Tara Brabazon: The end of ‘shhhhh’ in the library

In a time of shrinking funding, librarians’ savvy use of time- and space-shifting podcasts can aid diverse groups of students and scholars and highlight valuable resources, argues Tara Brabazon

October 20, 2010

Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men was a publishing success story of the early 2000s. It featured a provocative title and defiant argument, but it had a troubled passage to fame. The first 50,000 copies of the book came off the press on the night of 10 September 2001 – but in the aftermath of 9/11, its stinging critique of George W. Bush was not seen as appropriate. The publisher demanded a 50 per cent rewrite of the book and wanted a $100,000 cheque from Moore to pay for the reprint. With publisher and author at loggerheads, the book was set to be pulped.

But thanks to librarians, it survived. On 1 December 2000, Moore was scheduled to speak to 100 people in New Jersey. He did not deliver the planned speech but instead relayed the tale of his soon-to-be-doomed book. In the crowd was Ann Sparanese, a librarian from New Jersey, who was disgusted at the censorship Moore faced. After the talk, she went home, logged on and started typing. She left messages on websites for politically progressive librarians and asked forum participants to write to the publisher and demand that Stupid White Men be kept in print.

Thousands of librarians peppered the publisher’s offices with letters. HarperCollins contacted Moore and asked what he had done, because “now we’re getting hate mail from librarians”. To silence that chorus of voices, the publisher released the book, but with a minimum of publicity. The internet, in those early days of the read-write web, was used to convey information about the title. Within hours, the first 50,000 copies were sold and by the next day, Stupid White Men was the number one best-seller on Amazon.com. By the fifth day, it was in its ninth printing and at the top of The New York Times’ best-seller list.

Reflecting on how librarians had saved his book, Moore commented: “It should have come as no surprise that the librarians were leading the charge. Most people think of them as all mousy and quiet and telling everyone to ‘SHHHHHH!’ I’m now convinced that ‘shush’ is just the sound of the steam coming out of their ears as they sit there plotting the revolution.”

Nearly ten years on, I want to extend Moore’s observation. I am interested in the sound of, for and from librarians. Activist podcasting librarians are using time and space-shifting media to provide opportunities and models for academics, students and citizens. I am not interested in “shhhhh” and silence. I explore how librarians use podcasts to shape sound and knowledge.

Podcasts are simple to produce and receive. When targeted for particular topics, goals and students, podcasts are powerful. Mobile media – like the mobile libraries that carry books, information and companionship to isolated communities – have great potential in making traditional services relevant to and useful for new users.

Listening is underestimated in daily life. It is intentional, conscious and active. Listening is literacy for the ear. It involves making choices in filtering and selecting a sonic environment. If we do not want to see a troubling person or image, then we close our eyelids. Listening is different. Our ears do not have lids. Mobile devices such as iPods configure a sonic world of our choosing.

The overwhelming majority of information we receive is accessed with our eyes. We believe what we see. With the eyes at rest, easy visual literacy is not an option. Alternative ways of thinking and living emerge. In education, our job is to connect the motivation for listening with a motivation for learning.

For teachers and learners, educational technologies possess at least five functions:

• to provide a framework for the presentation of learning materials

• to construct a space for an interaction between learner and information environment

• to offer a matrix of communication between learners and teachers

• to offer a matrix of communication between learners and learners

• to offer a matrix of communication between teachers and teachers

What is the role of and for librarians in such a list? Librarians enhance the effectiveness of these tasks. However, librarians have also developed distinctive uses for podcasts that enliven the soundscape of education.

Podcasts return emotion to librarianship

Voices can convey emotion, intensity, power, confusion, anger or interest. They transform public knowledge into private relationships, moving important ideas through the human voice and to the ears of others. Podcasts are a sonic hook that creates relationships between librarians and listeners.

Over the past two years, I have explored these opportunities for connection with Sarah Ison, our creative media librarian at the University of Brighton’s Aldrich Library. We recorded a basic “what the library can do for you” conversation as part of the orientation package for all students. This meant, from the start of a semester, that a librarian was at the core of teaching and learning. Because they heard Sarah’s voice, it created a relationship. Students met her sonically before they saw her visually.

Through podcasts, librarians become more than the keepers of books. They have personality, lives, interests and enthusiasms. Sound builds relationships. As an example, Sarah Long, in her role as executive director of the North Suburban Library System in Chicago, created a podcast featuring interviews with librarians and authors, binding her region and staff. This was a fascinating template for how librarians based in multiple locations can create a community through sound. Podcasts are social and professional mortar.

