Tara Brabazon: The invisible support network

Librarians remain an often unseen and unappreciated element of good teaching and research. Tara Brabazon interviews an extraordinary one about the challenges the profession faces at the front line of scholarship in the 21st century

December 1, 2010

Most work in universities is invisible. A good undergraduate lecture takes many hours’ work to transform a drab monologue into the foundation for student learning, combining relevant scholarly literature and appropriate media. A considered postgraduate seminar requires continual reflection about group dynamics and the integration of each week’s topic into the arc of the course. Distance education demands labour-intensive preparation before the semester commences, with the micro-teaching moments via email, messaging and Skype unrecognised in workload calculations.

One of the consequences of budget cuts is that this unseen work has increased. But academics are like icebergs: some of our efforts remain visible in classrooms, journals and books, even if the preparation remains below the surface. For librarians, almost all their work is invisible. They run orientation sessions. They (wo)man information desks. Like the Wizard of Oz and his curtain, they wait behind online query screens.

It is difficult to log the scale and breadth of their role. To offer one example, I am currently marking the first cycle of assignments in my first-year course. Each semester, the hope is that students implement correct referencing styles, enact careful editing of their prose and read sources at the level required for a degree. Four or five outstanding submissions shine from every pile of papers. There are also 30 or 40 requiring immediate assistance in the most basic of scholarly protocols. Academics may complain about dumbing down or the declining standards in schools. However, there is an alternative way of thinking. We can ensure that struggling students gain information literacy skills so that discipline-specific knowledge may emerge. Such a strategy is based on a solid, honest and open partnership between academics and librarians.

I have been fortunate. In my past two posts, I have been supported by intellectually generous librarians. Sarah Ison at Brighton is a core member of the teaching team. Grant Stone was our librarian at Murdoch University, but remains justifiably famous beyond the grounds of the campus. He is a charismatic, brilliant and quirky man. Recently, he was removed from library responsibilities with much online commentary. Generations of students will miss his expertise – and enthusiasm – in information management.

While such fine librarians remain in our sector, it is important to value their words and contributions to higher education. As a model and symbol of the work that remains invisible in staff development reviews and job specifications, I present an interview conducted with one extraordinary librarian.

Nazlin Bhimani was born in Uganda. She completed her education in Canada, earning a BA in music and an MA in musicology at the University of British Columbia and a master of library science at the University of Western Ontario. When appointed to Middlesex University, she became a teaching Fellow and attained a postgraduate certificate in higher education. She commenced as the campus library and information manager for art and design and the subject librarian for film, video and interactive art. She then assumed the role of school liaison manager for engineering and information science and for the Institute for Work Based Learning. Early last month, she began her new post as Christ’s College’s librarian at the University of Cambridge.

Bhimani has international experience, more qualifications than many academics and has moved between the arts and sciences and the new and old university sector. When assuming her new appointment, it was timely to ask her about information, knowledge, librarians and academics.

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TB: Do you believe that information literacy should be taught as a self-standing topic or subject or embedded in curriculum?

NB: “Information literacy” (also referred to as “information fluency”) is just one of the learning literacies that needs to be addressed in all sectors of the 21st-century education system. Information literacy (searching, finding quality and appropriate information sources and the ethical use of information) cannot stand on its own without the other related literacies, especially advanced critical reading skills and IT proficiency. Together, these stand at the heart of the process of becoming educated and learned (the original meaning of “literate”). The Joint Information Systems Committee has been advocating a platform of essential literacies in its Learning Literacies in a Digital Age report. Yet despite the growing familiarity of the literacies/skills agenda, with its requirement for joined-up thinking within the academy, the roll-out of this agenda has been surprisingly – and damagingly – tentative. For example, one very basic challenge that is not being adequately met is how to get a disparate group of specialist educators within an institution (librarian, language support, e-learning and teaching staff) to work together in partnership to deliver a learning literacies programme fit for purpose for the second decade of the 21st century.

Teaching information literacy skills in isolation from the curriculum is a bit like providing a manual called “Cyberspace for Independent Travellers” and saying to the student: “You can stand on your own two feet now, so off you go. It’s all a bit scary and won’t make much sense, and you’ll spend many years in the wrong galaxies but enjoy the ride!” It is important to take an embedded approach to information literacy because information literacy skills need to be seen as part of a developmental process over time and meaningful in context. For an embedded approach to work, librarians need the active participation of university teaching staff. To be frank, some have a very old-fashioned understanding of libraries and librarians, and this understanding has not changed despite the revolution in the information landscape and in how library services are being provided. By contrast, many of those academic teachers who have opened the door to collaborative working with library staff, including some of my great colleagues at Middlesex, have begun to see the major benefits, rethinking their teaching and learning methods and giving much more significance in assessment to the evaluation and use of online resources.

