And so it begins…Week One

The branch librarian and I at the public library that I used to work at had a long-standing joke: “There are simply some things that you can’t learn in library school.”

Mostly, this had to do with experiences with patrons (or event planning), because spending time in a classroom is probably not going to teach you how to deal with an irate patron who demands to know why they’re #203 on the waiting list and why the library isn’t ordering 203 copies of the newest best-seller. (That’s what summer internships are for.)

Anecdotes aside, I’m not trying to say that classroom teaching isn’t important because it very obviously is, but that learning takes all forms.

This brings me to the readings we did this week from How People Learn on learning in schools. For most of us, we’ve been in school for somewhere around sixteen or so years, and we were sent there specifically to learn (I know, stating the obvious). How we learned obviously depended on the class and teacher, but the ultimate goal was to know more about that subject than when you walked in at the beginning of the year. But how many times did we learn and understand?

I attended a public school system with a rather good reputation, but over half of my classes, by my estimate, were strictly on regurgitation of facts: here’s the lecture, the study guide, and an exam two weeks later. I’ve only had a handful of classes that weren’t (most in college), and those were the best classes I ever had. My freshman year of college showed me that I was expected to have opinions and be able to talk critically about texts, not just be able to regurgitate what I read about. That was interesting and (unfortunately) foreign to me. One of the first exams I took as an undergrad was shocking, because I had memorized all of the facts quite well, but I wasn’t prepared to apply what I had learned.

The one thing the readings really emphasize is that a student has to do a variety of things to be both learning and understanding: a grasp of the hard, basic facts, an understanding of the context of the framework in which those facts are found, and then the ability retrieve and correctly apply those facts. This is the difference between learning and having usable knowledge; usable knowledge means that you’ll be able to retrieve and apply what you’re learning.  I think in many ways, I’m a bad example of usable knowledge because I have an excellent memory. I can memorize facts in a textbook and tell you what page that fact was on, what heading it was under, what diagram was near it, and pretty accurately where, exactly, that fact was on the page. But I’m not going to remember that fact a week later, and I’ll certainly never be able to apply it. I can memorize with the best of them and appear to be learning even though I haven’t learned a thing.

One of the worst teachers I ever had was for 11th grade Honors Chemistry. He was an affable sort of fellow; in fact, I enjoyed a great many conversations with him at lunch time or before class, but he was fresh out of graduate school and automatically assumed that every student in his class had an interest in chemistry, while in reality, out of 24 or so students, probably only 4 or 5 had a real interest; for the rest of us, we were in there because that was the prescribed path we had been set: biology, physics, and then chemistry. He assumed we all loved it and so gave us complex formulas to memorize because that’s what he loved. His exams consisted of multiple-choice questions for the most part, and if there were word problems, he told us what formulas to use to solve them. We weren’t taught the broad concepts and weren’t being taught how to apply what we were supposed to be learning. Quite simply, throughout that year, I learned, but I didn’t understand.

Conversely, one of my best learning experiences was in 7th grade, during the “Africa unit.” All the core classes were in on it; in English we wrote a journal about our adventures, in Math we calculated the distance we needed to travel per day to make it to our destination, in Science we studied the fauna and flora, and in Geography, we studied the different climates and different cultures. We decorated the entire seventh grade wing with maps and drawings (my drawings of meerkats were legendary), so that while we were in school, we were, in essence, in Africa. We weren’t just memorizing African countries or writing a paper on it, we were engaging in our learning. I can still tell you a lot about Africa but not a thing about chemistry.

Interesting to note all of this, but how, exactly, do it connect to libraries? I’ll admit that I don’t have a lot of experience in instructional librarianship (with the exception of demonstrating the Dewey Decimal a time or two to kids and sometimes adults). And I’ll also admit that I’m really not sure. Perhaps this is something that I’m going to have to think about and is something that I’ll learn over the course of the semester and my career.

But let’s move on to Josh Hanagarne’s video. I’ve never read The World’s Strongest Librarian (I know, shame on me), but I really want to now. I identified with Josh when he said that libraries inspire and that he’d be a different person if it weren’t for libraries because I feel the exact same way. I suspect many, if not all of us, feel this way, or we wouldn’t be spending the next two years of our lives learning to be the best librarians (or information professionals) that we can be. He introduces the idea that libraries make communities “free.” That idea kind of blows my mind, to be honest, because it just emphasizes what a large and important part libraries play in their communities.

