Tara Brabazon: Committed to fighting and thinking

As librarians are being retitled and rebranded, Tara Brabazon focuses on their vital role

June 17, 2009

I am worried about the invisibility of librarians in our contemporary universities. I attend too many meetings where not only are librarians absent but there is no thought that they should be present to discuss staff development, information literacy or resourcing. But the profession is involved – and should be involved – in a disparate spread of issues, from the distribution of budgets to staffing, from curriculum validation to professional development. Instead, they are unseen, pushed back into the library or information services portal, sending the occasional email from the institutional bunker about new books, electronic resources or training in databases. They deserve better. So do our students. So do our institutions.

I have the pleasure of working with a remarkable young librarian, Sarah Ison, at the University of Brighton. She is proactive, thorough, enjoys working with students and is incredibly knowledgeable about what we need in our teaching – often before we know it. That my courses have been successful this year is a tribute to her intellectual generosity, support and understanding of contemporary education.

Sarah is special, but there are so many extraordinary librarians finding methods and strategies to shatter the shrinking institutional shell that has been built for them. Often these men and women have their designation changed from librarian to information resource manager, learning technologist, teaching support or information literacy officer. Such labels are a mask. So many of these roles, tasks and functions were already – and continue to be – part of the portfolio of librarianship.

There are courageous and quirky librarians who serve as a memory and reminder of the importance of knowledge institutions. The Hollywood Librarian is a fine documentary, complex, diverse and political. It is also inspirational, showing men and women who know their value, even while governments attack their right to disseminate information and starve them of funding.

Other fine popular cultural interventions occasionally surface. Rupert Giles, librarian at Sunnydale High, became a father figure to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a sex symbol outside of the TV programme. The 2008 Doctor Who episode “Silence in the Library”, besides reminding us to “count the shadows” provided an inspirational science fictional glimpse into the Universe’s library, which occupied an entire planet. The legendary Nancy Pearl is so influential in the media and through her Book Lust series that an action figure has been released in her honour.

Similarly, Carolyn Forsman is an extraordinary woman who designs remarkable jewellery including the “I read banned books” necklace and bracelet. A former public reference librarian, library educator and American Library Association councillor, Carolyn supports the Freedom to Read Foundation. She uses her commitment to creativity and books, anti-censorship and reading, to design magnificent objects to both wear and think about. Forsman “endured long professional meetings designing beaded jewellery” and then went on to establish a successful business. But there remains a trace of librarianship in her work, through the belief in intelligence, wit and freedom of speech.

Outside popular culture, there are still optimistic and extraordinary librarians who provide intellectual leadership and academic support. I recently returned from a great conference held at Edge Hill University’s SOLSTICE Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Many librarians gathered, mostly rebranded as information literacy or learning support staff. It was a positive, buoyant and vibrant experience, a collective of individuals that recognised that times were difficult but expertise and ideas can benefit a cash-starved educational system. The commitment to fight and think, challenge and improve has remained with the profession. I was amazed at the range of activities enacted by so many staff to ensure that our universities not only continue to function but are able to thrive.

One strategy has been to create libraries in Second Life. While such projects may work, so many of these SL libraries are empty, coldly digital places, with the occasional dragon or cloaked avatar swooping through the building. Dragons always provoke interesting online encounters, but whether they contribute to the experience of education is more debatable.

Outside Second Life, Denise Turner and Sue Myer from the University of Teesside have created a new online induction to library resources for distance education students. Turner and Myer tried to find a way to capture the best of their “live” induction in a lecture theatre, including video and a printed guide, but with a more personal experience for off-campus scholars. Instead of conventional web pages presenting information, they filmed and presented their own induction video, housed in the University of Teesside’s Virtual Learning Environment. While their pilot project has focused on masters-level students, Turner and Myer are finding ways to apply this personal, warm and customised online induction to undergraduates.

At their presentation, they both expressed a concern of appearing amateurish on video, but they gained confidence from Michael Tomasky’s vodcasts, the visual environment of Second Life and the “have a go” ideology of Web 2.0. The combination of staff narrating their expertise into a video camera, screen captures of the available resources and portals and a quiz to test the student’s ability to understand and apply the information resulted in an evocative packaging of content that was engaging and helpful.

While universities are focusing on offshore campuses and expounding the potential economic benefits of international partnerships, it is the teachers, teaching support staff and librarians that transform distance education into quality education. The initiative of librarians such as Turner and Myer to attempt new ways of delivering resources offers a platform of innovation for teachers and learners. In (post) librarian schools and universities, they remind us that the information age requires its guides and experts. Call them support staff. Call them learning technologists. Hell, why not call them librarians? Through the video camera, web page and microphone, the fight commences to return librarians to the core of knowledge development rather than the edge of corporate plans.

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