Teaching Generation M

Teaching Generation M: A Handbook for Librarians and Educators is an important piece of work in the librarian’s toolkit.   In bringing together writings by 26 librarians and educators at colleges and universities across the United States to facilitate thoughtful planning for teaching Generation M in the college library, the book is separated into three sections, the volume begins with chapters defining Generation M and the meaning of the term literacy. The second section defines the culture of Generation M and the technologies it encounters. The final section focuses on best educational practices, theories, and applications to assist the librarian or other educator in serving this new population of “Generation M” students.

Patricia Dawson and Diane Campbell’s Driving Fast to Nowhere on the Information Highway: A Look at Shifting Paradigms of Literacy in the Twenty-First Century examines the history of librarianship and information literacy.   In it, they point out that librarians have been concerned about teaching people how to access and use library collections since the 1800’s.  In fact, library instruction had been taught in universities as far back as the Civil War.  Indeed, academic Lamar Johnson is credited with laying the foundations of bibliographic instruction when he offered tours of the library with instruction in the use of basic reference tools, point-of-use instruction, individualized instruction, and course-related instruction in the mid-20th century.  With online web technologies, bibliographic instruction evolved into “information literacy.”   The advent of the computer in the “information society” shifted from finding information in a physical library to searching for information using virtual online databases.

Yet, despite raving reviews of Generation M’s computer skills and constant connectivity and social networks, there continues to be (perhaps even more so) criticisms by academics and especially by employers that new graduates lack basic writing, communicating, and higher order information skills such as analyzing and evaluating content.    While Generation M might be tech-savvy, and used to 24/7 ubiquitous “anytime, anywhere” technologies, they are not necessarily so sophisticated in using this technology, especially in cases where information literacy skills that require critical evaluation of their found materials.

Digital literacy, in many ways, is the new paradigm of librarianship, perhaps an evolution of information literacy of the necessary for the early Web.  What a librarian was once a specialist in a subject area, be it a bibliographer of reference sources, drawing on his deep knowledge of books and creating finding aids for their patrons in the physical library, new generations of librarians must adapt to social media technologies, electronic books, e-Readers, providing grey materials, forging pathways in open access publishing, synthesizing thoughts into pithy blog entries, connecting with fellow colleagues across the world through social networks, delving into legal topics such as the Google Books court case, not to mention integrating existing cataloguing rules into the new web frontier.   Indeed, the librarian of the 21st century has evolved to the point where the profession is ready to have its voice heard in a new “digital strategy” movement.


Digital Humanities for Librarianship

The Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) has been a rising force in the digital humanities (affectionately known simply as “DH” in the field).  Having been hosted at the University of Victoria campus for more than 10 years now, DHSI has provided an ideal environment for discussing and learning about new computing technologies and how they are influencing teaching, research, dissemination, and preservation in different disciplines.  Every year, faculty, staff, and students from the Arts, Humanities, Library, and Archives communities as well as independent scholars and participants from industry and government sectors participate in the DHSI.    Digital Humanists can no longer be classified as a “fringe group” or sub-discipline; it’s grown to encompass its own set of theories, best practices, industry standards, and scholarly publications.     What is DH and why should we care?   Simply put, it touches on so much, as

an area of study, research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. Sometimes called humanities computing, the field has focused on the digitization and analysis of materials related to the traditional disciplines of the humanities. Digital Humanities currently incorporates both digitized and born-digital materials and combines the methodologies from the traditional humanities disciplines (such as historyphilosophylinguisticsliteratureartarchaeologymusic, and cultural studies) with tools provided by computing (such as data visualisationdata retrieval, computational analysis) and digital publishing.

One of this year’s themes of DHSI 2011 is Editing Modernism in Canada, or better known as EMiC.    Bridging academia, technology, and industry, EMiC has slowly risen as the hub for training and networking graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, professors, publishers, and technologists.  Where traditional disciplines shun digital technologies, EMiC fills in by providing the resources necessary for researchers to conduct literary projects using cutting edge technologies, be it digitization, text-encoding initiative markups, or social media fluencies.   Although it aims primarily at preserving Canadian modernist literature, it serves as a the gold standard in innovation for the digital humanities field.

It seems an opportune time for academic libraries to take note.  To a certain extent, academic libraries have slowly shifted in that direction, with such positions as Digital Humanities Librarian at Brown University’s Center for Digital Scholarship.    University of Toronto Library has its own digital scholarship librarian, and in the process of creating its own Digital Scholarship Unit.  The University of British Columbia Library forged ahead in creating a brand new division called Digital Initiatives.   It seems quite clear: academic libraries have an important voice in DH.   For humanists, who only recently had been questioned whether it will survive the 21st century, it’s only logical to collaborate with one of academia’s oldest partner: the library.  So let’s move forward.

The Need for Theory?