Podcasts are sonic pointers to resources

A characteristic of the read-write web is a flattening of expertise. This disintermediation – the removal of links in the supply chain between producer and consumer – denies the specific skills and knowledge of many professionals, including librarians. Podcasts offer an opportunity to return intellectual leadership to librarians, to intervene in the space between search and research, guiding users through the information landscape with attention to quality and relevance, rather than to search engine optimisation and sponsored links.

John M. Budd, in his fascinating book Self-Examination: The Present and Future of Librarianship, probed the importance of the profession not only in terms of facilitating access and assisting reading, but also in shaping ideas and forming questions to enable active citizenship. He argues: “People want to see, to read, to comprehend, to answer. With that information…as a beginning, the profession aims at giving people something they value.”

Budd focuses on the role of the librarian in discovering new ways of seeing the world. Extending his metaphor and changing senses, I am interested in how – through a librarian’s use of sound – sonically rich architecture can (re)structure the information landscape.

For librarians, sound is a pointer, directing students and citizens to quality materials, while also providing a guide through this information. Auditory learners are neglected in our culture. Sound can be used independently, disconnected from vision, initiating imagination, creativity and curiosity. In the US, the National Center for Accessible Media has shown great leadership in debates about how to create a rich media environment for students and citizens. Accessible media constitute better media. When materials are created to assist students and citizens with challenges such as dyslexia, the learning environment is improved for all users.

Podcasted information literacy programmes

While convincing research demonstrates that the best information literacy programmes are integrated into the curriculum, there is a good case to be made for stand-alone podcast sessions delivered by librarians before the semester starts, or as a remedy for gaps in skills development. This approach is “innovation in a podshell”, according to Jaya Berk, Sonja Olsen, Jody Atkinson and Joanne Comerford, who constructed a pilot podcasting programme at Curtin University in Western Australia to develop information literacy.

The advantages they found included ease of production and the capacity for materials to be reviewed and repeated until students were satisfied with their understanding. The other strength of an audio-only session is that students and staff can listen to a librarian’s search strategy while attempting it themselves.

Podcasts for distance education

I have deployed podcasts with our creative media librarian Sarah Ison to construct a distance education orientation, a virtual tour through library services and as a sonic pointer to Sarah’s Twitter feed and blog. However, the best use we have discovered for it is postgraduate dissertation supervision.

While my original intention was to share supervisory practice with academic staff, creating dissertation podcasts became more useful than I envisaged. First, students started to listen to each other’s sessions, offering help, support and assistance. But the greatest surprise involved our librarian. Sarah was able to hear the topics being researched by students and then tailor very specific advice and resources to them.

Podcasting created a learning community, linking not only students and supervisors or students with each other, but students with their librarian. Every dissertation student thanked Sarah in their acknowledgements. She was a librarian who became not only an information adviser, but also a partner in research.

Podcasting support for English as a second language students

Jason Griffey’s experience as head of library IT at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga made him realise that podcasts allow users “to choose when they want library instruction; they teach to multiple learning styles; they allow for infinite review and reinforcement of skills; and they can be broken into smaller, more digestible chunks than the typical 50-minute instruction sessions in academic and public libraries”. This capacity to move, repurpose and review information is of particular benefit to ESL scholars.

My international students at Brighton use sonic media as a safety net. If they miss a point, they can return to the podcast at their convenience. It reduces stress and lifts confidence. Such resources allow students to listen to library inductions, orientations and information before face-to-face interactions, thereby providing a backstop to their information literacy programme. For students developing language skills, podcasts enable them to relax in a “real-time” classroom, knowing that materials are available for review after the session.

Branding, marketing and awareness of library services

Short podcasts of no more than five minutes are ideal for presenting library news. LibVibe, the library news podcast, is a great example; its sessions highlight new books, databases and collections and present the expertise of specialist staff. Short, sharp, quirky and professional presentations can gain a wide audience through a regularity of distribution. Podcasts can be promoted directly from a library’s website, with specific episodes repurposed and embedded into relevant pages. Arizona State University Library, for example, incorporates a range of functions in its podcasts, offering tours, news, planning and discipline-specific material, but it binds this diversity of purpose through a designated Library Channel.

Increase the awareness of special collections

At the World Library and Information Congress in Durban, South Africa in 2007, Regina Lee Roberts offered an expansive review of podcasting in collection management. An assistant curator of an African collection, Roberts argued that podcasts could increase the use of special collections while building new relationships between librarians and academics. She recommended that librarians interview faculty members and present sonic book reviews of new monographs. She found that podcasts not only repurpose data, but help to move it between institutions. As acquisition budgets collapse, it is increasingly important to know the quality and breadth of archival materials available within a train trip of home, work or a conference location.

