Libraries and Librarians are Not Neutral, Real

The first thing that I heard from ALA midwinter was the Twitter response to the library neutrality debate, which I loved.  I shared a lot of Library Twitter’s opinions on the debate, including the question Why are we still debating neutrality?  It got me thinking about my own non-neutral experience.  I work to incorporate a lot of instructional practices that highlight voices and deconstruct power in my one-shot sessions.  My latest endeavor in class is to complicate library/librarian neutrality by sharing my own real-life research.  Showing the work I’m doing outside the library shares my values with students and also shows how research is incorporated into life in a non-scholarly environment.  It is a vulnerable act of non-neutrality that that I believe has an extended impact on the classroom environment because students are able to connect with me and the cyclical, sometimes messy, process of research.

Since November 2017 I’ve been organizing with Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild (POWER), which is a grassroots movement that empowers members to become “bold agents of liberation, actively pursuing racial, social, and economic justice for us all.”  Most of my work has been towards economic and racial dignity in Allentown in light of unjust development occurring as a result of state-subsidized building in Center City’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone.  The Allentown Coalition for Economic Dignity (ACED) meets weekly – we are working to develop increasing social capital and to identify the needs of the community in order to petition local lawmakers and developers for a community benefits ordinance or agreement.

This work requires a significant amount of research.  Thankfully, many individuals on the team have been involved in researching and educating us all on methods of community organizing, components of successful community benefits agreements, and local community structures.  In order to visualize the way that research contextualizes and advances the work that ACED is doing, I’ve drawn a concept map that I’ve shared in a few advanced research methods courses.

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Concept mapping can be a very useful step in a creative research process.  Especially in advanced courses where student’s final product is up to their discretion, I believe concept mapping is a useful tool.  The structure of the concept map lends itself well to organized and thought-out research.  In the middle of the paper is the main topic, with the participants of the scholarly conversation on level 2.  I do introduce the students to Burke’s “Unending Conversation” metaphor and I also emphasize that databases/information resources are often organized by the “who” and so each branch will likely have different resources to search (with some overlap).

One of the things that students don’t often consider is the research that goes into choosing a specific type of product or outcome.  I like to emphasize that ACED has researched the #BlackLivesMatter movement to identify how to use social media to mobilize people around an issue.  Similarly, we are researching the language of successful community benefits ordinances so we have legal precedent as a model for Allentown legislation.  Research is used to gain knowledge on a topic as a basis for strong arguments and it bolsters decisions we make and helps us be effectual.

Providing students with an opportunity for self-guided research and production can result in them being overwhelmed and uncertain.  They may make choices based on their previous experiences with form and miss the joy that comes from work driven by their own interests.  Concept mapping helps!  It creates a structure to the work and a living artifact of what they have done and where they are going.  My own concept map is a little messy and complicated, but it helps me keep track of the work.  It isn’t perfect, but it models a process that has helped me make decisions and learn in a non-scholarly environment.

ACED is a politically oriented group working towards change – an inherently non-neutral effort.  However, I’d argue that many of the decisions we make regarding to use our time are political.  Emily Drabinski says, “each choice we make for something is a choice against some other thing.”  I am making additional choices to position myself as a non-neutral professional in a non-neutral environment.  Sharing my work with students has resulted in personal connections based on real-life vulnerability and shared values.  I think that these kinds of decisions further embed me within the college community, implicitly teach students about the values of librarianship, and position me as an ally in the fight for economic, racial, a social equity.

Introducing Students to Information Privilege: A call for comments!

I’ve just finished a 45-minute lesson in which students learn to distinguish scholarly, trade, and popular resources.

Me:  Can you find scholarly literature in the library? Students: Yes.

Me:  Can you find trade literature in the library?  Students:  Yes.

Me:  Can you find popular literature in the library?  Students: Yes.

Me:  Can you find popular literature through Google?  Students: Yes.

Me:  Can you find trade literature through Google?  Students: Yes.

Me:  Can you find scholarly literature through Google?  Students: Yes.

Me (or another voice from the crowd):  So why the library?  Why are we here?

I love this line of questioning because it seems to change the way that students see me, a librarian.  I think that they come to the library with the idea that I’m pro-library NO MATTER WHAT.  I’m going to defend libraries existence instead of convince them that the library is a resource to use.  It also opens up a conversation about open access and information privilege.

Access to an academic library has clear benefits to the experienced researcher, but students often need to be convinced to take the extra step and try out a library database, to disrupt their Google habit.   Librarians choose the best resources, we filter out the garbage.  Library databases are structured in a way that we can retrieve valuable information more efficiently through strategic searching.  In all three of my most recent classes, students have suggested this information in response to my question.  Then I’ve been able to say that, in addition to carefully curated and organized information, the library has access to more information resources because we have paid for access.  Resources from the New York Times to the Journal of the American Medical Association require payment for access to full-text content.  The scholarly articles that are available online are able to be read through Open Access… the publishers have circumvented traditional publishing means in order to allow everyone to read the work.

I say, “Open Access is an ethical imperative because otherwise only those who can pay have access to the most recent information and so knowledge development is limited to the rich.  You are privileged by your access to information based on your affiliation to this institution.”

This is what I’m interested to hear from you, what is the language you use to introduce information privilege to your students?  How do you set it up?