Technical Librarians as Threshold Guides in Digital Literacy Instruction

How does a non-instruction librarian leverage their distinctive technical knowledge to encourage transformative learning in the digital humanities? I started to contemplate this question in my second year as a digital services librarian, a role in which the responsibilities are primarily technological not instructional. Managing my library’s digital collections and related digital projects, my day-to-day work and research focused on information systems and how information is structured, classified, described and shared. My colleagues in the library were sustaining a robust and successful information literacy program, but I did not initially consider how my knowledge of information systems could contribute to those efforts.

Though not an instruction librarian, I was regularly invited to give lectures to history courses on the topics of digital archives, web archives, digitized primary sources, and the role of technology in historical research and scholarship. Undergraduate students in 100- and 200-level courses (including “Digital History” and “Craft of the Historian”) were studying techniques for historical research and writing, and their coursework involved evaluating and collaborating on digital humanities projects. Whether an online exhibition, digital collection of archival records, data visualization or web publication, these projects asked students to think about how technology can be used to generate and share scholarly knowledge in digital formats and environments.

I prepared my lectures with no prior experience in the development of an information literacy lesson plan or a deep knowledge of pedagogical methodology in information literacy instruction. My presentations were structured with a skills-based approach to teaching students about digital archives, focusing on how to navigate and effectively search within a platform. My discussion also covered the labor behind a digital archive, an explanation of metadata and its purpose, and the decision-making involved in the digitization of primary sources. The goals of these sessions, as I understood them to be from the course instructors, were to introduce students to online repositories for finding primary sources and to instruct them on how to effectively search within these types of platforms. From the faculty members’ perspectives, my lectures were successful in accomplishing the desired learning outcomes.[pullquote]I began to consider whether my skills-based approach to instruction was providing students with a critical awareness of information environments and the structures within them[/pullquote]

Following these sessions, I began to consider whether my skills-based approach to instruction, that focused on information retrieval, was providing students with a critical awareness of information environments and the structures within them. Likewise, my post-lecture support of digital humanities projects involved consulting on tools, processes, and presentation, rather than encouraging a methodological understanding of the choices behind information systems. As a technical librarian, I was working to advance technical abilities and develop functional proficiencies with tools and interfaces, but I wasn’t fostering metaliteracy of organizing systems in digital environments. In prioritizing a skills-based approach, I might have been missing an opportunity to encourage a transformative learning experience that goes beyond superficial knowledge and moves towards a deeper critical understanding.

To promote deeper learning, in subsequent semesters I shifted my instruction away from a lecture format to an active learning approach. I asked students to work in small groups on a digital humanities assignment. While the digital humanities covers a wide range of scholarly activity, these sessions focused on digital libraries and digital publishing which were explored through the development of a small online exhibit with the tool Omeka. Using resources from our library’s digital collections, I asked students to: 1.) define a topic for their exhibit, 2.) select primary sources on that subject, 3.) arrange the items in Omeka, and 4.) apply metadata to each object. This was a one-off pedagogical exercise that the students performed as a group. Some of the objectives of these sessions were to reveal the technical and social elements of organizing systems, introduce students to the notion of bias in their choices, and demonstrate the inherent imperfections of information systems. I asked students to discuss why they included or excluded items in their exhibit collection and how they approached that decision-making process. How did they define criteria for inclusion? What was their approach to applying metadata? Why did they ascribe certain words or terms to an object? What did their terminology communicate to the user about that item? What information about that item did they perhaps leave out?

The development of this classroom activity was grounded in threshold concept theory, as discussed in the Association of College & Research Libraries’ (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. The Framework draws on the definition of threshold concepts by Jan Meyer and Ray Land as ideas in any discipline that are “akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” and represent “a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress” (Meyer and Land, 2003, p. 1). According to Meyer and Land, once grasped by the learner, threshold concepts “create new perspectives and ways of understanding a discipline or challenging knowledge domain.” (Meyer and Land, 2010, p. ix-xlii).

[pullquote]If students were encouraged to develop a critical view of the elements that underlie organizing systems, they would be more capable and effective users of those systems.[/pullquote]To support learning, I wanted to discover how threshold concepts in the digital humanities might be distinct from threshold concepts in information literacy and other disciplines. I became most interested in the threshold concept of Organizing Systems. This concept is connected to search and retrieval, but I wanted to bring my technical knowledge to bear and teach students the elements of classification, collections, and algorithms. If students were encouraged to develop a critical view of the elements that underlie organizing systems, they would be more capable and effective users of those systems. In my instruction sessions, students were asked to construct a system for users to find information and then reflect on the choices they made in that process. 

