Information Services Today: What We Call Ourselves

April 8, 2015

We don’t have to go very far into Sandra Hirsh’s newly-released anthology Information Services Today: An Introduction to reach the first of the challenges many of us face in the contemporary workplace, where job descriptions and workplace responsibilities evolve and increase at a dizzying, overwhelming pace : our language has not been keeping up with the changes taking place within our professions.

Information_Services_Today--CoverIt’s not as if the words “librarian” or “library” are in any danger of disappearing anytime soon; they do, at significant levels, remain evocative, familiar, and comforting even though they inadequately describe the people and the organizations under discussion. On the other hand, we see throughout Information Services Today the use of “information professionals” and “information organizations” (defined at the beginning of the book’s preface as “all places that manage, create, store, or provide information”) as terms more suggestive and reflective of what those organizations and those people who staff them offer to members of the onsite and extensive online communities they serve.

Proposing and supporting changes in our workplace nomenclature is far more than an intellectual exercise; it’s an essential element of the process of acknowledging change by seeking and adopting terminology that reflects what we do and—equally importantly—helps others understand what we offer in our continually-evolving workplaces. It’s the same issue described by Theodore Levitt in his widely-read Harvard Business Review essay about how railroads made a mistake by describing themselves as being in the railroad rather than transportation business. It’s visible in the discussion about using “information professional” and “information organization” as alternatives to “librarians” and “libraries”; it’s visible in the continuing discussion of using “library member” or “library user” in place of “library patron,” which I first documented in an article for Infoblog in 2008; and it’s visible in the field we most commonly refer to as “staff training” but more accurately could be described in numerous other ways, including “learning facilitation.”

signorelli200x300[1]This challenge of deciding what to call ourselves clearly isn’t new for any of us involved in training-teaching-learning—an endeavor that is a core part of what many library staff members/information professionals do every day. Four years ago, Lori Reed and I (in our book Workplace Learning & Leadership) were already documenting some of many terms being applied to those of us involved in training-teaching-learning just in libraries and nonprofit settings: “…director, volunteer services and staff training; training coordinator; training and development manager; training manager; training officer; chief learning officer; learning and development coordinator; staff development and training coordinator; staff development librarian; staff development manager; continuing education coordinator; learning manager; and organizational development manager.” The situation has only become more challenging as our ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) colleagues began the process (in 2014) of changing the organization’s name to ATD (the Association for Talent Development) and replacing “workplace learning and performance” with “talent development” to reflect the idea that “talent development” is the overall, far-more-nuanced description of what our efforts are designed to offer and foster.

NMC Summer Conference - PortlandThe importance of what we are facing and attempting to address became even clearer to me during a dinner conversation with colleagues at the 2014 New Media Consortium Summer Conference (held in Portland, Oregon). My personal moment of revelation struck as I listened to a colleague describing how a “school library” had been replaced by an “innovation center” and how school administrators, teachers, and students were struggling to come to terms with what that change meant in terms of what was available to them within that redesigned and renamed space. As I noted at the time, “the challenges we all face as our learning environments quickly change to reflect the rapid rate of technological change…reflect the rapid rate of technological change that is all around us: we literally don’t have the words to describe what we are doing in a world where our old labels (e.g., teacher, trainer, learning facilitator) are simply not broad and rich enough to capture the nuances of all we are doing. It’s as if we’re facing a vocabulary deficiency…”

As we read through the 39 chapters provided written by a large group of information professionals for inclusion in Information Services Today, we gain an understanding of the magnificent range of services and resources information professionals provide through information organizations. And, in the process of absorbing that content, we gain a better understanding of why it’s worth looking for alternatives to “library,” “librarian,” “library patron,” and “trainer” within the dynamic and enticing worlds we are lucky enough to inhabit, foster, and support.

N.B.: This is the first in a series of reflections inspired by Information Services Today: An Introduction, which includes Paul’s chapter on “Infinite [Lifelong] Learning.”


NMC 2014 Summer Conference: Lighting Candles and Taking It Down  

June 18, 2014

Listening to Tom Haymes (director, technology & instructional computing at Houston Community College Northwest) talk about how to create idea spaces this afternoon at the New Media Consortium (NMC) 2014 Summer [ed-tech] Conference here in Portland, Oregon, I realized that worlds were converging. What better place, after all, to be hearing and dreaming about those creatively dynamic and innovative academic learning centers than at a conference which brings colleagues together to at least temporarily form an inspiring space for the development and sharing of ideas?

Haymes--Idea_SpacesThe topic Haymes was addressing—the need to be “looking at our spaces, the time allotted for reflection, and the mental, institutional and cultural structures we put into place to support teaching and learning”—isn’t just something of interest to those of us at this first-rate ed-tech conference; it’s a topic that is essential to what I see my training-teaching-learning colleagues in workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors and in libraries, museums, and other community-based learning organizations considering, promoting, and doing.

While Haymes posed it in terms of academic settings by rhetorically asking why our classrooms often continue to look the way they have looked for generations, he could have just as easily been posing the same question to anyone involved in training-teaching-learning. Whether we are absorbing gems from the best of lecturers or suffering through deadly-dull lectures, we have access to a steady stream of research showing how relatively ineffective the lecture as a learning tool is, yet it continues to be the paradigm in much of what we encounter through our lifelong learning efforts.

Increasingly, however, we are also encountering wonderful extensions of the decades-long search for models more effective than the learner-as-sponge lecture model: the best of our connectivist massive open online courses (MOOCs), for example, create cross-platform virtual settings for engaging learning experiences; the information commons model that has extended beyond the walls of academic libraries into public library settings seems to be morphing into makerspaces and innovation centers that are changing the shape of some of our community learning centers, and those idea spaces that Haymes so tantalizingly dangled before us this afternoon give us something else to dream about—and strive to produce. It’s all part of moving us from what Haymes described as the quintessential learner question—“What do I have to do to get an A in this course?”—to the all-too-infrequently-asked question, “What can I learn in this class?”

