Thoughts on Making Sustainable Anti-Racism Last in the Classroom

Written by Shannon Simpson, Scholarly Instruction Librarian at Kenyon College


Around the socially distant fire pit a few weeks ago, a friend in aeronautics contemplated a hypothetical alternative career. Librarian was his conclusion. He had been thinking about all the ways libraries have come through for people in the pandemic, from wifi hotspots to streaming services, he rattled off ways libraries fill a plethora of individual needs in our communities. And, we all agreed, once again, that if libraries weren’t in existence today, the idea would be laughed out of any room. “Socialism. Communism! ANARCHY!”

He’s not the first person to share this with me. I’ve had everyone from tattoo artists to musicians (and even sometimes tattoo artist musicians) tell me that they too, have considered the field of library science. Much of their interest and appreciation comes from what they see public libraries doing. Having only interned or been a page in public libraries, I have deep admiration for their work with limited resources and time–all while dealing with endless printer and HVAC issues. 

Academic libraries have a few similarities. We too have endless HVAC and printer issues. I bet you didn’t know that the upcoming version of the 2022 OED defines “Library,” as “a building with information professionals and services in which there is inadequate printing, plumbing, or heating.” True story. We provide laptops and study rooms, and software and cameras, and databases and books, and, and, and… not unlike public libraries. But here’s the thing, most of these provisions (aside from books and journals) started with one librarian identifying a need in their community and putting a plan of action together to address that need. Then, other librarians heard about the thing and some of them did the same. (I found the rapping librarian phenomenon of the early 2000’s a particularly dark time in our field.) And what my friend doesn’t realize is that each of those cool provisions was often the sole idea of one inspired librarian. 

So what happens when the librarian with an ear to the ground and a problem solving skill-set leaves? When the librarians change so can the programs, services, types of material, etc. So. What lasts in our spaces? What is required to last? Especially when budgets are cut and the pipe that was once leaky, finally bursts all over the LJ145s and there goes wifi hotspots, new additions to the LGBTQ+ zine collection, Kanopy, the overnight gaming event, etc. etc.

Throughout much of my 12 year librarian career, (I had a few careers before this one. One in music. Another in tattooing. Okay, not tattooing. Yet.), I have been dedicated to integrating more and more DEI ideas and standards of practice, into any new programming, communication, and instructional endeavors that I touch. Using a Black feminist lens, and imbuing information literacy sessions with decolonized perspectives and sources by historically excluded voices, is now my norm. But, these are my individual choices. And, while most instructional librarians are given the same autonomy, what choices are they making? Much of my work life, as an academic teaching librarian, is based on individual choices that I make as an individual librarian in deciding what voices and perspectives to include or exclude in my practice. 

Most organizations, colleges, libraries, public and private, etc fell over themselves making statements of anti-racism, creating land acknowledgments, and publicly supporting Black Lives Matter. And, even though I have contributed to a few statements myself, now is the time to carefully examine ourselves and start making public changes to back up those statements. Who are we going to be accountable to? What will we be accountable for? What will actually last in our spaces? What do we want to last?

Here’s where I see the conversation around DEI finally shifting; rather than focus on an individual’s cultural competence, (very important but a different conversation), what if we start to examine the system itself. Where are we upholding white supremacy in the spaces and spheres in which we have control and influence? Where are we still upholding an inequitably designed system? Is it in the decision-making process? Budgeting? The way we conduct a reference interview? How we don’t acknowledge the silences in our collections? Where do we have enough power to change? And how can we turn those ideas into job and career expectations and responsibilities no matter who inhabits our spaces in the future. 

I posit all of this with my heart on my sleeve. I want a better system for all future librarians, I want a welcoming and engaging instruction experience for ALL students, and I’m not really sure that I have much faith in lasting and meaningful change. Let’s challenge each other to come up with some great ideas and prove me wrong.



Anti-Racism Organizational Development


Ohio 5 Codex Group (with Anti-Racism and Decolonizing classroom inspiration ideas)


Design Justice Network


Reflecting on Searching Strategy Development

By Kerry Dhakal, MAA, MLS, Assistant Professor, Research and Education Librarian at The Ohio State University’s Health Sciences Library

How concepts are developed and how they are organized, searched and mapped in databases is the crux of searching the literature for me and what initially drew me to health sciences librarianship. Since becoming an MLS health sciences librarian, I have spent hours upon hours in learning, conducting, evaluating, revising, disseminating and publishing search strategies in collaboration with clinical healthcare providers, faculty and students in academia. Librarians regularly think about search strategy development, especially when teaching others, but we often do not have a lot of time to teach deeply on critically reflecting on search strategies. In May, I attended a presentation by Jolene Miller, University of Toledo, about reflective practice in health sciences librarianship. It got me thinking about how I can incorporate reflective thinking about searching in one-shot sessions or courses I help teach. I wanted to see if having students reflect on their strategy development was valuable for them in learning about the systematic search process, particularly since the product of their searching in the future will lead to guidelines, policies or practices that directly affect the care of patients.

