My thoughts on #radlib15 – part 2: Communicating with library users

So welcome to part 2 of my #radlib15 breakdown. This post will focus on the first session I attended, which mainly looked at how we can actively engage with our users despite often having minimal contact with them. I was drawn to this session particularly because I am interested in how librarians fit into the education system and the idea that libraries can (and should) be a place for users to become engaged with their surroundings and society. In academic libraries particularly, many librarians who have a teaching element to their role may only see groups of students for half an hour or so at the start of term for a library induction. When contact is this minimal, how can we ensure that the skills we taught them at induction are sticking? Especially when many users see a library induction/teaching sessions as only sessions on how to use the library, when realistically, our goal is to promote lifelong learning skills and information literacy.

Of course, there are many ways in which we attempt to reach out to our students – social media, displays and such. These can often be effective but it is hard to measure and quantify impact if you still aren’t able to see your students. This has given me a lot of food for thought, as these things are very much complicated by a number of factors. In my own experience, I’ve worked in libraries that are silent, so even at the issue desk you get little time to really interact with students and I’ve also worked in libraries where we do not operate a silent study policy so you do get to engage with students more when you see them in and around the library. In the latter position, it is much easier to keep track of how your users are getting on.

But I got the impression that the session wasn’t merely about communicating with users full stop, but more how can we continue communicating the necessary information to them? I think often in induction and study skills sessions, students do not see the long term value of the skills that libraries promote. This, I feel, is partly down to our education systems own failings. It is, I feel, very much packaged up in the kind of neoliberal rhetoric which attaches a financial value to your subject – you go in, you get qualified, you get a job or else you aren’t ‘successful’ because you don’t have a high earning potential, and certain subjects are ‘worth’ more than others. As such many students do not actively engage with their time in schools and universities as effectively as they could – using it as a means to an end rather than an opportunity to develop their own skills and interests to become fulfilled individuals with a sense of place and worth in society. Of course, this is not their own fault, it is the fault of a system which teaches people from a young age they have little worth if they don’t possess natural academic aptitude; I feel perhaps I’ve gone slightly off topic, but the session definitely evoked a great deal of thought from me.

Back to the session. I’ll finish my post by detailing one of the very interesting ideas someone mentioned as a way to promote the longer-term value of information literacy for students. One person at the session told us an anecdote about a person they had heard of who based their information literacy teaching around having students debunk conspiracy theories. This person had supposedly been concerned about their students lack of critical thinking when it came to things they read online. Younger generations are starting to believe more and more that if things are on the internet then they must be true. So, in order to engage with the students more so on their own terms, this person had the students look up a conspiracy theory they actually believed and research the sources from where the information came and come to a more reasoned conclusion about whether or not they really did believe these theories or not by engaging with the information critically, rather than taking it at face value. By basing the session around the kind of information that users are actively engaging with in their day to day lives, it becomes easier for the users to see the real world application of these skills. I take this to mean that it’s essentially a case of bridging the gap between what we understand is important for our users and students to learn and the kinds of information they wish to engage with. I think recognising that is a vital step toward improving communication between library staff and library users.

Anyway, these were merely the thoughts I had that were sparked by the session, rather than an exact explanation of the session itself, so i’d like to stress that these views are my own and not necessarily that of other participants or RLC as a collective.

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