Thoughts from the Forum – DLF Liberal Arts Colleges Preconference, October 25

Megan Browndorf
This Forum Update is provided by Megan Browndorf, History Liaison for Towson University’s Cook Library. Find her on Twitter @LiberryCobbler

I’ve been mired in an existential professional crisis recently. Likely, just the product of a long instruction season. Still, it is a gift that I have been invited to write about my experiences as a liberal arts instruction librarian at my second DLF Forum at a time that I wax philosophical about my professional place in the world. I’ve been stewing in a self-centered fog of “why.” Three years into my career as an academic librarian, the romantic vision of my purpose in this field wears thin and the extent to which privilege defines the goals and agenda of my professional world has grown more blatant. Why does “information literacy” and research education matter? Even then, what can I even do to foster change?

I share this mess of personal and professional musings because, as Chris Bourg mentioned in her shared keynote with Cecily Walker, not only is the personal political, the personal is also professional. Between Chris Bourg and Cecily Walker I felt the galvanizing power of a good keynote to push a room full of passionate professionals to care about the right things. To eschew the dangerous myth of neutrality in favorite of decency and empathy. To figure out what matters toward fostering intentional, inclusive, critical change.

I thank them both for reminding me why what I do matters, which, in the course of day-to-day librarianship, I sometimes lose. As Cecily Walker offered “In a way we don’t begin to matter until something matters to us. We are who we are in relation to the rest of the universe.” She offered the Zulu term of “Ubuntu” – “I am, because we are.” As liberal arts librarians, we matter because we support the work of individuals relating to the rest of the universe. I believe strongly in the power of the liberal arts to help us cope with being human. I believe that what I do as a liberal arts educator is to help my community, generally undergraduate students, cope with being human. To develop structures to make being human easier and better for us all and to challenge those structures that are actively detrimental to humanity as our shared adventure.

Digital libraries and tools matter because of the power to connect human narratives and information in webs to better tackle what Chris Bourg referred to as the “wicked complex problems” of myriad inequalities. Neither Chris Bourg nor Cecily Walker are specifically digital librarians. And neither am I. I spent my first few years in the library world scanning oh so many objects and bonding with XML, so I understand the DLF world to a degree. Now, though, the extent of my digital work is equipping my undergraduates to navigate the digital landscape. But, no librarian needs to be a specifically digital librarian to understand the power that digital libraries and digital materials can bring to support the liberal arts. As a Research & Instruction Librarian trying to build the digital scholarship world into my students’ lives, this liberal arts pre-conference very much brought that home.

I went to multiple superb sessions I wish I could do justice to in this blog. For the future posts, perhaps, I am likely to describe the sessions I attended in more detail. But, because the pre-conference was so rich and my experience of it so personal, I believe it does more justice to evoke the why and the feeling of the pre-conference than to go point-by-point through the sessions I attended. For full details, the community notes are available, and in many cases detailed. I highly suggest reading through them.

Overall, what can the liberal arts offer to digital libraries and digital projects that other institutions [pullquote1 align=”right”]Overall, what can the liberal arts offer to digital libraries and digital projects that other institutions may not be able to do? Firstly, a focus on theory, behind-the-scenes work and scaffolding.[/pullquote1]may not be able to do? Firstly, a focus on theory, behind-the-scenes work and scaffolding. Most presenters focused not solely on developing technical expertise and skills in students, but rather constructing a deep understanding of the structure of information in a digital environment. The liberal arts focus is to help students get to why, in order to strengthen their participation in the how. Digital libraries at liberal arts institutions are doing this and excelling at it.

Secondly, liberal arts institutions are centering the undergraduate. They are allowing the undergraduate to explore, make choices, and make changes in the work that the libraries do. They are allowing students to provide input at all stages of the process and move beyond “grunt work,” as one panel called it. To be creative and feel connected to the work and be integral in the process. Digital libraries of this form are not just useful collections of thoughts and documents, but teaching tools. Each moment in a digital project’s life-cycle has the capacity to help students learn the complexities of the whole of the information process. In fact, Melissa Sarlin from Whitman College explicitly invoked the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy and the power of Digital Humanities projects to teach “Information Creation as Process.” Digital technologies help to dispel the illusion of neutrality of information for students. This equips them to participate in the information process more complexly, not only as students, but as human beings existing in a world with increasingly complex problems.

Lastly, liberal arts institutions are teaching students to do something that matters. Something that connects them to their communities and allows them to use their mastery of information process to make change in these communities. Something that considers the whole picture, even when working on narrower topics with focused tools.

There is always new, paradigm-shifting technology. Working with it and exploring it is important and exciting and DLF is ideal for this work. But it is not why libraries matter and not why librarians matter. As Chris Bourg offered, libraries matter because of humanity. No institution is better poised to explore that than the liberal arts institution. And perhaps, if I put a cross-stich of that prominently in my office, it will help me through my next professional crisis.