In Transforming Information Literacy Instruction: Threshold Concepts in Theory and Practice, Amy R. Hofer, Silvia Lin Hanick, and Lori Townsend take a deep dive into threshold concept theory, how it emerged, and its application in information literacy instruction. The authors propose the following definition of the threshold concept of “Organizing Systems”: 

“Organizing systems describe, categorize, preserve, and provide access to documents and information about documents. Though often mediated by computers, organizing systems are designed by humans and thus reflect and reproduce human understandings and biases” (Hofer, Lin Hanick, and Townsend, 2019, p. 132).

This threshold has potential to transform students’ understanding of information platforms as “structures built and maintained by people attempting to provide access to the world’s information” (Hofer, Lin Hanick, and Townsend, 2019, p. 131). Therefore, I shifted from teaching students about effective information retrieval and, instead, moved towards walking them through the labor and decisions behind these systems. One of the objectives was to reveal the inherent biases in classification systems and the unavoidable imperfections of these systems, which could lead to transformative thinking. As posited by Hofer, Lin Hanick, and Townsend, “understanding organizing systems is a transformative shift because it reveals a complex and imperfect underlying geography of information and the information things that populate it” (Hofer, Lin Hanick, and Townsend, 2019, p. 143). This threshold concept is irreversible because once the complex geography is revealed it is impossible to go back and see a flat landscape.

[pullquote]DH scholars and librarians could benefit from coming to agreement on threshold concepts that students need to grasp in order to reach learning goals in the digital humanities.[/pullquote]My objective, here, is not to define threshold concepts in the digital humanities. Sarah Barradell points out that threshold concepts are not only theoretically complex, but methodologically challenging, and that the identification process within a discipline takes “time, reflection, discussion, and most probably debate” (Barradell, 2013, p. 272). Barradell argues for consensus methodology as a useful strategy for identifying threshold concepts within a discipline. Identifying and defining threshold concepts for the digital humanities is work best done through discussion and debate within the DH community. DH scholars and librarians could benefit from coming to agreement on threshold concepts that students need to grasp in order to reach learning goals in the digital humanities.

By exploring threshold concepts and their relationship to a metaliteracy of organizing systems, I was forced to distinguish between what I perceived as core learning outcomes in the digital humanities and those outcomes that would lead to a new perspective, or a transformation, on the part of the learner. It’s worth acknowledging that conceptual teaching is an uncomfortable fit with one-shot instruction. Consequently, I’m still struggling with my ability to encourage transformative learning experiences in my digital literacy instruction. That said, the ideas behind the threshold concept of organizing systems have shifted and informed my approach to the format and content of my instruction sessions. As an early-career, non-instruction librarian, I view threshold concept theory as an opportunity to develop inroads into information literacy instruction to support the digital humanities. Technical services and metadata librarians may want to consider how they can become more involved in digital literacy instruction and act as threshold guides for digital humanities scholars.



Barradell, Sarah. “The identification of threshold concepts: a review of theoretical complexities and methodological challenges.” Higher Education 65, no. 2 (February 2013): 265-276. Web.

Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries, 2015. Web.

Hartsell-Gundy, Arianne, Laura Braunstein, and Liorah Golomb. Digital Humanities in the Library: Challenges and Opportunities for Subject Specialists. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, 2015. Print.

Hofer, Amy R., Hanick S. Lin, and Lori Townsend. Transforming Information Literacy Instruction: Threshold Concepts in Theory and Practice. Santa Barbara, California: Libraries Unlimited, 2019. Print

Mackey, Thomas P., and Trudi E. Jacobson. Metaliteracy: Reinventing Information Literacy to Empower Learners. Chicago: Neal-Schuman, 2014. Print.

Meyer, Jan, and Ray Land.Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practicing within the Disciplines. Edinburgh, UK: University of Edinburgh, 2003. Print.

Meyer, Jan H. F., Ray Land, and Caroline Baillie. “Editors’ Preface.” In Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, edited by Jan H. F. Meyer, Ray Land, and Caroline Baillie, ix–xlii. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers, 2010. Print.

Swanson, Troy A, and Heather Jagman. Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students How to Think About Information. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, 2015. Print.


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About the Authors

Colleen Farry is an Assistant Professor and the Digital Services Librarian at The University of Scranton where she manages the Weinberg Memorial Library’s digital collections and related digital projects. Her current research focuses on crowdsourcing in the digital humanities using image-based digital collections. Colleen supports the library’s information literacy program through digital literacy instruction focused on digital archives, digital humanities and copyright in the visual arts.