Conrad Taylor’s Whose Information Profession Is It, Anyway?adds to an already expansive corpus of literature on the definitions of the information profession. If librarians have a tough time explaining what a librarian is, information professionals have mountainous terrains to travel before they can come close to a consensus. One point that Taylor points out is the lack of a definitive, universal “theory” which the information profession can build on, as a starting place for standardizing practices and promoting the profession.   But as Taylor warns, in the internet culture of today:

With its self-service approach to information discovery and skepticism about classification, disrupts this paradigm.  Meanwhile in public libraries, half the space looks like an Internet cafe, and the job of librarian isnt’ what it used to be.

Examining Susan Myburgh’s ideas, he proposes that the information profession needs to draw on a “constructivist” agenda, one which draws on such fields as semiotics, linguistics, cultural studies, and epistemology.  In other words, there needs to be a manifesto that requires a “clarity in our thinking”.     It seems that this is begging to say it’s time that we take  hold of social media as a core of whatever grand meta-narrative we choose to evolve for this profession.    It’s true that the “librarian isn’t what it used to be,” and perhaps this is the precise time for library and information professionals to grasp the profound changes taking place.   Let’s take a look at a few reasons why:

(1) Evaluation Metrics – A culture of assessment has always been a main staple of the information profession. To promote, to evaluate, to provide value to users. Most libraries measure the value of their reference services, the usage of collections, the number of patrons and users taught in classes, among the many items.  How do we evaluate social media?  How do we measure the impact a reference inquiry on a blog post?  It’s nigh time we become the experts on evaluating social media itself.  We can fill the role of experts on this critical area of information.

(2) Promoting the Physical, Using the Digital – The library (or information centre) has always been about connecting users to the physical space, of promoting its collection (whether print or digital) to its audience, or contributing culturally and humanely to its community.   Historically, it’s done this mainly through print.  Businesses, entrepreneurs, activists, politicians (in no particular order), are all mobilizing social media as their tools for engagement.    We should too.

(3)  Gathering, organizing, and dissemination – At the core of the profession is still an inherent need to do all three things — and do them with precision and recall.  Yet, in the world of digital media, it’s become more interesting to capture the ephemeral nature of “information.”  Social media has great power in assisting us in doing this, but social media has been the source of compounding much of the problems, too.   Last check is that the Web has more than 48 billion pages indexed, and is slowly climbing into the petabytes.     With this said, isn’t it about time librarians start finding ways at controlling and organizing this digital chaos?    Why not?  The Library of Congress has already made the first step.

Here’s to the Gray Areas

These days, a popular way to make a splash in the media is by making some drastic proclamation on the future of libraries. These edicts usually start by citing the explosion of ‘free’ information, readily accessible to ‘everyone’ and go on to declare the death of the book or the librarian or the library itself. They spend little time discussing the facts, like accessibility issues, the backlog of digitization, the quality of the cataloguing/indexing of large-scale digitization projects, the false sense of technological confidence and poor assessment skills of younger generations or the history of the integration of new technologies.

As an academic librarian in love with books and technology – and the places where they intersect – I sometimes take these attacks to heart. After all, these declarations are not only assaults on my livelihood and the future of my profession, but indictments of my worldview and vision of our collective, democratic future.

image for 5 myths about the 'Information Age'

from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bob McGrath

Which is why it was so refreshing to see the article “5 Myths About the ‘Information Age’” by Harvard professor Robert Darnton in The Chronicle of Higher Education today. There are no difficult, futurespeak concepts here. The article lays out the five simple myths and grounds them in plain good sense and a healthy dose of media history. Not only does Darnton point out the issues listed above that are so often missed by the library-slayers, he includes fascinating tidbits like our potential misunderstanding of the nature of reading in past centuries and underlines the current popularity of libraries both on and off campuses.

Darnton is no luddite ivory tower dweller. He’s been at the centre of recent discussions on creating a US national digital public library and sees the endeavor as a step in fulfillment of the democratic potential of his nation. Instead, however, of grabbing a attention with radical rationalizations cheaply achieved, Darnton argues against the sound-bite specialists with a few well-researched statements which pointedly avoid hyperbole.

The most intriguing aspect of this article, for me, is its example as an antithesis which both refutes the end-of-the-library manifesto and shows how a truly considered opinion can be arrived at and constructed. In this guise, it underlines a trend I’ve been noticing develop in social media, one that came up recently in – of all places – an episode of a favourite podcast, WTF with Marc Maron. It was during a very thoughtful and intelligent conversation between Maron and Conan O’Brien that the latter observed that there had been a drift in the North American cultural conversation towards extremism and intolerance on matters of opinion. As the late-night comedian saw it, there was no longer room in the public discourse for nuanced viewpoints or seeing value in things that you’re not passionately in like with. You LOVE it or HATE it, there’s no room for sort-of-liking-the-character-and-attitude-but-not-connecting-with-the-message-so-much-but-it’s-easy-to-see-how-it-connects-with-people-who-had-that-experience…

O’Brien placed the blame for this squarely on the current extremist attitude in US politics and the ongoing fight for national identity, but I think a case can be made that Twitter and Facebook, with their limited-character status updates and tacit encouragement of attention-grabbing declarations (what’s lonelier than a FB status update with no likes or comments?), seem to foster all-or-nothing opinions. Taking over where the TV soundbite left off, the overwhelming interactiveness and content-generation of social media mean the opinions have to get even more extreme to be heard.

