tl;dr Library Instruction West is a Marvelous Conference.
My brain is still buzzing and feels pleasantly tingly from all of the good thoughts, emotions, and interactions I had at the Library Instruction West 2014 conference. I walked away energized by the people I met and by the content they shared. Portland State University was a fantastic host and the organizing committee, led by Joan Petit, did a lovely job bringing brilliant people with excellent content together in a well-run event. <tips cap>
Three things that made #liwest14 a special conference:
Beyond my general glowing endorsement, I want to highlight specific aspects that made Library Instruction West 2014 stand out from other library conferences. To start, this conference draws from a specific and well defined community of practice and these are my people. The conference also stands out because instruction librarians are skilled and engaging presenters; spending our careers speaking with groups of students pays off with impressive presentation skills. The rewards of attending are both practical and intellectual; I left with two ideas I’m already using in my instructional design and with big picture thoughts that I’ll be reflecting on for a while.
These are my people.
Library Instruction West is about library instruction and not really anything else. This means that sessions are targeted and participants have a lot of shared passions and interests. If you are an instruction librarian, this niche marketing makes Library Instruction West much more valuable in terms of content than larger national or regional conferences. I was taken aback by the emotional impact I experienced listening to lovely colleagues talk about inquiry-based-learning, nurturing curiosity in our students, using narrative methods in our instruction, teaching format-as-practice , teaching with digital badges, assessing game-based pedagogy, and clever teaching hacks for survey software.I’m a bit of a utility infielder in library work. I do systems stuff; I do some web stuff; I do some instruction stuff; I’m trying to learn how to do more metadata stuff. That said, I came into the field as an instruction librarian and no matter how far my curiosity takes me, my core values come from instruction. Of course, as with most good conferences, the best information is transferred informally between sessions, at meals, or socially. I got to meet a lot of folks in person I’ve come to respect and admire through Twitter. I was able to put faces to Twitter names and spend a couple of days with some truly lovely people. It’s nice to be surrounded by one’s people, to feel part of a tight-knit community of practice.
Instruction librarians are skilled and engaging presenters.
It is a real treat to watch experienced presenters who have a good body of practice work with an audience. In my two days at Library Instruction West I learned as much from watching how presenters interacted with their audiences as I did from the information being transferred. This is a rare treat. At other conferences, I’ve learned AMAZING THINGS from people whose job descriptions don’t include being interesting at the front of a room and I’ve also realized after a talk that the charming and engaging speaker really didn’t say anything profound or useful, but attending a conference full of engaging speakers who are intentional about their presentation style is WONDERFUL. It is also nice to have sessions where attention is paid to active learning, various learning preferences or styles, and non-traditional visual presentation techniques. I had the opportunity to observe small break-out sessions with group work, activities based on physical objects, self assessment exercises, and excellent question and answer sessions. I also got to learn from people giving very traditional talks using slide decks that were well designed and rich with information. Being able to see, hear, and interact with really talented colleagues practicing excellent pedagogy is a learning experience that I really can’t duplicate by reading about it. So if my effusive praise above hasn’t already convinced you to attend Library Instruction West 2016 in Salt Lake City, this may be the most appealing aspect: you’ll have the opportunity to experience experienced and skilled library instructors demonstrating what they do best first hand.
I left the conference with two ideas I’m already using in my instruction and with big picture thoughts that I’ll be reflecting on for a while.
Idea the first:
In Zoe Fisher’s session Live the Question, Love the Question: Inquiry-based learning in the one-shot she described a method of helping students craft rough topics into functional research questions. This is exactly what I need for a very large multi-section class I work with. Each semester the largest barrier I see to student success is the inability to see a topic, research question, and thesis as three separate things. Zoe used inquiry-based learning theory to design an exercise where the students explain what they know and then using that foundation to tease out interesting questions. My History faculty have already signed off on using the “what I know / what I want to know” table she described in their Fall classes. Hopefully, this will help us move from the first spark of student curiosity to potential research questions more smoothly and naturally.
Idea the second:
In Kevin Seeber’s session Teaching “Format as Process” in an Era of Web-Scale Discovery he delivered a well-founded argument for a turn towards teaching process and away from teaching formats. Process being the critical thinking steps that make up scholarship and formats being the packages information is delivered in. He sums up his reasoning as: “the way we search is changing, we need to teach things that are constant” and “don’t teach the interface, teach the results.” His entire line of reasoning is a treat, so please don’t miss reading the whole presentation. Using what I learned from Kevin’s talk, I’m going to embrace the statement “Information literacy is not about knowing “how.” It’s about knowing “why.”” and do as much as I can to re-write the instructions for an assignment in the course mentioned above to explicitly refer to process instead of to formats. For example, there won’t be a “Finding Newspapers” section, but there will be a section that uses newspapers to “Find current information on your topic.” The reason for this shift is to reinforce the scaffolding in a semester-long assignment. Students are too often jumping through hoops to complete the assignment, I want to reinforce that the hoops are part of a method and not just arbitrary busy-work.
Big picture thoughts:
As I listened and interacted with the presenters and brilliant librarians around the event, I found my mind returning to a couple of big-picture concepts that I’m going to need some time to chew on. The first was the subject of Anne-Marie Deitering and Hannah Gascho Rempel’s talk, methods to engage student curiosity in research. Allie Flanary also had good things to say about curiosity in conversation between the sessions. She’s working on a sabbatical project on student curiosity, which I’m anticipating with great interest. Engaging curiosity is a big reason I’m a teacher and it’s the most rewarding aspect of the work. Seeing librarians identify curiosity as the keystone of our instruction work is inspiring and I want to explore where this line of thinking leads people.
A second big-picture thought that I came back to at several points during the conference is the impact of web-scale discovery tools on library instruction. This is a topic that I’ve been fixated on for a few years now. Search interfaces for web-scale discovery tools closely resemble search interfaces for single databases or catalogs even though the underlying architectures are very different. At what point should we teach students that this is a different kind of search? It’s not obvious, but it’s significant. The search we do now is increasingly different from searching a single index and the gap widens every day. For a great reading on this, see Aaron Tay’s excellent post Why Nested Boolean Search Statements May Not Work As Well As They Did. Even though search interfaces look the same, the underlying math is very different. Web search and discovery layers look more simple than a database search, but underneath they are MUCH more complicated. I realize not every student needs to be an expert in big data, but “How much does a competent searcher need to know about how these new tools work?” is a live and relevant question that we don’t have an answer to.
Library Instruction West is a small, intimate conference focused on issues of library instruction, the librarians who do this work, and the students we work with. It is full of excellent content and is attended by fascinating librarians who are there to share the best work being done in the field today. If this sounds like your cup of tea, the 2016 edition will be hosted in Salt Lake City. I hope to see you all there.
[*] For what it's worth, I thought the shiniest spark in a brilliant couple of days was Kevin's presentation. (back)