(Moderator Note: This post was written by Megan Stark, Undergraduate Services and Outreach Librarian, University of Montana, a guest contributor to SLL).
Recently I had the opportunity to spend a day with service-learning instructors from around the state. It was amazing to devote myself, for an entire day, to thinking about and discussing service-learning with colleagues from different disciplines, perspectives and institutions. As a profession, we should try to do this more often because these opportunities for cross-pollination can be rich and very fruitful.
I was reminded that, for students, service-learning is a powerful way to connect to the community and future careers. Understanding the unique information landscapes affecting particular professions provides the ability to move with increased sophistication around important issues. And I was reminded that, for instructors, service-learning is a powerful call to us to consider our community stakeholders. Understanding that our instruction and collections should reflect the unique information landscapes affecting our society provides us the ability to better teach and prepare our students for life after college.
So what does this mean for librarians? Certainly we can participate in service- learning by teaching our credit-bearing courses according to a service-learning model. Christopher Sweet (2012), among others, have provided wonderful examples at conferences and in the literature. But many of us are working, at least in some part, in a one-shot or more traditional liaison model that might make a move to credit instruction difficult. What does it look like to think about service-learning a bit more broadly for libraries?
My experience teaching one-shot instruction for service-learning courses has taught me that students in service-learning courses have different information needs than students in non-service-learning courses. Academic material plays a critical role for students in service-learning courses, because it provides background “grounding” in the issue. But (unlike non-service-learning courses) it is not the only, or final, source that needs to be consulted. Rather, it is the beginning of a series of steps that continually moves their thinking about an issue into the specifics of the community. Students in service-learning courses need a deeper understanding of the information valued in service environments (statistics, government information, local task forces, meeting minutes, etc.) both in terms of access and creation, and they need the specific ability to translate macro (academic) information to micro (local) levels. And nobody is better positioned to help them cultivate an understanding of complex information ecosystems than us. This is an emerging opportunity for our field.
Transforming our professional practice
There are, I am certain, many ways the ethos and practice of service learning could impact the work of academic librarians. I would like to present two major areas that could be enhanced by a more robust engagement with service-learning in academic libraries.
New directions for information literacy instruction
Librarians need, first, to think about how the information in academia is different from information outside academia. Too often we focus our instruction to students according to a paradigm that results in what Carrie Donovan and Sara O’Donnell (2013) call the “tyranny of tradition.” When we “design research assignments with strict parameters regarding the type of sources students should consult “ we inherently (and, perhaps, unintentionally) discourage their ability to value “knowledge that is created in social spaces and ideas that are formulated and proven beyond the traditional means of scholarly peer review” (p. 131). Our library instruction needs to flex beyond these parameters to include sources that potentially carry tremendous meaning to service environments. For example, last fall I had a student studying hunger and homelessness in a service-learning course. After a very thorough study of the scholarly literature, he still felt a genuine lack of knowledge about how to bring his research into his practice. He had meticulous field notes, interviews and other local data including a report by the city mayor, emergency room admission and discharge statistics and public comment from city council meetings, but none of these bore scholarly characteristics and were proving very difficult to cite APA style. In short, he was uncomfortable working academic sources into dialogue with the information that was the most meaningful to him in the service environment.
As librarians, we can play a critical role in helping students reconcile seemingly disparate material and encourage them to value local and community-based sources. First, we can collaborate with faculty colleagues across campus to encourage them broaden their definition of the kinds of sources students can use in academic work. I am fortunate to have generous colleagues at UM, and this has resulted in sometimes challenging, but ultimately rewarding, discussions about disciplinary knowledge and whose perspective counts. Second, we can make the process clearer for students by designing research assignments that provide them opportunities to practice integrating community sources into academic work (for an example, please take a look at the research journal assignment I designed for a Sociology course). Third, we can make visible for students the different search skills necessary to find community information by including and clearly demonstrating how to find this material during our research sessions—as part of our fundamental instruction and not separate from learning about academic sources. Finally, we can include examples showing how to cite local information in our citation and bibliography guides.
All of these strategies demonstrate to students the value of bridging academic and community sources. Changing the way we talk about, and teach, these sources is an exciting new direction for academic librarians, our faculty collaborators and our students.
New directions for collection development
As professionals, we know how information is acquired and structured in libraries—particularly in academic libraries. We know that it is often centrally held, classified according to controlled vocabularies, produced by scholars for other scholars and often peer-reviewed, subscription-based and optimized to be findable by library search tools. Information outside academia, by contrast, is decentralized, classified variously (chronologically, by agency, by administration, etc.), community based, created by stakeholders/practitioners for other stakeholders/practitioners and difficult to find using academic search strategies. Too often, we privilege the former while disregarding the latter, which (intentionally or otherwise) sends a message to students to avoid community information in academic work.
It is our responsibility to find a way to bring these different information environments together. Andrea Baer (2013) suggests one solution using a digital humanities project and the tenets of critical pedagogy. There are many possibilities: once we consider actively partnering with our communities to highlight the value their data brings to our students and to ask how we could help make it easier to find and use. It could be as simple as sharing/emphasizing a link to a local source of information (city government documents are good examples) via a LibGuide arranged on the topic or as complex as partnering with an organization to preserve and host their content via our IR platforms. We could refine our collection assessment tools beyond peer-to-peer comparisons of identical academic holdings to capture and promote the unique local information available in our communities. By insisting our collections are augmented with community knowledge, we legitimize its research value for students.
There are many ways to move our profession to a more holistic model for instruction and collections. To me, service-learning offers an immediate and convincing motivation to push our instruction and collections in new directions. We have an opportunity to encourage our students to engage with new information and to enrich our collections with new knowledge. Do you see other ways it moves the profession forward? I would love to hear them!
Baer, A. (2013). Critical information literacy in the college classroom : Exploring scholarly knowledge production through the digital humanities. In L. Gregory, & S. Higgins (Eds.), Information literacy and social justice : Radical professional praxis (pp. 99-119). Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press.
Sweet, C. (2012). The role of information literacy in service learning. Retrieved March 10, 2014, from http://www.slideshare.net/christopherasweet/the-role-of-information-literacy-in-service-learning
Donovan, C. and O’Donnell, S. (2013). The tyranny of tradition: How information paradigms limit librarians’ teaching and student scholarship. Retrieved March 10, 2014 from https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/handle/2022/14683