In a course that I help teach in the fall each year, N8460 Integrative Reviews, the professor provided class time to students, the professor and myself to dive deeper into these types of observations. Why does using a certain keyword or subject heading pull articles on this relevant concept but not others? Why do certain subject headings, particularly those concerning demographics, include specific groups and not others, when the general understanding of that concept is that it should? Why do individual research databases have the same name for a concept but a different definition? These are great questions for students to ask.

This semester the professor and I also collaborated to develop a search strategy assignment. The doctoral (PhD) students in the course developed clinical or research questions, then I taught a full class session on how to search systematically in PubMed, using keywords, subject headings, and synonym searching techniques. The students were asked to submit the search strategies they developed for their questions in PubMed and to answer three questions reflecting on the steps that they took for developing their strategy. The assignment was a great success as not only did the students make observations about their search strategies, they commented that the process of reflecting on the assignment provided them with an opportunity to have time to critically think about the process of searching. The following class session, I provided additional guidance and tips for developing their search strategies more effectively. In that same class session, several of the students asked additional critical questions about the process of searching and about how the databases find articles, particularly focusing on article recall, sensitivity and specificity aspects of searching.

Next fall semester, I would like to take a second step and ask students to complete a survey to learn what reflecting on their practice taught them, based on the findings from Miller’s study (2020) about how reflection helps one identify personal strengths and weaknesses, gaps in knowledge or skills, achieving perspective, and recognizing errors (p25).

Here are some resources about reflective practice in the health sciences:

Miller J. M. (2020). Reflective practice and health sciences librarians: engagement, benefits, and barriers. Journal of the Medical Library Association : JMLA, 108(1), 17–28.
Winkel, A. F., Yingling, S., Jones, A. A., & Nicholson, J. (2017). Reflection as a Learning Tool in Graduate Medical Education: A Systematic Review. Journal of graduate medical education, 9(4), 430–439.

Raterink, G. (2016). Reflective Journaling for Critical Thinking Development in Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Students. The Journal of nursing education, 55(2), 101–104.

Zori, S. (2016). Teaching Critical Thinking Using Reflective Journaling in a Nursing Fellowship Program. Journal of continuing education in nursing, 47(7), 321–329.

Thompson, N., Pascal, J. (2012) Developing critically reflective practice, Reflective Practice, 13:2, 311-325, DOI: 10.1080/14623943.2012.657795

Teaching in the Fall Semester

Written by Zach Walton, Reference and Instruction Librarian at The Ohio State University’s Lima Campus Library

Now that we are firmly in the Fall semester, I thought now would be as good a time as any to reflect on some of the changes we’ve likely made in how we teach at present. It’s likely that some of us are teaching in more of a hybrid format, while others favor more virtual or in-person instruction. In a recent OSUL Teaching & Learning Workshop, a major theme of the session was determining and planning how librarians will be teaching this semester. It was generally agreed upon that OSUL librarians will likely be determining the mode of outreach, engagement, and instruction in a way that best works with campus faculty, colleagues, and students. We discussed how teaching in a virtual environment was incredibly convenient, but also discussed the benefits of face to face instruction.  

How have you been preparing for your class sessions this Fall? Have you encountered any challenges in planning, or have you developed new strategies you’ve been implementing in your instruction? How have you been engaging with your students? Have you had success negotiating with faculty on the best mode of instruction?

A Different Take on Teaching Plagiarism and Citations

By Jane Hammons, Teaching and Learning Engagement Librarian with The OSUL Teaching and Learning Department

In last month’s blog post, my colleague Danny Dotson made the case for a universal citation style, rather than the variety of citation styles used by various disciplines and journals. Reading his post got me thinking of a presentation from this year’s ACRL Conference. In Under Pressure: Rethinking How We Teach Plagiarism, Natalie Hill (University of New England) and Laura Tadena (Texas State Library & Archives Commission) take a “feminist, anti-racist, and equity-informed look at how we teach plagiarism” and citations.  

In their presentation, they make the argument that “traditional anti-plagiarism measures are punitive, harmful, and widespread.” They describe how plagiarism is typically taught with an emphasis on compliance, but without the context that allows students to understand why citations are considered so important. They make the case that focusing on perfect citation format doesn’t really tell us anything about what the student learned. Hill and Tadena recommend that instruction related to plagiarism and citations should focus on the why of citation and should center around functional attribution, rather than perfect format, stating that “proper credit is greater than a citation style.” 

Hill and Tadena also challenge the idea that citation represents a neutral practice, instead stating that “citation is a political act.” When we choose to cite someone, we “give those voices power,” and those that tend to be cited the most are those that already have power. They argue that we should encourage students to critically consider their own citation practices within this context.  

I was inspired by this presentation and included a discussion of their ideas in a virtual workshop I gave on teaching ethical information practices. The audience included both librarians and disciplinary faculty. At the beginning of the presentation, I asked participants to rate their level of agreement with the idea that current methods of teaching plagiarism and citations are “punitive, harmful, and widespread.” Just over half of the participants (N=27) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, about 20% disagreed or strongly disagreed, with the remaining 30% not sure or neutral. In discussion with participants during the workshop, I sensed growing agreement with the concerns raised by Hill and Tadena, as well as a good deal of support for the idea of functional citations. But there was also hesitation. A few participants indicated that they worried about teaching plagiarism and citations in a manner that could be seen as out of alignment with the guidelines provided by the university. Unfortunately, I did not feel that I had a great response to the participants who shared these concerns, and I am interested in hearing what others might have to say.  

