Can libraries facilitate transformative experiences?

Tranformers
I had some very good discussions on twitter recently (complete with book recommendations, naturally) about whether higher education is transformative, what that even means, and how you might measure it.

My very, very cursory look at some of the research seems to indicate that the number of college students who show truly transformative increases in moral reasoning, critical thinking, cultural understanding, and the like is fairly small. Moreover, there seems to be some evidence that students (and their parents) are actually not approaching college with any sort of transformative goal in mind — most kids are pursuing a college degree for understandably instrumental reasons.

And yet, despite the fact that it rarely happens, and it may not even be what students are seeking, I still believe in the transformative potential of the college experience. For example, I believe in the possibility that a student might be encouraged by a classroom experience in such a way that ignites a life-long passion for social justice. I believe in the possibility of a student discovering an unknown aptitude for art, for programming, for scientific analysis, or for leadership. I believe these sorts of transformative self-discoveries can happen in the classroom, in the dorm, in extracurricular activities and in the library.

I’m more than willing to admit that the kinds of life-changing transformative college experience I’m talking about may be very rare.  And in spite of that (or perhaps because of that), I want to create libraries and library experiences that facilitate those rare events. I don’t quite know what that looks like, but I think it may be as much an attitude as any specific set of actions or programs.

That’s the argument I couldn’t figure out how to make in 140 characters, but that came into relief for me through those twitter exchanges. Thanks to @lisalibrarian, @NancyDryden, @bfister, @JMarkOckerbloom, @jillian6475, @MerrileeIam, and @olinj for the twitter conversation and the book recommendations.

I would love to know if the idea even makes sense and/or if anyone has ideas about what a library that facilitates transformative experiences looks like.

9 Responses to “Can libraries facilitate transformative experiences?”


  1. 1 eao September 18, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    I went to Stanford and worked in the Music Library and Special Collections as a student, then as half-time staff in Spec, then as an hourly temp in various positions in Spec during my four years of grad school (including getting my MLIS this past May! woot!)

    I loved to just wander the stacks at Green, browsing shelves. In library school we talked a lot about the value of “serendipitous discovery,” which seems to be increasingly forgotten by students in the digital age. However, there’s only so much you can get from a catalog record. To really research is to explore the other shelves and see what your catalog search missed, in my opinion.

    I think there’s also a bit of a flaw with the introduction to the library as it was when I was a freshman, when it was linked to PWR 1. I don’t know if it’s still part of that class. Thing was, my PWR 1 class was in the spring quarter, so I didn’t get my “official” introduction to the library until nearly the end of that first year. Before college, I’d never heard of LOC call numbers. I literally got lost in the stacks during orientation – took me half an hour to find my way out! Mostly I didn’t mind, and now I find the memory amusing.

    On the other hand, I remember the first time a class took me to Special Collections. I still remember looking at a polyglot Bible, and finding myself breathless with excitement over a manuscript Purcell score.

    Sorry for the comment-novel I’m leaving here, but I guess my point is that of course libraries facilitate transformative experiences. You can provide opportunities through workshops, events, exhibits, assignments, liaison librarians working with departments, and so on, but transformative experiences can’t really be planned. You can provide the opportunity and encouragement, but what the students make of it all is up to them.

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    • 2 sophylou September 18, 2013 at 6:50 pm

      Special Collections libraries/sources really do have their own kind of magic. I used to work at the Harry Ransom Center at the U of Texas, in public services, so I worked with patrons and answered research questions. I remember well the feeling of sheer richness, so many fascinating collections, and so many possible points of entry. Finding aids — and also, finding out how to use finding aids! — can also be transformative.

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  2. 3 naomi September 17, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    I think it can be transformative to learn to check sources and think about their biases. To realize that sometimes experts aren’t original thinkers. Considering the context of an information source is powerful, no?

    My brother, who is a brilliant teacher, uses MythBusters to talk about scientific method: when is one of their experiments truly scientific, and when isn’t it? And why does that happen? (because the goal is entertainment, not science, of course) — can there be an analogous popular culture “aha” for checking sources? for figuring out how to find more information in a random area of interest?

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  3. 4 Helen L. Chen September 16, 2013 at 11:15 pm

    Great questions and definitely terrific ideas for an ongoing conversation. All that we know about higher education literature is based on the premise of college being transformative (see Pascarella and Terenzini’s tomes on How College Affects Students and Kuh’s High Impact Practices). While the work from Arum and Roska suggests not much is happening in the first two years, I would argue that how we assess students and measure learning must evolve beyond standardized tests to more authentic approaches to documenting evidence of student learning such as ePortfolios. I can definitely see libraries and more importantly the people in the library organizations, playing a critical role in helping students develop the information literacy skills to organize, tag, annotate, reflect, share, present, archive and access their ePortfolios as a collection of artifacts representing their learning as it develops during their time in higher education and beyond.

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  4. 5 sophylou September 14, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    I have several faculty who really want this. The one who does the footnote exercise talked up our successes (she usually has me do two or three sessions — we do something with Reader’s Guide too) and now I have another professor who wants similar exercises and meets with me to talk about skills he wants to emphasize in his assignments, etc. In both cases, I really get to play with hands-on lessons. Sadly, the other two faculty members who were into this kind of thing have both gone on to other universities. Some faculty really only want the one-shot lecturey thing, though…

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  5. 6 sophylou September 14, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    This is something I have at the back of my mind when I teach instruction sessions. I have a PhD in the subject area I teach most in, and still do research in that area, which means that I have a LOT of experience with the research process and the kinds of transformative (and dare I say, exciting!) moments it can foster. I focus a lot on search strategies, but I’ve noticed that I’m more interested in teaching them how to use library tools to learn more about their topics and, as they learn, to gather more, and more sophisticated, search terms. Not just “how to find things,” but “how to find things relevant to your topic. I’m interested in using apparatuses (apparati?) like LCSH and other controlled vocabularies, article abstracts, finding aids, etc., as points of entry for resources but also as tools for learning more, for helping students start to get the lay of the land.

    One professor I work with has developed a fabulous exercise, which we’ve tweaked over the last couple of years: she and I talk about footnotes, we have a LibGuide on mining footnotes that I talk through, and then the students, working from an assigned reading, go out and find the cited items… pull from shelves, pull up articles etc. from databases, and then talk about how well the item was used in the reading. It’s a great exercise, because it gives the students lightbulb moments and a sense of mastery: look at how much I can get from footnotes, with us floating to help them interpret the citation and look up the item.

    I have to admit that I prefer to do these kinds of exercises, which do involve a bit more embedding in the class (i.e. go beyond a one-shot). This exercise gives the students hands-on experience with developing a skill that is pretty central to historical scholarship… and for a student struggling with how to find sources, that’s important (especially because it easily incorporates, or can, digital and print sources — I’ve also talked with our Special Collections about creating a similar exercise using something citing one of their collections). It’s also a skill that could lead out to other transformative moments– like the discovery of a theorist quoted in someone’s work whose theory might end up transforming the student’s thinking/work.

    Probably more than 2 cents there. ..

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  1. 1 #LibrarySciences | Annotary Trackback on September 19, 2013 at 5:15 am

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