And Haymes wasn’t quite done with us at that point; he also described how he and his campus colleagues are designing for synergistic innovation: “We really designed the entire campus to be a learning space, where all of the pieces work together”—which, again, is a wonderful goal for all of us in training-teaching-learning to explore and pursue since it places an emphasis on the same holistic approach to learning-space design as we should be taking to the learning process itself.

NMC Summer Conference - PortlandWe come full circle here: classrooms as idea spaces, and conferences as idea spaces where learning occurs naturally. We heard NMC CEO Larry Johnson begin the first full day of formal keynote addresses, presentations, and other activities with the playful directive “Let’s light this candle!” We heard him at the end of the day offer what I’ve come to accept as the “Conference Lament”–an acknowledgement that when you convene a creative group of trainer-teacher-lifelong learners who incorporate conference backchannels into their learning experience, you’re going to find that no conference wireless system can possibly keep up with all of us: “We’re an Internet organization; everywhere we go, we take it down,” he told conference participants in a moment of levity near the end of the day. “”We bought you a great Internet experience; I’m sorry you’re not getting it.” But what we did get as we reconvened as a group at the end of the day was a fabulous series of five-minute presentations from colleagues whose learning innovations make us wonder why we would settle for anything less than the most adventurous and productive approaches possible. And the icing on the cake was an end-of-day keynote presentation by photographer-visual storyteller Bill Frakes, whose short films on cranes and “a teacher remembered” were stunningly, heartbreakingly beautiful explorations of artistry, creativity, innovative use of technology, and the power of storytelling.

There’s still another full day of sharing our temporary idea space here in Portland. And I have no doubt that when it comes to an end, the sense of augmented emotional reality that this sort of immersive environment creates will once again begin to dissipate. But the important and more long-term transformation that the idea spaces in our lives inspire are the learning model most worth pursuing—which is the gift our NMC colleagues are once again providing.


NMC 2014 Summer Conference (Prelude): Nomenclature and Starting Points  

June 16, 2014

There was a time when the term “innovation center”—at least for me—reflected one of the world capitals described by author/thought leader/researcher Richard Florida in books including The Rise of the Creative Class and Who’s Your City?

NMC Summer Conference - PortlandBut that was before I arrived in Portland, Oregon earlier today, a full day before the 2014 New Media Consortium (NMC) Summer [ed-tech] Conference formally begins with preconference workshops; by the time I was having dinner with several conference attendees earlier this evening, I was learning from one of them—Lisa Gustinelli—what innovations centers have become. As director of instructional technology at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Boca Raton, Florida, she has the fascinating challenge of helping familiarize her colleagues at a newly-opened innovation center with what the center means to the school, the faculty, and the learners it serves.

Listening to Gustinelli, I realized that what students, faculty, and the school librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas are beginning to encounter is a perfect example of a disruptive technological change that combines elements of several tech developments we have been following through the NMC Horizon Project (e.g., smart classrooms, telepresence, and collaborative environments) along with a few we haven’t yet encountered (e.g., classrooms with glass walls upon which learners can write). Teachers not only must learn to incorporate new technology into their day-to-day work, but must deal with the repercussions of working in a classroom that is, through its glass walls, visible to those passing by rather than being the more self-contained onsite or online space in which so many of us have worked during our entire training-teaching-learning career. Furthermore, the school librarian is going to quickly have to cope with an environment where books are in storage while digital resources are in the forefront of faculty-librarian/media specialist/learner interactions.

And lest any of us think of this as someone else’s challenge, let’s not forget that the sort of transformation Gustinelli was describing is not going to remain behind the glass walls of a private high school for long if it leads to learning successes in that environment; those learners—and many more like them—are going to graduate into our college and university settings sooner than later, join our workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts, and use our libraries to support their lifelong learning endeavors.

nmc.logo.cmykThere’s an even more interesting—but rarely considered—aspect to the challenges we all face as our learning environments quickly change to reflect the rapid rate of technological change that is all around us: we literally don’t have the words to describe what we are doing in a world where our old labels (e.g., teacher, trainer, learning facilitator) are simply not broad and rich enough to capture the nuances of all we are doing. It’s as if we’re facing a vocabulary deficiency that is every bit as challenging as the attempt to define digital literacy has become. We see this as school librarians struggle to not completely lose that term to the more contemporary “media specialist” appellation. It’s the same struggle we see happening in workplace learning and performance as ASTD (the American Society for Training & Development) transforms itself into ATD (the Association for Talent Development). “Talent Development” may be where industry jargon is headed, but “training” is still the far-from-adequate descriptor that is most familiar to trainer-teacher-learners.

And yet that sort of wicked problem—not only dealing with the changes coming our way, but also finding the words to define and describe what we do—is a large part of what attracts us to attend the 2014 NMC Summer conference. In fact, NMC CEO Larry Johnson addresses it directly in his “Welcome” statement in the conference program: “The NMC was founded on the values of collaboration and sharing, and every year, new projects are born from the conversations that take place here. Every year, I look forward to the chance to learn from some of the very best minds in new media anywhere, and judging from the program, I will learn a lot this year from all of you.”

So it’s probably no surprise that as our pre-conference dinner was breaking up and someone wondered aloud when the conference formally begins, I didn’t miss a beat before responding: “Oh, that’s easy; it started the minute we sat down together this evening and started talking to each other.”


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