drive-by advocacy.

Like many others, I have a fear of appearing too pollyanna when I talk to faculty about libraries. Some cite the notorious inferiority complex in academic librarianship to explain this feeling, which has been discussed often and thoroughly enough to not merit rehashing here. For the record, I feel no inferiority – merely a difference in my orientation, so to speak. Ours is a service profession with a broad, generalist perspective, at once diametrically opposed to and supportive of the specialization and focused  inquiry that drives research and instruction in higher education. As such, the discourse of academe/ics is necessarily more critical than the discourse of librarian/ship. When these worlds collide in conversation, the scrutiny of the academic “gaze” tends to make many of us wary of appearing naive and/or insufficiently phlegmatic when we explain who we are and what we do.

I think that by avoiding excessive earnestness, I have sometimes prevented myself from achieving my natural level of enthusiasm when communicating with professors, lecturers, and (to a lesser extent) graduate student instructors in the course of my job. I have noticed another factor that arises from my fear of coming off as a soft touch (and there are a lot of gender implications here – I would love to hear others chime in on this) – forced brevity. In my interactions with faculty and graduate student instructors at Berkeley I typically speak from a place of extreme practicality, which many of us do instinctively  – cut out the chaff and the boring librarian talk, and go straight for the information need jugular. I tend to focus with laser precision on what I can do for a particular faculty member in terms of facilitating student research or aiding instruction, in working with information resources or the learning management system. Particularly in research institutions, we are drilled with the notion that faculty are busy busy busy, which they invariably are, but maybe less so than we think when presented with a proposition that may make their working/teaching/researching lives easier. Focus in communication is essential, but why not try to achieve it in a way that invites faculty to think and care about the matter at hand?

Cut-to-the-chaseism and fear of untoward enthusiasm has at times thwarted the end goal of my formal and accidental outreach –  the palpable, lightbulb-coming-on instant when an audience of one or many begins to see the benefit of libraries in real and personal terms, as opposed to vague and abstract ones. In other words, when they begin to consider not what they have always thought librarians do, but what they just realized what I/you/we can do for them. You can see it in faces and posture when this happens – it’s like turning a tough room when giving a presentation, and it usually has something to do with showing a bit of personality while you are busy communicating your utility. Bell and Farkas offer different perspectives on the issue of the “sell” moment in library advocacy – how do you promote, educate, and engage without feeling like a huckster?

I have begun to reflect that the terse, seen-not-heard library hard sell puts the proverbial kibosh on the kinds of conversations that could, if engaged in on a large enough scale, do something about how libraries and librarians are perceived within higher education. When prompted, I can go into a sort of rhetorical trance about how research, media, technology, and information is changing, and why this makes libraries/librarians even more integral to higher education, society, and culture. I have also had a tendency to assume that this is something most teaching faculty do not want to hear. In some cases this may very well be true, but in just as many others I think it’s a topic of interest, and one that many actually want and are willing to explore (to varying degrees of intensity, to be sure).  Most of ACRL’s list of strategic priorities for 2009-2013 attempt to turn the focus of academic librarianship outwards towards integration and outreach in campus technology, education, and learning. I believe that a more conversational, authentic approach to advocacy during outreach is essential if we want to “develop institutional understanding of librarians’ roles in enhancing teaching and learning.”

It is critical that academic librarians work towards this goal from a grassroots level as well as an institutional one. I have highly personal  insight into the process and pitfalls of developing faculty understanding of libraries – I have a professor father and a professor stepmother who have many professor colleagues and friends, some of whom have known me since I was knee-high to a whatever.  I’ve thus had many an opportunity to have the kind of informal, “so, you’re a librarian?” discussions with diverse teaching and research faculty that are so oddly rare in the working context of librarianship – conversations about reading culture, information flux, and academic perceptions of libraries and librarianship (in the best case scenario, facilitated by beers). I have heard about how they use libraries in their personal research, when they integrate information search elements in to coursework and assignments, and who they think librarians actually are in highly personal terms. Not surprisingly, most have a deeply perceptive handle on the information resources in their own fields and institutions, but an incomplete picture of the resources and services that are available in other contexts. I have also learned how to mount a convincing defense of why libraries should continue to receive institutional dollars in the first place, which, by the way, is one of many rhetorical aces that all of us should have up our sleeves.

Finding “ins” in terms of utilitarian and/or emotional advocacy to faculty is difficult enough in and of itself. I started thinking about all of this after a serendipitous conversation I had a few weeks ago with two professors at Berkeley who are involved in the graduate teaching and learning department (where grad students learn how to be future faculty). The discussion was in regards to an exploratory pilot service idea I’ve been mulling over of developing a “clickable reader” or a deep-linked online syllabus. To make this very long, fraught, not-yet-fully-formed notion somewhat short: because UCB does not provide e-reserves in the traditional sense, instructors end up using the campus course management system to upload and link to course readings online and/or require students to buy expensive printed course packets. Preliminary inquiries into this process are starting to show that links to licensed electronic resources do not enter the equation as often as they should, meaning that effort is being duplicated and resources are likely being purchased multiple times.

Thus, I’ve been thinking about how we might create a combined web-based application and human-powered service that would mitigate this problem by leveraging librarian expertise  and better using our Sakai-based course management system to help instructors not only develop their online course readings, but save them for future editing and reuse. This would effectively reduce end costs to students, highlight the resources already provided by the library, and use our research skills and interdisciplinary knowledge to make an end-run around the difficulty of tracking down and linking to online sources (not to mention the persistent lack of a truly effective metasearching service). This “clicakable reader” would allow faculty to submit a reading list and have library staff investigate the quickest, cheapest, and most stable path to said information via a link, scanned chapter, or print reserve copy, and communicate this back to said faculty member with information about how they can stage these readings in the course management system, and/or with information on copyright and fair use. In essence, four birds with one stone – a human-powered metasearching service that would reduce faculty reliance on printed course readers, promote visibility of library resources, preserve reading lists for future reference and revision, and provide education on CMS use and copyright issues. (More on this if/when/as it materializes.)

