How Do Librarians Learn to Teach?

“Here,” my boss said, handing me a DVD, “you can watch this recording of me teaching. It will help.” I was a few months into a library technician job at a local community college, and due to a staff shortage, I was going to teach information literacy for the first time. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. The average American teacher completes a four year program including rigorous standardized testing and a semester of apprenticeship in the form of student teaching. Now, I was about to step in front of a class of college students armed only with a bachelor’s in history and a familiarity with EBSCO.

My research skills, background in acting, and a certain DVD pulled me through. By the time I left the job, I’d taught nearly 100 classroom sessions about research methods, citation styles, and searching for truth on the open web. But I wondered if my experience was common. What prepares the average librarian for the classroom?

Part of the answer probably lies in colleagues meeting at conferences. From August 11 – 12, I attended IFLA’s satellite preconference on information literacy at DePaul University.

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DePaul University’s Cortelyou Commons: Chicago’s architectural answer to Hogwarts.

For the uninitiated, “literacy” is a hot word in the library world these days. Besides the standard literacy that you’re using to read this post, you can be visually, digitally, artifacturaly, and culturally literate. Information literacy, possessing the skills necessary to navigate the complex web of resources and information available to the contemporary student in order to produce original research, is commonly taught in part by librarians. The preconference brought together librarians, archivists, and museum professionals to share how they had engaged students at their institutions and to discuss standards for “primary source literacy,” which are currently being developed by an ACRL RBMS-SAA joint task force.

Library instruction is evolving and improving. In the past, the average instruction session has been a “one shot.” Librarians come to the classroom or the students come to them for one class period out of the entire course. They have one shot to fit as much about their institution and research methods as they can into an hour, if they’re lucky. It’s stressful for the librarian and difficult for students to retain what they learn. To improve the lesson, librarians these days emphasize embedding their instruction into the classroom and encouraging students to combine library resources and new technologies. By working with professors to tie lessons into a classroom assignment, students are more likely to remember what they learn. The IFLA preconference was filled with examples of lessons like these.

Over a day and a half, the nearly 100 preconference attendees watched presentations, studied posters, and attended workshops and panels, all focused on teaching with primary sources in an archival or museum setting. Presenters explained how they had students engage with primary sources by creating oral histories, participating in mock press conferences, and curating their own exhibits. In workshop, participants formed teams to build their own primary source literacy lessons. The keynote speaker, Emily Graslie, spoke about her work on The Brainscoop using Youtube and the primary sources of the Field Museum to teach the world about science. It wasn’t clear if any of these professionals received formal training in teaching, but their dedication to it was evident.

I left the conference inspired and ready to practice. But I don’t know when I’ll have the chance. Taking matters into your own hands is possible, and maybe necessary. Liz McGlynn’s two part post on “Instruction Instruction” offers many helpful suggestions. But I wonder how LIS programs in the future could address the need for instruction in teaching. My program has a track for K-12 teacher librarians most of whom already have teaching licenses.  For the rest of us, pedagogy isn’t in the catalog. Teaching Assistantships are rare and don’t allow for much time in front of the class. Librarians in nearly any context have to teach occasionally but especially in academic libraries and special collections/archives. So, how do we learn to teach? How should we learn to teach?

Image courtesy of Steven Brewer on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

10 replies

  1. These are some really good questions that I as myself, but don’t necessarily have answers to. I know at the Syracuse iSchool, there are assignments in several classes that allow for instruction practice. There’s also an extra-curricular program called Filling in the Spaces (FitS) that allow students to offer talks or training sessions on our areas of expertise. I’m not sure if there are any courses devoted solely to instruction, but I would choose them as electives if I could.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has an instruction practicum and a Pedagogy for Information Professionals class. Both of which were so helpful for preparing for the information literacy librarian job I have now. The instruction practicum was a huge part of why I chose UW-Madison for my MLIS.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. These are really great questions, and I like the examples of the possibilities you provided. I love Freire and Pedagogy of the Oppressed…it is a great read for anyone wanting to take a process and social justice oriented approach!


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