Equity and the new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy

I’ve been involved with my college’s student success and equity efforts over the past few years. Our focus on these isn’t new, but a couple of years ago we joined the Achieving the Dream (ATD) network and committed resources more intentionally to student success and student equity initiatives. Our involvement with ATD (specifically looking at success and completion data disaggregated by ethnicity, age, gender, etc.) primed us for completing our first Student Equity Plan—required via the Board of Governor’s Student Equity Policy.

I’m grateful that our administrators thought to include me in this work, as I’ve been able to advocate for the Learning Resource Center in the planning documents and to explore the role of the library in equity efforts. The most concrete way that our students will benefit from the library’s inclusion in the Equity Plan is through expanded collections and resources. Additional funding has been secured for the purchase of textbooks for our ever-popular RESERVE collection, which improves access for students, many of whom are from lower income brackets. Other collections will be expanded as well, including materials for Basic Skills, ESL, college success, professional development titles, and materials that reflect the diverse backgrounds of our students.

So, this issue of equity has been shaping my work these days. It was no surprise, then, that when I read through the new ACRL Framework, I noticed how central the concept of equity is to Information Literacy. Frame 1 (Authority is Constructed and Contextual) expands what it means to evaluate information sources. Learners are encouraged to develop dispositions that recognize and value the plurality of voices in the information landscape. Some examples of these dispositions:

  • Question traditional notions of granting authority and recognize the value of diverse ideas and worldviews;
  • Develop and maintain an open mind when encountering varied and sometimes conflicting perspectives.

Frame 3 (Information has Value) touches on a concept I learned about reading Char Booth’s informative blog—that of Information Privilege. Two key dispositions listed under this frame are:

  • Recognize issues of access or lack of access to information sources;
  • Understand how and why some individuals or groups of individuals may be underrepresented or systematically marginalized within the systems that produce and disseminate information.

Frame 5 (Scholarship is a Conversation) also has the thread of equity running through it. One of the knowledge practices in this frame states that information literate learners are able to:

  • Recognize that systems privilege authorities and that not having a fluency in the language and process of a discipline disempowers their ability to participate and engage.

Our library department will be revising our student learning and program learning outcomes this year to align our instruction with the Framework. We want to encourage students to view themselves as producers as well as consumers of information and to reflect on their role in the construction of authority. We want them to develop open minds when locating and using information sources.

Is adapting our library instruction to the new framework enough to adequately tackle this issue of equity in a meaningful way for our students? How are other librarians involving their campus communities in adapting the framework? What are other librarians doing to address equity planning at their institutions?

Future Libraries, Part I

When this community formed and this blog activated, I volunteered to contribute a monthly post.  Luckily for me, there was no strong incentive (beyond guilt) to follow through, because I haven’t posted since August and am finding it difficult to write this one.  Certainly I have some valid reasons, but the underlying block has been a paralyzing feeling of uncertainty about the future of libraries and librarianship.  Is that enough of a downer for everyone, if the post-holiday January blues are not enough?  Well, I’m tired of mulling it over on my own.

Let’s gloss over for a moment that higher education has been in self-proclaimed flux for the past decade if not longer, and that technology-inflected rose-colored predictions about the end of libraries have been around since at least the 1930s.  Let’s also set aside what most library employees know: That the toil accompanying the practical considerations of physical collections can lead us to genuinely welcome non-physical components even when they do not actually mean a reduction in workload.

Instead, let’s focus on the purpose of a library.  What is a library meant to do?  Is a library supposed to be a repository for all human knowledge?  Personally, I have never thought so, but some of the loudest anti-library sneering I’ve heard seems to come from folks under that impression.  I’ve also seen some correlation between this attitude and the idea that librarians don’t know about the internet.  But back to the question:  What is the purpose of a library?  The answer I like best is that the purpose of a library is to collect, organize, and curate broadly-accessible, relevant materials for the benefit of a certain user population.  (At a community college, this would include introductory materials to as many of the various academic disciplines as possible; materials to support success in careers, academics, and home life; faculty-oriented materials to support teaching and practice; and yes, even some textbooks.)

