The Agent of Library Instruction

We’re doing some experimenting this year with our library instruction for the Princeton Writing Program which is making me wonder who should be the agent of library instruction. As part of our current experimentation, some of the burden for the most basic parts of the library instruction will fall on the experienced writing instructors, all of whom are experienced researchers in their own areas and all of whom have seen their assigned librarians go through the basic library research drill at least twice. They would also be given training and support by the librarians. The idea is that the simplest skills–the basics of searching the OPAC and an article database–would be taught by the writing instructor in an early library "discovery session," and the librarian would collaborate in a later "research clinic" and possibly meet individually with students for the most advanced portions of their research once they really got going on their projects.

I’m trying to think through the benefits and burdens of this approach, and also put the question out to my readers, many of whom do some sort of library instruction and have worthwhile perspectives to add on this.

There are certainly some possible downsides, depending on how the experiment works. Some writing instructors will probably not want to change a library relationship which has worked well in the past (though I’m sure there are other instructors who have been less than satisfied in the past). Some librarians might not want to change what they think works, either, but for this situation I think the satisfaction of the students and instructors should weigh more than our own, but I could be mistaken. About some things I tend to be a philosophical conservative; if things are going well, I think it’s better not to mess with them. But it’s not clear what’s going well, or what is going well uniformly. Regardless, the dislike of changing the familiar and satisfactory is a psychological cost worth considering.

There’s also the argument that this takes away some of the little time librarians get to work with students. If their instructors are teaching some of these skills, often not in the presence of the librarian, then that’s one less place where the librarian is needed. This is met by the counter-argument that the librarians will be seen as more valuable because they will be entering the process when the research gets more difficult, and thus be able to show their expertise to the students and win them over.

A related concern is about division of labor. Library research is within the domain of librarian expertise, and the instructors should stick to their area of expertise, which theoretically is the teaching of writing. This could be seen as a loss of professionalism, I suppose. If the instructors are successful, why do we need librarians? That sort of thing. There’s also the consideration that the instructors very well might not be able to do this as effectively as the librarians, for whatever reason.

An instructor I’ve worked with for years said that as an experienced researcher and teacher, she felt comfortable teaching the basics and knew much of the advanced stuff quite well, but nevertheless each time I’ve taught a session for her class she’s learned something she didn’t know about before. The issue here is possibly one of keeping up. Things change in the world of information technology in general, and in the organization of resources and services in our library in particular, and it’s the job of the librarian to keep up with everything, to know what’s changed and how best to navigate the available resources. As she put it, sometimes the things people don’t know aren’t the esoteric things, but the simple things. I have a feeling this would all be dealt with in the second session, but it’s certainly a concern.

I can understand the concern on the part of some librarians, but I see things from a slightly different perspective, since I teach one of these writing seminars and act as my own librarian. Undoubtedly, this is the ideal. In my own seminar the distinction between instructor and librarian disappears, and I can teach the research process much more seamlessly than most instructors. We don’t have our regular classes and then these classes where the alien librarian comes in and does "library stuff." I know what the students need at the time they need it. I can help them with whatever question might arise at any time.

In the version of the "research clinic" that I have already held for years with other seminars, the questions always vary. Sometimes the students need to talk to the instructor about the shape and possibility of their topic, and sometimes about finding stuff, supposedly the area of librarian expertise. Ideally, these things could be dealt with by the same person. Someone who knows the subject area of the assignment and also the library resources appropriate for research in that area equally well would be the ideal. (It’s a pity that training the trainer can’t go both ways, because I also find that my experience teaching both writing and research so extensively helps me immensely with my other research consultations.)

This symbiosis doesn’t occur in the normal classroom where the librarian is this person who comes in to work with the class in a limited role. Then again, the instructors themselves just aren’t as knowledgeable about the library portion of the research, and, depending on their areas, they might not be as knowledgeable about other aspects of academic research either, especially in any systematic way. For the process to work best, part of the class must be team taught, with the instructor and librarian each contributing. This does happen sometimes, and I’ve worked collaboratively with many instructors in limited ways, but how often does it or can it happen? The librarian can’t just show up to every class during research essay time and chime in occasionally when research advice is called for. A train-the-trainer model at least gives the students easier access to both writing and research help.

At this point I’m not sure what I think, and am conducting the experiment in a spirit of inquiry and just waiting to see how it turns out.

One thought on “The Agent of Library Instruction

  1. Are you familiar with the publication Library Issues (from Mountainside Press)? Back in the May 2005 issue Bill Miller and I co-authored an issue titled “A New Strategy for Enhancing Library Use: Faculty-Led Information Literacy Instruction”. It raises some of the same issues as your post – what do we gain/lose when we turn over library instruction to faculty. We proposed that since librarians could not reach all students it was best to involve the faculty – and our primary rationale was that students are much more likely to listen to and take seriously what their faculty have to say about building research skills and evaluating information. We identified ways that librarians, though removed from the classroom, could still be active in supporting faculty and students. For example, creating instructional products faculty could use in the course to assist them in teaching students how to build their research skills. I don’t think it got much attention at the time. If you are interested in reading it (not freely available on the web) get in touch and I could probably get a copy for you.

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