Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Libraries in the Contact Zone

Yesterday I read a couple of articles that I thought were really interesting. It started with the ACRL Blog, “Welcome to the contact zone.” That lead me to a short editorial,” Reference, Cultural Values, and the Contact Zone,” and it appears in Reference Librarian Vol. 47, No. 2 for 2007 . We have it in a print subscription on the second floor. A comment on the blog also references and article by Jim Elmborg from last year in RUSQ, Libraries in the Contact Zone: Creating an Educational Space” and of course the presentation by Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts in the Contact Zone” that started it all.

In very simplistic terms Pratt spoke about the cross-cultural interaction between dominant and client cultures as represented by the story of a manuscript written in 1613 to the King of Spain telling him how to justly rule the colonies. She interwove the story of the manuscript and her son’s interaction with the elementary education system. Both of these stories dealt with the “zone” that was created by the the complex interaction between the two cultures as they came into contact. In both interactions there was a dominant and subordinate culture. Contact zone theory has a variety of implications for libraries. The main implication that I brought away from the articles was that we often look at our students through our world view not theirs. We expect them to learn our systems. We expect them to thirst for the knowledge that can be gained by a complex research project and not just want to get through it with as little effort as possible. Contact zone theory takes on even greater implications when librarians interact with students from diverse cultures. Read the articles, they explain it much better. I especially recommend the Elmborg article. He never fails to help me think more deeply about art of library science.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I finally found the time to read this article, and I agree with John -- it's an interesting read, and well worth your time.

That said, I'm not sure there was much in the article that was new to me. Rather, I felt that I was given a new language to talk about what a good liaison librarian does -- build bridges between students and academic disciplines. I love making academic culture more evident to students as a culture -- one that they can become capable and competent in, but do not have to embrace wholeheartedly. After all, as a "failed academic by choice," that's the path I have taken, and there are many, many ways to walk that path with aplomb and grace.

Sam Demas, library director at Carleton, viewed the presence of student "groupies" as a sign of a liaison librarian's success. I have to agree with him, though it's important to remember why groupies indicate success. It's not the particular librarian's magnetic personality, intelligence, or charm. Thinking that it is reveals huberis and egoism that librarians should strive to transcend. Rather, it is his or her awareness and use of the librarian's unique position in the academy -- the intermediary between student culture and academic culture. If academic librarianship is practiced well,the librarian is an unparalleled and invaluable student ally in the struggle called "higher education."