Capstone ePortfolio: Joanna Russell Bliss 

Blog/Reflections: Current Term

April 9, 2021

Teaching information literacy from a distance, take two.

Last year, I was preparing to teach my first class in twenty years. I prepped my slides and discussed the in-person presentation with my boss. I was anxious, but didn't realize a pandemic would completely shift how I had to teach my one-shot session – I had to teach via Zoom three weeks after everything shut down.

This year, we were prepared. In addition, the first-year research and writing class had been completely revamped, so all of the WRTR classes were reading the same texts and writing a research paper about conspiracy theories and their rhetoric and logic. This allowed SMU Librarians to create two modules that the WRTR professors could incorporate into Canvas before our librarian sessions (via Zoom) with their classes.

We met as a team to discuss what should be in the modules. The main module that we asked teachers to assign to their students was on information literacy – how to think about finding and evaluating information, particularly its reliability. The second module, on misinformation, was available but assigned at the teachers' discretion. And a research guide with links to pertinent databases in psychology, history and political science, along with books on conspiracy theories and misinformation, was created for these classes as well.

All of these resources made planning my in-class session much easier (the slides are embedded above). I used the first part of class to review the module and discuss its points about making connections between sources, good search strategies to use as they looked for more sources, and how to evaluate what they are finding and determine whether they are appropriate for their paper. I also made sure to connect what they had learned in the module with the prompt that their instructor had written for their class, like what types of sources could be used for different sections of their paper.

Then we split into break out rooms so that I could talk to the students one at a time, asking about their topics, where they had already looked for more sources, and whether they needed help. Overall, the students were in a good place for having just started the assignment, and this was confirmed when I asked them to put in the chat the most valuable thing they had learned during class – they liked the search strategies, how to evaluate sources, and were particularly grateful to learn they could schedule appointments with librarians for research help.

My experience confirmed that working as a team to help these students improved my presentations in class, as well as the students' and instructors' impressions of SMU Libraries and what we can do for the students. 

March 31, 2021

Weeding, censorship, and cancel culture.

Libraries and publishers have been in the news again as arbiters of cancel culture and censorship after the foundation that publishes the books of Dr. Seuss decided not to continue to publish six of his books. The foundation had determined that images of some minorities in these books are "hurtful and wrong," (Dr. Seuss Enterprises, para. 2). Somehow this was extrapolated by politicians to libraries censoring children's classics. By the end of the month, a Pennsylvania Representative had proposed an act to protect such literature from "cancel culture." According to Fox News, "the Guarding Readers’ Independence and Choice (GRINCH) Act … will cut off government funding for agencies that censor books," (Giang-Paunon, 2021, para. 2).

Of course, as the above video explains, such decisions to not publish titles are not "cancel culture." For a start, just because they are no longer published does not mean they are removed from the shelves at a library. In fact, some libraries would argue they are more fitting now, as a way to discuss the imagery and how it can be hurtful. In conversations with the Education Librarian, Evelyn Day, at Southern Methodist University about what books to add in order to increase representation of BIPOC characters in our children's literature collection, Day noted that a professor at SMU that teaches about diverse learners has requested that certain problematic titles remain on the shelf just for that reason.

I have also been working on a weeding project with our collections department to remove duplicate titles that also are held by our law library. Such removal of duplication on an academic campus can be considered the least problematic of weeding proposals – the books are still readily available on campus, and they can be recycled or resold in order to make more room for either new books or new spaces in the library. But libraries need to do a better job of conveying why weeding is a part of every library, and not just duplicate copies of a title or those that are falling apart and can't be used anymore. As Kagan (2018) explains so well, libraries need to constantly weed in order to make sure the latest titles are readily available. As he notes, "the Library is not where books come to die," (para. 15). In my estimation, the library is a place to learn. Perhaps such learning should include teaching patrons about the cycles of information, and when something is no longer important to have within reach on a shelf. 

Dr. Seuss Enterprises. (2021, March 2). Statement from Dr. Seuss Enterprises. 

