Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tearing Down the Walls: Collaboration, Advocacy, and the Ubiquitous Library

Back in my English-teaching days, one of my favorite lessons involved teaching Robert Frost's Mending Wall.  The popular (and student!) mind usually reads this poem as an ode to non-conformity, with the mischievous narrator seeking to bring down the walls separating his property from that of his conventional neighbor through a series of provocative questions.

Playing the devil's advocate, I usually have the students convinced of the exact opposite by the end of our discussion. Because here's the thing: although the narrator playfully questions the wall's purpose in order to torment his neighbor, it is actually he who instigates re-constructing the barrier every spring.  Moreover, he is pretty entrenched behind the walls of his own thinking, referring to his neighbor as a caveman  (old stone=paleolithic), and believing he "moves in darkness."  Ironically, while mocking the neighbor for "never [going] behind his father's saying," the narrator also fails to consider whether his neighbor has a valid point of view.

And what I've been wondering lately is this:  When it comes to advocacy and collaboration, are librarians like the narrator,  insisting teachers tear down the walls of their classroom, yet reinforcing the library walls through our own collaborative vision?

In library school at Pitt, our professors pounded home the advocacy and collaboration mantra: get the word out, promote the library as a learning resource, work with faculty as a teaching partner, and always, always focus your efforts to "bringing them in" and proving your value.

Nor do I believe there is anything wrong with that, as far as it goes.  In my first position post library school, I walked the talk. The school never had a culture of the library; I worked to instill the sense of the library as a go-to resource and learning commons.  When teachers asked me to come to their classrooms, I tried to bring them to the library instead, because I wanted faculty and students to see instruction happening in the library.  Gradually, the library changed from a break-time hang out to a place where real learning was happening.  Over the course of my three years there, my collaborative lessons quadrupled, and I was pretty proud of that.

When I moved to Mongolia, the pattern repeated.  The school had never had a trained media specialist, so I again worked to establish the library as a place of learning and collaboration. Given the lack of adequate classroom space in the library itself, I went into the classrooms more,  but I would still always work to promote the library.  I had the mindset that "progressive" teachers collaborated with me and brought their students in, while "paleolithic" educators were control freaks who never saw the value in what the library could offer.

Then I taught a grade 10 English class this year, with the rather interesting experience of collaborating with myself.  English teacher me  would join with librarian me in teaching digital literacy and ethics. Yet when students had to research for a documentary project,  English teacher me balked at the series of eight lessons librarian me advocated for any research project (and I teach 14+ lessons to the 11th graders for their 2 year IB extended essay project!)

Wow.  That brought library me up short.  If I, of all people, couldn't convince myself to spend the necessary time on teaching information literacy, obviously, something was amiss.  Moreover, I realized my reasons (and the reasons of many of my "resistant" teachers) were valid: time.  I knew the skills were important, but I had a lot of other things to teach my students. Given that there were other ways to connect students with the necessary information, English teacher me opted for those: pathfinders, YouTube tutorials, etc, rather than library classes and direct instruction

Don't get me wrong.  I still believe the library should be the soul of the school, but I'm re-thinking what that should look like.  In other words:  The library isn't a place, it's a state of mind.

In my new school next year, the library has no walls.  When I first heard that, I thought "Say, what?" (I'm ashamed to admit I also thought "how do they keep control of their books?"). But the more I think about it, the more I love that, because it's a great metaphor. The library isn't limited to the physical space, or even to me;  it's a way of thinking, and it should permeate the school. 

What my teachers were saying, and what I wasn't hearing, was that I needed to accommodate THEIR needs, not bring them around to my vision.  This is at the heart of the current state of librarianship. Despite years of our best advocacy efforts, we still haven't convinced the public at large (or even many of our faculty) of our indispensability. We built it, but they didn't come.  Rather than blaming teachers, or students, or administration,  rather than wailing and wringing hands about how others "don't get it"(and I've done a fair amount of that myself),  we need to look at ourselves and ask why the vision we've created  is falling short.  Obviously, what we've been doing isn't working, so it's time to do something else.

I don't have the answers, but I do have a set of ideas and questions I've been pondering that at least start me in a new direction.  In no particular order, they are:

1. Re-think your thinking:  In the past, my lessons tended to be very practical and focus on skills: pre-searching,  web literacy, how to frame a research question, etc.  That's important, of course. Yet despite my best efforts, students still struggle with the whole research process,  and I've noticed over the last five years that many of their problems stem from an "I want a specific answer within the first 5 minutes" approach.  I want to revamp my lessons this summer to focus more on habits of mind, on ways of thinking about research and information-gathering. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to do that.  Most students don't have much patience for abstract though or theories; I need to figure out how to embed theory, but link it directly to their experience and show how thinking about research in certain ways will actually help their process.

