How One Library Cultivated Student Agency and Research in Digital Privacy

A Q&A with two librarians from Vanderbilt University

A woman changing her privacy settings thanks to her privacy literacy skills

Not too long ago, LibTech Insights reprinted a fantastic book chapter, originally published in Practicing Privacy Literacy in Academic Libraries: Theories, Methods, and Cases (ACRL, 2023) and written by Melissa N. Mallon and Andrew Wesolek, two librarians at Vanderbilt University, about their library’s undergraduate fellowship program on digital privacy. Of course, digital privacy is a hot topic. At the time of this writing, the United States is considering a ban on TikTok over privacy concerns. But there’s a pervasive sense, perhaps a myth, that young people don’t really care about their online privacy. In their chapter, Mallon and Wesolek very clearly show that this isn’t the case and highlight how their undergraduate fellows engaged with this issue and designed a series of podcasts around it as a final project.

Curious to learn more about the program and its future, I reached out to Melissa and Andrew for a brief interview. Our conversation below is structured as a complement to their chapter meant to get into broader discussions of privacy literacy, undergraduate outreach, new scholarly communications avenues, and more. But for those who haven’t read the chapter yet, it should serve as a nice introduction.

Just to recap for our readers, what is the Buchanan Library Fellowship? How did it come about, and what does it entail for students?

The Buchanan Library Fellowship program evolved out of an interest in bringing students into the libraries to share their insights with staff in ways that would enrich our services and resources while simultaneously teaching new skills to students. The program supports hands-on student learning opportunities that build skills and deepen students’ understanding of resources and services in the Vanderbilt Libraries. With a focus on undergraduate instruction, the program connects faculty and professional librarians with students to work on experiential library projects and present their work at the end of their fellowship. One of the donors of the endowed gift, Dr. Richard Buchanan, worked in the library as a student during his time at Vanderbilt and felt that this experience gave him a valuable skill: a love of lifelong learning. Because of his experience, mentoring is a vital part of the fellowship program and all mentors are encouraged to share their passion for libraries with their fellows.

Throughout their fellowship experience, students work alongside librarian and faculty mentors to learn new skills and participate in experiences that add to their expertise and résumés. The program’s goal is to improve students’ abilities to find, interpret, evaluate, and present information in ways that support their future coursework and career. They develop communication skills through their final presentations and blogging activities, which teach students how to write for a broad audience. Each student is also introduced to how libraries function to improve their ability to find scholarly information.

Projects may involve curating a physical or online exhibition, creating multimedia such as podcasts or videos, contributing new research via academic outputs (e.g., research poster, academic databases, or an article), or expanding technology and data skills. Through the Buchanan Library Fellowship program, the Vanderbilt libraries promote student research and experiential learning. As a result, fellows come away with new research skills, a completed project on their résumé, an understanding of how to use their libraries, and a stipend.

How did you settle on privacy literacy as a topic? Within the university setting especially, why should libraries be a stage for theorizing and developing privacy literacy?

The fellowship on privacy literacy was the second in an ongoing series of fellowships focused on the intersection of information, technology, and society. We found some success, and a lot of fun, with our first semester fellowship, the ethics of information, which we taught along with colleagues Bobby Smiley and Sarah Burris in the spring of 2020. We launched that fellowship without a clear picture of the final project that the students would create. Instead, we expected the project to take shape organically throughout the semester. But, as you can imagine, external forces threw us for a loop in spring 2020. We suddenly found ourselves with the need to create some kind of project that could be completed collaboratively yet remotely, as well as transmitted digitally. Podcasts were a perfect solution to this dilemma.

We were really impressed with the students’ abilities to distill complex ideas and communicate them in creative ways, so we knew we wanted to continue running a fellowship culminating in podcasts, and wanted to continue exploring information, technology, and society from a variety of different perspectives and with different foci. Concurrently, the authors had been involved in a number of conversations across campus about the potential impact of algorithmic bias, data profiling, and surveillance capitalism. Readers will recall the flurry of impactful scholarship published around this time (Algorithms of Oppression, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, etc.). Understanding the nature of privacy, and the impact of surveillance architectures was a common theme in this research, and one which we thought would be interesting to navigate with students. There is of course the trope that “kids these days” don’t care about privacy, and we were curious to better understand their attitudes.

Libraries can and should be the hub for exploring privacy literacy on campuses. Intellectual freedom is a pillar of our profession, and privacy is a necessary condition for intellectual freedom. One is not free to explore novel, potentially subversive, ideas within surveillance architectures. One is not free to create new knowledge without sufficient private mental space to develop, refine, and articulate ideas. In brief, as defenders of free inquiry, libraries must also be defenders of privacy.

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What did students take away from their research and what did they leave behind for the community?

During the course of the fellowship, we had students engage in a variety of discussions related to privacy and surveillance. In addition to the literature we’ve already mentioned, we also wanted students to see the topic of privacy from a more practical perspective. To that end, we invited a local data privacy expert from the Nashville Public Library to provide a guest lecture on privacy settings and tools that students could implement. One of the interesting things that came out of this discussion, as well as the assigned readings, was a desire on the students’ part to move our fellowship communications away from email to Signal. We appreciated that students brought their own academic interests and lived experiences to our discussions, which not only lent agency to the student-produced podcasts but also led to interdisciplinary conversations that we did not anticipate.

