TTW Interview Series: Vanessa Morris, Part 1

When Michael asked me to be a Contributor here on Tame the Web I knew that one of the things I wanted to do was start an interview series with different people in the profession that I find interesting, instructive or challenging. My goal with this series is provide interviews that are more conversational in nature and touch on a wide variety of topics. While my approach is that of a recent MLIS graduate trying to make sense of the LIS profession and its future, I hope that these interviews help foster dialogue about the many difficulties and triumphs LIS has and will encounter.

If anyone has suggestions for future interviews, please contact me at bclainhart [at] gmail [dot] com. Include “TTW Interview Suggestion” in the subject line.

- TTW Contributor Ben Lainhart

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Vanessa Morris is a librarian educator at Drexel’s iSchool where she teaches classes on web design, social media and public library service. She is a Street Literature scholar and her book The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Street Literature will be available Fall 2011. If you can not wait that long to read more from Vanessa, she maintains a Street Literature blog and has papers posted on her electronic portfolio. Her Twitter handle is @vanirvinmorris.

This interview took place via email 27 June 2011 – 10 July 2011.

 

 

Ben Lainhart: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? What brought you to the library profession? 

Vanessa Morris: I made the decision to enroll in library school once I had the experience of working at the Kilmer Area Library, at Livingston College – Rutgers University, during my undergrad years. I was a work study student there and really enjoyed the work. It was at that time that I made the decision to pursue a career in librarianship. Upon graduating in 1987, I immediately enrolled into Rutgers’ library school.

BL: Where did you attend school? What was your experience there? Did you/do you have any mentors inside or outside the field? 

VM: I attended library school twice. During my time at Rutgers I ran out of funding for school and had to withdraw with a semester left to go. I remember Betty Turock, of Rutgers’ library school, personally calling me on the phone to counsel me to stay and finish the degree, but I had no more funding at that time and therefore no choice but to withdraw from the program. Years later I enrolled with the library science program at Clarion University of Pennsylvania and completed my degree there in 2003.

Both programs were great: I learned a lot in both programs. When I worked as an Adult/Teen librarian with the Free Library of Philadelphia, I still employed strategies I’d learned years ago at Rutgers, to my professional practice. I was working at the Free Library at the same time I was attending Clarion, so being able to immediately put into practice what I was learning pragmatically and theoretically in the classroom was just mind-blowing for me.

My mentors have been: Bernard Vavrek, Ph.D. (retired), from Clarion, and Helen Miller, MLS (retired), who was Director of Library Operations at the Free Library of Philadelphia during my time there (1998 – 2008). Jeff Bullard, MLS, of the Free Library has been instrumental in my thinking and approach to librarianship as well. He and I talk often about issues in the field and how to approach them pedagogically for student librarians in library school. Susan Lytle, Ph.D. of the University of Pennsylvania, is an important mentor for me; she has taught me how to think in a strategically reflective way about my professional practice, and she has mentored me on how to bring practitioner inquiry as a professional development model to public librarianship. It is this kind of inquiry that my dissertation research explores: practitioner inquiry for public librarianship as a means of professional development.

BL: When did you join Drexel? What is the best thing about being an LIS educator? The worst/most frustrating? What do you hope that you can pass on to your students? 

I began teaching at Drexel for Summer 2008 term as an adjunct, and then full time starting Fall 2008 term. Previously, I taught full time for 3 years with Clarion’s library science program.

The best thing about being an LIS educator is sharing my frontline professional experiences with students, while also learning from their experiences, ideas, and concerns, about the profession. I get emotional when I get good work from students. A well written and researched paper, an insightful yet passionate discussion board post, an awesome website project, when students think outside the box and bring in new information, tools, and ideas to the class … these are practices that make it worthwhile for me to be an LIS educator.  The most meaningful thing for me is when my students “get” why I am rigorous. I really appreciate it when they share that same passion and commitment to the profession, such that they are willing and able to put in the time, respect, and consideration to do good work in the classroom, which is the laboratory for how we hone our professional practice – when students “get” that? Oh man, it’s priceless.