What do you think? 

  • Are our current practices for teaching (and punishing) plagiarism and citations doing more harm than good? 
  • Do you consider citation to be a political act? If so, does this inform how you approach teaching citation to students?  
  • Do you support the idea of teaching functional citations? If so, how can we do this in the context of university-wide academic integrity policies?  

Please share your thoughts in the comments! 

For those who are interested in diving deeper into this topic, here are a few resources: 

Baker, Kelly J. “Citation Matters.” Women in Higher Education, (Sept. 30, 2019),  

Hill, N. & Tadena, L. (2021). Under Pressure: Rethinking How We Teach Plagiarism. Association of College and Research Libraries Conference Presentation. 

Ray, Victor. “The Racial Politics of Citation.” Inside Higher Ed, (April 27, 2018),  

Salem State University Library, Evaluating Sources: Act Up: Citation Politics Guide developed by Dawn Stahura. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. 

LaTrobe University, Power and Politics in Referencing 


How many ways can I cite thee? Let me count the ways….

Prepared by Danny Dotson, head of the Geology Library at The Ohio State University and subject librarian.

Per a number of conversations with librarians, teaching faculty, and select others I’ve had lately, I’ve been even more lately craving what I would call a Universal Citation Style that would be used by all publications and publishers.  Why? Here are scenarios that explain why the plethora of citation styles is problematic in multiple ways.

Would you like to see a Universal Citation Style? Or do you think there’s a huge reason for having so many options? Share your thoughts.

The Future of Organizational Learning

Written by Craig Gibson, Professor and Professional Development Coordinator at The Ohio State University Libraries, Drake Institute Faculty Fellow for Mentoring

I recently asked a colleague and friend in the library field, who’s had much experience in observing and consulting on organizational change processes, what is meant by the phrase that we often hear, “organizational learning.” She replied, it’s when an organization decides collectively to pivot together toward new ways of operating based on new understandings achieved together, shifts in mindset accomplished together, and new agreements enabling that new way of being together. I found this explanation compelling both for its succinctness and its depth. Organizational development and the well-known “learning organization” model of Peter Senge have become commonplaces in the business and management literature, and are staples of strategic planning-speak, but we have not always understood well enough what in libraries, real organizational learning entails. This concept also needs to be distinguished from the “learning organization” idea, because the latter may for some suggest an endpoint, a static place or arrival, rather than the idea of continuous learning conveyed by “organizational learning.” We need to reflect on what continuous learning means and develop the mental and emotional stamina to engage in it.

Our own leadership institutes, workshops, and other professional development events in our field address this issue of organizational learning only in part. The Harvard Leadership Institute for Academic Librarians, for example, has drawn on the work of Kegan and Lahey in helping individual leaders understand their own “big assumptions” and “immunity to change”  in advancing initiatives, and such frameworks are broadly congruent with the work of Heifetz in his well-known distinction been “adaptive learning” and “technical learning” in creating organizational change—that is, how organizations and those leading them must understand that adaptive change requires learning, working through ambiguous and messy processes, addressing values and complexities, rather than deciding quickly on what the “problem” is and devising a solution for it. Technical or more routine learning assumes clear-cut answers; adaptive learning assumes no easy answers and uses uncertainties and opportunities as opportunities for learning. With the Heifetz model, however, it is still the mindset of individual leaders in making this shift that matters. The role of the leader in making that shift is crucial, but the model needs further elaboration in developing collective leadership in order to enable organizational learning in a deeper way.

In reflecting on the organizational complexities of academic libraries in recent years, I have tapped into other thinkers to consider organizational learning in a broader way. We have too often become self-referential and inward-looking in reflecting on what organizational learning requires, and the leadership necessary to catalyze it, or have assumed that there is always a “fix”—a technical solution—for deep cultural barriers to change.

One of the foundational thinkers I’ve become familiar with in the field of organizational development is Henry Mintzberg of McGill University, well-known scholar, speaker, writer, and often contrarian on issues of strategic planning and organizational learning. While his investigations have most often occurred in corporations and nonprofits, they resonate for higher education and libraries as well. His views on the fallacies and weaknesses of traditionally rigid strategic planning are well-known. Less well-known is his view of leadership qualities and how organizational leaders enable, or fail to enable, organizational learning. Mintzberg asserts, based on his career of consulting in organizations, conducting research on their behavioral patterns, and getting a grounded view of organizational realities, that organizational learning develops only through building communities within them, not through imposing hierarchical structures.  He saw emergent strategies—those developed through improvisation and reacting to events and responding creatively, such as the IKEA corporation did with its disassembled furniture—as just as important, if not more so, than carefully detailed and crafted strategic plans, because in the emergent world of creative responses and reimaginings, collective learning happens. He coined a new term, “communityship”, to replace the too-often used “leadership”, to convey the idea that creating communities within organizations, and fostering learning through them, helped organizations forge new futures for themselves. Leaders in his view are designers and agents for promoting learning through, and across, organizations, and should be capable of rethinking much on their own, as co-learners with front-line members.

