Libraries, Learning and Teaching

A higher education librarian's reflections

If These Books Could Talk (a poem)

If These Books Could Talk – a poem by David Bedford

I am the fruit of knowledge and experience,
The product of months and years,
Of pain and joy and toil and tears.
I am coloured by a worldview that is my own,
Shared by no other.
I am built from mistakes and reflection,
From failures and mis-steps and triumphs,
Perhaps I am even built from wisdom.

Alone, I cannot give you these things.
Knowledge, experience, skill are not mine to bestow.
But together. Ah, together!
A meeting of minds, in the moment, or across the years.
A new construction.
My words meet your thoughts.
My worldview blends with yours.
There is work involved, but also reward.

I cannot give you knowledge or understanding,
But I can advise and guide the way.
Take what I give and forge your own path.
Bring your experience, passions, skills.
Use your mistakes, triumphs, failures.
Knowledge, understanding, perhaps even wisdom.
Not mine to give.
But yours to build on, and yours to surpass.


Learning to Teach

I have just started as a student on a course to do with learning and teaching, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the area.  This is the ALTHE, Award in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.  Once again, this gives me motivation to blow the dust off this blog and to start reflecting on a more regular basis.

At the moment, it seems very daunting, with a lot of dates to add to my diary and a bewildering number of things I could read. Very little is required/essential reading, but everything looks so darned interesting.  I need to take the advice I give to students – be selective about what I read, and move on quickly if something is not relevant or engaging.

Many of the other participants in the course (and its sister course the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education) are required to take it as part of their role, whereas I have chosen to follow it. Any difficulties I encounter are therefore entirely self-inflicted! I chose to undertake it in order to:

  • gain a deeper understanding of how students learn in higher education;
  • discover additional tools, techniques and theories I can use in teaching; and,
  • encounter ways of assessing students’ learning in what are often short, stand-alone sessions.

I am one of a very small number of non-academics undertaking the course. Sometimes this may mean that I will struggle to apply some things to my practice, at other times it may give me a unique perspective. We shall see. One benefit I have already encountered is that it is making me appreciate some of the challenges of being a student, which have unsurprisingly changed in the 16 years since I graduated. Going through the registration process was eye-opening, for instance – I can now appreciate the difficulties some students have with this.

As I go through the course, I intend to use this blog to reflect on what I am learning, and also on some of the sessions I teach along the way. It will be interesting (to me, anyway) to see how some of my more regular sessions change by the end of the course.

Reflecting on LILAC #lilac16

I have recently returned from LILAC – Librarians’ Information Literacy Annual Conference – in Dublin, and it seemed sensible to kickstart this blog with a reflection on the event, not least because reflection was one of the themes which seemed to run through it.

This was my first time at LILAC (though I have wanted to attend for a while) and I was also presenting. Unluckily for me, my presentation was in the final parallel session of the final day, which meant it was hanging over me for the rest of the time out there. It was also my first time in Dublin, which I found to be a beautiful and very welcoming city.

So, reflections. What did I take away from the dozen or so sessions that I attended? I have many notes, but my key thoughts follow

  • A spirit of playfulness is not at all contrary to the intention to teach and/or learn, and can be harnessed to create meaningful learning. Everyone is creative (it is not the same thing as artistic) and appealing to this is a worthwhile endeavour.
  • The teaching and training we offer could make use of the concept of the “magic circle” (from game theory), specifically the idea that the classroom is a place where failure is allowed and therefore not to be feared. After all, failure is definitely something which can be learned from. I just need to work out how to make this clear without it sounding silly!
  • It is important to remember the emotional aspect of teaching and training, for ourselves and for our students. Librarians often experience anxiety around teaching (largely due to the relative lack of training we have in this area), but students are also often anxious, whether it be about computer use or the research process. Being aware of and helping to address these emotional aspects in ourselves and others can be transformative.
  • Reflection, reflection, reflection. Important again, both for ourselves (what works, what doesn’t, what we can do about it) and for our students (what they have learned, how to apply it).
  • When talking about copyright and other exciting legal areas, it is always better to focus on what CAN be done rather than what can’t. Sometimes that may not be possible, but definitely something to aim for.
  • Information privilege (and the whole area of ethics in publishing) is something we should raise awareness of. Are our university communities aware of how privileged their access to (for instance) packages of journals makes them? And what can the UK librarianship community do to help reduce the information privilege gap between people who belong to a wealthy institution and people (at home or abroad) who do not?
  • It is important to consider the role of the library in supporting the development of non-academic members of the university community? Digital skills, including the ability to find, evaluate and use information online, are important across the university and the library may be able to help.

Some concrete things I learned

  • CTRL-ALT-Arrows can rotate your screen display. Who knew?
  • General Studies will soon cease to exist as an ‘A’ Level. I don’t think this is a huge loss.
  • The US has a thing called Information Literacy Immersion Program, which sounds amazing. It offers several days of intensive training to help librarians develop the skills they need in teaching and pedagogy. I wonder whether something similar could work in the UK?

Things I am going to do post-conference

  • Make sure that anything I release has a Creative Commons licence (I’ve made a start by adding the CC-BY mark to this blog).
  • If writing using Word, remember to use Styles properly to make the document accessible to screen readers.
  • Read the CILIP strategy properly!
  • Check out what software I could use to create an online “treasure hunt” for distance learners.
  • Seek out books written by several of the presenters, including Nicola Whitton & Alex Moseley, Char Booth and Jane Secker & Chris Morrison.
  • Create a short summary version of the “learning and teaching offer” I am working on.
  • Keep working on online guides and videos, particularly with distance learners in mind.
  • Seek out the requirements for the 6th form EPQ which most of our under-18 visitors are working towards.
  • Write up my own work in publishable form. This is the big and scary one!

I found the whole conference very worthwhile and enjoyable. The library community is very open, happy to share ideas and work with each other, so I have come away with lots of things to try out, tips for tweaking my teaching sessions and people to stay in contact with. I have also come away further enthused about a job I already loved.

Why learning and teaching?

Librarianship is a multi-faceted profession, and even within a specific role in a specific sector (in my case in subject support within higher education), there are many aspects to a job, probably more than non-librarians would ever suspect. My own personal-professional interests include the Open Access movement, the classification of library stock and ethical issues surrounding what we do and don’t provide access to. So why choose learning and teaching to focus on?

Essentially, because it is what I am passionate about. And because I am passionate about it, one of the tasks I was given in my latest appraisal (still hot off the press) is to take on strategic leadership in this area for the library where I work.

I believe that libraries and librarians can transform lives, and one of the ways in which higher education librarians can do this is through our engagement with the institution’s learning and teaching.   I don’t mean simply by buying the books on students’ reading lists, though that is part of it.  It is our professional skills and personal involvement which are key here. Librarians are experts in finding, organising and making sense of information and knowledge. We do not know everything, but should be able to find almost anything. In other words, we can connect students to the knowledge and information they need for their studies, and help them develop skills which will be of use beyond graduation.

There are many ways in which we do this, and I am sure that as time goes by I will discover more. On the most basic level, we purchase books, journals, DVDs, databases and other resources and provide physical or electronic access to them. We can also signpost to relevant purchased or free resources through personal recommendation, subject guides, social media or other means. We can train groups of people on the use of specific resources, provide one-to-one coaching or teach on general principles of information use. We can create resources to help people with their use of the internet, or the joys of referencing. We can engage with academic staff at the level of curriculum planning, offering them our professional expertise to complement their own skills and knowledge. The possibilities are probably endless.  Exploring this area is a journey with no end point, but isn’t that the best sort of journey?

An endless road heading off towards a glorious open blue sky.