Academic Librarians on Intellectual Freedom and Change, Part 6: An Interview with Jochen Johannsen

In Jochen Johannsen’s library, students discover freedom through education – quite literally, by participating in Escape Rooms where the goal is to research information correctly. In the concluding instalment of our interview series, we spoke with the Library Director at RWTH Aachen University about unorthodox learning approaches, navigating disruptions in the library world, and more.

Six weeks and six perspectives later – as we ask ourselves, “How is it mid-February already?” – our interview series with academic librarians from around the world comes to a close, at least for the time being. If you’re just discovering this blog series, good news – there’s plenty of content to catch up on!

In the final instalment of “Academic Librarians on Intellectual Freedom and Change”, Annika Bennett of Gold Leaf had the pleasure of interviewing Jochen Johannsen, Library Director at RWTH Aachen University in Germany. His insights on topics such as data literacy, artificial intelligence and open discourse in the library provide yet another angle on the pressing issues facing information professionals in the 21st century.

Jochen Johannsen, Library Director at RWTH Aachen University, Germany

Annika Bennett: Mr Johannsen, thank you for your time today. Could you please describe your role and your institution?

Jochen Johannsen: I have been Library Director at Aachen since summer 2022, following nearly seven years in a similar role in Siegen. RWTH Aachen is one of the 11 German “Universities of Excellence” with a particular focus on research in engineering, natural and life sciences.

My main responsibility is to focus on the library strategy, which involves a lot of collaboration: I actively try to connect the library with the broader academic community. One of my goals is to further establish the library as a facilitator for open academic publishing at RWTH. Being an active member of Projekt DEAL sometimes helps in this endeavour because of the many important insights connected with it.

AB: Disinformation and misinformation are a real battleground in the pursuit of knowledge. How can libraries help students to evaluate resources?

JJ: I believe libraries need to offer more than just the classic information literacy courses; particularly when it comes to misinformation, freedom of information, and academic integrity. These are aspects that we will need to focus on more in the future, maybe also reaching out to the general public.

“All students need to be able to consider the importance of data integrity and to evaluate data and sources as essential components of good scientific practice.”

Here in Aachen, we don’t just strengthen information literacy competencies, but also place emphasis on data literacy, starting with undergraduates. All students need to be able to consider the importance of data integrity and to evaluate data and sources as essential components of good scientific practice. The library does not lead these initiatives but plays a pivotal role.

The topic of research data management is closely related, and the library strives to position itself as a reliable partner in this field for faculties, the IT Centre and Centre for Learning Studies.

AB: Does your institution have a formal policy concerning the use of Artificial Intelligence? What is the role of AI at your institution?

JJ: RWTH doesn’t have a policy (yet), but we are well-positioned, both in terms of research on AI and the use of AI in teaching and learning. The university takes a strong stance, with the Library actively participating in relevant working groups. As a library, we see the impact of AI on our work. There are applications that present themselves as research assistants, which may make our information retrieval services seem obsolete. I don’t think they are, but we have to re-evaluate our position and adapt our approaches.

The library positions itself as a competence centre for all publishing-related issues, and since AI will have an impact on publishing processes, we need to develop our own competencies in this area. We need to remain a trustworthy and knowledgeable partner for the university management and faculty; but rather than just emphasizing the dangers, it’s crucial also to highlight the opportunities AI offers. Thus, we’re starting an internal working group on AI in libraries with our colleagues from the Central Library at Jülich Research Center as our partners in the Jülich Aachen Research Alliance (JARA).

AB: Most universities now encourage the recruitment of students from diverse backgrounds. Is that the case at RWTH Aachen and how has it affected collection development?

JJ: Traditional Collection Development is not at the forefront of our activities and therefore diversity in collections is not a major theme for us. However, internationalization is very important for RWTH. We are proud that roughly a third of our student-base is international – most come from China and India – which has impacted the way we provide our services. One simple example: we have extended opening hours, including Bank Holidays, to cater for students who may not be visiting family over Christian holidays.

We are also mindful of diverse publishing formats, the publication gender gap and diversity in academic publishing. The library aims to support research projects in these areas.

AB: Can you share any specific instances in 2023 where the deployment of unusual or unorthodox learning resources and/or the freedom of speech was celebrated in your library?