Mintzberg’s ideas, even if sometimes controversial, find fresh evidence in the work of a very well-regarded management consultant, Adam Grant, who writes on management and leadership for a wide audience in the New York Times, and who has published a new book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. If I fast-forward from reviewing the body of Mintzberg’s scholarship on organizational change to the present, I find the through line of his iconoclasm about organizational leadership and leadership most clearly in the ideas of Think Again. Its most succinct message for leaders and organizational learning is: be prepared to challenge assumptions, your own cognitive biases, your conventional views, and do it intentionally, in order to continue learning as a professional in any field. Grant suggests that each individual apply a kind of scientific method—thinking like a scientist—to test data and evidence, to form hypotheses, to change practices and routines based on ongoing rethinking and challenging of oneself, and one’s colleagues. The rethinking on a continuous basis enables continuous organizational learning when done in concert with colleagues.

However, such organizational learning occurs only in high-trust environments, according to Grant, who in turn draws on the research of Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School.   Edmondson’s extensive research studies of organizations and their productivity identifies the one crucial feature for their success: the ability of staff at all levels to engage in what she calls fearless conversations. In her book The Fearless Organization, the key element is psychological safety, a condition where ideas can be freely expressed without fear, even if those ideas are controversial, risky, or uncertain. In such organizations where psychological safety is paramount, innovation is more likely because learning itself is more likely. Mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn, rather than as blunders to be called out for opprobrium or punishment. Edmondson’s deep research offers organizational leaders at all levels perspectives on creating safe environments where learning happens at an organizational level. Among the essential abilities for leaders in her scheme are setting the stage for psychological safety; inviting participation by asking good questions; setting up welcoming structures and processes for participation; and responding productively to all ideas offered, while also destigmatizing failure. The goal is to encourage continuous learning, collectively, in a place where all feel safe to speak freely and to learn from others. Edmondson identifies “situational humility” as a key attribute for leaders to foster in promoting organizational learning, an attribute similar to the “confident humility” that Adam Grant identifies as crucial for rethinking and relearning in any organization.

With Mintzberg identifying community leadership and community formation in organizations as essential for innovation, over twenty years ago,  and with Grant and Edmondson identifying relearning and psychological safety as essential for learning to occur in teams or organizations,  I see a long trajectory of organizational and management theorists calling for less status and hierarchy, more trust, more willingness to engage in real dialogue rather than conversations that don’t produce collective learning,  and an acquired trait among more organization members to challenge assumptions and  practices, and to become “internal consultants” who offer evidence in doing so. In effect, these habits of organizational learning require a suite of group metacognitive practices: of challenging status quo thinking and norms, of group self-reflection; and of pivoting toward new priorities and goals based on rethinking and learning together.

Another recent entrant into the “rethinking” mode is Julia Galef, whose regular podcasts and just-published book, The Scout Mindset, reinforce the idea of challenging one’s own assumptions for individual learning, usually on difficult scientific and social issues, through open-mindedness and curiosity. Galef’s emphasis on rational evidence-based approaches to any issue continues the line of inquiry about individual rethinking becoming a prerequisite for organizational learning, and the willingness to think unconventionally, even in spite of risks, means potential sparks of collective learning as well. In effect, Galef shows how we all are prone to cognitive errors, primarily that of motivated reasoning; the consequences of biased decisions or cognitive errors on an individual level are greatly consequential when proliferated throughout organizations.

Another management theorist, John Maxwell, identified a core paradox about expertise that often undermines learning, whether individual or collective: he noted without the rethinking championed by Grant and Galef, that the “greatest enemy of learning is knowing.”* Extending Maxwell’s and Galef’s ideas about rethinking, overcoming motivated reasoning, and learning to demystify the problem of expertise in our sphere of library practice suggests that real organizational learning requires moving beyond siloed expertise and functional knowledge into a metacognitive awareness of strengths and challenges, a fearless willingness to challenge pieties and assumptions, and the growth of an organizational learning mindset on everyone’s part, separate from hierarchy, privilege, or access to special information. Everyone is assumed to be a learner who contributes to or is capable of contributing to a grounded strategic vision that creates the multiplier effect of collective learning for all. That collective learning can be further strengthened by strategic partnerships across our campuses to create a network of influential relationships that amplify learning at scale.

These writers, theories, and leadership consultants from beyond libraries should challenge all of us within academic libraries to reinvent our organizational learning processes, beyond our own individual and staff training programs. I would also place the new organizational learning imperative for libraries against the broader higher education backdrop, because the current pandemic and the opportunities for reflection afforded by it, and the renewed calls for commitment to higher education in an uncertain time, have large implications (and consequences) for libraries and library staff. One thinker who speaks eloquently of an essential shift in mindset for college and universities is Kathleen Fitzpatrick, digital humanities scholar at Michigan State University.  Her 2019 (and pre-pandemic) book, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, addresses one issue, that of the state of the arts and humanities in higher education, as part of complicated set of issues facing large public research universities themselves, and by extension, much of higher education. The lack of understanding of research and teaching agendas among the broader public continues to plague colleges and universities, and institutions themselves have been on such a prestige arms race for so many years, that real understanding of the many agendas and commitments within institutions themselves clouds the broader message to the public. Fitzpatrick calls for a renewed commitment to building community within institutions, finding new ways to assess and reward what is valued, and creating new forms of community engagement for scholars and researchers. For Fitzpatrick, organizational learning at scale only occurs through building community, through listening to a wide range of diverse voices, and through giving up some of the focus on prestige and status in order to make community possible, and the core mission of the institution more visible.  This larger backdrop for libraries speaks to moving even more into an organizational learning mode rather than a conventional resource acquisition mode, and building capacity through partnerships with other stakeholders on campus—partnerships which will in turn amplify organizational learning across boundaries.