As part of the Fellowship requirements, students are asked to write an end-of-semester reflection that is shared with the Buchanan family. Participating in this reflective process allows the students to consider what their learning goals were coming into the fellowship and how those goals were met. We were so happy to see that the students’ reflections were as positive as our own experiences with the fellowship. The students expressed gratitude for the community and collaboration we tried hard to foster in the fellowship, and also noted the rabbit-hole conversations we often had in our weekly meetings (this quote from a student reflection sums it up well: “Our class discussions were always fruitful and would often lead us down paths that weren’t originally planned for the day’s seminar”).

The final projects from the fellowship took the form of a podcast. There seems to be growing academic interest in podcasts as a form for scholarly communication. What are your thoughts on its potential as a medium for academic research and exchange, particularly for undergraduate scholars?

Podcasts have tremendous potential for both research and exchange, particularly for undergraduates. We (Melissa and I) think a great deal about the role of education in a world of increasing automation. We both think that students who can think critically, express themselves creatively, learn rapidly, and communicate effectively will be best positioned to thrive in a world of constant change. Computers are becoming more and more powerful, and societally, we see a lot of hand-wringing about what this will mean for the future of work. The short answer is we don’t know, but we can look at the things computers do best (quantifiable processes) and what humans can do best (understand and articulate values, creative expression, and interpersonal communication) and teach to the latter.

In this context, podcasts are a near-perfect medium. Students must learn the necessary technology, must learn and understand abstract theories, and then distill those in ways that can be effectively and creatively communicated to their peers.

In your article, you wrote that one goal of the fellowship is to create projects that can be leveraged by the following year’s fellows. What is this year’s cohort of fellows studying? What are they finding?

Our overall goal when developing fellowship topics is to create opportunities for students to critically engage in conversations and scholarship surrounding a variety of issues related to society and media consumption and creation. We loved running the privacy fellowship, but when generative AI became such a topic of conversation, we knew it would be fascinating to make it the focus of a fellowship. So, in fall 2023, we developed a fellowship titled “Exploring AI and its Implications for Community Education” with our colleague Emily Bush. Despite the slight shift in focus, this past fall’s cohort did investigate topics covered in previous cohorts, including mis- and disinformation, data privacy, and ethics, but this time focused around generative AI and large language models. We also shifted modalities for the fellows’ final project; rather than having them create a podcast, we asked the students to create short “explainer videos” to address frequently asked questions about AI.

Fundamentally, though, the learning outcomes for this series of fellowships has not changed. Our goal is to begin with high-level dialogue around theory and broad social implications. The students must then condense those abstract ideas into forms that can be effectively communicated to audiences of their peers or the community. Finally, the students must master the technology, either podcasting or, in this case, video production, to tell their stories effectively.

For libraries that don’t have the funding to create a fellowship program, are there any lessons you’ve drawn from this project about developing students’ relationship with the library that they might be able to use?

First and foremost, we want to be intentional in recognizing our privilege in being able to offer an undergraduate fellowship program the way it is currently set up; we are fortunate to work at a prestigious institution with a healthy endowment. We are grateful to the Buchanan family, the benefactors of the fellowship, who see the value in experiential learning and undergraduate research and how these high-impact practices connect with academic libraries. The stipend for student participation affords us a kind of “captive audience” throughout the semester, but this could be replicated with other non-financial incentives. Micro-credentialling may be one option, or perhaps focusing on the tangible result of the project as an illustration of the students’ accomplishments.

All this said, librarians can apply different aspects of this fellowship program to their own institutional contexts, particularly with some creativity and thinking outside the box. It starts with developing a topic area (we can heartily recommend privacy literacy! But anything current and impactful to society and students’ lives is a great start), then thinking about what the content and delivery would look like. Content could be packaged into individual lessons that can either be delivered in a workshop format, through select course curriculum (look for relevant courses related to the topic), or via asynchronous modules that can either be self-paced or embedded into courses. Similarly, a podcast project might be replicated through a library contest or similar incentive-based structure for undergraduates. Students benefit by having agency when choosing their cocurricular activities, so we recommend connecting with student advocacy groups and other student-led organizations to align the topics covered with their goals and activities.

About the interviewees

Melissa N. Mallon, MLIS, is associate university librarian for teaching and learning at Vanderbilt University. Mallon has published, presented, and taught professional development courses in the areas of online learning, instructional design, and the impact of information and digital literacies on student learning. Her books include Partners in Teaching & Learning: Coordinating a Successful Academic Library Instruction Program; The Pivotal Role of Academic Librarians in Digital Learning; and the co-edited volumes, The Grounded Instruction Librarian: Participating in the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning and (forthcoming) Exploring Inclusive & Equitable Pedagogies: Creating Space for All Learners.

Andrew Wesolek serves as Vanderbilt Libraries’ Chief Digital Strategist and inaugural Senior Director of the Digital Lab. In this role, Wesolek guides a team of technologists and project managers to advance digital research and learning across campus by establishing extensible infrastructure, scaling engagement, and introducing lifecycle and project management for digital research projects. Additionally, he oversees the Vanderbilt Library TV News Archive, the world’s most extensive and complete archive of televisions news, exposing the collections to new methods of computationally enabled research and narrative analysis.

About the interviewer

Daniel Pfeiffer is a social sciences editor at Choice and the editor of LibTech Insights. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Connecticut. Make his day by signing up for the LibTech Insights newsletter.

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