Instruction Instruction Part 1: Why Library Teaching Training Matters

Author’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on the state of library instruction training in LIS programs. In part one, we will discuss why such training matters. Part two will discuss how library students can create or supplement opportunities to become better library instructors.

What was it that made you decide you wanted to be a librarian? Do you get so jazzed by historical artifacts that you want to shout it from the rooftops? Do you want to spend the rest of your life instilling a love of reading in children? Were you inspired by a particularly helpful librarian angel who taught you to do research in college? Whatever your reason, it probably relates in some way to helping others learn. Whether we’re acting as teachers or just making it easier for others to teach themselves, librarians have pretty strong connecting ties to education. But as those of us in library school are probably aware, LIS programs aren’t exactly overflowing with courses that facilitate pedagogical skills or even foundational understandings of basic learning theory. Take a look for yourself, if you’d like—this list compiles information about instruction-related courses offered at ALA-accredited schools (though take it with a grain of salt; I found the information for my program pretty outdated).

And so what? We’re not all studying to be school librarians, right? Maybe you’re planning on working in a public library and expecting to only teach the occasional computer class, or your interests lie in special libraries where you might not have time to formally teach. Perhaps you’re like I was when I first started library school, begrudgingly aware as a future academic librarian that you’ll be expected to teach the occasional info lit class at some point in your career, but overall pretty apathetic about pedagogy in the library. I get it. We’re not all teachers, and we don’t all need to be. But here’s a small sampling of the reasons why I think it matters—to everyone—that library schools start offering sufficient opportunities for students to develop their voices as teachers.

Course offerings should reflect the current state of librarianship.

In my cohort, there is considerable chatter about the courses our program offers and how employable or prepared for the real world we are just based on the classes made available for us to take. These conversations are regrettably often tinged with disappointment as we bemoan coming across job postings looking for candidates with a working knowledge of X, a skill we were never given a chance by our program to develop. In fact, there are a number of articles out there (here are two) which question whether LIS programs are out of touch with what is actually happening out there in the library field.

Unsurprisingly, instruction is one of those skills which has been said to carry a significance in the real world that isn’t reflected in the course offerings of the typical LIS program. As one respondent of a 2008 study said, the shortage of instruction-related classes in their program led them to think, “Oh well, this must not be a significant priority in the profession right now because there’s only one class specifically on this issue.” It can be easy to conclude even further, based on the paucity of classes on the subject, that library instruction must not be worth learning about at all. On the contrary, libraries absolutely want to hire LIS graduates who can teach effectively, yet new librarians are notoriously unprepared to do just that. To me this signals a major mismatch between what we should be learning about and what is actually offered to us from our LIS programs. What are we going to library school for if it’s not preparing us to meet the realities of what we will be expected to do?

Courses on instruction can impact one’s entire perspective on librarianship.

Here’s something I’ve never told anyone before: Info lit instruction and I actually have a pretty long and bitter history. In high school I took for granted what I realize now to be an extremely privileged info lit education. My school had its own dedicated librarians who had the time and resources to teach my classmates and me about topic selection, keyword searching, and all of those other fundamental research concepts, and they did so at length. Unfortunately as a teenager I thought I knew it all and rolled my eyes whenever we had to go through what seemed like the zillionth “find another keyword term for X!” exercise. When I got to my first year of college and found out that I would have to attend more of those kinds of classes, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Didn’t we know this already? What could we possibly get out of more research instruction? This attitude prevailed for an embarrassing length of time… up until my first real library job, a role which included leading the sorts of library instruction classes I found so pointless.

I won’t describe my change of heart in depth, but I will say that thankfully I have some wonderful mentors whose excitement for pedagogy and the library’s role in shaping students into lifelong learners helped me develop the empathetic perspective I’d been missing. Of course not all students come to college ready to hit the ground running and start writing research papers. Of course an instruction session, if done correctly, will take students continually further down the path toward mastery of research concepts. These ideas are so obvious to me now, but I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten the chance become infected with info lit enthusiasm. I think those of us who are proficient in doing research can easily forget what it’s like to not have those skills or what it took to acquire them. Most library schools require their students to take a course on theories regarding information and its relationship to the user, but applying those abstract theories to a context of teaching and learning can give them greater meaning and help students develop empathy toward novice researchers. Becoming involved in instruction helped me come to understand just why librarians are necessary in a way I hadn’t fully grasped before. Regardless of whether you plan to teach formally, you can gain a greater appreciation for your profession and the importance of information literacy after having a chance to deeply reflect on how students develop and utilize their research skills.

“Teaching” comes in many forms.

So when I said we’re not all teachers earlier, I might have been lying. Teaching doesn’t have to come in the form of getting up in front of a class and speaking—in fact, it usually doesn’t. Think back on some of your key learning experiences, and you may find that some of your most important lessons didn’t come from teachers in the traditional sense. I would argue that as a future librarian you’re training to influence how people view and interact with the world around them, and if that’s not a hallmark of teaching, I don’t know what is. I’m currently taking an instruction course which doesn’t actually place a whole lot of emphasis on the act of teaching; our coursework is much more about learning how students learn. I think that’s an important understanding for us to have as future librarians who will undoubtedly in some capacity deal with connecting patrons to information. Being able to conceptualize how that information can become learned knowledge is a powerful tool that can enhance any aspect of librarianship. Whether through teaching or “teaching,” capitalizing on that understanding can help patrons get even more value out of their interactions with the library. So whether you’re in library school to be a cataloguer, an archivist, a reference librarian, or a subject liaison, there is something of value for you in learning about library instruction.

Why does library instruction training matter to you? What kind of teaching training would you like to see in your LIS program? Those of you who have received training in library instruction, what’s the most valuable lesson you’ve picked up along the way?

10 replies

  1. I am in technical services now, but taught IL for a short time and wish I’d had stronger training in teaching.
    I took a course in online info lit instruction as part of my MLS. We covered core concepts, but spent the time developing one online info lit module. Looking back, I think that I would have benefited from a course that put the emphasis on implementing a smaller module, using our classmates’ feedback to improve the module, and trying again.
    My short time as an instruction librarian showed me that fixing my teaching mistakes and trying again was the best learning experience. If I’d gotten that type of experience as an MLIS student, I know I would be using it today in my work leading projects and teams.


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