course it’d also be inappropriate for these students to use Britannica for this same research. Singling out this one resource seems like telling your kid he can have anything to eat except candy… and then putting the candy on the counter in front of him while the healthier snacks are tucked away in the fridge.

An interview with Jimmy Wales in today’s Chronicle hints that Wikipedia might trend towards something more like Britannica itself, with some articles flagged as having been vetted by academics.

On Facebook

If you want to get librarians talking, mention Facebook. Some hate it, some ban it, some dismiss it, some adore it. And me? In the past two years, I’ve been almost all of the above. 

I didn’t join Facebook when I was in grad school because it seemed a place for the undergrads. Though my similarly-ancient library school friends and I were perfectly happy to intermingle with undergrads while waiting in long lines on cold mornings for basketball tickets, Facebook was their turf. Undergrads confirmed this anecdotally.

Things changed when I went to work at Duke University Libraries. A colleague had arranged for a panel of undergraduates to talk to us about their use of technology. As was inevitable, we found students asking for services we already provided. Finally, in frustration, one student said, “Can’t you put that on Facebook?” He was using Facebook to organize his life, and he expected things he needed to be there. I followed up and asked him what he thought about librarians on Facebook, and he replied that his professors were already there, so librarians were also welcome.  

I got the message and started an account soon after and kept it professional. My address was my office; my contact information my work email and phone number. I used Facebook to connect with honors students writing theses as well as first year students who were in my one-shot instruction sessions. I even ended up meeting one student for coffee when he saw my profile and noted we had a mutual interest in East Africa, where he had just spent a semester abroad (that’s right – he read my profile and got in touch with me). I also used Facebook to connect with other librarians and especially my library school colleagues. 

I proselytized: at an area library conference, I gave a talk on how I was using Facebook to connect with students and how other librarians might do the same. I commented that we couldn’t be “tourists,” a term I first heard used by Fred Stutzman to describe people who set up social network accounts but never use them. I insisted we needed to engage with these networks authentically, and even if we didn’t connect with students, we’d understand better how students used technology, essential for any public services librarian. 

I took my own advice to heart. I realized that I was using Facebook more for my own social networking than for work. When I moved to Egypt, my personal use increased. What better way to stay connected with distant friends than to play virtual Scrabulous? Of course, it helped that old friends were joining in droves.

The more I used Facebook for myself, the less I wanted to connect with students. So, I did the previously unthinkable: I shut down my profile using the most restrictive privacy settings and started friending only folks I actually know and ignoring friend requests from students. I don’t use Facebook just like students do (for example, I rarely have events scheduled there), but I do use it to keep up with my friends, for entertainment, for communication, for fun. My college-aged cousin is coming to visit me in Egypt in a few weeks, and all our communication about her upcoming trip has taken place on Facebook. It’s become essential.  

Of course, there are some outreach possibilities for my library. I set up a page for the AUC Library, and we’ve attracted over 215 fans, some of whom have added their own photos of the library. AUC students seem even more enthusiastic about Facebook than American students. 

A dear friend and colleague once told me that librarians arriving anywhere is a sure sign something is destined to become unhip. I’m inclined to believe her (after all, she is a friend of mine on Facebook). But I’m not concerned since I’m there not so much as a librarian but as a user. Two years ago, I wasn’t even on Facebook. Now, I’m there every day, often multiple times a day, and I’m so enmeshed that I find myself frustrated that there are people I know who aren’t on Facebook.

Indeed, I find myself thinking about students on Facebook they way they might think about librarians: it’s okay that they’re there; I just don’t want to see them. 


I’m not a big fan of proprietary course management software. I’ve been a student and librarian with Blackboard, and now a teacher and librarian with WebCT (though we’re switching to Blackboard this fall). None of these experiences has been overwhelmingly positive. Last year a colleague and I decided that Blackboard is Web 2.0 for instructors but remains miserably 1.0 for students.

In any case, now you can laugh at some Blackboard frustrations with Blackboardwalla, a mash-up of Blackboard and Bollywood from the blog metamedia. Hat tip to the Chronicle Wired Campus.

Required library classes

Each semester here at the American University in Cairo, I teach at least two sections of LALT 101, a required no-credit one-hour/weekly information literacy class. Some students do exempt out of the course via an exam, but most undergraduates take it.

I really enjoy working with the same group of students all semester. It’s a nice change from seeing students only at the ref desk, in one-shots, or around campus.

What’s tough, though, is trying to teach research skills outside of the context of a real information need. My supervisor and colleague Nancy and I talk about this constantly. What can we do so that when students need to research for another class, they consider databases we’ve talked about in LALT 101? Much of our effort is spent attempting to create situations where students feel they have a research need, in hopes that they might really learn something.

Many instruction librarians struggle with how best to teach important critical thinking and research skills. And no one seems to have a great answer.

At AUC this is particularly challenging as most of our students are not coming out of high schools with American-style libraries. Like typical American undergrads, they’re on Facebook and Googling their hearts away, but also like American undergrads, their web savvy is no indication of research savvy.

But until they really need research, how will they learn to do it? I’d be interested to hear how other librarians are tackling this.