To me, with this purpose in mind, a library seems like an obviously beneficial and fundamentally useful thing for a group of people working toward a common mission, such as at a college.  And yet the vibe locally that I’m picking up right now is that libraries are nice but not essential, and fundamentally vestigial.  As spaces, it’s true libraries can be lovely, but devoid of their original purpose of housing materials that were once only available in a physical format, they can also seem merely symbolic and expensive, decorated with printed ornaments.

As I go about dismantling our physical collection in favor of an electronic one, the more creating a robust, shared library collection of electronic materials seems strange and unnatural.  Strange because where once the materials had a physical presence — living proof, in a way, of something’s existence — we now have to guarantee it’s there on the computer and cross our fingers that all the technology is working today.  Strange also because of the artificial boundaries:  Do we have ten thousand academic e-books in the collection today, or twenty thousand, or one hundred thousand?  How does that number impact student outcomes and the mission of the institution?  Is a higher quantity always better, or at a certain point do we begin to stray into information overload?  At what point do we betray our goal to be relevant in favor of the sheer number of things that are now available to us electronically, where once we were limited by space?  And unnatural because often these electronic objects were not designed to be used as part of a shared, durable library collection in the way that libraries have traditionally operated.  Arguably neither were printed materials, but past a certain point these at least had an inherent immutability.  Immutability is not part of the appeal of electronic materials, and with the pace of technological change it seems possible it never will be.  The result is that libraries end up with an oddball assortment of electronic versions, in various stages of obsolescence, which many of us are not currently equipped or staffed to deal with.

Then there’s librarianship. How distracted and insulated must we become before acknowledging that there is a sea change going on in libraries that affects the very core of professional librarianship?  What kind of skills, besides management, must an individual possess in order for an institution to justify the expense of someone with a Master’s degree in Library Science? [Side note: Perusing the really exciting-looking librarian postings on listservs, it appears part of the answer is at least a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, and/or knowledge of specialized programming languages.]  Relying on tradition and established practice will prolong the game, particularly in academic libraries, but ultimately it will not preserve the requirement of a graduate degree from a library school.

The point I’m trying to make is that the way forward for libraries is unclear, at least to me.  The libraries that I see being being celebrated as forward-thinking and futuristic seem like basically bland, anonymous, technology-enabled conference rooms, and they don’t thrill or inspire me.  So even though on the one hand I think libraries and librarians are more necessary than ever, on the other I feel oppressed and stymied.  But I’d like to end on a hopeful note, so maybe I should acknowledge that if I’m going to work in this field I had better darn well get excited, or exit.  New Year’s Resolution: Part II here will include some optimism and enthusiasm. Until then, apologies for being such a grouch.

Back to School Blues…Or Not

Congratulations to everyone who just finished their first week back at school! We survived, more or less intact (case in point: I intended to finish this blog post a week ago).

I have been dreading the start of this semester because my library is in the middle of a pretty extensive renovation that won’t be finished until November or December. We are open in the building while the renovation is ongoing, so we’re experiencing a fair amount of noise, dust, and controlled chaos. While the construction crew and our campus administrators are doing their utmost to ensure the library is functioning as best it can, the renovation is the cause of some inevitable service disruptions.

For example, it’s been a challenge just getting the word out that we are still open during renovation. Countless students have called, texted, instant messaged, or just asked when they see me around campus, “Is the library open yet?” They’re shocked to realize we’ve been open the whole time.

All patrons walking by see is our first floor under construction, so they don’t realize we’re open on the second floor. When a patron does brave entering the building, they’re greeted by a frankly unwelcoming interior:


Yes, the library is open! All patrons have to do is brave the plastic sheeting, dust, caution tape, and exposed wires and come upstairs to find us. This is the view from the front door on the first day of classes:

In addition to looking and sounding like a construction zone, the library’s desktop computers are all in storage during renovation. The only computer access and printing services comes from our collection of eight aging, temperamental laptops. In the spirit of Murphy’s Law, all eight laptops stopped working, one by one, last week. IT plans to replace the laptops, but who knows how long that will take? In the meantime, we have no computer access or printing to offer students.

