Thoughts on LILAC

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Last month I had the opportunity to attend the Librarians’ Information Literacy Annual Conference (LILAC 2018), a superbly put-together event, hosted by the librarians at the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University. Three-day conferences are always a bit daunting: it is difficult to find your feet when you are new to a community; it is difficult to make an informed choice about which sessions to attend as you are always going to miss something relevant; it is difficult not to feel too overwhelmed. Fortunately, the presence of some Cambridge librarians to help me navigate the proceedings, and the friendliness of the library community at large, made it a very enjoyable learning experience.

I went to LILAC to be inspired and challenged, and I wasn’t disappointed. I was inspired to think about my role and the role of information literacy professionals, and challenged to reevaluate some possible received ideas about my new profession. I haven’t worked in libraries since 2005, when I moved briefly into academic teaching, and subsequently publishing. Librarianship has changed substantively over the intervening years. LILAC has been a great opportunity not just to learn by submerging myself in IL culture, but also to tune in to the conversations that are happening around information literacy right now. The dynamics of a big conference are always challenging, and I have needed a few weeks to process some of the vast amount of information I have obtained by attending papers and workshops, and having conversations with others, but these are the overarching themes that my personal experience at LILAC tapped into:

  • Information Literacy: problems of definition
  • Embedded Librarianship and the need to communicate our role
  • Creativity, play, and space to breathe within IL, and teaching in general
  • Role of the IL professional in our current post-truth world

As a relatively new professional, I find it reassuring that some of the questions that other librarians at other libraries are worrying about mirrored some of the ongoing conversations that we have in our team about the daily fulfilment of our roles. We are not alone!

WHAT IS INFORMATION LITERACY? PROBLEMS OF DEFINITION

It is slightly ironic that one of the highlights of the conference was the unveiling of the new CILIP definition of Information Literacy, when so many of the conversations that took place were, in some form or other, connected with how we interpret, define, or communicate our role. Ola Pilerot’s keynote in particular alerted us to the problem of starting from a preconceived definition of IL. The narratives of IL, he argued, are varied: it can be seen as a mere label, as a political concept, or as a theoretical and even empirical one. What he proposed is that Information Literacy should be ‘observed’ through study of what people do, instead of the other way round, imposing from the outside an idea of what it should be and how it should develop or present itself. As he put it, ‘not “teaching IL”, but “teaching for IL”‘. This is something that certainly came up in several sessions: be adaptable, include the student journey into your own take of IL, ‘flip’ your IL offer after finding our what your readers need, instead of organizing things for them and expecting them to fit around your model. All of this suggests the role of the facilitator not as an enforcer of a given curriculum, but as someone open to questions and willing to reframe their IL offer as a ‘student-led’ activity, instead of one merely enabled by library staff. Information Literacy per se is the goal, as an all-encompasing tool that gives our students strategies to engage critically with the world.

Even this promising beginning already offers questions and challenges. How do we incorporate what the students need if we may not know what they need? How do we manage to effectively engage within their student journey? How can we find out and adapt quickly to the possible varied requirements of different cohorts? How can we embed our own teaching journey into their needs?

WHERE TO TEACH THEM? EMBEDDED LIBRARIANSHIP & COMMUNICATION

The issue of how to engage with students and faculty remains an ongoing challenge. That IL needs to embedded within the student journey is something that the work at the Cambridge IL framework is fully aware of, as its work with the Futurelib project indicates. There were several initiatives presented at LILAC that actively looked at similar issues. The team from Sheffield University argued that IL is ‘a journey that lasts at least three years’, and presented their approach to IL, which includes close collaboration with a team of students that are involved at all stages of the process. The principle: if the aim is to create independent learners, then the more participative they are in the process, the more they will understand and appreciate it. Barbara Band’s keynote also positioned as one of its central arguments the need to communicate what we do, and what we mean by IL, in such a way as to make people understand our role. IL offers the chance for transferable skills, aimed at the wider employment market; this is perhaps something to build into our communication strategies.

But there are other questions, less connected to data and more with an emotional response to the issues we face. Being embedded as ‘a state of the mind’ was by far my favourite quote from the conference. ‘A librarian’s physical and metaphorical location is often what defines them as embedded’. If Barbara Band had argued in her keynote that we need to ‘reclaim’ the term librarian, the team from Leeds Beckett University emphasized that librarians are essential, not a commodity; or, as another colleague from the University of Worcester put it in a different session: ‘We are professional peers, not just a mere “support” service’.

It seems an obvious statement to make, and still it makes sense to remind ourselves of the added value librarians are to our institutions, an idea also at the core of the very notion of IL itself. Two interesting reflections that came up from the Leeds Beckett’s team experience: to think on what your ‘new connection’ to your institution could be; and to ask yourself ‘why weren’t you doing it already?’, and/or ‘why no-one had asked you to do it?’. A warning was also issued: in order to be fully embedded we align ourselves with our organizational/institutional priorities. ‘It is not always nice, or cool. It may not be enjoyable’. Wise words.

Again, the issue of definitions/clarifications arises when communicating with the faculty, as much as it does when communicating with students. How do we articulate our role and our value when there are different levels of understanding of what the library can do, different levels of expectations, even at faculty level? In many cases, one solution can be to narrate the success story behind it. The idea is simple: storify, create a ‘narrative’, endlessly sharing it, communicating it, showing models and examples of how we have helped. The colleagues from Medway’s Drill Hall library framed the narrative of their new IL offer around the notion of ‘an offer to help, a way in’. Their ‘light touch’ approach consisted in mentioning the IL framework constantly, at every given chance, promoting it in casual conversations over cups of coffee, as much as possible. They also involved students, ‘library friends’ or ‘library reps’, to help getting the message out there. The ’embedding’ issue was also partially resolved by developing an IL offer involving academic staff and other professionals, in effect co-delivering the sessions. They reported ‘varied degrees of success working in partnership with academic departments’; but their presentation made clear that telling the story repeatedly had its effect: everyone knew what they were doing.