The worst/most frustrating thing about being an LIS educator has to do with value, for me. I see a lack of value for front line public librarianship in the profession and in the academy, and I see it in some students too. I think my deepest concern lies with the lack of value for the profession that some students come into the classroom with. This lack of value is manifested in many ways: for example, assuming the stereotypes of librarianship and translating them to treat library school as “easy,” not research-serious, not deep or rigorous. This low level attitude often manifests in students not paying attention to details in course materials, not taking the coursework seriously, turning assignments in late (the worst is when students tell you they’re going on vacation and want accommodations), having rigid views about humanity, and exhibiting a lack of respect for the educational process in a graduate level environment.

I hope I pass on to my students a passion for, or at least appreciation of, librarianship as a relevant and sustainable profession that is vital and necessary for these historical times we live in today. I want student librarians to be confident about the fact that books are not going anywhere, libraries are not going anywhere, and that we have always adapted to emerging and new technologies throughout our profession’s history that spans millennia – yes, millennia. I want student librarians to understand that librarians are not going anywhere, so as one, it’s best to buckle in and enjoy the ride. Screams are most valuable contributions on the roller coaster journey of librarianship. Let us be heard.

BL: I have often heard it said that library internships are a great way to get young students interested in the profession. Clearly, that worked for you. Do you think that students should be required to have practical experience before beginning an MLIS? I’m curious what you think of those students who enter a MLIS degree with zero library experience. Sometimes I felt I was at a disadvantage because I could not draw upon any real-world experience in relation to my courses. However, other times I found that my lack of experience was an asset because I approached problems with a completely different frame of reference than other students. Similarly, there is also a debate about whether MLIS students should have to do some sort of internship or practicum in order to graduate. Drexel does not currently have this requirement. Do you lean in any particular direction on this issue?

VM: Well, I cannot imagine anyone entering into a library science program and never having entered a library – ever. So in that vein, everyone has some kind of empirical, personal experience with the library. It may not be ‘professional’ experience per se – but it is experience and it is oftentimes invaluable experience at that.

Having said that, I do feel that LIS students should be required to do an internship or a practicum as a program requirement. The reason is that with this kind of requirement, you graduate with some solid professional experience under your belt. You’ve had some experience dancing the theoretical with the practical – you have stories to tell and to build upon, in your professional practice.

While Drexel doesn’t currently require a practicum to graduate, the college does offer the practicum as an elective, and it is very popular with LIS students. To my knowledge, virtually all practicum students find the experience an invaluable jumpstart to their career. On the administrative side, I do not know how practical it would be to have a practicum requirement, however, if an LIS program has the practicum opportunity, I believe it adds to the strength of that particular program.

BL: As someone only a few weeks removed from being a student, I have to admit that I am struggling with the idea of “value” in my education. When I think about the time and money spent for my degree, I am not entirely sure that I have ended up in the black, so to speak. Overall, a lot of my classes were too easy, the engagement only superficial and the learning environment stale. What can LIS educators do to change this? 

Wow; what a great question.

I believe it is the same principle as when anything goes stale … things go stale when nothing has been done to keep a thing fresh and renewed. It is vital for LIS educators and all librarians – in the academy or on the front lines – to be lifelong learners and continue their education throughout their careers. LIS educators have to engage in emerging and new technologies and also be willing to learn from their students in this area. LIS educators must be avid readers of scholarly and professional literature, but also, I believe, we must always have a healthy leisure reading habit. Another thing that I believe is vital for LIS educators and librarians as a whole, is to be up to date on popular culture. We have to know what is going on with people in the world. I feel we are called to be the premier global citizens, possessing deep knowledge of other cultures and languages (at least one), and an abiding appreciation for humanity in all its expressions. LIS educators have to be courageous to teach rigorously so that student librarians understand the challenges of the profession, gain a healthy respect for the profession and approach their professional practice with courage to advocate for the literary of communities. I am not saying, ‘make classes hard because we can’, I am saying if we provide opportunities for critical thinking and analysis in our classes, everyone, including the instructor, learns. Indeed, our own classes can be a space for our continued learning.

