After serving as a librarian at a Christian university for nearly five years, I have recently accepted an appointment to teach theology and apologetics in the school of divinity at that same institution.
Reflecting on my time as an academic librarian, I cannot help but recognize a few stark, unmistakable parallels between wearing my new professorial tam and the librarian hat that still seems to sit comfortably on my head. In fact, it would appear that my theological and information literacy training have begun to coalesce in my pedagogical approach in the theology classroom.
It was during the course preparation for my introductory theology class that I started to sense a vague feeling of déjà vu. The learning outcomes embedded in my syllabus state that students should recognize the way that Christian doctrine frames our worldview and approach to every area of life. This outcome is just as appropriate for the Christian nurse as it is for the pastor.
Worldviews are the “interpretive grids, consisting of a variety of beliefs and attitudes, by which people filter through the data from the world, allowing them to form a consistent and coherent view of reality, in order to make sense of all of life.”
We believe that Christian doctrine creates the basis for those grids of interpretation.
As a librarian-turned-professor, though, when I start to think about interpretive grids, I also begin to reference my training in information literacy instruction. As it turns out, I can think of a number of ways the two are interconnected.
Perhaps, I began to postulate, at least some of the goals of the theology classroom are aligned with the same as those of a (Christian) reference librarian assisting students with their research. After all, what is the goal of a research assistance interaction? Certainly, there are all manner of directional or otherwise closed-ended questions that are directed toward the librarian seated at the reference desk. Likewise, there will always be the frantic and needy student clamoring for help finding a minimally adequate article for his 101 class as part of a late-night research procrastination ritual.
The Reference Interview: Connecting Students to God’s Worldview
However, for those students seeking true research assistance, the reference interview is about more than simply connecting the student to a source of information. Surely, the Christian librarian may discern the instructional workflow as being imbued with a higher purpose than that!
I would contend that it is instead about helping the student find a deeper, richer understanding of that which is true. Recognizing that all truth is God’s truth, the Christian librarian works with the student to discover what sources may offer the fullest and most accurate rendering of God’s world. This endeavor lies at the very heart of the research endeavor from a Christian perspective, and likewise, it is at the heart of Christian intellectual development in the theological classroom as well.
This idea of research instruction having an element of worldview development is seen best in the one-on-one reference interaction—the bread and butter for all reference librarians. In fact, I would argue that in the ideal scenario, a reference interaction actually becomes a template, of sorts, for how a student might engage with broader Christian matters and questions. In the remainder of the post, I will illustrate three points of similarity between the ideal librarian reference interaction and the broader educational goals related to Christian intellectual development.
Form and Method of the Reference Interview
The American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association has identified six guidelines to inform effective librarian research interviews. Specifically, these are organized into the areas of inclusion, approachability, engagement, searching, evaluation, and closure.
Concerning the guidelines of inclusion and approachability, librarians are focused on ensuring that research assistance is accessible and library spaces are conducive to research help. This relates directly with the principle that the presentation of Christian ideas should be contextualized and culturally informed (as Paul demonstrated in Acts 17:22–23), making them accessible to those with whom the Christian is interacting.
Concerning engagement, the librarian is encouraged to use active listening techniques to demonstrate nonjudgmental interest in the patron. Taking this principle further, the Christian is instructed to genuinely care for other people, especially in encouraging them to pursue God’s truth. In fact, we are told to count others as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:3–4).
Reference librarians are interested in helping patrons conduct searches and evaluate sources, and Christian worldview instruction ought to entail exactly these kinds of skills as well (Acts 17:11; Rom. 12:2; 1 Thess. 5:20–21).
Helping Students Test the Sources
The Christian librarian need not convert every patron that comes searching for research assistance. However, we do recognize that helping library patrons to evaluate sources will in turn model the way one should evaluate the biblical worldview and its alternatives. Researchers are interested in developing and substantiating a thesis statement using sound argumentation and the expertise drawn from the scholarly conversation.
Similarly, worldviews are evaluated using sound argumentation to determine their internal consistency and ability to explain the features of the world (i.e., external comprehensiveness).
It is the evaluation of the sources and their argumentation in this way that informs our belief in the theological doctrine that makes up our worldview. Therefore, any legitimate principles of source evaluation imparted during the research interview, insofar as they bring epistemological value, should then become transferable to the same sorts of evaluation that might be directed toward doctrinal and worldview claims.
Helping Students Evaluate Authority
Every research assistance interaction in which I have ever been involved has resulted in some dialogue relating to the question of authority. It usually entails me using the Socratic Method to bring the patron to a better sense of the notion of authority as being constructed and contextual.
Recognizing biases, determining credibility, and exercising healthy skepticism are all on the table in these conversations. It is hard to imagine a more direct correlation between the research interview and Christian intellectual development than the content of this line of questioning.
The fundamental question with which we must help others engage is this—who has the authority to determine what is true and what is false?
For Christians, we recognize this is God himself, and if this claim is true, it should indeed hold up to the same high level of scrutiny that we would want to impose on the research inquiry.
In these areas, I think we can see that there is not merely comparability between research assistance and Christian intellectual development. Rather, the same questions, skills, and methods are invoked, at least in principle, in both endeavors. In fact, if research assistance is construed to be helping patrons discover that which is true about God’s world, as I have suggested, then each time we are successful in providing that assistance we are actually helping the student come closer to an accurate understanding of God’s created reality.
More than that, I think we are modeling a replicable approach for at least some aspects of Christian intellectual inquiry and development in real time. We are providing a means by which students are invited to “come and see” that Christ is indeed Lord of all, including psychology, education, and biology research questions.
I think Christian librarians should find great encouragement and an enriching sense of purpose in this idea every time a student sits down in the chair across from them with that familiar and angsty look triggered by research anxiety. Likewise, speaking more broadly, Christian educators should find that same encouragement each time we are able to direct the student to engage in these deeper, intellectual ways.
- Ronnie P. Campbell, For Love of God: An Invitation to Theology (Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2017), 19.
- “Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers 2023,” Reference and User Services Association, accessed August 27, 2023, https://www.ala.org/rusa/resources/guidelines/guidelinesbehavioral.
- Mark W. Foreman, Prelude to Philosophy: An Introduction for Christians(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 63–65.
- “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education,” Association of College and Research Libraries, accessed August 27, 2023, https://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework#authority.