The Victim of Library Instruction

Last time I wrote about librarian-instructor collaboration, and that got me thinking about why those collaborations don’t always work out. In this context, I’m thinking more about collaborations on first year writing classes, where there’s often a library instruction component offered.

Some instructors are resistant to having librarians in their classes, or giving any time to the librarians. Librarians sometimes don’t understand this. The attitude is, "but I could help so much. Why won’t they let me in?" The librarians really want to help the students, and most of them probably would. But I can also see this from the other side of the desk, or of the classroom, or whatever is between the librarian and the instructor. Some instructors are reluctant to let librarians in because they have been the victims of library instruction.

I speak from experience, because I myself was a victim of library instruction. I’m offering a cautionary tale. When I was a wee writing instructor at Big State U., it was part of the routine to take the class to the library for some instruction in preparation for the research essay. For a couple of semesters, I dutifully followed orders. Before that, I’d had almost no contact with any librarians either in college or grad school, and had always managed to find my way on my own. English and philosophy majors don’t do a lot of research in general, so I’m not saying it was any great feat to get through without help. But I did. However, I was glad at first to have the experts talk to the students.

The experts didn’t talk to the students. I think the people delivering the instruction were graduate assistants who were in library school at the time. This might or might not be relevant, because GAs differ so much in their backgrounds. And I know that many GAs there were fantastic, such as myself and all my friends when I was in library school there. But I got a clunker, two semesters in a row.

We showed up at the library, and went to the well appointed instruction room, consisting of 2-3 tables, 25 or so chairs, and an overhead projector. This was 1992, and the library had a telnet catalog and Infotrac and some other databases. But the students saw none of that in action. I’m not sure if they saw much of anything. The library instructor dimmed the lights, and began putting transparencies on the overhead projector explaining Boolean logic in great detail, showing what the catalog would look like if we were in fact searching it, etc. And all this in a monotone for 50 minutes. To lend the library person authority, I tried to stay awake, but it wasn’t always possible. Dozing off was the only way to escape the excruciatingly boring presentation we were all subjected to.

The students naturally complained. This is especially significant, since I myself at the time was a novice teacher and embarrassingly bad according to my own standards. I later grew a beard and began wearing big hats so that my students from that year wouldn’t recognize me later and throw rocks at me. I was bad, but the library person was much worse. After a couple of semesters I said "to hell with this" and taught the library portion myself. There was no way I would have let someone from the library into my classroom.

Obviously much has changed since then. More classrooms have computers in them and are set up for hands-on learning. More librarians actually get the students searching for and evaluating materials right there in the library session. There’s more active learning in general going on.

But how many librarians out there still do the equivalent of what I described? PowerPoint presentations to unengaged students? Monotonous lectures about Boolean logic to students updating their Facebook status? (Jane Smith "is lulled into a peaceful sleep by the librarian.") How many of us think library instruction consists of conveying information about using the library? Library instruction should convey information about using the library, but this is not the only, or possibly even the most important thing about it. It’s not about conveying information, but about engaging an audience. It’s not us teaching, but them learning that matters.  In short, how many of us are just plain boring and don’t make an effort to engage the students?

Also, despite how good you might be, and all your colleagues might be, how many instructors have been the victims of library instruction in the past? Some resistance has nothing to do with the way things are now. It might not be completely rational to dismiss library help because of a few bad sessions, but it’s not completely irrational from the instructor’s perspective, either. A few bad sessions are enough to turn a new instructor off the library for good, and bad experiences from the distant past still inform the thinking of instructors in the present.

Anyway, it’s something to think about.

 

4 thoughts on “The Victim of Library Instruction

  1. Perhaps it goes back to the saying that librarians like to seek, while others like to find. The container doesn’t interest them, but the content can, if they can be shown how they can use it to make their lives easier/better. It’s more important to get them the idea that there is stuff in those database that can help them ace classes than to belabor the mechanics of it. If there’s something I want in a database, and I am sold on that concept, I’ll jump through whatever hoops/tutorials I need to get to it. I might even ask a librarian for help, if they’re friendly. :)

  2. This is the same thing I ran into when I was doing my practicum at a local community college. I watched some of the regular library staff do instruction sessions and, needless to say, they were very dull. Some of the info was good, but keeping the students awake was a problem. When I got the chance to do my own sessions, thankfully, they left me to my own devices. The instructors and students loved me and two of the instructors actually contacted the head librarian and requested that some of the things I covered be included in the sessions from now on. A nice little pat on the back to be sure!

  3. This is the same thing I ran into when I was doing my practicum at a local community college. I watched some of the regular library staff do instruction sessions and, needless to say, they were very dull. Some of the info was good, but keeping the students awake was a problem. When I got the chance to do my own sessions, thankfully, they left me to my own devices. The instructors and students loved me and two of the instructors actually contacted the head librarian and requested that some of the things I covered be included in the sessions from now on. A nice little pat on the back to be sure!

  4. I teach library instruction classes and make sure that I cater to the actual class that I am teaching–that means being familiar with the project and research topic for that one class. Not only that, I talk to them in their language, show them short cuts, and show them how to actually use the database for specific results. When they already have an assignment, I ask the students to participate in helping me search. This little trick gets them fired up because they can actually see how to go about finding scholarly items, what type of search works best with what database, and how to navigate citations. I teach them ways to get the most bang for their buck and why search one database one way, may not be sufficient in another, not necessarily what I think they should love about the library. (Four years as a comedic actor doesn’t hurt either in the classroom) Since I started, I find that students come to me with a less vacant look in their eye for private reference sessions and often have started researching and just need a little tweeking. I’ve also gotten great feedback on our library’s rating critique.

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