To sum up my investigations into organization learning that builds on individual professional learning, I think libraries and librarians are well-positioned to advance to another level of organizational learning through projects and initiatives afforded by consortia, major professional associations, and by numerous professional development opportunities in higher education.   However, for real pivots toward transformed organizational practices to occur, the perspectives of some unconventional thinkers discussed here suggest a need for community formation, fearless conversations, real dialogue, more “confident humility,” and more curiosity about evidence in order to rethink on a continuous basis. I also believe that opportunities for partnerships with other campus stakeholders for forming larger communities—for example, at Ohio State, the Drake Institute for Teaching and Learning, the Office of Research, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Office of Student Academic Success—need to be amplified, and the learning gains from them shared in a more intentional, integrated way, in order to create more pathways for all of us to learn and grow together. By engaging in the “generous thinking” of which Fitzpatrick writes, we can amplify that learning together and become a real community.





Edmondson, Amy. The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.   Hoboken NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2019.

[For the Fearless Organization scan, available free, go to this link and register, to learn about your own assessment of yourself in psychological safety]

Test your psychological safety straight away – Fearless Organization Homepage


Fitzpatrick, Kathleen.  Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2019.

Galef, Julia.   The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. New York: Penguin Random House, 2021.

Grant, Adam.  Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.   New York: Penguin Random House, 2021.

Heifetz, Ronald. et. al.   The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009.

Kegan, Robert, and Lisa Lahey.   Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.   Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009.

Mintzberg, Henry.  “Communityship Beyond Leadership.”  Blog post, November 18, 2018.

Communityship beyond Leadership | Henry Mintzberg

*Maxwell, John.  Beyond Talent: Become Someone Who Gets Extraordinary Results.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011, pp. 184.

Reconsidering Professional Learning

Written by Craig Gibson, Professor and Professional Development Coordinator at The Ohio State University Libraries, Drake Institute Faculty Fellow for Mentoring


“In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future, while the learned find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer


In the midst of the myriad of specialized seminars, webcasts, webinars, short courses, institutes, and other venues and formats for advanced, continual learning, it is, almost certainly, an unusual circumstance to write about professional learning as a separate topic. The overwhelming abundance—especially in this pandemic-inflected and teleworking year—of face-to-face events—conferences, workshops, and institutes—have converted to virtual formats and occasionally gained traction with their intended audiences. Despite the shift to online or hybrid formats, the hyper specialization within our library profession continues: the opportunities advertised on listservs, websites, twitter feeds, and in organizational forums abound for continued learning in archival work, intellectual access and description, data visualization, geospatial projects, digital scholarship projects, information literacy and virtual instruction, and reference and research support. Leadership training offers appear regularly as well, in addition to engagements of various types on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. The offerings are legion.

How to engage in sense-making as professionals, among this welter of opportunities? Do we construct tracks or thematic threads among these opportunities? How do we make the best choices among them? Can we learn from them in an ideal way that benefits ourselves, and also our organization? Do these professional development opportunities create real value, or are they just “check boxes” to note on an annual report or a resume? Can they be organized collectively to augment organizational learning? These are questions many are reflecting on across higher education, as we ponder our current pandemic work lives, and consider possibilities for returning to whatever “normal” looks like in the future.

These questions are compelling ones, but I am stepping back from them here to offer a broader view of professional learning in our organization, and more generally, in the library profession. I take for inspiration some readings of several key texts outside the library field altogether, because I have found our own LIS literature offers only rare examples of what we need to think about collectively about this ever-more-important topic. In doing so, I relate this particular topic of “professional learning” to the separate but related one of “organizational learning.” I also relate here some highlights from conversations with colleagues, who have informed my own thinking in this arena.

At the outset, I want to point out an important distinction between “professional development” and “professional learning.” For many years, the former term was used, to convey a continuing focus on gaining competencies, knowledge, skills, and awareness of new trends, technologies, and areas of practice, through a series of discrete “updates”: one-off events designed to offer the professional continuing education credits (CEUs), certifications, or other external signs of completion of a particular series of events signifying new knowledge or skills gained. This “professional development” model is familiar across all professions, and certainly in the library field we’ve used the term frequently and have sought to incentivize colleagues to participate in it. However, over time, a newer term “professional learning” has begun to supplant the previous one. The reasons are complex, but underpinning it are theories of adult learning and ideas about professional growth spanning a career, through developing the self individually but also in community with others. The shift from “development” to “learning” also suggests a change from a deficit model—where the individual lacks expertise or is deficient in some way—to an empowerment model—where the individual brings pre-existing knowledge to a new learning opportunity and engages in more complex learning and self-development with others. Learning in community and building shared knowledge together is now the new aspiration. Cohorts, learning communities, reading circles, communities of practice, and other learning-focused groups honor the expertise and knowledge of each group member amplifying that expertise and knowledge communally, building new understandings and opening up new questions for the group to investigate together.

