I read and posted a brief comment to Jerry D. Campbell‘s essay in Educause a few weeks ago. Campbell is on target in many areas, particularly in his description of the lack of a primary focus for libraries. There is something missing in his analysis (and that of most others who have written about the situation). He rightly points to a clouding of the mission of the library in a digital culture. The things he points to, though, are really tactical functions of the library, not strategic or mission related. Most essays that talk about collection development and information literacy (or bibliographic instruction), for example, don’t seem to make the connection between the two. Nor is there much of a vision of the library’s role in education being much more than functional. It’s assumed that the primary pedagogical role of the librarian is to teach students to find the information they are looking for. (Not that this is unimportant.) Even if you include all the good things that advocates of information literacy include, they are still really focused on information discovery, retrieval and use. I think modern academic libraries have played a more central pedagogical role that is now frequently overlooked.
Several months ago I began wrestling with the impact of our digital culture (Google, but more than Google) on collection development. I began by asking myself why collection development was important. I’ve begun to think that collection development at its basic level has been one of the library’s primary modes of teaching, though admittedly in a kind of passive mode.
Literacy, when understood in a full sense is not simply the ability to read and write. It also includes a certain level of “formation.” Once one is able to read and write, one’s view of the world changes. The way one thinks, changes. The way one speaks changes. Scholars who compare oral and literate cultures point to radical differences in the way the two cultures think. Literate cultures are capable of using categories and thinking abstractly in ways that oral cultures do not. Literate cultures interact with more information than can be passed along orally from generation to generation. (They have traditionally kept that information in libraries.) The world view of literate cultures is strikingly different from oral cultures.
Early forms of theological education in North American were essentially apprentice training programs, with the student learning and being formed by the minister to whom he (probably not she) was apprenticed. The library was normally limited both because of scarcity, but also because libraries were central to the pedagogical model. In the late 19th and early 20th century, higher education began to be greatly influenced by the German university model for higher education. By the mid-20th century, theological educators concluded that engagement with a broad body of literature was an essential part of theological education. Reading was assumed to play a formative role in the intellectual preparation for ministry. The emerging pedagogical model assumed that engagement with literature in a particular discipline would result in some measure of â€œliteracy” in that discipline. Libraries were to play a huge part of enabling this to happen.
Library’s collected not just the books to support a particular course, but the books that would allow students to read broadly in a number of fields and in depth in focused areas. Librarians played a critical assessment role in selecting materials, and worked to keep the collection focused so that it could support not only the Curriculum (the courses) but the curriculum (formation). That was based on the assumption that 1) students had easy access only to materials in the library collection, and 2) students would spend much of their days in the library reading not just materials assigned for courses, but related (or even unrelated) materials. Both assumptions seem questionable to me.
It seems to me that the significant task for academic/theology libraries is to work collaboratively with faculty to address the pedagogical task of the library. Does engagement with a focused body of literature still play a significant role in contemporary pedagogical models? Do we hope that upon graduation, students will have gained sufficient â€œliteracy” in the theological and spiritual disciplines that their way of thinking, speaking, and perceiving the world will have been changed? Is engagement with the literatures of the theological disciplines still significant to this process? If so, is there a role for a library in this educational enterprise?