Libraries are miracles. Because, seriously, where else can you go, be a part of a community, borrow a variety of materials for free, and, well, get inspired? Libraries operate because of the generosity and reciprocity of others and provide access to information to engage people to become lifelong learners. Libraries are special, special places. Josh’s stories about patrons (especially the one about him sitting with the woman who had to give up her children for adoption the very next day and brought them to the library to have some fun beforehand) struck a chord, because I worked in a public library for seven years, and I have a few stories like that, too, unfortunately. I have never been just a library worker, and most librarians aren’t, either. Librarians serve a variety of roles, and we need to be prepared to fill them. I worked in the Young Adult section, and throughout that time, I was a friend, a confidante, and a friendly ear when someone was grounded. No, I can’t be a social worker or a school psychologist, but I can be a friendly face. Right before I left to come here, this little girl, who had been only a few weeks old when I had started working there, came up with her mom and told me she never not remembered me being around at the library, and the library wouldn’t be the same without me. So yes, even though I got her to read her The Boxcar Children because those had been my favorite books, I had been there when she had gotten glasses in first grade and told her they looked nice on her (her mom told me later she had cried all day about them). I was really lucky to see a lot of kids grow up right in front of my eyes in that library (the best compliment I ever received was a girl telling me that I looked liked Ariel, which was her favorite Disney princess). What other sort of environment do you get the privilege to do that?

I don’t know about anyone else, but Josh’s video reminded me of why I love libraries. I’m working in an academic library right now that doesn’t involve me interacting with the public, and while I like it, I really miss that part of working in a library.

(Also, as a side note, if you’ve never been able to go to an ALA conference, or any conference with librarians, really do go, because we are some seriously entertaining people. Some of the best conversation I’ve ever had was at an ALA conference with fellow librarians and library students.)

So after all of this, what makes a librarian? The ALA gives quite a few core competencies that all graduates should have when graduating from an ALA-accredited program. Certainly, librarians need to have excellent skills in user/reference services and a passion for lifelong learning and continuing education. Good technical skills and management as well as knowledge of the histories of libraries and the parts they’ve played in history are also things the ALA feels that graduates should know. And, of course, all of these are things that are important. A patron should be able to walk up to a librarian and be able to get a confident and correct answer to a reference or readers’ advisory question. That’s the very core of our job. I think, though, that it oversimplifies us. Librarians also need to encourage a sense of community and the sense that libraries play a crucial role in communities. We often have to fight to justify for our very existence in the communities we work in. (The competencies throw in a sentence about effective advocacy, but I don’t know if that does us justice.)

One of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, gave a lecture entitled Why our future depends on libraries, reading, and daydreaming.” (If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do, because I always pretty awesome after I read it.) I could quote almost the entire thing as having impact on me, but one sentence that always gets me is this: ” If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom.” Whenever I read this, I feel this great sense of responsibility. Libraries contain all of these things, and as librarians, it’s our duty to provide that place and help people navigate it as best we can. Neil Gaiman also agrees with Josh and says that libraries are, indeed, all about freedom: “freedom to read, freedom of idea, freedom of communication.”

So libraries matter. Librarians matter. I know we’ve all heard, “Why are you going to school to be a librarian when we won’t need them 5 years?” My answer is simply that librarians aren’t going away, our roles are simply changing. We’re in a class called “Professional Practice in Libraries and Information Centers” because we’re all trying to learn to be the best librarians we can. And that’s a good thing, because we obviously shoulder a great amount of responsibility.

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2 thoughts on “And so it begins…Week One

  1. Hanagarne’s book is great, and not just for librarians. If you can manage not to be #203 on the holds list, it is a nice, fast read. But even though I read it before seeing his video, I was pretty stunned by the emotional wallup of the video. You could really see in the video how much his COMMUNITY OF LIBRARIANS meant to him, something less evident in the book. Another good read for librarians is THIS BOOK IS OVERDUE (Marilyn Johnson). She had done a book on obituaries and realized that librarians tended to have done really interesting things in their lives … so she went on to research them!

  2. I really liked how you called yourself out on learning facts but not necessarily understanding. I think that so many students really do have a hard time when they come to college and are expected to a. understand content and be able to apply their knowledge, and b. retain the information they have learned from class to class, semester to semester. It can be a totally different approach to teaching and learning, and I have always thought it was a shame that more understanding isn’t emphasized below the college level.

    Your Africa unit sounds really interesting, what a neat project! That is exactly how I think lessons should be taught all the time. I think it would require an enormous effort on behalf of the teachers, of course (and Lord knows they already put so much work into teaching), but I think it would really pay off for the students.

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