The shift from “professional development” to “professional learning” is more than a semantic one: it signifies the important principle of “self-authorship,” drawn from adult learning theory (Kegan & Lahey; Baxter-Magolda). Individual professionals create their own meanings and are responsible for their own identity formation over time, whether working with a mentor, with colleagues in a cohort, through attending formal training, or through multiple work-placed based conversations and informal learning opportunities as part of their daily practice. It is the learning, and continuous learning that matters, not the externally mandated “development” requirement for CEUs, certifications, or other formal requirements. Professionals control their own destiny, not through pure autonomy, but through their own choices over time that inform their practice and their professional growth with others. They reconstruct their mental universes in concert with colleagues and continue to ask questions about what they don’t know and need to learn to become better in their professional lives.

In our library field, we are very adept at providing multiple learning opportunities through conferences, webinars, institutes, and workshops, but we don’t provide often enough those opportunities for self-reflection and a visioning of self-authoring according to the theory of Kegan and Lahey. However, we also do not amplify grassroots knowledge and practice sufficiently (though the recently developed Library Collective conference is an exception), and we don’t provide enough interdisciplinary professional learning opportunities. Too often, we remain locked within functional silos that impede real learning across our organizations and across our profession. We need to take note of other models developed by Student Life organizations (like communities of practice focused on a particular aspect of student life) and by Centers for Teaching and Learning where professional learning communities—sometimes called faculty learning communities—are a well-known venue for faculty learning and interdisciplinary conversations about teaching improvement.

Ann Webster-Wright investigated professional learning across professions in depth and found that the most effective professional learning is not accomplished through externally imposed “add on” events or through didactic workshops or lectures. Instead, based on interviews with professionals in a variety of fields, she found that authentic professional learning occurs through both informal and formal learning opportunities, and is situated, contextual, social, and sustained over time. Real professional learning occurs through a seamless blend of conversation, questioning, training, mentorship, reading, listening within the context of the work environment, though formal training opportunities may augment those ongoing learning opportunities that are “moment to moment” and ongoing. Webster-Wright’s investigations suggest that asking about the lived experiences of professionals—what works best for them, where have they learned most deeply in the past—should inform ongoing plans for professional learning. Such an approach calls for commitment around genuinely engaging learning where individuals or cohorts themselves are empowered to investigate and learn together—as opposed to compliance mandates for training.

Webster-Wright provides several approaches to professional learning focused on authentic learning. She suggests that one specific method for professional learning is “action research,” which amplifies both individual and collective learning, and involves a kind of practical investigation into one’s practice, one’s work, based on a gap, a hypothesis, some informal data collection, an inquiry into an improvement process, or a change in practice. She places this kind of activity within a larger array of “professional practice knowledge.” This is a repertoire of personal traits, ethical codes, technical skills, situational and propositional knowledge, and professional judgment that develops within the context of professional growth. Beyond the individual, “professional knowledge landscapes” convey the organic complexity of the fields of activity that can be integrative based on interests of individuals that also amplify strategic goals of the organization. Such profession-wide landscapes are important for managers and leaders to ponder, to understand, and to cultivate for the greater good.

What are the implications for this perspective on professional learning (as individuals) for organizational learning? How can the “professional knowledge landscapes” described in Webster-Wright’s research be turned into specific programs for organizational learning? The second part of this post (forthcoming in May) will present some options for change based on other scholarship and thinking beyond libraries, and further afield from higher education itself.



Baxter Magolda, M. B.. Making their own way: Narratives for transforming higher education to promote self-development. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2001.

Baxter Magolda, M.B.  Authoring your life: Developing an internal voice to navigate life’s challenges. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2009.

Kegan, Robert, and Lisa Lahey.   An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization.   Cambridge: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2016.

Kegan, Robert, and Lisa Lahey.  Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.   Cambridge: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2009.

Webster-Wright, Ann.   “Reframing Professional Development Through

Understanding Authentic Professional Learning,” Review of Educational Research, vol. 79, no. 2 (June 2009), pp. 702-739.  DOI: 10.3102/0034654308330970

Living in Liminality

Written by Craig Gibson, Professor & Professional Development Coordinator and Drake Institute Faculty Fellow for Mentoring


During this pandemic-inflicted year (or more), all of us have experienced a range of experiences, emotions, interactions, hopes, and fears as we’ve thought about our work—our practice as professionals and as members of the university community. Time itself has become an uncertain and radically more subjective space, with the markers of days and weeks and signposts of events blurring, with some recognizable features but with more uncertainty and searching for stable milestones in our work and in our personal lives. Commentary on this uncertainty appears often in major media outlets, in blog posts, and in articles and books. We are living in an unmoored space, seeing each other across virtual meetings in Zoom rectangles, through phone calls, in emails, and occasionally in person, but the reality of teleworking for many of us has lessened connection and also presented opportunities for reflection on the uncertainties enveloping us.   We are living, in effect, in a “liminal space.”