Ben Lainhart: I really like your idea of the librarian as a “premier global citizen.” Going back to LIS education, one thing that I would like to see is more communication between schools around the world – maybe in the form of study abroad or internships during the LIS degree. Many other countries have fascinating and rich library histories and I think there is a lot of opportunity to learn from one another and make the profession stronger. Also, I know that most librarians have a strong sense of social justice. I would like to see this play out at an international level. One of my plans should I ever make it to a PhD program is to start a local chapter of something like Librarians Without Borders and organize volunteer trips for LIS students to spend time helping and learning at libraries in developing countries.

Vanessa Morris: I think this is an excellent idea. And nowadays, with social media platforms, it can be easier to make meaningful connections to have something like this happen. There are international opportunities available at present, also. A good resource to learn more about international librarianship is IFLA – International Federation of Library Associations (http://ifla.org). The Fulbright Scholar Program (http://www.cies.org/) has opportunities for library science research … and, don’t forget the Peace Corps.

Librarian organizations could connect with international groups to help build library collections and share resources. The organization that I founded, the Pennsylvania African American Library Association (PAALA) (http://www.paala.org) runs a “Book Well” where we have donated many books internationally …we shipped drums of books to Liberia in 2006, for example. I know of librarians who have traveled internationally to serve in other countries, like Paula Smith of Penn State University who has worked in libraries in South Africa and Myanmar, and Peter Coyl, who is currently a librarian in China. One librarian, Thelma Tate (1934-2005), was a renowned international librarian throughout her career. I, myself, volunteered at the public library in Montego Bay, Jamaica, a few years ago. Additionally, I have worked with student librarians in my classes who were serving in libraries in South Korea, Singapore, and Germany, to name a few locations. I often get student librarians who are working as librarians on U.S. military bases, too.

But back to your point though, it would be especially good to have a back-and-forth exchange of ideas, information, and opportunities with librarians around the world.

BL: While at Drexel I took a few online classes with you. So, I know that you attempt to challenge students and meet them outside of Blackboard. I really appreciate this because I do not think that discussion flows organically on Blackboard and I want to see LIS education as something much more experimental and innovative. Where do you see online LIS education headed in the future? 

VM: I believe that LIS education and education as a whole will continue to be more involved with online pedagogical approaches. I do believe in the Socratic method, and think that the best learning occurs face-to-face. However, I love technology also – it has become a natural part of all of our lives, and so I have a deep respect for technology. So what I am thinking may happen with classroom education in the future is a hybrid approach to teaching and learning, where some face-to-face will be met with some technology-focused pedagogy. Some may say, “Well, we’re already doing that.” For the future though, I am wondering if even how we define “face-to-face” will change, and that somehow technology will be involved that allows us to have symbiotic classroom experiences via technology. For example, virtual worlds like Second Life are in the early stages of providing this kind of experience, and holographic technology is up-and-coming.

BL: What advice would you give to students just starting their degree? Is there anything you wish someone had told you? 

If you’re just starting this degree, I advise that you throw away any and all pre-conceptions and stereotypes that you have about libraries and librarians. Libraries are not stoically quiet spaces anymore; librarians are not typically passive-aggressive dysfunctional weirdos with a bun, librarianship is not an ‘easy degree because I love books’. Librarianship is a people-oriented profession that continues to move and evolve because librarians are inevitably deeply political and social justice-oriented, especially in public librarianship. Librarians are educators of the mass public, and as such, are well-read people, yes, but well-read in more than books. We are well-read in how books (in all their formats) relate to people, and we are well-read in reading err …. people … and listening to people to best determine how to meet their information needs to help them build literate lives.