Giang-Paunon, S. (2021, March 26). ‘GRINCH Act’ introduced to protect children's books from cancel culture: ‘No one is safe’. Fox News. 

HuffPost UK. (2020, July 13). What is cancel culture? [Video]. YouTube.

Kagan, O. (2018, August 22). Where do the books go after the library? EveryLibrary.

February 25, 2021

(Pleasure) books for librarians.

As we approach one year under our strange conditions, I find I'm weary. Of staying at home. Of juggling grad school and parenting and an internship and other work. And I'm tired of being tired.

For a long time, I didn't have the attention span for novels. My son was younger, and I had found that non-fiction was easier to put down and pick back up. But now that he's self-sufficient, and I spend so much of my days focusing on articles and textbooks about library science, I need fiction to help my brain relax and recover – from work, from separation, and, lately, from the storm that shut down Texas.

Of course, even when I'm reading novels, I find that I'm drawn to those that write of literary lives. Here are three that touched on my library science studies while exploring worlds vastly different than my own.

[Sidebar: I have been an avid reader my entire life. To see other reviews of my latest reads, visit my profile at Goodreads.]

Cover of the book The Midnight Library

[Image description: Cover of the book The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig. It includes repeated zeroes to indicate the time of midnight; the zeroes also act as windows or doors, where people, animals, landscapes and other scenes come and go through the openings.]

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

The book focuses on Nora Seed, a woman that has decided she no longer wants to live. She commits suicide fairly early in the book; after she loses consciousness, she finds herself in a library with her high school librarian. Of course, this library is different: It houses her Book of Regrets, as well as all of the variants of what her life could have been with different choices: If she had become a professional swimmer, if she had married the man she left two days before their wedding, if she had moved to Australia with a friend. 

The book is an excellent exploration of the "what if"s we all consider – would our life really have been better? Or would it just have been different, with other challenges? A thoroughly engaging novel that I could not put down.

Cover of the book The Liar's Dictionary.

[Image description: Cover of the book The Liar's Dictionary, by Eley Williams. It features a drawing of the head, body and legs of a peacock with an image of an open book (looking down at the open pages and binding) as the peacock's tail.]

Organized into 26 chapters headed by the definitions of obscure words, this novel is a wonderful escape for logophiles like myself that love little-known words and their histories and meanings. The location is consistent – a publishing house in London – but the narrative jumps back and forth between the creation of a dictionary in the late 1800s and an intern digitizing the remains of the unpublished masterpiece in modern times.

The central mystery is the discovery in the modern period of a variety of mountweazels in the dictionary that date back to the narrative in the 1890s. The intern begins hunting for these extraneous words while trying to figure out why a clerk would have added them; we get clues as to why in the older narrative. As the story jumps back and forth, both narrators display their love of language while navigating the highs and lows of life in each era.

Cover of the book The Paris Library

[Image description: Cover of the book The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles. Its central image is a woman sitting on a ledge looking out at Paris, with the Eiffel Tower to the right.]

The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles

Last summer, I read about the American Library in Paris for the first time. Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2020, the article in American Libraries explored the history of this subscription library, created after the First World War, that became an essential part of the literary resistance to German occupation during the World War II.

This novel, like The Liar's Dictionary, jumps between two time periods, but in this book, they feature the same woman, Odile Souchet. In 1939, she is hired as a librarian at the American Library, and the one storyline follows her experience as war approaches and Paris is occupied. In the 1980s, she is now a widow, Odile Gustafson, who moved to Montana as a war bride. Her young neighbor befriends her and begins to learn about her past. The story seamlessly jumps back and forth, creating an engrossing narrative that kept me reading long after my bedtime.

Alford, H. (2005, August 22). Not a word. The New Yorker.

Kniffel, L. (2020, May 1). We'll always have the American Library in Paris. American Libraries. 

Penguin Random House. (n.d.). Cover of The Liar's Dictionary [Image].

Penguin Random House. (n.d.). Cover of The Midnight Library [Image]. 

Simon & Schuster. (2021). Cover of The Paris Library [Image]. 

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