5 Ways to Become a ‘Full-Stack’ Librarian

5 Ways to Become a ‘Full-Stack’ Librarian

Pavan Trikutam/Creative Commons

In a previous article I proposed that college and university educators and administrators should think of their academic library as an educational technology. But this change in perception can only happen if academic librarians agree and take ownership of the services and resources they provide. They must become “full-stack” librarians to advance the library’s value to students, faculty and administrators.

In engineering terms, full-stack describes someone who is familiar with each layer of software technology. A full-stack librarian is a generalist who uses the full range of resources available to position the library as an educational technology and elevates instructional design and technology skills. These individuals explore and evaluate different tools and techniques and can guide educators to worthwhile technology that advances student-learning outcomes. They also know when there are better solutions than the latest educational technology.

Why should academic librarians evolve their role? This idea gets back to what Uber Development Experience Lead Chris Messina said about full-stack employees having “a powerful combination of skills that make them incredibly valuable.” The value lies in advancing the library’s essential integration into the teaching and learning process. Here are five recommendations to help librarians go full-stack.

Seek Instruction

My own transition to full-stack librarianship began with a simple realization: I was a lousy teacher. Because I worked in an academic library, I was told to teach students how to use library research databases. I knew how to use the databases, but I had no idea how to teach students or effectively communicate why they should use the databases. If asked to describe one of my classes, I imagine the students’ response would be “boring and hardly a good use of my time.” The worst part is that I didn’t know how bad a teacher I was because I just did what the other librarians did and we all thought that worked just fine.

My first recommendation is to get connected with an instructional technology program to gain some formal or informal instruction. In 2000 I began working with the director of the instructional technology program at a new institution where I was the library director. The college was acquiring its first learning management system (LMS) and I volunteered the library to take responsibility for faculty training and support.

To get up to speed, I enrolled in a certificate program for instructional technology and design. It was eerily similar to week one in my library science master’s program in which I discovered I knew diddly-squat about how to do research, despite having written dozens of research papers in college. This was the big reveal on my paucity of teaching smarts. That initial teaching with technology course was just the start of a journey to be a better educator that continues to this day.

Learn from ‘Blended Librarianship’

Two things happened early on in my journey to full-stack librarianship. First, I met my collaborator and fellow librarian-instructional designer, John Shank. Second, we conceived a strategy for encouraging our fellow academic librarians to embrace a new skill set we believed would advance efforts to integrate the library into the teaching and learning process in higher education. We called it “blended librarianship” and advocated for academic librarians to advance their value by adopting a mix of librarianship, information technology and instructional technology and design skills. Full-stack librarians should adopt a few basic principles of blended librarianship:

  • Be aggressive in looking for leadership opportunities that allow you to demonstrate instructional innovation.
  • Use design skills for a school or campus-wide approach to establishing the library as an instructional technology.
  • Speak the language of non-librarian instructional designers and technologists.
  • Save non-librarian educators time by introducing edtech that advance students’ ability to learn research skills.
  • Apply skills that demonstrate an unexpected capacity for student learning and assessment.

Engage With Edtech

Librarians on full-stack trajectory need to explore and experiment. They know that achieving student learning outcomes requires more than disciplinary and resource expertise. It demands a curiosity about new techniques that intensify engagement through active learning.

Discovering edtech that supports what librarian-educators do in and beyond the classroom can supplement and extend natural teaching abilities. The key is to experiment, identify edtech with new potential, leave behind the ones that fail to support educational goals and quickly move on to new possibilities.

Explore three to five new educational technologies a month. An exploration can be as simple as a website visit, viewing a video tutorial or finding application examples. If things look at all promising take the next step to engage with the technology.

Every time I come across new edtech that might be of interest I take a quick look for an online review. Most get passed over but the few of interest I save to Diigo. When I can devote time to further exploration I return for a closer look. That’s led to several good finds over the years, from screencast tools like Screenflow, group polling and question sites like sli.do, communication resources like Remind, interactive tutorial builders like VoiceThread or mind-mapping tools like bubbl.us.

Exploration is time intensive and big payoffs are elusive. But the process expands a full-stack librarian’s universe of instructional technologies and that always has value. What is less useful to me may prove highly productive to another librarian-educator or a non-librarian faculty member.

Ask for Forgiveness

Exploring and experimenting with new technology is occasionally out of sync with organizational priorities. Administrators and colleagues may miss the value in the edtech discovery process, so anticipate the need to offer a mea culpa. But there will be opportunities to present positive results. On the other hand, when it comes to exposing a class of students to new educational technology, seeking permission over forgiveness is the better route. Confer with instructors in advance and let them know what edtech you’d like to try with their students. Avoid unpleasant surprises by getting the instructor involved.

Stay Current

Keeping up with edtech trends requires a thoughtful professional development strategy. The challenge for full-stack librarians is choosing the information sources that best suit their needs for staying alert to the latest edtech developments. Choose from an array of newsletters, feeds, lists and more to customize the strategy. To discover additional edtech news and related resources, navigate to my Diigo pages for “edtech.” When it comes to being an up-to-date full-stack librarian, there are other ways to learn about new edtech, such as attending a national or regional conference on teaching and learning. I try to get to one or two a year and it’s always one of my better learning experiences. In addition to hearing about new edtech, you learn how educators are integrating the tools into their classrooms.

What better time than the start of a new year to begin planning your transition to a full-stack librarian? The edtech marketplace is rapidly expanding and a librarian’s analytical and evaluative skills are perfectly suited to helping steer educators to the best of what is and will become available. 

Steven Bell is the Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University and is a co-founder of the Blended Librarian’s Online Learning Community on the Learning Times Network.

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