Closing the distance between classroom and library: An open letter to the faculty (2005)

This post was originally published to my now mothballed blog, Voyage of the Paradigm Ship on February 28, 2009. The “open letter” transcribed below was sent to the faculty over 6 years ago. The message about information literacy is still relevant, though I am pleased to report that in the intervening years we have witnessed far greater collaborative interaction between faculty and librarians. And as far as the library as place is concerned, rather than a “student expectation that technology will at last make the trip [between the classroom and library] entirely unnecessary,” we have actually witnessed exponential growth in student use of the library for study and learning. Fascinating!

I was doing a little house cleaning in my email folders the other day, and I came across the following “open letter” I sent to the faculty back on April 27, 2005. I was still Reference Librarian at the time, and just two months into the job. I believe this was my first formal communication with faculty regarding information literacy and the changing nature of libraries and information resources. I hit upon the idea of the classroom and the library as separate “domains” that risked an ever widening “distance” for students. I used this metaphor as the basis of an appeal for greater intentional collaboration with faculty in order to bridge the gap. (The mug shot was original.)

As an extension of my role as Reference Librarian, I want to make myself available to you as a resource—and potentially more than a resource—for bibliographic instruction and information literacy in your courses. Allow me to share some of my thinking and interests in this area.

It is conventional (for my generation, and for many generations prior) to think of the library as a place where information resources are stored. Users go to the library to access these resources on an as-needed basis. For students, the need is typically oriented toward completing class assignments. Bibliographic instruction in this vein seeks to inform students

1) about the relevant (subject and course-related) resources that are available in the library

2) how to go about accessing relevant resources in the library, and

3) how to productively use these accessed resources in support of the learning process.

This is an important exercise. However, viewing the library as a place—an information “warehouse”—may contribute to more than just the sense of physical distance required to traverse there from the classroom. A potentially problematic metaphorical distance may also be building up. The greater this perceived distance, the harder it is for students to see the intimate relationship between classroom and library in the learning process.

The sheer volume, availability, and mobility of knowledge and information resources in non-print and electronic formats is certainly one aspect contributing to the increased sense of distance. Imagine all this information, just a few keystrokes away, and all conveniently accessed from the comfort of home or dorm room! Some lament this as the death of the book and the demise of the library as we (my generation, and for many generations prior) have always known it. I am less pessimistic (though I recognize that changes are inevitable). Besides, having access to an ocean of unmediated information is not necessarily helpful. (In fact, it can be exceedingly frustrating!) Access to information never directly translates into the acquisition of knowledge. But the new(er) reality does suggest to me that a broadening understanding of what the library is and how the library functions in the learning process is needed. In many ways, it must be admitted that the sense of distance was there even before the introduction of electronic information resources. Students, to varying degrees, have always complained about having to make the trip from classroom to the library for information needed to complete their assignments. It’s just that we can see the distance more clearly with this increasing (if still largely imagined) student expectation that technology will at last make the trip entirely unnecessary.

Physical distance exists as a result of practical considerations of space. (We need a place where we can store and organize books on shelves so we can retrieve them later as needed.) But metaphorical distance doesn’t take up space. The “ah-ha” for me considering this technological capacity to electronically disassemble information content from information format is not that I should lament the death of the book (which I do not believe) but that I should be provoked to focus even more attention on the nature of information itself. Yes, new information formats require the learning of new skills (e.g., database searching, electronic document delivery, etc.). This is an important part of bibliographic instruction today. But bibliographic instruction in the vein of my present thought broadens beyond a discussion of the format of information resources or where they can be found, to include a discussion about how to think about and use the information contained in whatever format, wherever it is found. This is where bibliographic instruction extends toward information literacy.

I have an interest in narrowing the sense of distance for students, not by lamenting a lost past or resisting an uncertain future for the library, but by proposing a stronger on-going relationship between myself as librarian and you as a faculty member. I fully appreciate and respect that the classroom is your domain, and you have the responsibility to guard it well for the tasks of teaching and learning. But I also believe the library needs to be conceptualized (by both librarians and faculty) as more than just a domain of support to the classroom in the learning process. After all, it is the separation of domains that creates the sense of distance. I believe the distance can be narrowed by inviting the library into the classroom. Information literacy aims for the library to be more integrated with the classroom in the learning process. It proposes a more active role for librarians to respond to partnering opportunities with faculty so that students will more readily sense the intimate relationship, and come to place a higher value on the gift of knowledge as a result. I welcome and look forward to the opportunity to talk with you further about bibliographic instruction and information literacy prospects in your classroom as you begin to plan your courses for Fall Semester 2005.