Schrödinger’s Library

Academic libraries, like the curriculum, are about more than content delivery. But learning can't happen without the stuff.

January 7, 2015

The other day, I bumped into an article in which some pundit was solving the problems of higher education. Unfortunately, I can’t link to it because it was one of those “nothing to see here, move along” moments. But one phrase from the article stuck like a burr. The pundit seemed to assume that “content delivery” was to a large extent the purpose of courses and majors, and that the problem we need to solve is delivering content more effectively and efficiently, which seems to me completely wrong.

What I remember from my undergraduate experience was learning to read closely and interpret texts, learning to make sustained arguments, and learning how to look for interesting questions and illuminating connections. The actual content of courses has faded away. Had I opted for a science major instead of humanities, I would probably have a different list – maybe “observe, question, seek explanations, think critically” – but it wouldn’t be profoundly different. Basically, what we carry with us when we graduate isn’t a body of knowledge, it’s the ability to make meaning. And it’s a good thing, since the content I learned in the 1970s would be out of date today. What we know changes; how we know, not so much.

Yet whatever my major, I wouldn’t have been able to practice the things that have stuck unless I had been immersed in a discipline where I had to master some content, where I had to write and argue and read in particular ways, and those activities were about something, something with which I became familiar enough to be able to build completely new things. That’s the content I remember – the paper I wrote about an early 20th century art movement in Russia, an independent study project on icons, an essay on of one of Dostoevsky’s novels, my interpretation hinging on a painting mentioned in it and the iconoclastic controversies that have made depictions of Christ so different in Russian and Western art. 

The reason I kept mulling this over throughout the day is because it struck me that academic libraries have a similar conundrum. These days, librarians tend to argue that what happens in libraries is more important than the stuff the library contains. That’s frequently a reason for rethinking library spaces – wanting to make them more about learning, less about storing stuff. The space taken up by runs of journals available in JSTOR or unremarkable books about urban crime, family dynamics, and advances in mental health treatment published in the 1960s seems wasted when it could be transformed into a digital scholarship center or study spaces that students clamor for or a new classroom where students can use archival or rare materials.

This is the cause of significant conflict with many of the faculty who feel librarians are threatening culture and learning when they store or discard volumes to repurpose the space they occupy. Surveys that Ithaka conducts periodically of faculty and of library directors show a growing gap in our beliefs about what libraries are for. Increasingly, library directors (with the exception of those at research libraries) assign more importance to the learning that happens in libraries and less to maintaining collections. Faculty surveyed think the most important role of the library is the provision of the information they want for their research and teaching.

The latest draft of the new Framework for Information Literacy articulates just how ambitious librarians are about the kind of learning that academic librarians want to promote. Librarians think teaching students how to think about information is a major learning outcome and supporting that learning is the mission of the library. Faculty think that kind of learning is their job. The difference is probably one of emphasis. Librarians have a broad view that being able to use and create knowledge generally is an important outcome of education; faculty tend to be more focused on engaging in disciplinary knowledge as a means of giving students deep subject knowledge and experience that can provide students with transferrable skills and habits.

This puts librarians in a paradoxical situation. When we talk about information literacy, we’re talking about the discipline-independent transformational repositioning of the knower from someone who can find and comprehend information others create to being someone who understands how knowledge is created in different contexts and how they can participate in creating new knowledge. Basically, it shifts the student from content-consumer to a much more sophisticated identity with the agency to take issue with others and invent new meaning. But that shift takes many semesters and, arguably, requires a certain depth of content knowledge.

The concepts highlighted in the new Framework can't be delivered as content. It’s understanding that comes through experience. Becoming deeply engaged with knowledge ideally prepares students for whatever they will be doing after graduation, even if they forget most of the content of their courses. Essentially we’re telling students who’ve reached a level of sophistication handling knowledge, “you’ve seen how knowledge works because you are participating in it. You have become comfortably conversant in disciplinary conversations, and now that you’ve found your voice and are comfortable raising questions, you’re prepared to join other conversations and find your place in them – or start new ones.”

The learning that happens in libraries will always involve using artifacts of the conversations that scholars and others engage in. Even if the content is increasingly virtual and more often than in the past available regardless of institutional affiliation, libraries will always be to some extent about the stuff – whether it’s bringing knowledge to the campus or sharing local knowledge with the world through digitizing unique archival materials, student research projects, faculty data sets, preserving self-archived research, or supporting the publication of open access scholarship. Though we often get into polarizing arguments about the nature and purpose of the library, it’s like the wave-particle duality of light. Libraries deliver content, the informational value of which will fade, so that learning can happen and new stuff can be made.      

These musings were partly inspired by a Tweet that has been bouncing around ...


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