Open and Shut: A Case for Preparing Our Students for What’s Next

There has been a lot of ferment about the future of information and our cultural record in recent weeks. There are signs that within our students' lifetimes our gardens will not be so walled. It makes sense to focus our teaching on the skills of joining scholarly conversations wherever they will take place, in hopes that those conversations will not always be restricted to those with temporary access to academic libraries.

May 9, 2012

There has been a lot of ferment about the future of information and our cultural record in recent weeks, and one event helped crystallize for me some of the arenas in which the ideal of open knowledge is gaining ground. At the end of April, a colloquium sponsored by the University of Minnesota libraries brought together four speakers, each with a different angle on the potential of openness.

  • Anthropologist Jason Baird Jackson described his work with the Indiana University Libraries to create an open platform for folklore research based partly on the idea that folklore as a discipline relies on the contributions of the folk, so should be accessible to more than a small group of scholars. He also pointed to new platforms that help us rethink what it means to publish and how we review new ideas as they enter the scholarly conversation.
  • Doug Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, spoke about how scholarly presses could develop platforms for conversation and collaboration around dynamic explorations that aren’t set in type but rather function as databases and networks, literally encoding in books the social functions they already have, but in a more visible and actionable way.
  • David Ernst, tech director for the university’s College of Education and Human Development described a project to locate and curate open textbooks to make promising open textbooks more visible and provide the vetting that commercial textbooks get when they are reviewed by instructors in the discipline.
  • And finally, Lucy Fortson, Associate Professor of physics and astronomy, knocked our collective socks off with an amazing platform for crowdsourcing academic work that, thanks to new methods of gathering data, is too voluminous to be done by grad students but too difficult to be done by computer algorithms. Galaxy Zoo invites amateurs to help classify galaxies whose images have been gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope. Once the site launched, the response was amazing: 82,000 citizen scientists classified 35 million galaxies in short order, and along the way they made discoveries of their own, prompting a new feature of the site, a journal where participants can write up and share their findings. This kind of work is not just for astronomy; a similar project is underway to decode fragments of ancient papyri and transcribe ship logs to help create weather models.

It was an inspiring event on so many fronts, but particularly in the ways we can foster the conversations that scholarship is built on and make those conversations more inclusive.

My job as a librarian at a liberal arts college is to help students join those conversations by providing doorways into the places where the discussions are happening and by helping students figure out how to pick up what’s going on and practice unfamiliar conversational norms. Much of this work is done by disciplinary faculty, but sometimes they forget how hard it is to find the door and work the doorknob, which is an odd shape and design, baffling until you're used to it. Librarians can also sometimes help students figure out what some of the puzzling words in the conversation are and why that person in the corner is waving her hands so excitedly and why someone else is rolling his eyes. We, like the students, are not insiders, but we’ve picked up some strategies for entering conversations that have been going on for years around us.  We’re there to encourage them as they step forward, looking over their shoulders nervously. Am I doing this right? Will I be okay?

At least, that’s what we’re doing when things are going well. Sometimes librarians get carried away describing the design and special features of each doorknob. Sometimes we spend so much time explaining how to present yourself in these social situations, we forget that it’s the conversation that is actually interesting—doorknobs and etiquette, not so much. Sometimes we’re expected to be some kind of academic Emily Post, giving stern lessons. That, children, is a finger bowl. Do not drink from the finger bowl! Those who drink from finger bowls will be put on the social blacklist and you don’t want that!

Librarians also have a tendency, as Iris Jastram points out, to confuse process with product, thinking that by instructing in the proper operation of doorknobs, we are teaching research. The danger, apart from acute and chronic boredom, is that we’re teaching students how to use one library right now. The interface will change next week. And in a year or three, they won’t be allowed to use it at all.

We spend so much time helping students master the nuts and bolts of how to access our content that we forget about one really important door, the one that is slammed behind them as soon as they graduate. We’re focused on teaching students where things are and how things work in walled gardens from which they will soon be expelled. By its very design, that’s not education for life-long learning.

There are signs that this will change, that within their lifetimes our gardens will not be so walled. It makes sense to focus our teaching on the skills of joining those conversations wherever they will take place, knowing that those conversations will not always be locked away in academic libraries. The kind of learning Iris promotes is the kind that works right now and will continue be valuable in a world where the walls are tumbling down, where the conversations are not limited to a small circle of academics. The world that I hope is on its way.


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