My feeling is that the professional divide between librarians as information resource experts and university teaching staff has to break down. The university is changing out of recognition, but we still have these old divides that are often really discouraging. But I’m optimistic and believe that at some point information literacy will be integral to the curriculum and some of the terrific collaborative pilot projects I have been part of will become the norm.

TB: What can teachers do to help librarians in their role? How can we support your work?

NB: Collaborate! Take librarians more fully on board and give us recognition as key staff in supporting teaching and learning and in helping to drive forward a productive engagement with new learning technologies. Also, teachers often don’t realise how much face-to-face support for students is provided by the librarian either on the enquiry desk or at one-to-ones, and the more the librarian is part of an academic team, the more joined-up can be their contribution. The role of the librarian in supporting research students is becoming particularly significant, as is the provision of a “blended support service” (a mix of face-to-face tuition and the use of Skype, chat, online enquiry services) to distant, work-based and part-time students.

Participate! When a teacher asks for a library workshop, do not assume that it is a couple of hours off for them. Work together with the librarian to plan and deliver workshops based on live issues in the curriculum. Then follow up the workshop with developmental tasks, and most importantly, an assessment of students’ progress in managing and utilising more complex resources.

Advocate! Promote the importance of information literacy and the role of the librarian in the student’s learning experience. Successful integration therefore includes collaboration, participation and advocacy by both librarian and teaching staff.

TB: What do you see as the library of the future?

NB: The library of the future needs to be as inspiring as the old libraries. A place and a space that fills you with wonderment, one that motivates learning, encourages inquisitiveness and yet feels homely. Will it be? I’m not so sure. There can be something very clinical and cold about the high-tech learning resource centre, and some redesigns of libraries try a bit too hard to look like shopping malls or trendy internet cafes. Of course, this library of the future, at least in the developed world, is going to be governed by the digital landscape. Learners will want to be able to access information as quickly and efficiently as possible on a myriad of platforms – both static and mobile. There will be an increase in shared learning.

There will be a more fluid feel to a library, and there will be more flexible spaces. But I would like to think there will still be books – and lots of them. I like to think that the core of the library will still be a beautiful harmonious space in which to lose yourself as a student or researcher.

The virtual library of the future is another issue. I would like to imagine some virtual space that is as distinctive to the web as the physical space of my ideal library. Certainly, with the development of the semantic Web or Web 3.0, the library of the future will look very different. The focus will be on semantically linked content, enabling users to find the root and permutations of the information in various formats and media. This in turn will affect the information-seeking behaviours and workflows of users, and we need to understand these to design this virtual library that is available seamlessly on multiple platforms.

TB: You have been a major supporter of emerging technologies in libraries and for librarians. What Web 2.0 tools have proven most useful for your work?

NB: The Web 2.0 social-networking tools allow us to disseminate information in byte-size chunks more quickly and easily, share and gather opinions, ideas and feedback on our services and resources. The opportunities these emerging technologies also present for collaboration with like-minded colleagues are fantastic. So with Web 2.0, we are now not only consumers of information but also producers of information. With Web 2.0 technology, the information finds its way to us, rather than us having to find it. User-generated content can be problematic in an academic environment and so, again, information literacy or the evaluation of information sources becomes so much more important.

In terms of the selective dissemination of information, researchers are now able to keep updated and current on their research topics by simply subscribing to RSS feeds from databases, journals and websites – which are sent directly to their desktops (either via email or RSS readers). The Research Information Networks report on researchers and Web 2.0 gives an excellent perspective of how these technologies are used by researchers. These technologies have created different workflows from those librarians have been used to, and it is important for librarians to understand these changes in order to ensure that their service provision is aligned appropriately. For instance, while selective dissemination of information was very much the realm of the librarian, now researchers are encouraged to do this for themselves.

