In my past life when I was an adjunct English teacher, one of my most dreaded semesterly duties was to take my class to the library for instruction. One would expect the librarians at my arts college in Chicago to be creative and interesting, exposed as they were to an esoteric body of students and an even more diverse collection of works. Yet, each session was the same: a monotonous catalog of database features:
First you do this, then you do this. Then you get a list of articles and do this. You can do this, or this, or this. Sometimes it looks like this, and when that happens, do this. Now in this database, you do this, and then this, and then this. See how it is like the earlier thing I just showed you? OK, any questions about this? Great. Now in THIS database, you do this and this, and then you can do this….
This how-to approach to library instruction–what one of my colleagues derisively calls “the search-and-destroy” instruction session–was the bane of my students’ existence. It taught them to access multiple databases, plug in their search terms, and find the quotes they needed for their papers. But it related to their actual task in only the most abstract way, and it provided no guidance as to the complexity of the information landscape or how to navigate it intellectually. As one of my more obnoxious students once offered as he walked out of the library, “Well, that’s an hour of my life I will never get back.” His lack of gratitude annoyed me, but I also understood it. The hour had been wasted. Or, if not wasted entirely, it had certainly been uninspiring, even dirge-like in its repetition. Moreover, it had not even addressed in real terms the reason they were there in the first place: you have a paper to write, and you need to figure out what you’re writing about, what the experts in that field know, and who you are in relation to that body of knowledge.
I would like to say that when I became a librarian at an urban community college a few years later I took the student’s message to heart and never taught any by-the-numbers and utterly mundane instruction sessions. Yet, as much as I hated the library sessions I had been exposed to both as a student and as an English teacher, the first time I stood in front of a class to teach a library instruction session, I found myself following the exact same format: I gave the search-and-destroy instruction session, database by tedious database. My college has a vibrant, passionate, and rigorously intellectual faculty, and students are held to high expectations. To think that my instruction sessions were mere training sessions when they could offer so much more did not sit well with me.
But if I was surprised at myself, I probably shouldn’t have been. Approaching library instruction as simple training has long been embedded in the profession. Irene Braden’s 1970 The Undergraduate Library provided a tour of several undergraduate libraries in different parts of the country and noted different aspects of each, including categories such as Staff, Technical Services, Library Use, etc…. Tellingly, the respective sections on Instruction in Library Use offered no guidance on how students learn or should be taught. The aim of instruction seemed to have been that students learn the card catalog and how to find a book on the shelves. Full stop. Though the book’s introduction stated that the library should perform a teaching function, and that libraries should be staffed with librarians knowledgeable of undergraduate education (3), it offered no clue as to what that might have looked like in that era.
If the book was not intended to be a how-to-teach manual, Braden was certainly not at fault. The notion of teaching librarians wouldn’t seem commonplace for several more decades. In 1990’s The Science of Information by Losee, bibliographic instruction was described as “Exposure to unused channels and training in the use of specific channels,” in an attempt to lessen student anxiety about research and improve their productivity (239). If this description of library instruction leaves present-day librarians feeling a little nonplussed, they may take heart in Atkins’s The Academic Library in the American University published in 1991. Atkins hinted at a different approach to library instruction by promoting collaboration between faculty and librarians and suggesting that the research should be attached to a specific task, such as the writing of research papers (148). However, if different ideas about library instruction were gaining ground, it was not entirely widespread. Later that same decade, Eberhart’s The Whole Library Handbook 2 did not index the terms bibliographic instruction, instruction, or even teaching. The teaching function of the librarian was excluded entirely from what happened in his version of the whole library.
In 1998, Benaud and Bordeianu’s Outsourcing Library Operations in Academic Libraries defined the purpose of library instruction as “familiariz[ing] patrons with the library’s collection and services” and providing training on new information systems (159). While the authors deserve credit for wanting to keep the instruction duties in-house, they offered little about what skills and knowledge librarians could bring to the equation beyond simply training students how to search and where to go.
In 1999, gesturing toward the new millennium, Stamatoplos and Taylor presented “Redefining the Educational Roles of Academic Librarians” at an ACRL conference in Detroit. Notably, the title of the presentation suggested that librarians were seen an important resource, in and of themselves. The authors expounded upon the roles librarians should be (and in the cases of DePaul and IUPUI, already had been) playing in higher education—integrating information literacy across the curriculum, collaborating with other faculty, and teaching first-year student learning communities (294-95). Though their thinking was a giant leap forward from simple training, it did not seem prevalent in any of the three colleges and universities I attended in the 1990s.
No doubt there were countless librarians trying to move beyond the search-and-destroy library instruction session even during the relative dark ages of the 20th century, but such efforts have become more prevalent in recent years. Scholarship I have read in the last decade has sought to expand the role librarians play in student learning, but I wonder how many mid-career librarians have the opportunity to stay abreast of the latest developments in the field. Often once librarians are put to work in their campus libraries, demands specific to those workplaces shrink the field of vision a bit. Thus when the Framework was announced, for some it must have felt long overdue, even as others found it a completely unexpected new source of anxiety. After all, there was something comforting about the Standards and its checklist of steps to take to be information literate. It was an echo of the search-and-destroy instruction session I had experienced my whole academic life: do this, do this, do this, and do this. I would hazard that this is how the vast majority of librarians working today were taught about libraries when they were in school, themselves. It was the unchallenged mode of instruction until the 1990s, only gradually giving ground after that. Librarians have a very long history of doing what we have always done, and all mid-career and many early career librarians were on the receiving end of that history. Changing the way we think about the field is naturally difficult.
