There comes a time at a library desk when the librarian is alone. This was written at one of those times over spring break. I can see three people and we’re all alone together in our research worlds. Mine doubles back on itself: researching loneliness. My wife is at home and is also alone. Surrounded by voices of others filtered through the mediums of language, printed word, and the internet, I’ve spent the day musing over why it is I have a near-instant reaction against the delivery of information literacy through worksheets. They seem efficient and assess-able. They measure so perfectly each student’s understanding and progress and it is depressing and unfun. So obviously it is a problem with technology?
There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.
-George Monbiot, Neoliberalism is Creating Loneliness
The technology of the worksheet is not so insidious, but if there ever was a mechanism for creating loneliness in a crowd, then dropping a sheet of paper with instructions in front of a student at a computer isolates them. They diligently get straight to work. I wonder if they know that people wrote the things they dig out of the library databases if they can hear voices in their heads and conjure up pictures of the authors, the way they do on the radio. Sometimes I make them stare at each other for a couple minutes to loosen them up and remind them of how what they read is written. It seems taken for granted that the reader has a relationship to the writer, however remote. The database has sacrificed our connections, as has the written word and all the rest. I didn’t think about it at the time, but the following assessment of a student’s life rings true:
“It’s still a scary place for a lot of students. Your first year coming here, you can feel really isolated,” said Kevin Settee, the student association’s president. “You’re in classrooms, then you have to go home and study, and you’ve got to do your research and write your papers, and usually a lot of that happens in isolation.… It can get lonely.”
-Teghan Baeaudette, Nearly 70% of University Students Battle Loneliness During School Year
If there is one place an instruction librarian could intervene, it would be in a one-shot. Which is why worksheets just don’t seem to make sense. But as someone who holds active learning and critical information literacy dear, what sense is a lecture? Thankfully, Miya Tokumitsu was able to bail me out in my feral search for a cogent answer:
The weekly lecture, or pair of lectures, draws students together at the same time and place, providing a set of ideas to digest while reading supplementary material and breaking into smaller discussion sections. Classrooms are communities, and typically lectures are the only occasion for the entire group to convene physically. Remove the impetus to gather — either by insinuating that recorded lectures are just as effective or by making the lecture optional — and the benefits of community disappear.
-Miya Tokumitsu, In Defense of the Lecture
Markus Spiske / Flickr
After reading that, I felt a little better. I’ve spent more time designing seminars on-the-fly. I spend more time arguing for the usefulness of all of the obscure and interlocking systems the library provides. The mechanics of these things are not the most complicated issue that today’s students face. They are mildly complex, and our partners and vendors have worked to make them more user-friendly. But the whys of them, the reasons for their seams, overlaps and splits are never explained, user manuals exist but they tend to be books on how to do research. So I’ll take that hour to two and make it the most awkward and useful that I can.