2. Tearing Down the Walls.  Literally and figuratively.  I need to listen to the nay-sayers, and figure out how to address their needs while also promoting student learning. The library doesn't have to be tied to a physical presence (the space or me). I'm going to digitize and mobilize all of my lessons, making them available to students and faculty as downloads.  Thus, teachers who don't have time to collaborate, can still give students access to the information. This isn't anything new, of course. We've long tried to meet our patrons where they are through database linkage, Facebook sites and the like. But I think too often we make it about us.  What I can give you. How the library promotes learning. There is a place for that, but it limits our effectiveness if that's all we do.  We need to step out of our defined spaces, physical and virtual. I'm having a hard time articulating this, because it's still pretty nebulous for me, too. We need to make it less about the library, and more about the learning wherever and however that takes place.

3. Make it Really Participatory.   I've been blogging about participatory libraries and learning as conversation for months/years,  and certainly thought I was doing that.  My ego got in the way, though. While I've never been the librarian who doesn't want classroom libraries because "they should come to my library for that!", I have been territorial.   When I facilitated conversation, I usually directed it and I would shape it where I thought it should go. That's not true participation, because I wasn't allowing students and faculty equal space and influence.

Ugh.  That's a painful realization for me, because I've always prided myself on empowering students and NOT being the "sage on the stage."  While I instigated student surveys, faculty evaluations, and did take their feedback on board in general ways, it was usually only in areas where I already saw a weakness in what I was doing. When students told me, "Look, we hate Information Dashboards," I mostly ignored that because  I believed they were really useful and thought they should be using them.  I didn't rethink how I was presenting them, and that maybe I wasn't really addressing their needs.  I wonder if it's just me, or if this is a library problem as a whole?  We collaborate, but only within the confines of our own vision and the way we want our library to run, not within the real world of student and faculty needs? 

With so many resources and tools available today, too often we try to establish the library as the sole point of access. If we are truly to facilitate conversation/learning, we need to give students and faculty ownership in the library, seeing them not just as contributors, but as co-creators. This means de-centralizing, and allowing multiple access points to resources, whether we, personally, are there to deliver or instruct.

I don't know, as usual when I try these more philosophical posts, I'm all over the place--mostly because rather than defining and stating concrete objectives, they are a way for me to process my own thinking.  It's messy and amibugous, and I'm not even sure I have a valid point I'm trying to make. But I would be very interested to hear your thinking!


  1. I'm sorry that I can't answer your questions, but I am so glad you've asked them. I often feel torn between the real-world needs of my students and teachers and the library way of doing things. They don't seem connected and I can't see how to build a bridge between the two. Thanks for starting the conversation. I look forward to following and participating in it.

  2. Wow--I love that "I feel torn between the real-world needs of my students/teachers, and the library way of doing things." That's a profound statement expressing the current disconnect between the traditional library vision and actual school life! Thanks--I may steal that phrase!

  3. I have found you last several posts particularly insightful (although you are always a good read!) One of the things I keep thinking about, particularly as I teach my classes, is the fact that we know how to talk about what should be done (or at least we think we know) and we talk a really good game but the implementation is hard because when we talk about the process we think we are doing it. And it isn't really happening. The question is how do we move from the theoretical to the actual? Your list is a great beginning. I applaud the reflective nature of your comments.

  4. Frank--Thanks! Blogging can be a lonely business, so it's nice to hear readers find it relevant! As to today's post, you're absolutely right, that threshold between theory and practice is a hard one to cross, made even more difficult because we think we're already doing it, even though a lot of the evidence says otherwise. David Lankes has a new book I just downloaded today called Expect More,Demanding Better Libraries for Today's Complex World. I'm sure it will be the spark for more blog posts!

  5. Hi Jeri,

    This is a great post. (I tried commenting when it first appeared, was rejected for some reason, and then life got in the way.) A lot honest soul searching here that more of us should do more often.

    I have a number of personal issues surrounding collaboration and any search of my website or blog I am sure will reveal a lot of them. But increasingly, I believe librarians are collaborating at the wrong level. Instead of investing so much time with individual teachers, we need to focus on department chairs, curriculum and staff development in order to collaborate systemically - getting everybody on board.

    I also think we tend to view collaboration as worthy goal rather than a means to a defined and worthwhile end. But you probably knew that.

    My question is if the library program needs or should have any other goal than making sure other educators meet THEIR goals? Hmmmmm.