This long aside was intended to illustrate an instance when a service idea allowed me to not only speak to library resources, but demonstrate and/or make the case for my expertise as a librarian. This potential project opened the floodgates for issues surrounding costs of higher education, fair use, scholarly publication, the Google Book settlement, the changing role of the academic library, and more – an amazing conversation, and one that gave me great deal of insight  into the areas I need to be focusing on in terms of my faculty outreach. It’s not often enough that I have the chance to speak about these topics from the heart with instructors in ways that are honestly and critically explored, which, the more I think about it, should be a central aspect of what I do. Who better to discuss the importance of intellectual freedom, information organization, and media/technology literacy than with those who to varying degrees have devoted their careers to these questions?

For me, it’s an ongoing matter of figuring out how to make these conversations productive, to bring my insight and energy to light and make these integral angles of the way I deliver services to those I interact with. I firmly believe that the impact of any form of communication (instruction, presentations, training, writing, whatever) has as much to do with the conviction behind whatever is being communicated as the way it is presented – enthusiasm is just as important as savvy, in other words. With this in mind, I plan on rededicating myself to being exactly as stoked about what I do as I actually am, instead of working my way up to and around it in faculty interactions. Why shy away from my convictions, which are what led me to this field in the first place?  I’m going to try to be more conscious of the fact that I have much to say about library essentiality and effectiveness, and I will do my best to jump headfirst into these moments when they present themselves.

3 thoughts on “drive-by advocacy.

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  1. Lots of interesting stuff here. I’m fresh out of my recent vicodin-induced haze, so have a couple of first responses. First, while there’s definitely a well-documented inferiority complex affecting librarians wrt faculty members, I also think there are significant differences in institutional power that make that less an individual self-esteem problem and more a real-live aspect of hierarchical difference. As an instruction librarian, I only have work in the classroom at all to the extent to which I am welcomed to the classrooms of my “real faculty” colleagues. They have to consent to my taking up their class time. I have to conform (more or less) to their pedagogical inclinations. So I guess I’m wary when I approach faculty in part because I do still secretly think professors are ‘better’ than librarians (even though my two siblings are professors, as are a handful of my goofestball friends), but also because they are “better,” at least in terms of the hierarchy at my university. How can we be on equal footing when my department exists to “serve” theirs? Also interesting to me is that I’ve had the most luck in selling library services when I can speak the language of the faculty I’m pitching to. We’re about to launch in the fall a brand-new focus on library instruction for freshman comp courses, a focus inaugurated in part by the way we’ve spoken directly to the curricular objectives of the English department. We’re selling them on our services not because of the innate value of library instruction, but because we a) we tagged our sell directly to a point in their course outcomes document and b) because we talked about finding information the way they talk about writing, e.g. as a rhetorical practice.

    The other way i’ve built enthusiasm for the library recently? By pitching useful tools. I’ve got a campus group working on a grant for a new reading program hooked on RefWorks. They want RefWorks orientation workshops for all their incoming graduate students. But do they want to include my librarian-ly perspectives on reading at the undergraduate level? Am I included as more than just somebody good at plugging things in? I’m not sure yet. How do we make ourselves equal *intellectual* partners? Does it matter? Are we?

    1. smart smart smart, per usual. in this case organizational hierarchy is both symptomatic and causal, because i think more librarians than care to admit feel the better/worse dichotomy in terms of our own perceptions of professional value as well as those of our institutions. it is rare-to-impossible to find an college or university that puts librarians on “equal” footing with faculty in terms of organizational clout and compensation… no matter how hard i try, i don’t see the wisdom in simply jockeying for faculty status as an end goal (not that that was what you were advocating). don’t get me wrong, i think it is extremely important that we are viewed/valued/compensated for the contributions we make and the credentials we carry, but i think that, in part, the persistent image problem that prevents us from being perceived as partners in education lies in an overabundance of concern being directed towards “proving” ourselves within the pecking order rather than demonstrating our worth through the type of practical, outcomes-focused outreach you mention, thus redefining ourselves from without. perception is key, and there is still quite a lot of misperception out there about every aspect of what we do. it’s often a case of feeling misunderstood and/or undervalued, and it chafes. when we collaborate on instruction we walk a highwire on borrowed time, cleaving to pedagogical and disciplinary preferences while trying to maintain balance in our identity as librarians with unique contributions. in the end, it’s a dual goal of both supporting scholarship and reaching students.

      you ask – “how can we be on equal footing when my department exists to ‘serve’ theirs?” precisely. i am a big believer in the service function of libraries, and i disagree that service is a necessarily subordinate position. perhaps “support” is more apropos than servitude, but in reality i think the descriptors we (are) assign(ed) are as contextual as the relationships we are able to carve out with individual faculty. i might serve one, support another, consult for a third, and collaborate with a fourth. i’m personally not holding my breath for equal footing with any, nor do i necessarily want what would come with it. greater visibility and more productive partnerships is more what i’m realistically after.

      final thought – your comment about speaking the language of faculty is extremely important, and is also the most “proving-groundy” aspect of this discussion. it is essential that they know that we know where both of us are coming from, in order to build respect and assure that they will give us the time of day. we provide support and work within institutions in a variety of ways, and it is therefore essential that we are able to roll with the perception-punches and stay sanguine while we are, as you note, speaking other languages. and really, this is what librarians excel at in the first place.

      so glad to hear your teeth are feeling better, xo.

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