Look Like your People – A TTW Guest Post by David Wedaman

People used to need the help of library and IT staff to do things like find articles, edit videos, create databases, install a VOIP phone system, etc. This is changing. People are increasingly sophisticated users of digital media and computers. Third-party software applications and web-based services (read: not made or vetted by your local library and IT staff) are increasingly accessible.  Obvious, I know, but it bears repeating.

People don’t need us as they used to; yet we librarians and IT staff sense we can still be helpful (good for us!).  Our challenge is therefore this: we have to A) figure out new ways to be helpful and B) let our users see us being helpful in those ways (they won’t buy into the idea until they see it).

This is easy enough to say, but how do we do it?  I’m not sure.  Here’s a proposed rule of thumb: If you want to understand what someone needs, you can’t go to far astray if you start by doing what they do.  Look Like your People.

To put it another way: in a world of change our compass is the things that aren’t changing: people will still need to learn, teach, do research, and produce scholarship. How they will do these things is evolving. How we will help them do these things should be evolving, too. We need to be involved to evolve.  Not involved as external supports doing mystical things inside an organizational black box but as integral partners shoulder-to-shoulder with teachers and learners in the trenches.  We need to “embed [our] resources and expertise into the systems and tools students and faculty use in their daily lives,” to quote library visionary David Lewis.

If we engage in things that look and feel like teaching, learning, research, and scholarship, we’ll be ok.  If participating in these activities doesn’t immediately solve the problem of how we’ll be helpful to the academic mission, it will at least help us be much more familiar with and engaged in the core of that mission, and being present is the first step.  Opportunities will follow.

Some examples from our own work place.  Trying to figure out how to teach the academic use of multimedia, we partnered to develop a semester-long, hands-on course carefully integrated with an established Journalism course. Eventually our media course was recognized as a legitimate product on its own, added to the course bulletin, and our “teacher,” to that point a regular old Library and IT staff member, was honored with a faculty appointment, and is now an actual teacher. This would be an example of us looking like a teacher.

Another: trying to learn how to engage students meaningfully at the point of need — their class project — we’re testing out what we call a “project studio:” our staff join opt-in work teams with students, and the team decides what its learning goals will be and how it will go about meeting them.  We’re a partner and we learn with and from the students, adding library and IT know-how where necessary, learning new know-how constantly.  Result–we’re looking like a student.

Do these two projects solve the question of how IT and library organizations can be relevant to their communities in an era of change?  Not fully, of course. But they are helpful now and they might grow into something bigger.  And the staff involved at the very least will be in a wonderfully preferable position as we slouch further into the digital era–that of seeing teaching, learning, and scholarship from “within” those activities.

David Wedaman is Director of Research and Instruction Services, Brandeis University, and sits on the board of NERCOMP (the NorthEast Regional Computing Program) and on the advisory board of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative.

He blogs at http://wedaman.wordpress.com

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