After my first semester as a librarian, I had the chance to reflect on what I was doing in the classroom. I couldn’t shake the guilty feeling that I was doing exactly what I’d hoped not to do. For sure, I added a few clever jokes, and told an anecdote or two to make me seem relatable, but all I was teaching were rote search skills: do this, do this, do this, and do this. I was neglecting the most interesting parts of information literacy, the critical thinking, the locating oneself within an information ecosystem, and the what-can-I-do-with-information and the who-can-I-become-because-of-it. I was teaching classes on how to find information instead of how to think about information. But changing how and what I taught required more than a conscious decision.
The first step was to spend more time talking to the faculty whose students I would be teaching. Integrating information literacy into another teacher’s class in a meaningful way means more than simply plugging my knowledge into their courses. It means spending time thinking about their assignments and how my particular skill set can most benefit their students. For instance, after teaching library instruction sessions to four sections of one particular English 102 class, I realized that with two weeks left in the semester, her students were at different places in the research process. Some had already created a thesis and were busy trying to back it up; while others were still batting around giant, unmanageable topics like abortion or immigration. Seeing the discord gave me some ideas about how I could better serve her students. In addition to teaching them how to find sources, I would need to provide some sense of the research process as a whole—how to get started, how to ask ethical research questions, how to think about information sources upon encountering them, how to let the research guide the thesis instead of the other way around, and ultimately how to use different kinds of sources to establish context and create arguments. The sessions would need to become explicitly task-based, focusing on the process of researching and writing a paper from start to finish. It was a lot to consider, and I began wondering how I could fit all of it into a one-shot.
The second step was to approach the professor and let her know the things I was thinking. Be warned that this can be a touchy subject, and the last thing you want to do is suggest inadvertently that what someone is teaching is less than ideal! I found the best time to approach the subject was before the semester during faculty development sessions, and that the best way to approach it was to say something along the lines of, “I think it is great that you include information literacy as a component of your course, and I enjoy the opportunity to teach your students. But I always wonder if there isn’t more that I could be doing.” This is the bridge that then allows you to say. “I would like to teach your students points A, B, C, and D. What do you think?” This particular professor was amenable to my ideas, and now I do two sessions with her class: one early in the semester in which I overview the research process, talk about research questions, and introduce them to evaluation skills, and another a few weeks later in which I teach them the mechanics of the databases, as well as how to use and cite sources. This is not merely to say that collaboration among faculty is often fruitful. The more important thing is to spend the time thinking about the assignment and figuring out where your particular skills most complement it. The library instruction sessions become less about search and destroy missions for finding the right sentence from the right source to back up a student claim, and more about modeling the entirety of an ethical research practice.
The third step is to distill your research process and your particular skills into artifacts that can be shared with students. My instruction sessions are typically accompanied by handouts that can be distributed physically or at least linked to the instructor’s course page. Because every librarian who teaches at your school is likely to have her or his own research preferences and suggestions, it is good to create individualized handouts. As long as everyone is following the same ethical guidelines for performing research, it can only benefit students to see examples of how different librarians approach research problems. Documenting my research process has resulted in a number of student handouts, many of which are applicable to more than one course. The most commonly requested among students are The Research Process from Topic to Outline, A Usable Source Rubric, Avoiding Information Malpractice, and Taking on Complex Research Problems. Students can reference them to map the process, evaluate sources, and to be reminded of ethical uses of information.
Fortunately, the first professor I approached with this idea was quite open-minded about the prospect, and that gave me the confidence to approach others. I often brainstorm with different faculty members about how we could better collaborate, where my skills fit into their assignments, and even in some cases, how their assignment can be slightly altered to meet library learning outcomes, as well as their own. The sessions I give include components of training and modeling—first do this, then go here, then do this and that—but they are rooted in the framework of my entire research process, from brainstorming a topic, all the way to citing sources. This process, in turn, is the answer to an explicit student task that must ethically answer a research question. Though many students have found me after classes to tell me how much they learned or how much more confident they feel about their research skills, my research process might not be the best approach for every student. Thus, it is important for all the librarians to document their own methods and to reach out to faculty to create more collaborative opportunities. In this way students learn different methods, all grounded in the ethics of the profession.
The size of a community college makes it an ideal laboratory for trying new approaches to library instruction and pedagogy. It is easy to develop close relationships with faculty across the curriculum and to approach them about how the library can help their students as well as how their assignments can be tweaked to support library outcomes. In order to provide students the task-based instruction they need it is imperative to understand their assignments, recognize which component parts of it dovetail with information literacy, and to integrate your discipline-specific knowledge into the process as early as possible to guide students the whole way through. The benefit to this approach is two-fold, engendering assignments more supportive of information literacy outcomes and encouraging students to foster a more substantive relationship with information seeking as a process, not just an endpoint.
Atkins, S. E. (1991). The academic library in the American university. Chicago: American Library Association.
Bénaud, C., & Bordeianu, S. (1998). Outsourcing library operations in academic libraries: An overview of issues and outcomes. Englewood, Colo: Libraries Unlimited.
Braden, I. A. (1970). The undergraduate library. Chicago: American Library Association.
Eberhart, G. M. (1995). The whole library handbook: People, materials, guidelines, technology, operations, funding, staff development, issues, diversity, the Internet, librariana: Current data, professional advice, and curiosa about libraries and library services. Chicago: American Library Association.
Losee, R. M. (1990). The science of information: Measurement and applications (Library and Information Science Series). San Diego: Academic Press.
Stamatoplos, T., & Taylor, T. (1999). First year learning communities” redefining the educational roles of academic librarians. In racing toward tomorrow: ACRL 9th National Conference (pp. 293-296). Chicago: The Association.