Perceptions of Librarians and Library Value Inhibit Impact

by Brandon Wright Adler

In my last post, I let everyone know that I had made the move to a non-law academic library at the University of New Orleans. My primary roles as UNO’s new Information Literacy Librarian is to build a foundational Information Literacy Program and provide information literacy instruction to all students, but especially to every first-year student that graces the University campus. I am super energized by this new opportunity and as I dive in and begin promoting the program that I am building, I find myself hitting a familiar wall—how the faculty perceives the library and its librarians. If I am making an honest assessment, I do not think this wall is an insurmountable one, but it is certainly systematic enough that I think it needs to be addressed. I also think that I need to make clear that while I am using my current institution (UNO) as an example, they are by no means the only institution that librarians experience these types of damaging perceptions. In fact, the issue is so prolific in academic libraries that it’s researched and written about worldwide.

Changing the Narrative

While there are several recurrent issues in all types of academic libraries that often thwart our efforts as librarians to be as effective as we could and intend to be, one of the biggest issues that we often face is the faculty’s secondary perception of librarians. It’s not that students and faculty members have a negative perception of librarians, per se, they just don’t always have a profound or particularly advantageous perception of librarians. When I began my new position at UNO, I would meet new faculty colleagues and attempt to explain to them my role at UNO. Unsurprisingly, I ran into the same old stereotypical statements and misconceptions that I have grown used to from law faculty and that I have heard more than one librarian complain about as well. Many, but not all, of our teaching faculty colleagues think that they know what librarians do on a daily basis and as soon as you say you are new faculty in the library it very rarely begs the question, “doing what?”

Much of perception, at least the perception that we can each have individual control over, is a lot about the narrative of one-on-one or small group conversation. As I keep meeting new colleagues, I have come to the realization that if I adjust my narrative when introducing myself I can keep the faculty members attention for a bit longer. For you to completely understand what I mean, below you will find example narratives. There are examples of both my original narrative and my modified narrative which was able to hold the faculty members attention for a bit longer.

Original Narrative – Scenario One

Me: Hi! How are you? I am Brandon. I am a new hire in the Library.

Faculty Member: Very cool! Nice to meet you. I am X and I work in Y Department. (Conversation over.)

(End)

Original Narrative – Scenario Two

Faculty Member: Hi! We haven’t met—I am A and I teach B.

Me: Nice to meet you! I am Brandon and I am the new Information Literacy Librarian.

Faculty Member: Oh, so you teach students how to use the library. That’s fun!  (Thinks conversation is over.)

Me: Yes and no. I don’t want to say that I don’t teach students how to utilize the library as a vital resource, but information literacy is so much more complex than just teaching students how to use the libra—(Cut off by faculty member).

Faculty Member: Right, I know. It’s about how to research using the library. I get that. It was so nice to meet you and welcome to the University! (Conversation is now over as faculty member moves on.)

(End)

There are certainly more narrative scenarios as the nuance of conversation varies, but these are a decent summation of representative interactions between librarians (myself anyway) and faculty members and I think you get the point. I have since modified my narrative when introducing myself and speaking about my new position at UNO.

Modified Narrative

(Tested on several faculty members)

Faculty Member: Hi! I am X. We haven’t met.

Me: I am Brandon. I am a new faculty hire. I was brought in to develop an Information Literacy Program for UNO. My teaching focus, of course, being on information literacy and my research focuses on the philosophy and theory of information literacy and its influence in higher education pedagogy.

Faculty Member: Wow! We really need that at UNO! So…what exactly is information literacy? I mean, what would be something that you would teach in your class?

Me: Okay, so elevator pitch—information literacy is so important for all students, and people, as it completely transcends all areas of life and academic disciplines. It teaches the student to develop and deepen critical thinking and analysis skills, which contribute to lifelong learning, and ultimately translates to a better prepared student entering the workforce after college.

But, what does that look like in my class? Well, there are several models internationally that an educator of information literacy may use, but I plan to utilize the threshold concepts developed by the ACRL for the UNO program, so for example, one of those concepts is “Information Has Value,” and how I would teach that section is to get students looking at and learning about publishing practices, the ethics in publishing, intellectual property, copyright law, citation management strategies, and even the importance of user-generated information in the contexts of metaliteracy.

Faculty Member: (blank stare) Whoa… that is deep and vitally important. What department are you in—education?

Me: Library Department.

Faculty Member: (looks confused) Oh…Okay… that’s fantastic! So, you will just teach one off classes if a faculty member requests you?

Me: That is the loose policy at the moment, but that is not enough. Students are not getting the foundational critical thinking and analysis skills that are vital to academic success.  As I said, I am here to build an information literacy program that does not yet exist. So, when I have my way all students will be required to take information literacy as a graduation component and faculty will also be encouraged and incentivized to attend continuing education workshops pertaining to information literacy and how to better design their courses to implement information literacy concepts.

Faculty Member: This is very important work. Good Luck!

