Teacher, Learner, Researcher

There’s a famous scene in James Joyce’s Ulysses in which Stephen Dedalus is talking to the headmaster of the school where he’s teaching. “You were not born to be a teacher,” says the headmaster. “A learner rather,” Stephen replies. That image has lately popped into my mind again and again.

After starting at the CBS Library, I’ve been getting increasingly interested in discussions about developments in the university library sector, which is, like everything else in academia, experiencing some rapid and dramatic changes. This, in turn, has produced a lot of discussion, which makes key assumptions about the purpose of university libraries explicit. One thing I’ve noticed is that they are construed as “learning environments”, which is to say, they are organized to serve students. There is an obvious sense in which this makes sense, but also a few senses in which it is troubling.

University students are not just supposed to learn; they are supposed, as the famous phrase goes, to learn how to learn. We might put this less recursively by saying that attending university is a way of gaining a membership in the community of knowers. They gain knowledge, but they also become knowledge-able. What does this have to do with the function and orientation of a university library?

It is increasingly unfashionable to think of a library as a “repository” of knowledge, a place where knowledge is passively stored in books to be retrieved by scholars. Rather, libraries are now nodes where vast networks of knowledge can be accessed, through a wide array of technologies. Learning how to use a library is an important part of your university education. And this, to my mind, brings us to a sort of paradox.

If we organize a university library primarily to serve the needs of students, then, when they learn how to use the library, they are only learning how to go to school. (A similar problem can be found in the design of writing assignments: are we teaching them how to write or merely how to write school assignments.)  When we give students the difficult and sometimes frustrating task of doing “library research”, we should not be sending them into an artificially “academic” environment. We should ask them to “enter” the modern university library, to which they are privileged to have access, and figure out how it works.

It should be set up primarily to serve the needs of researchers, who may of course be either teachers (faculty) or “learners” (students).  A library, even one that happens to be on a university campus, is an important institution in society. Learning how to use one is an important skill. It’s not just relevant to the needs of students, and students should not get the impression that it is all about them. They should be told to think like researchers.

Not to demand this of them would be a mistake on par with exposing them only to encyclopedias and textbooks and compendia, or teaching them only how to write exam essays. They have to be shown knowledge in its original form, the primary sources in their natural habitat.

(Note: This post by Brian Mathews at the Chronicle of Higher Education serves as part of the impetus for my reflections here.)

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