My experience of using Web 2.0 tools has been very positive. We can now have an open dialogue with our users, sharing views and stories in an informal voice on our library blogs and on our Facebook site. We promote acquisitions on our blog and sometimes get feedback on their usefulness. We also use wikis and other interactive software (such as our library subject guides, for example) to engage with users in our teaching of information literacy. Social bookmarking and referencing tools such as Delicious, Zotero and Mendeley allow for the sharing of web links and bibliographies. LinkedIn and Facebook enable dialogue with other individuals, institutions and groups and therefore provide further networking potentials with researchers and/or experts in industry. The potential networking benefits of using these technologies to share and collaborate is wonderful. I use Twitter for networking with other librarians and find it useful because it allows me to be aware of “conversations” taking place on different professional topics in the Twittersphere – whether it’s information literacy, the future of libraries, teaching and learning, issues in higher education, or food in libraries.

The bigger challenge is to ensure that the Web 2.0 services used by librarians are easily visible to users in their preferred online territory. Some libraries have been successful in aggregating these tools alongside traditional access points to create portals offering a “mash-up” of sorts.

TB: What do you think is the great gift or potential that librarians can give to teachers, students and the higher education sector?

NB: Librarians bring to the table their expertise, which is on the front line as universities engage in massive changes that the 21st century will continue to bring. But I want to emphasise something else. Librarians will continue to be, very literally, the interface between, on the one hand, resources and systems for accessing these resources and, on the other, people, individuals, groups in pursuit of information and eager to transform that information into knowledge that is meaningful and useful to them. Librarians may work in large facilities in even larger institutions, but our work is to help the individual in their quest. Certainly the greatest professional satisfaction comes from helping individuals open those doors and, where necessary, climb through those windows.

I fear that we may lose this personal contact. It is my one great fear. We need to ride on the back of this amazing technical revolution that certainly excites me so much. However, technological “solutions” in the library of the future may significantly reduce the number of highly skilled librarians, often with specialist subject knowledge, who are available to support and encourage the very special learning experience that the library offers. Why? Because not only do students find it difficult to use these multifarious and disjointed solutions but worse, they are wrongly perceived as being adequate and sufficient for learning. The various user behaviour studies by the OCLC, the RIN and Jisc on the information-seeking behaviour of library users contest this, of course. Librarians are succeeding in bringing clarity and focus to information searching and evaluation through their teaching of information literacy.

TB: What do you think is the greatest challenge facing the library profession right now?

NB: There are at least seven things that I can identify as important challenges to the library profession right now: the financial challenge of demonstrating value for money and the tangible impact of library services on the institution; changes in the information landscape (the digitisation of information resources and the availability of open-access resources via institutional repositories); changing information-seeking behaviours of library users; the need for these users to learn the skills necessary to navigate this digital landscape; the proliferation of data generated by modern technological tools in all disciplines and its further proliferation through reuse; the advances being made in the semantic web; and the increased pressure to think through a vast range of legal and ethical issues raised by new ways of working with information.

For me, by far the biggest challenge facing the academic librarian profession is preparing the necessary multi-skilled librarian of the future, especially as technology experts, teachers and a bona fide member of a research team, from the bidding stage through to publication. This is particularly challenging since research has become multidisciplinary and advances in the use of technology in scientific research have resulted in a “data deluge” (used to describe the vast amount of data generated by eScience and first used by Tony Hey of Microsoft Research). Librarians need to manage not only the data generated (understanding the use and reuse of this data and creating appropriate metadata to describe the methodologies employed) but also to ensure appropriate archiving and curation of this data in order to make it available to other researchers.

As a profession, we have a mountain to climb; and though we have made advances in terms of provision of resources and study environments, we have hardly started. The constant evolution of technological solutions, the pressures of the current economic climate and the changes in the information environment will mean a continuing need to innovate and adapt how we work to provide appropriate support to our institutions and students, and to survive as a profession.

Going back to the point I made at the beginning concerning the difficulty in joining up the work of different kinds of educators within the university, it is clear that we have to rethink institutional structures so that they adapt to the changing nature of information, knowledge and learning. This makes me realise that the library is the front line in an ongoing operation to rethink and redefine the nature of a university in 21st century.

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Too often in university meetings, librarians are absent. Initially, I assumed they were too busy to attend. Instead, they were not welcomed or were not included as part of the committee. While Groucho Marx joked about not wishing to join any club that would have him as a member, such platitudes do not address the consequences of librarians remaining invisible when discussing the core business of universities. Nazlin Bhimani is right: libraries are “the front line” in rethinking the purpose of universities. With leadership from librarians such as Nazlin, this reflection on our past and revisioning of our future remains productive and empowering.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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