The Zeroth Law

“A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.” - Isaac Asimov

I claimed in the last post that Instructional Technologists and Librarians have coincident missions so closely related that we make natural partners in almost every aspect of our work, especially the work we do in support of knowledge creation at Hamilton. But how do we currently work together to improve the Hamilton College community? What do our community members predict we will do to support them in the future? What is the ideal future for our community support? How do we get from the predicted future to the ideal future? I have a suggestion or two.

But I would like first to touch on the issue of creating social and civic value. The Library/IT collaboration at Hamilton seldom couches collaborative conversations in the language of action and activism. We exist to support faculty, student, and staff knowledge creation at the college. Though members of the community often use computing and printing resources available to them at the library, we (perhaps thankfully) do not have opportunities to direct people to social services like librarians do at the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library (illustrated in this excellent comic strip by Wendy MacNoughton.) But social problems exist on liberal arts campuses and I firmly believe we have opportunities to contribute to ameliorating them. Incidents of alcohol or sexual abuse? The library and IT departments could create and advertise an instance of Ushahidi, a revolutionary web platform that permits anonymous, geolocated reporting of incidences via cell phones, email, or social network posts. The results could be shared with Campus Safety or Student Activities and appropriate action could be taken. Discussions about diversity? Librarians could help assemble media related to issues of diversity, host conversations at the Library that are moderated by librarians, and work with Instructional Technologists to develop or facilitate the development of rich media objects with the results of that research, edited videos of the conversations, and interviews with experts. These rich media objects could include eBooks, games, web sites, and blogs and are only a few examples of media entities that could be assembled into collections that the entire community could benefit from interacting with. These are just two examples of the civic and social value our collaboration could generate. Our formidable experience with content creation, information gathering, and conversation facilitation could be a potent engine for change on campus. We would do well to remember that “[t]he only thing that trumps the need to learn is the need to improve society.” (Lankes, 2011, p. 120)

How can we facilitate this change? The ideas in The Atlas have already begun to influence my work with librarians. I met with a group of librarians last week to discuss mobile device usage. The library had just purchased several smart devices and wanted to ideasmith potential usage scenarios. Having read the first few threads of The Atlas, I wanted to try an approach that could divorce “The Library” and “Librarians” in the minds of our members. I chose reference requests as my canvas. For example, the reference librarians provide chat-based support for reference requests in the electronic realm. I am sure they introduce themselves at the beginning of the conversation but their picture is not shown and the initial point of contact is a monolithic email account called “askref”--totally impersonal. I suggested they instead use the front-facing video camera on the tablets for videochat reference support; I also suggested they embark on a campaign to make faculty aware of this option and show them how easily they could launch a video chat and connect to a reference librarian for a conversation. This has the potential to create an intrinsic motivation for people to have a spontaneous conversation with a reference librarian to discuss their projects, especially if they can avoid the hike to the library, a terrifying prospect during some of the intense winters we enjoy in Upstate NY. I just loved being able to explain my recommendations using arguments from The Atlas.

They loved the idea and animatedly discussed similar ideas: social networking, asking users to create media about their knowledge creation process using their own smart devices and sharing it with the library, augmented reality via QC codes, and a smart device loan program to ensure all members could benefit from having a tablet in the physical environs of the library. The information and worldview I have gleaned from this book has the real potential to change my work at Hamilton. We benefit, too, from leadership who empowers us, among other ways, by creating “a safe environment for risk and experimentation.” (Lankes, 2011, p. 128) I was excited by that entire page in The Atlas because I realized we have the administrative structure and mandate in place to really change our operations in the IT/Librarian collaboration. This collaborative experience about mobile devices also reinforced the sometimes-radical notion that Librarians and Instructional Technologists stand to benefit much from each other’s experience and knowledge. And look at what an Instructional Technologist has learned from an LIS program!

Without this change, I do not believe the members we support will expect us to change our services radically in the next few years. Most of the conversations we have center on the services we provide and, of course, the state of our collection. The future looks remarkably similar to the present at the moment, which is why a new Ideal Future must be developed. From my perspective, the Library/IT collaboration has a unique opportunity to define and help realize an Ideal Future in which we engage in the process of pedagogical reform in campus. One Ideal Future I am trying to implement is an “Experimental Classroom,” a framework for achieving this pedagogical reform. It is essentially a series of services (don’t groan!) that range from workshops in which pedagogical theory is discussed with faculty, students, and other academic support units; to collaborative efforts to create and modify syllabi and individual lesson plans to implement an alternative theory in a class; to an actual experimental, modular classroom in which these theories are tested, lessons are run, and evidence is gathered to determine if positive change was made. It may sound like the nucleus of a Teaching and Learning Center, which it perhaps is. But it by default includes Librarians, Instructional Technologists, other Academic Support Units (e.g. The Writing Center,) and students (hopefully quite a few Education majors!) As a group of professionals, we already contribute regularly (but sometimes invisibly) to pedagogical efforts on campus. We are fluent in pedagogical theory, have a great deal of experience, and can contribute a great deal to conversations on campus about pedagogy but we are currently on the periphery of these conversations. A Teaching and Learning Center does not currently exist at Hamilton, but few members outside our collaboration, especially faculty, would think about including Librarians as part of its development. Aside from, perhaps, selected volumes to populate the reference section for such a Center. Librarians and Instructional Technologists have the potential to do so much more, to become more tightly integrated with the campus community in novel ways, to realize an ideal future in which we more deeply facilitate the knowledge creation process. And we will do it together.

Lankes, R.D. (2011). The Atlas of New Librarianship. Cambridge, London: The MIT Press.