I am pointing to the idea of “liminality” here to raise some important issues about our work with our students and faculty. I first learned about this notion of “liminality” while co-chairing an ACRL Task Force, the one that created the Framework for Information Literacy, the generative and often controversial document that continues to cause interest, some disagreement, and productive discussions among teaching librarians. The theory behind the Framework, Threshold Concepts theory, posits that students or novices must learn the foundational and often counterintuitive ideas in any discipline by traversing a “liminal” space with uncertain markers and guideposts, with many questions, with unsettling ideas, that may upend students’ comfortable, unquestioned, and previously naïve conceptions about the discipline. The student must live with uncertainty for an extended period, the theory goes, in order to emerge with greater understanding of that field, its ways of thinking, the way its scholars and experts talk and write, their habits and signaling and the accepted norms of professional communication within the field. Only in moving through that emotionally challenging and difficult space of liminality can the student emerge as an expert, or at least more expert-like in habits of mind, and in understanding the big ideas of the discipline that organize the mental universe of the field. The student may oscillate between more expert-like thinking and revert to earlier naïve notions while in the liminal space, and that traversing through the fog of uncertainty is necessary for the pain of learning to occur.

I well recall, during one of the rich conversations in our ACRL Task Force, that one of the early adopters of Threshold Concepts theory in our profession observed that “threshold concepts themselves are a threshold concept for our profession.” She remarked on the collective “liminal space” that teaching librarians were living through in even considering this theory and adapting it to their teaching practices. Questions abounded during those years during virtual open hearings and at ALA conferences, and at other events, about our teaching role: how can these very complex ideas possibly be taught in our one-shot instruction sessions, which are our bread-and-butter approach to instruction?  How can we possibly assess learning outcomes for these messy, complicated ideas?  Shouldn’t we be focusing on the specifics of teaching databases and style guides and the immediately useful information students need for assignments given by faculty? How can our limited opportunities for teaching possibly reach for programmatic development if we tie ourselves to a theory developed outside the library profession, that many faculty hadn’t even heard of? These questions, among many others, challenged me and others, but we grappled with them, and understood that we were in our own liminal space in effecting change at scale across the profession. We made changes in multiple versions of the Framework through listening, responding, respecting a wide range of perspective offered by colleagues, while keeping our core principles about the emerging Framework before us. It was, as we often say, a learning experience.

I reflect now on the liminal space we’ve been traveling as a profession since the idea for the Framework first emerged from our Task Force’s discussion eight years ago, and see greater understanding of shifts in our teaching role because the Framework has provoked so much discussion, debate, and reflection. Some institutions have adopted it readily and have created structured curricula, partnering with Writing Programs, based on its elements of threshold concepts, knowledge practices, and dispositions. Others have taken parts of the Framework and created assignments or specific courses based on its elements. Some have adhered to an older—and in my view, outdated– set of Information Literacy Standards created over twenty years ago, which do not address the information challenges of this time. Among these are the authority/expertise problem, the reproducibility and data fraud problem in many science and social science fields, the misinformation/trust problem in media environments, the ideology/truth claim problem occasioned by Critical Theory in some humanities, the algorithmic mysteries of search engines and social media, and a general attention problem because of the bursts of information coming at us in our professional and personal lives. Sense-making as professionals about our teaching role as librarians is more challenging than ever in these times.

However, the liminal space we continue to traverse together offers opportunities for learning together. I have learned, through conversations and discussions with colleagues here and elsewhere, that our teaching role, whether based on the Framework or not, needs to be reimagined. We will need to navigate a difficult space of teaching in more traditional ways, face-to-face, in single instruction sessions, while planning for, and reaching toward, larger and deeper partnerships that build larger communities of practice for pedagogical innovation. We need architectures for deeper learning, multiple pathways that produce integrative learning, across longer trajectories of learning, in order to effect deeper educational change. The lesson from liminality here, for our profession, is that the uncertainty created by myriad disconnected one-shot sessions that don’t build toward something larger, leaves us in instructional limbo, in a service provider role, that of the occasional lecturer or guest presenter. Such a role matters, but what can be imagined based on it matters more: that of educational partner—in designing assignments and curricula, in joining communities of practice related to teaching development such as those sponsored by the Drake Institute at Ohio State, or in joining groups sponsored by academic departments reorganizing General Education courses, or in creating new ones founded on partnerships. The educational partnership role is vital for our continued success.

Another lesson learned from the liminal space opened up by the Framework is that the technocratic perfectionism of lesson plans and learning outcomes clearly specified, based on the previous Information Literacy Standards (or any other set of Standards), do not achieve the deepest learning possible, and don’t support the wide variability among students. We have learned much about assessment in our profession in the past decade, with proliferating presentations and articles about it, but learning outcomes that eliminate the spontaneous, the charged luminous moment in the classroom, the too-carefully managed activity, often remove the possibility for learning. Our students need to learn the vagaries and uncertainties of the research process, and too often our presentations and lessons are too “packaged” to give them that reality—the challenges of living with liminality themselves in working with disciplinary ideas in concert with information literacy concepts. A good example is teaching how to formulate a research question that is “researchable”: this is the reality that scholars and researchers grapple with all the time, but their expertise allows them to move quickly to another line of investigation, a reframed question, a new population, another perspective.   Students need to be taught in depth that “Research is Inquiry” (one of the Framework’s big ideas), and to modify questions and develop better ones as they work through dead ends and uncertain lines of investigation. Only the extended experience of liminality disciplines their minds and their habits to develop better questions worthy of inquiry. That extended experience of productive liminality can only be provided by thematic connections provided by the Framework, or other uber-concepts, across time, as students grapple with those ideas together and with faculty working with them—not necessarily always as unquestioned experts, but as co-learners.