Storytelling was indeed a word that came up in different contexts. The team from Sheffield University insisted, through their programme incorporating student teams, on the need to constantly encourage the students to build stories about their courses, on how and what they are doing. The starting point of the session on StoriesTelling in Social Media was that ‘storytelling is a crucial part of what we do in education’. The low level of tech skills needed to use SnapChat, Twitter or Instagram appeal in order to engage about our values and resources, and there is definitely more scope to explore in these interactions. The session looked at the practical user aspects, whereas I was hoping for some more reflection on the value of such ephemeral interactions, or some more guidance on how to use the rational/emotional components of narrativity in order to engage, communicate, and teach. One of the most interesting aspects to emerge was the idea of the educational value of these tools when involving the students with curating content. The student sense of ownership over learning was an interesting conclusion to draw from the session.

Storytelling can be a powerful tool. Bringing it into our marketing and communication strategies is an obvious step. But there are other creative strategies to be put to use. However, these seem to be as undeniable as they are elusive in the IL context. Ola Pilerot had shown us some IL theoretical models, in which the common denominator was a seeming lack of space to address the creativity question.

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If one of the issues we face is that IL programs can be too directed, instead of developed after a long observation period of what the students need, there ought to be scope for introducing more creative approaches into our offers. But, how to do this?

HOW DO WE TEACH? CREATIVITY, PLAY, AND SPACE TO BREATH WITHIN IL (AND TEACHING IN GENERAL)

The conference kicked off for me with a session on Teaching referencing using Lego. We have Lego in our library, and members of our team are familiar with this kind of teaching. I was more interested in the translation of the process into teaching copyright issues, database search, or the idea of using play as a way of getting student to interact and talk, even to concentrate. The session seemed hesitant in its results, presenting innovative proposals, but somehow not resolving how their implementation would work. In many ways, this was the general tone that the ‘creativity issue’ took across the sessions: good ideas conceptually, but slightly less focus on how making them happen. However, the very idea of creativity permeated in one form or other throughout the three days.

But, what do we mean by creativity, and how can we incorporate it? Play found its natural space within what was after all an education and teaching conference. It was visible from the lovely puzzles of Teaching referencing to students new to Higher Education to the posters about escape rooms or the successful use of board games. The session Play as Transformative Information Literacy Education went further, proposing its role as ‘enabling socially constructed meaning to emerge’. Its main benefits are its adaptability and the fact of its being inherently a social activity. Interesting reflection on play being scary for adults, since we need ‘permission’ to play; hence the argument of ‘public play as a political action’. Philosophy in the library: developing critical thinking for future literacies was a inspired session. Through the use of library story-time, philosophical questions, discussions, and ultimately critical thinking are developed. The story is therefore put to use in order to start conversations (notably inviting contributions from those with different perspectives and different opinions), encouraging children to form, express and argue their viewpoints, and teaching them how to do so in a thoughtful and respectful manner, framing the library as a safe space where ideas can be contributed and discussed far from the madding crowd.

WHAT DO WE TEACH THEM? THE ROLE OF INFORMATION LITERACY IN OUR POST-TRUTH WORLD

The new IL definition unveiled in the conference, and in the works since 2016, states that:

‘Information literacy is the ability to think critically and make balanced judgements about any information we find and use. It empowers us as citizens to reach and express informed views and to engage fully with society.’

And it also indicates, with regards to our role:

‘Information literacy is central for information professionals as they create, curate and enable the use of diverse types of information in an ethical manner.’

The last day of the conference saw this definition’s unveiling, and to me some ideas seemed to come together that day. The morning had started for me with a session about coding, alerting us to the inherent generated bias in the info-sphere. Some frightening searches in an popular search engine brought home clearly the point. Acknowledging this bias in available data is the first step towards addressing it, and to work out a plan for the librarian to develop a learning environment that ‘acknowledges the power of the status quo and works to dismantle stereotype’. This was followed by David White’s keynote, one of the highlights of the conference. There were many quotable points, but this in particular stayed with me: ‘When we teach students to use technology, we are teaching them to re-evaluate who they are’. The particularities of the digital work, the breaking down of privacy and the notion of a ‘private self’, as well as of the ‘data-self’, together with the prevalent ‘tailored truth’ we encounter in our social media interactions, emerged as the overreaching theme IL should aim at addressing. One more quote:

‘Questioning why you agree with something is more valuable than bolstering your views of why you disagree with it.’ 

It is difficult to argue with this notion, and, overall, this emerged as the final take from a conference in which IL professionals from around the UK and abroad allowed themselves space and time to reevaluate, address and question their roles and achievements, aiming at returning a bit wiser and more enlightened about the possibilities of IL. I know I definitely did.

FLASH-LIST OF EXTRA IDEAS:

  • ‘Learning support’ is a deficit model; we should be using the term ‘learning development’
  • Structuring LibGuides as you would plan a lesson you’ll teach
  • Modeling sessions around peer learning, maximizing the possibilities for students to learn from each other
  • Using heritage content (special collections, artefacts) as a ‘flexible pedagogical resource across different disciplines’, bringing an interdisciplinary strategy to teaching
  • A full archive of LILAC 2018 can be accessed here
  • What students need can be summarised as follows: writing skills; data fluency; digital fluency; managing time; revision techniques; wellbeing; information literacy. A very apt question: does the library need to provide all these things? As with everything in LILAC, food for though.
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