Finally, in a few weeks, we’ll be moving down to the first floor to start Phase II, renovation of the second floor. We’ll have to close for a few days, which is never a good thing, but is especially disruptive a month into the new school year. More daunting, though, is that the first floor won’t actually be finished when we move down: we won’t have new furniture in yet, nor desktop computers, and our 70,000-volume collection will temporarily move to closed stacks.

If the renovation were only disruptive to those of us who work in the building, I wouldn’t be so concerned. But sometimes I worry that our growing pains will deter students from using the library, even after the renovation is finished. How many students who make their way through the construction this semester, only to be rebuffed from using some of our resources and services, will be willing or know to return to the library once we’re back to normal? How many students that wander up during the few days we’re closed to transition to Phase II will think we’re closed for the whole semester? We’re doing as much marketing and outreach as possible to inform students and staff about construction updates, but we all know that the information students receive at their official student email addresses and the information they read and retain are two totally different numbers.

With renovation stress looming large, I’ve decided to count my blessings in a sort of early Thanksgiving, and instead focus on some of the things I’m most excited about this semester:

New outreach opportunities: This semester I’m continuing to work with our First Year Experience (FYE) and Student Life offices to promote the library in a few new forums:

  • I was able to speak and distribute literature at Premier Day, an FYE-sponsored event the Friday before classes that introduces new students to the resources and services available on campus.

  • FYE is hosting a STEM event this semester to promote STEM programs on campus. I’m going to set up a table and create a display to inform students of STEM resources we have at the library, including databases, books, and reserve items like bone sets and textbooks.

  • The library is included in a Student Life and Phi Theta Kappa-sponsored program called the Game of Life (based on the Life board game). Students receive a “passport” with pages dedicated to using certain services or completing certain tasks on campus. They have all semester to complete the passport, and completed passports are entered into a drawing for cash prizes. Rather than a meaningless scavenger hunt task like asking for a librarian’s signature or finding a random call number, the passport page for the library requires students to consult with a reference librarian on a research assignment.

New classes and active learning opportunities: Most of our one-shots take place in English, History, or Student Success classes. This semester, I’m excited to be going into classes I’ve never taught or rarely get to teach: Biology, Dance Appreciation, and assorted allied health programs: A.D.N. Mobility and Vocational Nursing, Pharmacy Technician, and Physical Therapy Assistant.

What’s more, I’m excited that instructors are giving me more time in their class in order to teach with active learning exercises. For example, I was given two hours to present at the Level 1 Vocational Nursing Orientation, which allowed plenty of time to employ not only my favorite tried-and-true activities, but also some new ones I’ve been dying to try out. In what felt like an ever greater coup, a Biology instructor defied my expectations and let me present for over an hour when I had initially asked for only 30 minutes. While I’m looking forward to try out some new activities and hone my teaching, I’m even happier to be delivering a better one-shot experience to our students.

Assessment work: Our library is in the midst of assessment activities: we’re being asked to come up with measurable outcomes and data collection tools to quantify the effect of our programs and resources. We haven’t really done a lot in this area up until this point, and assessment is one of my professional interests, so I’m really excited to be part of this effort. This semester I’ll be creating and trying out new ways to assess our one-shot sessions, and I have already identified a few faculty willing to let me experiment in their classes.

In addition to starting to assess my own work, I’m also looking forward to writing about assessment more. I was asked to contribute a post about libraries and the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) to this blog. I started getting interested in the CCSSE after reading this excellent post on the topic from Troy Swanson. I joined our campus’ Data Team in order to lobby for adding a question or two about the library, and talked about this issue with the Dean of Enrollment Services on my campus, who once worked as a research assistant for the Center for Community College Student Engagement, and is very knowledgeable about the CCSSE. I’ll do some more research on the CCSSE and sit down to speak with the Dean formally, so look for a post about libraries and the CCSSE sometime in September or October.

Conference Planning: Allow me to plug the Texas Library Association for a moment; Texas is so large that the state is divided into 10 districts. I’m currently serving as the chair-elect of District 8, which encompasses Greater Houston and most of Southeast Texas. We’re planning our District Conference for Saturday, October 5, and the program selection committee just selected 18 diverse, exciting programs. From programs on gender diverse literature to disaster recovery planning, and from workplace wellness to the library as journal publisher, I’m proud and excited to see the amazing work librarians of all institution types and sizes are doing in our area.