(End)

Why Positive Faculty Perception is Important

Let’s talk about reasons why a supportive and positive faculty perception of the library, and especially its librarians, is so important. First, a positive faculty perception of the library is important because opinions are transparent—whether we want to believe it or not. When I introduce myself and we begin to discuss what it is that we do at the university and I tell you that I am a new hire in the library and you say, “Cool!” and then do not ask any follow-up questions, you are transparent in saying either a) you do not care to know more; or b) you already know every possible thing a library hire could do, so you do not need an explanation. While most everyone is perfectly polite during the conversation, the disinterest after saying the work “library” is rude and dismissive in a conversational context. Although unintentional, this type of behavior by a faculty member toward a librarian leaves a bad impression and signals that this person may not be the most likely candidate to approach with potential collaboration opportunities.

This behavior may also be directly influence how the library may be perceived by students if faculty-student interactions are anything like the librarians conversation with the faculty member. Which leads me to the second point, the faculty perception of the library and librarians may directly affect the student’s perception of the library. Students look to their respective professors for encouragement and advice. If faculty members see the library and librarians as a secondary resource, or a resource to use when they do not feel like lecturing (or they themselves are not fully adept at performing the research they are assigning), the student begins to view libraries and librarians in the same light. I think quite a few of us have had an awkward, or hilarious, interaction with law students who assume that we know nothing about the law and talk to us as if we couldn’t possibly understand or gather what it is they may be needing. After all, do you even know what pattern jury instructions are? I have had interactions with law faculty who walk a student to the reference desk and quickly and dismissively ask questions to which they do not wait for you to answer. Or, they are wholly unsatisfied with the answer and tell you that you must not understand the question. This directly influences the interaction that the student present will have with the librarian in the future. Not to mention, they may pass this misinformation on fellow students who now no longer trust that they librarians can assist them.

Third, faculty perception may also directly impact how university administration interacts with a library. As we all know, when budget cuts occur the library can often be one of the most detrimentally impacted places on campus. When the campus administration is overlooking the library this leads to further inhibition on the impact that librarians can make in their faculty and student population. Although, there is certainly an argument to be made for the reverse situation. That is, if administrative perception of the library and librarians we more positive and less secondary perhaps the faculty perception would follow its lead. I am afraid that is a chicken or egg scenario.

In conclusion, because this has gone on way too long for a blog post, since I have shifted this narrative, I have been given several business cards and been invited into several classrooms. Whether or not the follow through will be there is yet to be determined, but my modified narrative has definitely held a captive audience. It is sad to me that I have to bury the fact that I am a library faculty member in order for a faculty colleague to actually hear the good work that is coming out of the library, but such is life. This blog post is a sort of introduction to a much larger research project that I am currently working on called “Rebranding Information Literacy,” so I would love to hear any and all relevant feedback, commentary, and stories related to faculty and librarian relationships and perceptions.

About bwadler

Brandon is the Information Literacy Librarian at the University of New Orleans Earl K. Long Library. She joined UNO after more than four years serving as a law librarian in both academics and the judiciary. A graduate of the Loyola New Orleans College of Law, Brandon completed her J.D. in Common Law with a certificate in Civil Law. In addition, Brandon has a Master's degree in Information Science from the Florida State University. Her research interests center upon issues concerning access to information and the philosophy and theory of information literacy and how it informs pedagogy within higher education. Brandon is a member of the New Orleans Association of Law Libraries, AALL, ALA, and ACRL and is an active member of the American Association of Law Libraries as a contributor to the RIPS Blog.
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3 Responses to Perceptions of Librarians and Library Value Inhibit Impact

  1. claremmit says:

    I have just read this and linked to my yet to be published blogpost on communications. This is so timely – thank you!

  2. Luca says:

    Thanks for your post! I’ve been working in a similar role and your scenarios ring true. Like you, I’ve found the need to constantly win over faculty, partially through narrative re-positioning, but most importantly, through actual performance. When you show a faculty member you deeply understand research or can perform in front of the class as well as they can, most quickly become library advocates. I accept this obstacle as part of what we must do… but I do question, WHY are we in this position? Honestly, my observation and experience suggests that the negative stereotypes and pejorative associations are actually grounded in faculty’s disappointing experiences of old school librarianship and librarians. In short, librarians who can’t teach, who don’t understand pedagogy, who cling to linear and prescriptive notions of single-right-way-to-search, who don’t understand different faculty research cultures, who gate-keep resources and punitively enforce rules, who are poorly presented, who say no to everything, who lack initiative/motivation/professionalism. This is difficult to acknowledge, but shying away from it doesn’t address the need. Thankfully, the new entrants to the profession are more diverse, have teaching/research backgrounds, multiple degrees in different fields, and can see the importance and potential of our work in this age of information. There’s cause for hope; but lots to do in the meantime!

  3. Pingback: Information Literacy Debugged: A Missing Philosophy – The Nola Librarian

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