Wednesday, July 20, 2011

It’s not about what we do, it’s about who we are

At the end of one of the sessions I went to at ISTE (yes, this is me finally writing my ISTE reflection) I had an interesting conversation with two English teachers about perceptions of librarians. They were definitely pro librarian, and both expressed sympathy about how school librarians were getting “beat up” lately, and asked me why I thought that was happening. One mentioned that she had been to a session about finding research, and said that “library/librarian” was put near the bottom of the list of resources for finding good research sources (it wasn’t clear to me whether that list had been generated by the presenters or the audience, but either way--ouch). She wondered why so many people still didn’t “get it.”

I don’t really have an answer for that--well, actually, I have lots of answers for that, but no “one size fits all” answer. But one of the core issues is, I believe, about relationships.

One of the issues that this teacher raised was that so many students seem to gravitate towards sites that they often KNOW contains less-than-scholarly information, which is something I’ve seen as well.
I told her that one of my theories about why students like Yahoo!Answers (and other similar sites) is because they feel like they’re getting the info from a person--even if that person is demonstrably crazy. They want to know that they’re getting information from a person--they want a connection to the information source.

This echoed an idea that had come up in the session we’d just sat through (The “Yeah, Buts”: Answering the Top 10 arguments against change)--an idea that I thought was one of the most important and relevant ideas I’d heard discussed during the entire conference:

Successful change is not just built on rational arguments; it requires an emotional investment and response.

This was an idea I’d been looking to hear more of after Buffy Hamilton’s amazing, beautiful talk about enchantment (a video of Buffy’s talk, as well as her slidedeck, is available on her blog, and you should all go watch it if you haven’t already).

So often we get excited about new tools and new ideas, but neglect to build the relationships that will help us bring other teachers along on our journey. And sometimes our immersion in technology can, frankly, lead to a kind of arrogance. Every time I hear a librarian say something along the lines of “librarians are the ONLY ones in schools who know about X” with X being anything from emerging technologies, to reading, to (in an article I read recently) knowledge production and consumption, I cringe. Really? How off-putting. That assertion is often accompanied by some thinly-veiled resentment that their expertise is not more widely recognized or valued. Obviously I know that there are many librarians who don’t do this, but I’ve seen it happen enough that it seems to be a trend.

If I were a teacher working in a school with one of these librarians I would not feel like my own perspective and expertise were valued or welcome--whether I were new to these technologies and ideas and just trying them out, or had developed my own knowledge and was putting it to use in my classroom. When someone else in my building says they’re the “only” one who knows how to do something, I don’t feel like they’re going to be receptive to what I may have learned and discovered.

Assertions of our own expertise--insistence on our own rightness--cuts off conversation and limits the possibilities that can develop when we take the time and effort to build relationships. It may mean having to answer what we think of as obvious questions (though I’ve found that answering “obvious” questions helps me refine my own thinking), and it may mean admitting that we don’t something. But that means learning something new. We shouldn’t just be collaborating with teachers in order to improve student learning--we need to collaborate with teachers in order to improve our own learning.

Because, to get back to my earlier point, we learn best when we learn from other people. We want to feel a connection to the people we’re learning from. I can be interested in an idea I read about and stumble across, but when I get to discuss (or hear someone talk about) how they actually made that idea happen in their school--that’s when I get excited about trying something new. Likewise, I get more excited about a new idea of my own when I’m able to share it with others.

This is, for me, one of the most valuable things about conferences--spending several days sharing space with 13,000 other people who are also excited about new ideas and learning, and making real connections with those people

And this is the feeling we need to bring to our students and teachers. If all we talk about is the STUFF we do or have, we are never going to get as many people on board that we would if we focused on WHO we are. We need to sell not what we do, but who we are. All libraries have different resources to offer, but the one thing that should be consistent across all libraries is that there is value added by the personal interactions you have with the librarian--whether that’s a personal reference interview or the value that’s added by organizing and building a collection in order to meet the unique needs of that school.

We all know students and teachers who insist they don’t need the library because “everything is on Google.” We know we have more to offer, but unless we focus on building those relationships, no one else will.


  1. AWESOME post. You hit the nail on the head on this. Thanks!

  2. I second Kristin's comment, what insight. My mentor took "Rocks for Jocks" (Actually Geology 101) when she became the earth sciences librarian, and then she taught me and we were able to ask questions and participate in conversations and provide better service. This says it for me:"we need to collaborate with teachers in order to improve our own learning" Thank you.

  3. Thank you both for your kind comments (and sorry for my own delayed response--I put up the post and then promptly disconnected for a week).
    I love the philosophy of giving yourself a background in the subject you'll be collaborating around--seems like a great way to get everyone on the same page quickly so the conversations about learning can happen as soon as possible.