Are “skills” a figment of our imagination?

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I recently attended a very interesting and thought-provoking course on learning theory, the aim being to gain ideas about how best to put across information to members of my organisation enrolled on information skills courses.

Long story short – it appears that the term information “skills” is something of a no no. As you may have gathered by the quote marks, it’s the “skills” bit that’s the problem. According to the course leader this could imply a set of predefined processes that a “student” may assume is the only way to approach a problem and that all information inquiries (in this case) can be solved by following the same set routines. “Skills” is therefore giving my “students” an unrealistic expectation about what they should be taking from/what they will get out of my courses.

The problem that I have with this is pitching it to my target audience. I have resisted using the industry terminology “information literacy” because, in my opinion, the inclusion of the term “literacy” will give the impression that I am condescending towards this audience who are almost certainly unaware of its use in this context.

My aim is not to give the impression that every information need can be fulfilled by the same routine set of processes, and nor do I think the title “information skills” imply this.  My aim is to raise awareness of techniques that can be used in searching for information in online or real-world environments.  For example, the use of truncation and wildcards in search engine queries, or even the simplest things like the use of synonyms (which can easily be applied to both Web/database searching practice, and searching the index of a book).  I want to equip those who participate in my courses with some “tools” that will make them more effective searchers, more “skilled” searchers. However, in order to do this I have to get people to come first!  They won’t come if they don’t feel they will be getting anything practical from it, and woolley terminology like “problem solving” simply won’ cut it with my target audience I’m afraid.

So, the dilemma is one of semantics versus the “greater good” – namely encouraging as many of my target audience as possible to think more carefully about information searching and retrieval, and resource evaluation when conducting their enquiries.  Narrow-minded though this may seem, the success of these courses is far more important to my organisation than the relative merits of the terminology, so for now I will set the semantics to one side and concentrate on the content.  I fully appreciate the arguments of the course leader, and I accept that in the field of academia “information skills” may be divorced from the “reality” of the learning experience provided, but in the real, my real world the semantics aren’t the issue – the results are.  As long as those attending the courses take away more than they came with, and find the work we do on the day useful, I’ll be a happy bunny! 😉

I should say that the rest of the course that I attended was very useful indeed, and I gained a lot of useful ideas about how to approach a subject in ways that would benefit all types of learners and people at various stages of understanding and development… but that’s one for another post – watch this space!

A stereotype, but a cute one none-the-less

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Book-stamping avatar

Ok, so last time I was bemoaning the stereotyping of librarians by lazy journalists… and don’t get me wrong, I still hate it. However, you can’t help loving this can you?! A book-stamping avatar!! At least she hasn’t got a bob.

I just hope she set the date right 😉

Hat-tip to Scott Vine, the Information Overlord, for drawing my attention to this.

Back with new technology!

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I’ve been somewhat lax in posting lately, and this can be explained away by a number of factors, namely:

  1. Vacation!!
  2. Heavy workload.
  3. New technology to facilitate blogging!

However, it’s time to start posting again – especially now I’ve acclimatised to the shiny new bit of kit that I’m tapping away on right now 😉

And what better way to start than with that old chestnut, the image of librarians. Now, the stereotypical librarian wears a large quantity of tweed, has her (invariably they are female) hair tied tightly in a bob, and sets off the outfit with a stunning pair of horn-rimmed specs. Add to this the physical trait of a severely eroded index finger (the result of “wind burn” from 20 years of hardcore shushing) and there you have a character that the majority of the public know and, erm… well, do they love them, resent them, laugh at them or just pity them?

An enduring question for me is, why, when numerous generations have passed through modern libraries (be they public, academic or special) that retain very few or none of the 1960s-1980s-style characters described above, does this image persist. I mean, this is the 21st century for crying out loud! Are there really any of these librarians still working? Does any modern library user really recognize this stereotype in their librarian? Anybody?

Ok, I suppose there must be one or two, but this surely doesn’t warrant the persistent perpetuation of this myth.

My (very obvious) theory on the matter is that the stereotype is driven by the media, and in particular lazy journalists who haven’t visited a library for at least 25 years and prefer to fall back on their long-formulated preconceptions about a profession rather than think “ooh, I might actually do some research on this story”.

Even positive stories trying to dispel the myth can leave a slightly bitter taste in the (well, in my) mouth. For example, a recent article by Kara Jesella in the New York Times aims to show that modern librarians do “cool” things like drink cocktails in bars and get tattoos… ooh, and by the way, they do some good work with new technology too…

Well, no s**t Sherlock! Ok, this is probably a little harsh, and it may well be that the author was genuinely surprised that all librarians don’t go to bed at 8pm every night reciting the finer points of AACR2 to their budgies. However, I can’t help feel that the title of the article (“A hipper crowd of shushers”) sets the wrong tone initially, and subsequently the piece never really recovers. Whilst it successfully highlights the fact that there’s much more to librarianship than a bit of book stamping and shelving, the reader doesn’t really escape the overriding feeling of surprise that young people can do what young people do and be librarians at the same time.

So, let me spell it out to anyone who hasn’t yet got the message… we librarians and information professionals are (in the most part) highly motivated, well qualified individuals who are good at what we do and enjoy our work both with people and new technologies… and we do have lives too!! Capiche? 😉

Thanks to the lo-fi librarian for drawing attention to the NY Times article.

Update – It seems like I’m not the only one to take a dim view of this article.  Meredith Farkas, who was interviewed for the article but to her relief wasn’t quoted, seems to agree with much of what I say above.  I very much agree with her sentiment that we should celebrate the diversity of the people working in the profession – working together and being able to draw on a wide range of experiences only makes us collectively better at what we do!