Another lesson from liminality in working on the Framework, and in reconsidering our teaching role in working with disciplinary faculty, is that faculty themselves are often the most neglected learners on campus (Rossing and Lavitt). Surely this is a counterintuitive “threshold concept” in itself! After all, faculty are highly educated, are experts in their field, have published extensively, conducted multi-year scholarly projects, have presented at conferences, and have sustained professional conversations with colleagues worldwide about the leading-edge questions in their fields. However, most faculty learn about teaching, if at all, episodically, and they are neglected learners in the sense that they often teach in solitude and may lack the time and commitment to make their expertise and knowledge more accessible to students and to a wider public.    Professional learning programs offered through Centers for Teaching and Learning on many campuses, and through the Drake Institute at Ohio State, provide opportunities and venues to create community and collective learning to make that knowledge come alive for more students, with more diverse students, and to a wider community, and enliven interdisciplinary conversations that create a more vibrant intellectual climate. How can librarians become part of those interdisciplinary conversations? We need to learn, more deeply than before, how scholarly conversations and influence work, how faculty are incentivized, and learn the language of complexity within disciplines, but also across them. Our teaching role in communities of practice, in research partnerships such as those offered by the Office of Research at Ohio State, and in many “small significant conversations” on campus (Roxa and Martensson), can coalesce to help us, with our partners, move through our collective liminal space toward a reinvigorated community—beyond this pandemic time, but more importantly, toward a revitalized time of real community where all contribute and make learning more sustained and vibrant for all who teach and learn together.

Sources for further reading

Rossing, Jonathan P., and Melissa A. Lavitt. “The Neglected Learner: A Call to Support Integrative Learning for Faculty.” Liberal Education 102, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 1–10.

Roxå, Torgny, and Katarina Mårtensson. “Significant Conversations and Significant Networks—Exploring the Backstage of the Teaching Arena.” Studies in Higher Education 34, no. 5 (2009): 547–59.

Setting Teaching Goals for 2021

Written by Abigail Morgan, Social Sciences Librarian at Miami University


January is traditionally a time to pause, reflect, and set intentions for the next year. While 2020 and the early days of 2021 have taught me that our world can be upended in an instant and flexibility and openness to change is more important than ever, I still believe that goal-setting is an important practice. I also find that it helps bring stability and routine, even when working in less than ideal circumstances. Setting goals for learning is an inherent part of the instruction process, so it seems natural that now is the time to think about what I want to achieve in my teaching practice in the next calendar year. Here are the goals I’m setting:

Goal 1: Redesign lessons to incorporate critical pedagogy from the ground up

While I have been an enthusiastic proponent of critical pedagogy methods for several years, I have only been able to make small changes into my class sessions – such as using more diverse examples. In 2021, I’d like to move from proponent to active practitioner. This will entail overhauling several lessons I have taught many times in the past. My first priority is redesigning our mandatory first-year business student information literacy module to add more activities about authority and inclusion into the coursework, as well as more opportunities for discussion. I hope this will have a high impact since it reaches over 1,000 students. For the one-shot sessions I usually teach, I also plan on using less time in class on lecture, demonstrations, and individual activity and more time on group work and discussion. These practices will give students more voice and help them actively engage with the material.

Goal 2: Add more assessment from students

I confess I’m not the best at allotting time for student assessment of my teaching. That’s not because I think my teaching is perfect – in fact I suspect I’m my own worst critic. While I always include some sort of meaningful activity for students so they can demonstrate their learning, this is not the same as getting direct feedback. Incorporating more regular assessment of my instruction will make me see my teaching more clearly. One advantage of remote instruction is that it is easier to make assessment flow naturally into the pace of the lesson. I plan to make the most of remote instruction this spring to get more in the habit of assessing my sessions so by fall it will be easier to include in all instructional situations, online, hybrid, or face to face.

Goal 3: Preparing for in-person instruction in Fall 2021

I have been lucky enough to be able to work and teach from home throughout the pandemic.  When we resume classes for fall semester 2021, I will have been out of practice teaching in front of a class for over a year. Of course, conducting instruction via Zoom or Canvas modules is real teaching, but it requires a different approach than in-person instruction. Just as it took time to get used to the feeling of teaching through the barrier of technology, I think it will take another adjustment to adapt back into teaching face to face. My skills are rusty: my ‘teacher voice’ is unexercised and my ability to stand comfortably for 50 minutes in work appropriate shoes is non-existent! At the same time, I’m eager to teach in person again and I believe that students and faculty will share the same sense of delight returning to the classroom.

I’d love to hear from others about what they are planning to work on in 2021. What are your 2021 goals for teaching and learning?