With all of these things going on, I find myself refocusing my energy and time from bemoaning the renovation to planning some really exciting outreach and professional development activities. It seems like a win-win situation for everyone.

So how are you feeling about going back to school? What are you looking forward to this semester?

User Feedback and Librarian Paralysis

My library uses LibGuides and LibAnswers from Springshare. LibAnswers provides a wonderful way for students to contact us to get assistance, and it is heavily used.  Unfortunately, not everyone makes use of it. We also have comments enabled in LibGuides, which I am starting to think is a bad idea.  We recently received the following comment on our “Databases by Subject” guide:

“. . . these databases are useless. When you finally find something you need (after hours of looking) and bookmark the page, you can NEVER find it again. This site is NOT user friendly! I have the authors [sic] name, the name of the piece and still can not find it. And why is it when I bookmark it on my computer, and try to retrieve it, I end up on some other site that says I do not have access. What’s the point of having these databases if you can never find the article again?”

Users have the option of providing their email address when they submit a comment, but this user opted not to do so.  Which means the only way we, as librarians, have to respond is by posting another comment, which the user is unlikely ever to see.

This situation highlights several very different problems.

  • Problem with the databases:  I agree with the student that the databases are not user-friendly.  I cannot count how many times I have had to explain to a student (after the fact) that unless they created an account in the database, the articles they “saved” were not actually saved.  I have no idea why the student was unable to find the article by searching the title, but I do know that, thanks to our EBSCO A-to-Z journal search tool, the most reliable way to find that article would be with the journal title and date.  But that is certainly not intuitive, and who can blame the student for assuming that the article title and author would be sufficient to find it again?  Not to mention, the ability to bookmark a page that you are on in your browser is taken for granted.  Some other libraries have fixed this problem by creating an EZProxy bookmarklet, but that is beyond most librarians’ technical capabilities (or at least, it’s beyond mine!).  If I knew what databases the student tried to use, I’d happily send this feedback on to the company.  In fact, I might just send it to all the companies anyway, as they could all stand to be a little (or a lot) more user-friendly.
  • Problem with the library’s website:  We don’t have tutorials for all our databases.  The ones that do have tutorials, though, the link to the tutorial is right there next to the link to the database.  It is, theoretically, hard to miss.  But I suspect they are missed.  And if they are, then it is a problem with our website design.  We need to find a way to make them more visible.  If this student had had access to a tutorial (or noticed that she had access to one), perhaps she would have been more successful with her research.  Then again, perhaps not.  Perhaps she chose not to view the tutorial.  Perhaps she even viewed it and didn’t find it enlightening.  We’ll never know. Which brings me to the third problem. . .
  • Problem with the student:  Sometimes, though I know it’s not kosher to say so, the student is at least partially to blame.  In this case, the student had the option of providing an email address so that we could contact her with a solution to her problem.  She did not.  There is also a very large “Ask Us” button on the page that she could have used to submit a question for a librarian to answer.  She didn’t use that either. Instead, she posted a more or less anonymous (first name only) comment. We have multiple channels for contacting the librarians – live chat, LibAnswers, email, SMS, and of course phone and face-to-face.  If the student chooses not to use any of these methods and instead posts a comment with no contact information, there is only so much we can do to help.

I titled this post “User Feedback and Librarian Paralysis” because this sort of feedback makes me feel paralyzed.  I see a student out there in distress, but I can’t get to them, can’t throw them a life vest.  In an ideal world, these students would come in, like so many of their compatriots do, ask for help, spend a few minutes with a librarian, and leave feeling more confident in their ability to use the library’s resources.  But it is not an ideal world.  Our systems need to meet the needs of our users, and we cannot do that alone.  I can leave this post and go look at usability studies and, as time permits, try to redesign my LibGuides in a way that is more user-friendly.  But the database companies need to be on board too.  Cornell University Libraries and Columbia University Libraries have partnered to look at the usability of databases and electronic resources that they both subscribe to, and provide feedback to the companies.  Cornell and Columbia are major players, and thus such a partnership could have a great impact.  Could we, as smaller colleges, work together in a similar fashion to prompt change?  It would take more than two of us, for sure.