Friday, 22 April 2011

Personalise, contextualise...and on to ‘boutique’

The LILAC conference is one of the excellent librarianship conferences around bringing many together to share best practice.

It was great to be able to attend all three days this year, and feel that as a result I could chart some of the themes that seemed to weave themselves in and out of many of the presentations much better than from just a one-day visit.

I was struck by the number of times that the LILAC conference presentations referred to the need to contextualise information literacy. The new SCONUL 7 pillars model suggests that different lenses are used to apply the framework – ie different user groups look and feel different. But it was almost as if this was all something new and revelatory. And yet, in one of the most traditional library structures known to UK librarians, this is exactly what we have been doing since....well, forever. I’m delighted to be able to say that the ‘lens’ that I can develop in my job is not just an ‘undergraduate’ lens but an ‘English Literature Studies undergraduate’ lens. This must surely be a distinct advantage for us in this staff-intensive, personalised service that we run?

A number of libraries in Cambridge have been working this way for a long time - Education, Business, Classics, Earth Sciences, Medical, Law to name but a few. One of the best things about Cambridge is that, as subject librarians, we can - and do - have an enormously variable approach to teaching ‘information literacy’. What we do from library to library won’t (and shouldn’t) look the same.The students will need our resources and services and the related skills to use them at different times and in different ways -depending on the subject, depending on the input from academics, depending on the style of teaching; depending on all sorts of things! Contextualising literacy training means spotting the needs and addressing them at the right time and in the right manner. To contextualise or personalise training so that we have buy in from our users is crucial. If it’s not relevant to them, I don’t think they care. We try to make them care by setting out to discover what buttons to push to get their attention. This involves knowledge; it involves knowing about them and the time frames that they work with; it means finding the context, tailoring the services, personalising content, embedding ourselves and our work in the heart of the specific part of the institution they – and we – are in.

One tangential thought I have had is the concern that I feel about how easy it is to patronise our students. The question is how to satisfactorily help (for argument’s sake) the 50% of the student body for whom some of the essentials of info lit might have eluded them in their secondary schooling, whilst maintaining the respect and appreciation of the other 50% who actually know and understand everything you are telling them and might resent being at a session in the middle of an extremely busy schedule. We don’t want to frighten off the first 50%, but neither do we want to alienate the second 50%.......Do we just assume that the second 50% have forgotten all they ever knew? . I definitely disagree with the suggestion that students forget all they ever knew in transferring from one part of the education system to another. Yes – the long summer holidays mean that primary school children often have to re-trace SOME steps at the beginning of a new term but I don’t think that there are very many who completely forget how to read and write! I digress! In an environment where you probably have one shot at doing something for all freshers I have in the past viewed the sessions (fortunately small and interactive) that we run as primarily about building relationships. I stand by this as being the most useful goal. The challenge is to have the icing on the cake where they all gain something more than this from the session – after all at the time they may not view building positive relationships with the library staff as the most important thing they could do with their time! It is possible that co-agency and community learning have a large part to play so that it’s not all about the content we include in a session but perhaps more about teaching methodology. In May we have a visit from colleagues from the University of Northampton and it will be useful to compare notes with them.

The term ‘information literacy’ was challenged at the conference. I’m not a strong advocate of it myself. We make all sorts of assumptions when we use it. We assume others who work with us know what it means. It’s on occasion used in a slightly odd one-up-man-ship type of activity between librarians. We use it to make academics think we know more than we do. We bandy it around as if ‘doing’ information literacy is the answer to all the problems our students have. Actually no! The very broad points that make up information literacy are bound up with other literacies and I was really pleased to be given a handout at one of the LILAC sessions demonstrating that ‘info lit’ is just one of many ‘literacies’ and that realistically it cannot just be librarians who are the answer to it all! Phew. In fact perhaps we should be promoting a ‘literacy’ curriculum – one that we have a role in? But even the word ‘literacy’ is fraught with interpretive issues. If you are invited to join a ‘literacy’ class, are we inferring that you (they) are ‘illiterate’? This was a point made at LILAC by Jesus Lau and it opened up all the problems in my mind that we frequently forget exist with library terminology! Ah well.....

This all inevitably bring me back to ‘boutique’ – the model, the themes, the book and so on....and even more inevitably to the fact that I really need to start working on my contribution.......


  1. Thanks - a thoughtful response to what must have been a very stimulating conference but then I would have expected nothing less!
    I'm glad someone is speaking up for the skills subject librarians have developed working closely with their staff and students; and agree that "information literacy" is turning into one of those irritating terms that mean less the more you look at it.
    Somewhat flippantly, I'm increasingly struck by the gap between librarians' earnest desire to encourage/support/promote learning and resources, and how this can plays out with the psychology of the bright but defensive 18-yr-old male student!
    Could I also bring into your discussion James Clay's presentation at UKSG Not especially about infolit but some valuable thoughts on linking, or embedding, librarians using mobile technology. Maybe useful for your boutique service studies?

  2. Thanks Sarah - for confirmation of thoughts on terminology and an interesting presentation link. I did see a very good use of mobile phones for teaching and learning in two sessions at LILAC and plan to make use of them next year - and am also pondering QR codes in the library...