By Adrian Stagg, Manager (Open Educational Practice), University of Southern Queensland
During an interview, the anthropologist Dr Margaret Mead was asked what evidence she considered noteworthy as a society first progressed toward ‘civilisation’. If we consider the question, physical artefacts such as farming or hunting implements, or perhaps pottery seem likely answers.
Dr Mead used a broken (and healed) femur as her reply. The healed bone inferred that another human being had demonstrated empathy. Rather than abandoning this person, another had cared enough to nurse them back to health. Empathy, she asserted, was the start of civilisation (Byock, 2012), and a consideration for the welfare of others differentiated humans from the animal kingdom.
It can be reasonably argued that librarians – whether public or academic – require empathy as a professional skill. Libraries continue to be places for democratic empowerment, places that value equity, and promote safety. Libraries also become food pantries on many campuses, a function well outside information and digital literacy.
During a reference interview with a first-year student, most librarians concentrate on normalising confusion and creating a welcoming space as they do answering the questions. As academic spaces, libraries invest in student-centred design for services and function; when supporting academic colleagues we attempt to understand context to which solutions can be linked.
Unsurprisingly, open education finds a home in many university libraries. Their remit includes the organisation, access, and maintenance of knowledge resources, and is usually accompanied by supporting infrastructure and staffing (despite consistently conservative or diminishing budget allocations).
Open education meets pragmatic library needs such as mitigating library expenditure by transitioning to open texts, reducing workload by using existing OER, or accessing low-cost, openly licenced professional learning.
Open licencing affords unique opportunities that connect academic staff with learning and teaching approaches (such as open assessment), and position the library as a key stakeholder in learning design. Furthermore, these partnerships often yield scholarship and research outcomes, raising the profile of librarians-as-researchers.
However, openness is – like libraries – foundationally aligned with social equity. Openness reduces barriers to access and increases participation in education, equalises readership and access to information, and addresses systemic issues of financial inequality and educational attainment. For librarians – exposed to the ‘macro-view’ of the university through interactions with students from all disciplines – it is difficult not to respond with empathy to trends that reinforce inequality.
Our failing in open advocacy is often untempered empathy. Many library-run OER workshops can be summarised as ‘a solution looking for a problem’, presenting openness as a self-evident good without necessarily considering the audience. The results are workshops populated by ‘the usual suspects’ and an inability to sustain open practices beyond small pockets of already-dedicated practitioners.
Starting with OA Week, I’d like to propose that ‘It matters how we open knowledge’ refers to our engagement as much as processes, policy, and infrastructure.
Professor Geoff Scott, when speaking at an ACODE Institute introduced the mantra ‘Listen, Link, Lead’. When advocating for sustainable change, he encouraged the audience to actively ‘listen’ to, and understand the context of others. Then ‘link’ the challenges to new approaches that directly influence a positive outcome for the individual. Lastly, is the opportunity to ‘lead’ the change and build momentum based on success.
Transforming open education from ‘open as library business’ to ‘open as everyone’s business’ requires empathy and connection.
Take time this week to review your strategies. Do you ‘listen, link, lead’? Have you unintentionally excluded teams from your initiatives, and are there opportunities for collaboration (such as Learning Designers, Student Services, the Student Guild)?
The unique affordances of openness lie in reuse, remix, and repurposing content to suit local contexts and learner needs. Perhaps, using the lens of empathy, we explicitly consider our skills as librarians with similar affordances.
Take the opportunity to share and learn this week by reflecting on your practices in the Comments.
Byock, I. (2012). The best care possible: a physician’s quest to transform care through the end of life. New York. Avery.