Keeping Serendipity Alive: or, Hacking the Culture of Cramming

When I first started talking to librarians about going to library school, I was told over and over that “everyone hates library school; it’s just something you have to do.” Judging by Kara’s posts on asking for help and boosting your enthusiasm when overwhelmed, Alison’s brush with dropping out, and Becky’s bunches of lemons, to name just a few, I’m hardly alone in finding this to be (mostly) true. I chose an accelerated one-year program mainly in the interest of getting an actual career under way before passing from the “mid-twenties” into the dreaded “late-twenties” demographic, and it has been a race to pick up best practices and theory, metadata schemas and management tactics, to churn out assignments and rack up internship hours. MLIS curricula are, by and large, geared towards training us to do a job – one which is increasingly under threat of marginalization and shaped by the blood instinct to survive in a neoliberal environment of assessment and ROI. The concept of library advocacy is all too often conflated with marketing, and entire genres of blogs and student services programming have developed to teach us, as LIS students, to think of ourselves as commodities.

When I first learned about the wonderful new blog,, something clicked. For all our talk of discoverability and connection, there is very little room for exploration in library school. There is very, very little room for generative joy and love in library school. And I am beginning to suspect that this grad school culture of product over process negatively affects our practices later on as professionals. The stress we feel as we race to check assignments and entire fields of inquiry off our graduation to-do lists doesn’t just hurt us — it hurts every single patron we serve.

That’s not to say that librarians are a humorless bunch — far from it — or that the content we learn isn’t essential — it is. But I’ve come to believe that, because of our professional formation within a culture of cramming, our ability to cultivate the excitement of discovery in our communities is actually stunted and we develop habits that perpetuate, not challenge, this culture. In “Is Browsing Too Slow for Today’s Users?” Nina Clements points out that such a culture affects the way all of us receive information, and that our emphasis on meeting the need for quick answers fails to satisfy a craving for sustained, often physical engagement with materials. For those of us who came to librarianship through the humanities and who conceptualize librarianship in part as a humanities discipline, this is a tough pill to swallow. So what can we, as library students, do to resist a culture of info cramming and reinstate the joy of discovery? We may not be able to singlehandedly overcome a negative educational culture, but what can we do to keep the flame of serendipity alive?

More often than not, at least at the Master’s level, our assignments are oriented toward the concrete and come with a relatively short timeline. Come up with the answer to this question. Do something with this system or tool. Compare these policies. Write this grant. Do it in a few days or weeks. Do five other things at the same time. As difficult as it may seem, I am trying to focus less on the product and more on the process of these assignments. For example, I was asked to conduct an interview (not necessarily in person) with one archivist for an upcoming paper. I put out a call both on Twitter and on a list, and received many more responses than I needed for the assignment. Nevertheless, I sent my list of questions to almost every archivist who offered to help. Instead of quitting once the bare bones of my assignment requirements were met, I invested just a tiny bit more time to broaden my circle of inquiry. These additional respondents gave me new ideas and resources that enriched my work, even if they did not serve as the main subject of my assignment — when I am focused on process, the product is usually even better in the end.

After all, you don't buy a jigsaw puzzle because you want to know what the picture looks like. University at Buffalo students at Lockwood Library Fall 2013 Stress Relief Days, used with a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

After all, you don’t buy a jigsaw puzzle because you want to know what the picture looks like. University at Buffalo students at Lockwood Library Fall 2013 Stress Relief Days, used with a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Bolstered in large part by readings such as Critical Library Instruction and conversations like the #critlib Twitter chat, I have also tried to retool my reference internship and avoid defaulting into the “banking concept” of instruction that was modeled for me as a student. Although I typically assist students who come to the library at the last minute with extremely specific questions, I try to help them grow in their approach to research. After all, you don’t buy a jigsaw puzzle because you want to know what the picture looks like at the end. As Emily Drabinski articulated in a #critlib chat on April 1, it’s a tricky balance between giving students what they need to pass their classes and empowering them as critical thinkers and agents of change. There’s only so much I can do in a few hours per week consulting with stressed freshmen, but I try to model an approach that makes room for exploration, uncertainty, and even failure. I especially love the image Kate Joranson offers in her inaugural post for ebrowsing – that of the naturalist who moves by instinct and impulse, achieving an aim by following and reflecting upon clues along the way. Much to my reference instructor’s dismay, I frequently start students out with Wikipedia to develop keywords and understand their question as part of a network, linked to many other topics. I often tell them about the Digital Public Library of America or even the Serendip-o-matic app to help them think outside the library catalog search box.

My hope is that, by building in a little bit of novelty and discovery into my research and theirs, I can be part of a more reflective, humane education environment. I hope it helps me become a better librarian, and I especially hope it helps students become more engaged and caring thinkers. What do you think?

Categories: Big Picture

8 replies

  1. I really love this post Anna-Sophia – so much to think about and follow up on (so many great links!). I think that the language we use to understand and explain research is a really interesting connection between your personal attention to process in assignments and to moving away from educational “banking” while working with students. In both cases you’re framing research as discovery and “finding out” rather than finding a particular number of sources or limiting yourself to a particular outcome. Wendy Holliday and Jim Rogers have a really interesting article in portal on the role of this kind of discourse in the undergraduate classroom and since I read it I’ve been thinking a lot about the metaphors and concepts I use to frame research and writing.

    Also, for the record, I’m totally on board with Wikipedia for background research and keyword development!


    • Thank you so much, Julia! I will definitely check out the Holliday and Rogers article — right after I finish cramming for these finals 😛

      If nothing else, the problems I’ve seen in my LIS education have forced me to recognize that I *do* care about pedagogy and begin to learn and reflect on how I want to do things differently. I never wanted to teach or conceive of myself as an educator before this, but now I’ve come to see it as central for me. The MLIS: leading by negative example? I think we can do better.

      [Edited to provide the caveat – I have had a couple of outstanding classes/professors in lib school. They give a taste of what education can and should be.]


  2. Thanks for pointing the way to ebrowsing, Anna-Sophia. I really want to check that out!

    I’m finding though that there are so many courses I want to browse through- perhaps contrary to my earlier post about dropping out, I feel like I now need to buckle down a bit more and get the degree already. It’s a weird new place to be in, but I am enjoying it more. Just need to keep my cool when people ask “haven’t you graduated yet???”



  3. Thank you so much for this. It’s essential to remember that it’s not the answer that matters, but how we get there. That’s why I’ve come to think of myself as an educator-in-training, too. The best teachers don’t dole out facts; they teach you how to ask questions and answer them yourself.
    The part about craving a sustained, physical engagement with materials strikes a chord with me as well. I’ve noticed how important it is to me and to many people I know. The more we, as librarians, focus on speed, the less we’re encouraging people to engage with libraries and all that they can offer. Even worse, we’re not encouraging them to learn in the way that they (quietly) want to learn.
    Thanks for raising the issue!


  4. Great post! It articulates so well many of the thoughts that I have been ruminating over this semester in my MLIS program at Oklahoma University. I have found that I find so much more enjoyment and value in my education as I take the time to actually reflect on assignments. Task accomplishment is so destructive to the educational process. I have really been trying to figure out how at the reference desk to help people discover their inner researcher, instead of just connecting them to the resources they need at that moment.


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