"Laboratory" by tk-link via Flickr

As students practice inquiry-based learning, they are also learning to enter into the discourse of a new discipline. They learn to think like a scientist, or like a mathematician, or like a historian, as we read in this week’s chapter from How People Learn (2000). This book never ceases to thrill me with engaging snapshots of classrooms where teachers lead these forays into a new epistemology.

Yet the book’s emphasis on pedagogical content knowledge (p. 155) has me wondering what that looks like for librarians who teach.

In short, do we also want students to “think like a librarian” as they learn information literacy skills and dispositions? Why do I feel reluctant as I type that? Why does this phrase not carry the same cachet as learning to “think like a scientist”?

I reflect on this chapter in the context of having stumbled upon a 2010 post from In the Library with the Lead Pipe on librarianship and identity titled “Librarians as ________: Shapeshifting at the periphery.”

In it, Booth takes up the pernicious question of modern librarianship: “how do we redefine ourselves and stay relevant in this so-called ‘information age’?” Should we become librarians as publishers? librarians as super heroes? librarians as mediators? librarians as plumbers? she wonders.

To which I’d add my own librarian-as-constructions: epidemiologist? pastry chef?

She finally settles on librarian-as-shapeshifter, which certainly appeals to my postmodern cyborg side. She observes, “When we thrive, it is because we embed, participate, and transform in response to our environments, but never because we do everything just like all the other librarian … whatever. In other words, the future lies not in our apellatives, but in our affordances.”

I see a connection between the interdisciplinary — the shapeshifting — nature of librarianship and the question of whether this epistemological identity is somehow different for young researchers learning to “think like” an expert.

On one level, I am swayed by arguments that researchers and students don’t need to learn to be librarians, to learn our particular jargon or even all our techniques or preferences for engaging information. Usability studies in particular has contributed much to our understanding of how people interact with information systems, and why systems built by disciplinary experts may not be experienced in the same way by novices.

But I think there’s something more at work here.

The difficulty I’m having in pinning down precisely why learning to “think like a librarian” feels different may also have something to do with the larger difficulty — both inside and outside librarianship — with naming and defining the epistemology of information work. (On a related note, someone ought to write a joke about asking five librarians for their definitions of information literacy.)

Perhaps part of my reticence is due to the fact that the usability argument doesn’t get all the way there for me. It focuses on the particulars of user habits and behaviors observed through the lens of systems, but I’m not sure it captures larger dispositions or orientations toward information engagement that we’re trying to define in the phrase “information literacy.”

Maybe what we’re really trying to balance with information literacy instruction is conveying those larger networks of strategies bound up in “information literacy” with the worry that we won’t be able to teach those strategies without the micro-level habits, jargon, and systems.

It’s a tangle, to be sure, and I imagine this post conveys my own confusion as I work through it. But these are questions I’ll be thinking about more:

  • What is pedagogical content knowledge for librarians?
  • What does our disciplinary epistemology look like and feel like to learners striving toward information literacy?