2014 LACUNY Institute

Update: While trying to find a copy of Barbara Fister’s presentation at the LACUNY Institute, I came across this PDF.

The 2014 LACUNY Institute was an enlightening experience that focused on different aspects of critical information theory.

Ten years ago while a library school student, I was involved in several different activist groups affiliated with Indiana University. As a result, I ended up going to several national activist gatherings and conferences. At one of these conferences, I met a young woman who was involved in several different projects in the midwest. She told me that her (like my own) mother was a librarian and (unlike my own) wrote mystery novels. It wasn’t until I started working in New York several years ago that I realized that this person was Barbara Fister.

Barbara Fister is a well known figure among librarians and has written for several different publications including a very informative blog on Inside Higher Ed. She was the keynote speaker and discussed three different visions of the library: one as a temple of knowledge with barriers, invisible to those who are comfortable within it, another as a merchandised institute, marketing its services using strategies learned from corporate models, and lastly, a place that champions curiosity that empowers the self.

Fister explained different ways that these could be incorporated into information literacy. This includes:

  • Relating to students on a human level
  • Giving students “ownership” of their research
  • Using research as conversation, talking about the arcane practices of research
  • Encourage students to engage the system instead of just showing them where to click
  • Talking about how the Library of Congress system is strange and hard to understand.

The other presentations of the Institute examined the theory, method, and practice of information literacy.

Karen Nicholson’s examined the context of information literacy in the context of the neoliberal university. Emily Drabinski talked about information literacy as “kairos,” as a moment of time for opportunity.

The method portion/panel of the institute was very engaging. Annie Downey talked about teaching critical information literacy and made interesting comments on student empowerment through IL. Jessica Criten talked about giving students a space and vocabulary, much akin to Fister’s idea of giving ownership of research.

The last three presenters gave practical examples of information literacy. Yasmin Sokkar Harker discussed how legal information can be used as a social capital to empower students. Mandy Swygart-Hobaugh gave a great presentation of a sociology class assignment: finding information about LGBQT youth throughout various decades. This immensely powerful presentation showed some of the barriers that marginalized groups have faced in finding and consuming information. Lastly, Eamon Tewell showed he uses comedic sitcom clips to talk about IL with his students.

After the institute, and like so many others, I thought a long time about IL. I am not an IL librarian, but I have taught one-shot classes and it can be a great challenge to engage students. Many presenters and audience members talked about how IL can become less about questioning what students consume, but more of how we’re instructing what and where to click on a database. I then started to think about how a few weeks ago I attended the code4lib conference and there was a discussion about how the user experience is a social justice issue.

This then got me thinking about how database interfaces are just plain awful. They are not intuitive. I like to think that if they were, then we wouldn’t need to have classes on how to use them in the first place. Secondly, databases may not necessarily engage the user in a meaningful way. Look at Wikipedia for instance. Wikipedia links its pages back and forth throughout the site. If there is a term that a user sees on a Wikipedia page, 9 times out 10, a user can gain more information about that term and read about it. I feel there are very few resources that allow one to do that. I also feel that the database pages are so overwhelming. There are numerous fields, check mark boxes, and jargon labels that it can be a bit much for an incoming freshman who’s experience with online research may just be Google.com.

What’s the solution? Already, it seems that APIs may be the best way to go. If there’s a coder who can construct a better interface, or even better yet, tailor it to a particular audience, then we don’t need the boring, overwhelming front-end of x database. I’ve also seen more databases, APIs and discovery services that are using the one search box form of interface that students who have grown with the Internet are accustom to. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be an advanced search for power users.


The LACUNY Institute 2014 was a great exchange of ideas. I haven’t thought about intersecting usability design and information literacy before and its given me much to think about.

Many thanks to Ian Beilin and the others on the organizing committee.

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