Librarians also can have a wicked sense of humor and love to laugh (at least the ones I know!). On that note, there is one stereotype I do find to be true, and that has to do with librarians and this cat thing. I am not sure why we are obsessed with cats. lol But I do believe that there is a serious dog culture in library world, and I’d love to see us dog lovers get organized and get some Tshirts and mugs with dogs on them. I’m tired of going to conferences and only seeing cat memorabilia. I feel like it’s a conspiracy! lol (For the record, I am proud owner of a dog AND a cat.)

Lastly, I wish someone had told me how rich the history of librarianship is; I am always fascinated by how ancient our profession really is.

BL: Ok, let’s move away from the LIS education discussion (which you and I could probably have for days). 

VM: So true!

BL: As LIS becomes more interdisciplinary (feel free to disagree with that) I see a lot of room for learning from other educators, designers, writers, journalists, etc. I am interested in some of your influences from outside the LIS field that inform your teaching and thinking about the profession. Are there any books, blogs, movies or people to which those of us in the profession should be paying attention but might be not be on our radar?

VM: I agree with you that our profession is interdisciplinary. I posit that librarianship has always been interdisciplinary. How can it not be? We are about the business of promoting and managing libraries, which are organisms that bring all realms of thought into one space. Oh yes, we have always been interdisciplinary.

Some of my influences from outside of LIS include: the fields of New Literacy Studies (NLS), particularly the research of Brian Street and Rob Simon, and Practitioner Inquiry, whose leaders are Susan Lytle and Marilyn Cochran-Smith. I also follow the work of Gerald Campano – we can learn a lot from him about the strength of all students in the classroom…he recently did a conference presentation that had the audience (including myself) in tears – what he had to say and the way he said it was deeply impactful. He was talking about how all children are natural intellectuals, and that reading brings this out in them – naturally. Other influences for me are: Pierre Bourdieu, Noam Chomsky, bell hooks, Sonia Sanchez, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Susan A. Greenfield (UK).

But I have to say that there are people inside LIS who are awesome, awesome, if we would bring their voices to the forefront of our discourse. For me, major contemporary LIS thinkers include: Michael Gorman, John W. Budd, Christine Pawley, Ethel Auster and Donna Chan (Canada), Diane Nahl, Robin Osborne, Satia Orange, Tracie Hall, Thomas Augst, Sandra Rios Balderrama, and Alison Lewis.

Book Recommendations: as a librarian, I could recommend books all day and all night, but I’ll keep myself to just a handful:

n  Anything by Michael Gorman

n  Sacred Stacks: The Higher Purpose of Libraries and Librarianship by Nancy Kalikow Maxwell (2006)

n  Self-Examination: The Present and Future of Librarianship by John W. Budd (2008)

n  Institutions of Reading: The Social Life of Libraries in the United States by Thomas August and Kenneth Carpenter (2007)

n  The Social Transcript: Uncovering Library Philosophy by Charles Osburn (2009)

n  ID: The Quest for Meaning in the 21st Century by Susan A. Greenfield (2008)

Librarians are rocking it on social media. On Twitter, be sure to follow:

@tadawes                   @accordin2jo

@BethReads              @conniecrosby

@hbraum                    @Somers_Library

@hacklibschool           @librarythingtim

Librarian Bloggers I read include:

Say It Rah Shay: http://www.sayitrahshay.com

Street Literature: http://www.streetliterature.com

Personable in Philly: http://phillypersonability.blogspot.com

In the Library With the Lead Pipe: http://inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org

The Rabid Librarian: http://rabid-librarian.blogspot.com

Seth’s Blog: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/

Yes … I do spend a lot of time online….and reading – lots of reading of books.

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Things heat up in the second and final installment of this interview, which will be available on Monday, July 18th. – Ben

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