What Have I Gotten Myself Into?

Academic libraries–you’ve got to love them. When I was an undergraduate, I spent a good amount of time at the university library, for a variety of reasons, most of them connected with classes I was taking. I remember picking up books and articles that were on reserve, using the computer terminals and the photocopiers, struggling with the microfilm and microfiche machines, checking out books for term papers, and simply hanging out. Of course, that was twenty years ago, lest I forget, and this week’s readings for my Academic Libraries class succeeded in dragging me across the two decades into the (seemingly) radically different world of today’s university libraries, one filled with much more anxiety about the future and the role of the library/librarian. Hence the title of this week’s post.

I’m glad that the first article I read was Michael K. Buckland’s “Foundations of Academic Librarianship” (1989), for Buckland foresees the imminent changes in libraries (materials in electronic form, and the many ramifications of that) and cautions against confusing the means (technology) with the ends (providing library services). I found Buckland’s clarion call to be a bright spot in the midst of the anxiety of some of the other readings. He reminds us that “[w]hat constitutes the goals of service–the ends–is unlikely to change much. Nevertheless, the ends may need to be reinterpreted, reaffirmed, and clearly distinguished from means” (395). I believe he’s encouraging the profession to keep its eye on the user, advice which I have heard echoed in other places, and in this way he’s urging a sense of continuity with the past, despite the fact that the technological means available now make the present seem radically different and the future uncertain.

One other concept that impressed me in Buckland’s article is his distinction between knowledge and information. While the profession is dependent on information (both in the sense of material that informs and the stages of becoming informed), it should also “maintain [its] underlying concern with the generation and acquisition of knowledge” (394). I don’t believe he is putting the two terms in opposition, but rather pointing out the library’s role in the dependent relationship between the two.

Crowley, in “Tacit Knowledge, Tacit Ignorance, and the Future of Academic Librarianship,” comments that librarians have been characterized as confusing information with knowledge. For instance, librarians seem to believe that access to more and more information is the mark of an excellent education. However, Crowley makes the point that faculty help students “transform information into knowledge and, in the process, to occasionally approach real wisdom” (575-6). I appreciate this corrective view; given the ready availability of information, the librarian’s goal should be to enable the student/user to judiciously cull out the best, that which will most contribute to the student’s edification and knowledge.

However, the ACRL, in Changing Roles of Academic and Research Libraries, complicates the matter by arguing that the very conception of knowledge has changed. Knowledge is no more the domain of the expert but has been opened to many voices (witness Wikipedia). Whereas the traditional function of a library was to uphold the ideal of a higher education–knowledge–the situation now sees the library getting lost in the shuffle as just another source of information.

One concept from the ACRL report that I struggled with was this: “Knowledge that if fluid and even imperfect today carries higher value than knowledge perceived as static and intact.” Something we had discussed in my other class (Medical Librarianship) gave me a window of understanding into this idea, and it was the concept of Beta. Almost gone are the days when software packages were rolled out every few years, in (supposedly) top-notch form. The reigning paradigm is for new software to become available online in a provisional form (Beta), such as Google’s new browser, Chrome. “Beta” surely indicates something “fluid” and “imperfect”–it’s still being tested–while something that is prepackaged is indeed much more fixed and inert. Granted, software is not knowledge, but that may be an illustrative example of a larger change occurring. ACRL’s claim about the nature of knowledge is provocative, but I would like to see more discussion of it before I buy it hook, line, and sinker.

In general, these articles made me contemplate the unspeakable: could we do away with academic libraries altogether, or just get by with a couple of librarians and some computers in a broom closet? When I consider the large libraries of my alma maters, with their massive columns and soaring ceilings, they seem, in my memory, indestructible. Eternal, even. Some have proposed and also critiqued the idea of the academic library being at the “heart” of the university in placement and function. I would suggest it comes closer to being the “soul.”

Buckland, Michael K. “Foundations of Academic Librarianship.” College & Research Libraries 50 (1999): 389-96.

Crowley, B. “Tacit Knowledge, Tacit Ignorance, and the Future of Academic Librarianship.” College & Research Libraries. 62(6): 565-84.

Published in: on September 12, 2008 at 2:37 pm  Comments (1)  

That Ineluctable Essence of Excellent Teaching

For class, I read an essay by Gad Yair titled “Can We Administer the Scholarship of Teaching?  Lessons from Outstanding Professors in Higher Education.”  Instead of examining quantifiable aspects of excellent teaching that can be recreated from classroom to classroom, Yair has conducted a qualitative study that attempts to identify the characteristics of extraordinary teachers.  His study emphasizes the “somewhat neglected aspects of student-professor relations and passionate instruction in higher education” (449). 

If I were still in the business of teaching, this study might be equally inspiring and daunting.  Inspiring, because in the interviews that formed the basis for the study, people recount the electrifying experiences they had with professors.  Even decades later, former students have vivid memories of that master teacher.  Daunting, because the professor is described as a “knowledgeable expert” who “reflected intellectual rarity:  Depth, seriousness, expertise, and creativity” (455).  All right, I’m no longer in teaching, and descriptions such as these make me feel sweaty and, well, intimidated. 

I got the feeling that Yair was talking about the rarest of the rare, the Michael Phelpses of the academy.  We can all learn from Phelps, I guess, but mainly we want to go slack-jawed in the presence of his expertise.  Ditto for these master professors.  Yair implies that the qualities they embody–primarily a passion for their students and their subject–cannot be institutionally replicated the way that technical skills can. 

It is interesting that Yair asked his respondents to report their most memorable life-changing “Eureka” moment in the classroom, rather than a more extended teaching process (say, a teacher’s effectiveness over a semester).  I have had professors who have proven their mettle for the duration of a course, but identifying those moments of pure insight was tougher for me. 

Something then came to mind, a stray comment really, that intrigued me and has stayed with me for twenty-plus years.  It was uttered in my upper-level math classes; by whom, I can’t remember.  It may have been echoed by other teachers and thus not attributable to one source.  Here it is:  “That’s an elegant proof.” 

It was said with a glance at the chalkboard, the type of sideways admiring look that might have been directed at an expensive sports car but was instead bestowed on this proof.  I can’t remember what proof.  ( I guess Yair would have thrown me out of his study.)  But it was streamlined, and clever, not relying on the unimaginative or brute-force.  It started with a carefully-chosen but simple premise which it built up through a series of logical steps before–surprise!–conjuring the last piece out of some hidden pocket and sliding it into place.  Voila!  Q.E.D. 

I remember that comment because it gave me a fleeting glimpse into the mind of the mathematician, which was more than a warehouse of theorems and calculations and lemmas.  It was a place of creativity, where beauty and elegance resided.  So that’s what it was like to be a mathematician.  This unintentional comment was one of the few insights I got into that mysterious realm. 

Those types of remarks may give the thrill of discovery when they are uttered, or they may pass peacefully by.  Only years later, when you realize that one has lodged in your mind like a burr and won’t come out, do you know you are a slightly different person for having heard it.

Published in: on September 5, 2008 at 1:43 am  Comments (1)