JJ: The library stages Escape Rooms for students. They can only set themselves free by researching information correctly. It’s popular, and I like the symbolism of “being freed through education”.

We recently hosted two librarians from Ukraine who shared their experiences of life and work since the invasion. This is an example of the kind of event we should aim for, with a focus on freedom of information and speech. Addressing these topics demands a conceptual understanding of how to handle controversial issues.

“It’s crucial to keep the university – and the library in particular – as a space for engaging with diverse perspectives.”

It’s crucial to keep the university – and the library in particular – as a space for engaging with diverse perspectives; based on trustworthy information, good scientific practice, open-mindedness and the basic assumption that – even if I don’t like it – the other person might have a valid point. My aim is to address these issues through organised events, providing a space for open discourse driven by dialogue and mutual understanding.

AB: There has been considerable recent publicity about how new graduates have not been taught to think for themselves. How does your library support student success and prepare students for their post-graduate appointments?

JJ: Judging a whole generation like this doesn’t seem fair. There are bright and independently thinking young people everywhere and certainly also in our library. However, I do think that the Bologna Process with its aims to ensure parity of learning when awarding degrees, despite its positive aspects, has led to a strong emphasis on prescribed, tailor-made learning materials, ready to use in the learning management systems. It has resulted in a diminished need for independent learning, discussions and academic discourse, which in the past were at the centre of most courses, at least in my personal experience. As a library, we must cater for this change. We collaborate with other university services, to support students in coping with the pressures of the credit points system.

The library is a great resource for those who seek further development. It can guide individuals and provide opportunities for those eager to explore beyond the standardized curriculum. But we approach our role with humility: we are librarians, not superheroes!

AB: Building on Barack Obama’s message about the power of books, can you share examples of how literature has influenced personal development within your academic community?

JJ: As a library, we open doors to the world. If people from economically disadvantaged or non-traditional academic backgrounds tell their stories of success, usually two key influencers emerge – an inspirational teacher and the library, which provides a physical space and rich source of literature, opening paths for those facing challenging circumstances. Examples for that include Albert Camus or Ulla Hahn.

However, it’s important to recognize the scale of our operations. We have around 20,000 patrons. Obama says the library has a pivotal role in inspiring the user, but we can’t engage with every individual. Despite these constraints, the library remains a trusted space and a place for personal and intellectual growth. This enduring belief in the importance of the library’s role serves as a driving force for librarians, including myself.

AB: The modern teaching and research landscape is both complex and dynamic. Particularly since the Covid lockdowns, librarians seem increasingly to have led from the front. Could you describe your role and the role of the library as an agent for change?

JJ: Transformation, particularly accelerated by the pandemic, has reinforced the importance of shedding outdated practices. The evolving role of libraries has raised our self-awareness and confidence. Fulfilling our role as information specialists while championing information and intellectual freedom is integral to this process.

“Transformation, particularly accelerated by the pandemic, has reinforced the importance of shedding outdated practices.”

A key aspect is the transition to Open Science. It is a collaborative effort with faculties and university management, but the library plays an important role in this transition. Together with other central services, we are the experts when it comes to bibliometrics, understanding open access transformation models and FAIR data management. The next disruption has already arrived: AI. Librarians must accept responsibility for guiding these changes as they unfold in both science and society.

The keyword is trust: Libraries being among the most trusted institutions in society gives us strength.

AB: Looking ahead to 2024, what initiatives or goals do you have for your library in promoting intellectual freedom and the love of reading?

JJ: For the future, it is my aim for the library to be more visible to the public. Starting in 2024, we’ll organise events for the local public around annually changing topics. We decided to start with a seemingly easy but essentially profound topic for 2024: “Wellbeing and Happiness”, which includes resilience and personal growth. I believe that in future years topics such as human rights and freedom of expression will increase in importance. For society as a whole, it is crucial that there is a basic understanding that a person with a different opinion might be right, and we as a library can support this.

AB: I wish you all the best for these exciting plans. Thank you for sharing your insights with us.

[Title image by Jacob Ammentorp Lund/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

Jochen Johannsen

Jochen Johannsen is the Library Director at RWTH Aachen University in Germany.

Annika Bennett

Annika Bennett is a partner at Gold Leaf, a consulting firm that provides business development and market research for publishers and the publishing community.

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