Reflections on Inclusion: Linda Smith

Posted: September 11, 2013

GSLIS Professor Linda Smith recently discussed the importance of inclusion in her teaching and research with Associate Professor Kathryn La Barre. Smith’s remarks are part of the interview series Reflections on Inclusion, which explores the School’s efforts to respect varied perspectives and diversity of experiences.

Smith, who also serves as associate dean for academic programs, teaches courses in information organization and access, reference and information services, and information sources and services in the sciences. Her research focuses on education for library and information science, with particular attention to online pedagogy; history of information science; and the impact of new technologies on reference and information services.

I’ve been thinking about inclusion and diversity in terms of several courses I teach, which reach students at different points in their time at GSLIS.

Information Organization and Access (501)

Description: Emphasizes information organization and access in settings and systems of different kinds. Traces the information transfer process from the generation of knowledge through its storage and use in both print and non-print formats. Consideration is given to the creation of information systems: the principles and practice of selection and preservation, methods of organizing information for retrieval and display, the operation of organizations that provide information services, and the information service needs of various user communities. (Required MS degree core course)

This course has a very broad scope and covers key topics that are foundational for our field. It focuses on recorded information, which encompasses many different formats and genres. We pay particular attention to who uses information, what constrains information use, and what are the possibilities for improving information organization and access. I’d like to discuss some of the specifics of how issues of inclusion appear throughout the course. The first is through the readings. Each term I update the readings and am alert to new publications that speak to issues about reaching diverse populations. For example, this spring a new article on accessibility of digital collections appeared. This provided an opportunity for students to read more about accessibility barriers for visually impaired users. I brought in an accessibility expert from campus as a guest speaker, which is another way I can bring in diverse perspectives. I also recognize that issues of diversity and inclusion can be incorporated into the class because students have prior experiences in serving diverse populations that can enhance their classmates’ understanding. Assignments are another avenue to include diversity and inclusion issues in the course. Students are asked to identify and analyze research studies on information needs of a particular user group. As part of this assignment, students naturally seek out articles about different categories of users, such as immigrant populations or LGBT individuals. Students post a summary of their findings to the class online forum. This exercise serves as a reminder that each information professional may need to design services for diverse groups, and that the research literature can assist. By encouraging each student to select literature that is motivated by personal interests and experiences, this assignment collectively allows us to learn from each other. The final assignment in this course is a culminating group project that asks students to first select a particular genre such as music, oral histories, picture books, or maps. Next, students select a particular context and user community and apply what they have learned about information organization and access in the context of their project. Often students pick projects that focus on a diverse user community. Last fall, one of the groups, led by a student from the Khmer community, worked to create a collection of picture books for Khmer children. Another group this spring focused on a real life community arts center and the works of an African American artist. This project dealt with collection considerations given the medium in which he works as well as how to preserve this art while creating access to it. Another group explored issues in providing picture books for children who are blind that would allow these children to interact with these books using tactile cues.

One of the most interesting aspects of 501 is that information professionals exist in an era that is raising questions about past practices. We discuss the benefits of standards to support sharing bibliographic metadata, for example, but also the tensions that arise when such standards are in conflict with the goal of reaching particular user communities. Another important theme is that in this technologically-enabled era, we do not have to be limited by standard approaches to access. For example, we have the potential to enable users to participate in creating subject access via tagging and thus bringing in more diverse voices.

This course is designed in a way that emphasizes through readings and projects the decision points and opportunities information professionals have to modify or enhance past practices, how to identify user communities, and how to understand their needs. Each aspect of the course serves to empower students to be prepared to take an active role in better matching information systems and services to their user communities no matter where they may find themselves working.

Reference and Information Services (504)

Description: Explores reference and information services in a variety of settings, introduces widely used print and online sources, and develops question negotiation skills and search strategies.

I have been teaching this course fairly regularly for more than two decades. Early on, when GSLIS first introduced it in the early 1990s, we had topical reference courses but no overview course. This course was introduced in conjunction with a collaboration between GSLIS faculty and colleagues in the University Library to produce a textbook. With all authors co-located at the University of Illinois, we developed an outline for the table of contents, which included a chapter focused on services for specific populations. This chapter explored many issues specific to groups such as children and young adults, seniors, non-native speakers of English, individuals with disabilities, and other dimensions of diversity. We found that this textbook became the starting point in discussing how to understand the needs of different populations and refine services accordingly. We referenced various groups in the American Library Association (ALA) with expertise in developing guidelines or recommendations for working with different populations. There also is a chapter in the book on ethical aspects of reference service that introduces students to professional codes or guidelines formulated by a range of LIS professional associations, including the ALA Code of Ethics. In teaching I make certain that students understand the foundations presented in the textbook and supplement it with current readings. One such contemporary reading analyzes different service qualities in virtual reference according to the person the librarian perceives he or she is helping. This can raise awareness about biases or prejudices that may be experienced in face-to-face and online interactions, and it helps students be more understanding of individuals and their information needs. Inclusion and diversity topics are a challenge in any course, as there are often more topics than there is time to cover. Some ways to cover more ground are to have students share their work and to assign final projects that can address current trends. Students in the course have created lists of recommended readings dealing with topics such as consumer health information services or services to diverse populations, including the homeless, immigrants, seniors, or individuals with disabilities. Students present their resource lists in the final class session, and we learn from each other regarding best practices and emerging approaches to problems. Each student becomes an expert who can help guide classmates to learn more about these topics.

Information Sources and Services in the Sciences (522)

Description: Overview of the information needs and practices of researchers, practitioners, and the general public. Detailed consideration of disciplinary literatures and print and electronic reference materials. Advanced training in addressing reference questions and research problems in the sciences.

This is a more advanced reference course that engages with diversity in a different dimension—that of disciplinary diversity. I want students to understand the necessity of having a broad appreciation of the physical and life sciences, as there are quite distinct informal and formal communication patterns within different areas of science. For example, physics has a preprint culture and a differing sense of what constitutes a publication. This course helps students realize that they need to go beyond a general understanding of science in order to appreciate the range of information-seeking behavior patterns and dissemination channels, both of which are increasingly affected by changing technology. This is what I mean by disciplinary diversity. Because I teach the course via LEEP, I take advantage of the online environment by bringing in librarians from other institutions to talk about their experiences and offer more in-depth insights into disciplinary differences. I also try to demonstrate how to connect non-specialists to scientific, technical, and medical resources in areas such as consumer health. One of our alumni who works at a regional medical library has been a guest speaker for the class. Her position focuses on improving access to biomedical information in her region, with an emphasis on underserved communities and the elimination of health disparities. This helps students recognize the efforts made to repurpose authoritative information materials for non-specialists. This is a different sense of the meaning of diversity, one which sensitizes students to the importance of recognizing the range of possible user groups for science information.

Students also read about ethical issues in research and authorship in all aspects of scientific communication. In this way, I make explicit the values implicit in the creation and communication of new knowledge. This includes concern and respect for human subjects; as we know, in medicine there have been egregious examples of studies in which racial and ethnic groups were targeted by experiments we now find unacceptable. As background I have the students read On Being a Scientist: A guide to responsible conduct in research, now in its third edition from the National Academies Press.

Filed Under: inclusion, Reflections on inclusion