Don’t get me wrong – I love social media. There are so many new and exciting ways I can interact with friends, colleagues and strangers. However, more than once, I have stopped myself from commenting or liking a post because I felt I wouldn’t be able to approach the subject honestly or with enough justice to the range of my thoughts and I was reluctant to be misinterpreted by enforced brevity. There are plenty of tools that allow for this deeper interaction, it’s just a matter of promoting the right ones for the right tasks.

The ways in which new technologies play out in our shared and individual lives are never right or wrong – they always contribute in both positive and negative ways to society. Like Darnton, we need to be interested in yesterday, today and tomorrow, as well as in understanding the full and multi-layered trajectory of the path technologies take in our lives. While the extremists are declaring the imminent demise of my livelihood, I’ll be looking for ways to use social media to deepen the discussion and make my chosen career an integral, viable one for many years to come.

The Digital Person – a book, a course, a life?

Some years ago, when working through digital reputation and privacy issues in social media, I read American legal academic Daniel Solove ‘s book “The Digital Person“. Though an exploration of American privacy laws in the digital age, many of his points are valid for Canadians. His point is that we face a kind of legal jeopardy because many of us share too much private information with the multi-national giants like Facebook and Google (What’s in your digital dossier? he asks). He also uses the metaphor about cataloguing our lives — including every mundane detail – and digital ‘clean-up’ twenty years from now will be difficult. Identity thieves have a field day~ Better to prevent them from doing so in the first place.

Solove’s book (now free), I see, has spawned a whole course on digital literacy entitled THE DIGITAL PERSON at La Salle University. The course covers the laws and means of protecting privacy, intellectual property and strategies for finding information in public records and databases. It covers the informed-use of social media such as wikis, blogs and search engines; data mining, and electronic voting. For yet another co-incidence, I see Jane Turk has published an evaluation of the course in a paper entitled “Computer literacy as life skills for a web 2.0 world“.

The right balance of personality and information

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker has a nice, brief post today about the impersonality of Twitter and the nice fit that makes for using it as a teaching tool.

This has been something I’ve been thinking about since I started using social media for my work a few years ago. Getting into the social for “business” purposes is tricky, and the potential to become creepy, unwanted intruder is high. This is especially true in FB, where it can feel like you’re wandering univited into a party or someone’s bedroom.

I like Jones’ view that Twitter seems ultra-personal – and has been used in a confessional mode by more than one user (hello @CourtneyLove), but its brevity and simplicity allows for a friendly but professional distance. There are no personal pictures or expectations of a closed “friends only” setting – just the feeds and 140 characters at a time. That isn’t to say libraries shouldn’t be on FB and other social spaces, but navigating those areas is much trickier, especially with undergrads.

My library still has no social media presence (slap my wrist…I’m working on it!) but when I used Twitter (and FB status) to push information in the past, I tried to maintain a friendly-yet-impersonal tone, the same one I’d use for in-person encounters with the students who asked for help. I’m wondering how or if that barrier can be slightly pushed to really maximize student engagement.

If You Build Social, Knowledge Objects, They Will Come

Academic librarians who want to share or publicize their presentations from conferences or meetings are typical users of SlideShare. The service provides a way to put your content out therein the cloud. SlideShare affords embedding on your blog or website to distribute content to a wide audience. Embedded presentations can be used as learning objects and to help you deliver your information literacy programs.

Here are the numbers of times users of my SlideShare feed consulted my presentations:

  1. RefWorks Mendeley Zotero uploaded 8 months ago – 6 pages – 7175 views – 170 downloads
  2. Finding the Hard to Finds: Searching for Grey (Gray) Literature 26 pages – 4263 views – 222 downloads
  3. Cochrane Social Media Guide uploaded 2 weeks ago – 26 pages – 2054 views – 47 downloads
  4. Where’s the best evidence? uploaded 11 months ago – 4 pages,  – 2979 views – 1 comment – 136 downloads!
  5. Beginner’s Guide to Zotero uploaded 10 months ago – 12 pages – 2600 views – 40 downloads
  6. Cochrane Social Media Workshop uploaded 3 weeks ago – 28 slides – 4057 views – 29 downloads
  7. Google 2.0 For Librarians uploaded 8 months ago – 3 pages – 2243 views – 26 downloads
  8. Pubmed basic searching handout uploaded 9 months ago – 2 slides – 1545 views – 28 downloads
  9. Finding the hard to finds: searching for the grey literature uploaded 12 months ago – 14 slides – 1683 views – 56 downloads
  10. Starting Points for Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 1553 views – 31 downloads

see also:

SlideShare for academic librarians