Special collections are just that: special. Podcasting is narrowcasting, targeting content to small and – for corporate media – financially unviable audiences. It is therefore ideal to promote distinctive library resources. New media create productive relationships with the old.

Repackaging of content for different audiences

There has been much talk about the distinctiveness of “digital natives” and the Google generation. I am not convinced. However Berk, Olsen, Atkinson and Comerford contend that “this generation has changed the way libraries need to package information literacy as we have to compete with divided attention spans. We recognized that podcasts give libraries one answer.” Even those who disagree with that statement’s (reverse) ageism will acknowledge that for all students managing competing timetables and conflicts between family and study, the capacity to experience quality information and create learning moments and events in the available spaces of the day is a powerful use of educational technology.

The Seattle Public Library offers a podcast service for teens and public events that are then repackaged for new audiences, including seniors. There have also been experiments in multicultural education, using podcasts to link universities with community agencies working with young people disconnected from formal learning environments.

For libraries and librarians, this reshaping of information serves a range of functions. An audio tour of the library can accompany new students while they are in the building, but it also prepares them to consider the architecture of information. The London School of Economics has a fine podcast series providing an audio tour of its library, from an introduction to its history through to locating the exit. For distance education students, off-campus library services can be presented, along with detailed instruction about how to use databases. There is also the potential to create open educational resources and to pool quality material between universities.

Time-shifting and space-shifting professional development

While research shows that most students listen to podcasts at their computer rather than on the move with their iPod, there is no doubt that podcasts fits into liminal spaces and times. Podcasts are the jelly of the media world, slotting into absences and gaps, creating texture and insight. While commuting, exercising, relaxing or completing basic administrative tasks, podcasts weave around empty spaces. Handheld devices such as the iPod and iPad are creating new relationships between librarianship, information literacy and mobility.

There are particular advantages in podcasting professional development programmes. For example, Princeton University has uploaded and time-shifted more than 100 of its Lunch ’n’ Learn Information Technology seminars. The Joint Information Systems Committee offers a range of podcasts, featuring special guests and research findings. Jenn Horwath, a librarian at Mohawk College in Canada, has observed that “through podcasting, we aim to make our users aware of emerging technologies and help them become knowledgeable in their use”. She argues that training can be completed not only just in time, but in good time, and enfolded around other tasks.

Building a better (not beta) library

Librarians occupy a position of leadership in information management, particularly in an age in which “2.0” is tacked on to random nouns. The usefulness of sonic resources is increasing, accessed through iTunes U or the Internet Archive and via search engines such as Podscope (http://www.podscope.com) that locates words within podcasts.

The University of California, Santa Cruz is a great model for best practice. Its librarians use podcasting and vodcasting to disseminate special academic lectures, ensuring that the library archives these sessions. Such a process keeps the library as the hub of scholarship, communications and lifelong learning.

Gilly Salmon and Ming Nie have argued that “listening is easier than reading”. While I respect these fine scholars and their research, I disagree with their maxim. The literature on auditory cultures and sonic media is revealing intricate and dynamic relationships between hearing, listening and learning. In such a context, Nick Mount and Claire Chambers offer an important realisation: “more complex questions are being asked about how media should be used to influence learning for particular students, tasks and situations.”

It is time to answer those questions. Podcasts are Google goggles for the ear. They sort, point, shape and emphasise. They create height, depth and awareness of materials. Most importantly, they build relationships and return emotion to education.

Podcasting embodies the great paradox of social media. It customises and delivers specific material to consumers/students/citizens. At a time when state-based public institutions and organisations are being abolished or underfunded, such hyper-individualism cannot pass without critique. But podcasts also offer a salutary reminder that the value of a library is the librarians who staff it.

The caveat when recommending post-Fordist strategies for a post-Fordist library is that already-overworked librarians will end up holding even more responsibilities. I remember a comment made by a remarkable woman in a community of school librarians I met in Portsmouth. She was already blogging, podcasting, vodcasting, text messaging and creating wiki-enabled book reviews and recommendations. Just after opening a Twitter account, she asked me, “Why the hell am I on Twitter?” I asked her what she was trying to achieve in 140 characters. She shook her head and replied: “I have absolutely no idea. I’m closing it down when I get home.”

Her moment of consciousness is important. Librarians cannot do everything. They should use podcasts – or indeed any social media – only if the practice aligns with their institutional, professional and personal goals. But if sound can enliven and renew, then podcasts provide not Library 2.0, but a clarion call to support the centrality of librarians in our culture.

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