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1 Introduction: Instruction in Libraries and Information Settings


Information is essential to success in school, work, and everyday life. People need access to accurate, trustworthy information to make good decisions about their health, finances, and work. Citizens in a democracy need information to decide how to vote in elections and on ballot initiatives. People also use information in the form of books, movies, and music for entertainment and personal growth. Libraries can provide people with access to vital information through carefully selected and organized collections, but access is only a first step. People also need the knowledge and skills to find, evaluate, and use that information, a set of competencies commonly referred to as information literacy.

Instruction librarians help their patrons develop these crucial information literacy skills. We teach people how information is created and shared, how to use sophisticated search strategies and technologies to find and access information, how to evaluate the information they find, and how to use that information ethically by citing sources and respecting copyright. And while information literacy may be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about instruction in libraries, instruction librarians help patrons develop a wealth of other skills as well. Instruction librarians plan literacy and language programs, offer workshops on résumé building and job hunting, and teach patrons to use technology from email to photo editing software to 3-D printers. Librarians even teach life skills like meal planning, sewing, and decluttering.

All of this instruction takes many different forms. We provide direct instruction to individual patrons at reference points and through research appointments, and to groups of learners in workshops and programs, one-shot sessions, and credit-bearing courses. The instruction can take place in-person and online. In addition to direct instruction, we also create learning objects, or tools and resources like instructional videos, multimedia tutorials, and library guides, that learners can access at any time and use on their own. Activity 1.1 is an opportunity to investigate instructional offerings in the information setting of your choice.


Activity 1.1: Explore Instruction in Libraries and Information Settings

Browse the web pages of three or four libraries or information centers appropriate for your intended career path to see if you can locate their instructional offerings. In addition to a schedule of workshops or programs, you might look for learning objects like videos, tutorials, and guides.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  1. What kinds of workshops, programs, and learning objects are being offered? Who is the target audience?
  2. Were you surprised by anything you found? Why or why not?


Instruction has played, and will continue to play, a vital role in library and information settings. While the mission and goals of any individual information setting will vary somewhat, most information settings include education as part of their mission, and the American Library Association (2019) identifies education and lifelong learning as a core value of librarianship. Importantly, research shows that people value the instruction that libraries provide them and want even more opportunities for learning (Pew Research Center, 2015).

Given its importance to institutions and patrons, instruction in libraries and information settings is an exciting area filled with opportunities. As instruction librarians, we embody the values of our profession, and we help our institutions fulfill their educational missions through our instructional activities. We get to help patrons learn how to navigate the world of information and technology, and we get the joy of seeing them develop and master critical skills that will serve them throughout their lives.

For many of us, the prospect might be a little scary, too. After all, schoolteachers go through rigorous degree programs with practicum experiences that help them develop their instructional skills. How can we prepare ourselves to take on these huge responsibilities? How will we know what to teach, or how to go about teaching it? How will we keep students motivated and engaged? How will we know if we are doing a good job?

This book is a first step toward answering these questions. It offers a comprehensive overview of teaching and learning, focused on the kind of instruction that takes place in libraries and information settings. This chapter sets the stage for the rest of the book. It begins by exploring the role of instruction in information settings and the larger communities they serve as a way of considering our identity as teachers, and providing an overview of the current trends, opportunities, and challenges that will then be addressed at more length in the rest of the book.

Librarians as Teachers: History and Identity

Instruction has been an integral part of library services for well over a century. The history of instruction in libraries largely reflects changes in education and technology. The earliest libraries focused on collecting and organizing materials. At that time, literacy rates were low, so most patrons of libraries were scholars who understood how to access and use library materials without assistance. However, with the spread of universal education, literacy rates began to rise, and the general public interest in books and newspapers grew. Public libraries were a place for citizens to access books and materials they needed for school, entertainment, and everyday life information needs. Because library systems and resources were new to these patrons, librarians found they needed to spend time helping these patrons navigate the library and its materials (Tyckoson, 2020).

At roughly the same time, academic libraries were beginning to experience increased usage as well. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, most colleges and universities relied on what was known as a “recitation model” of teaching. Students read assigned texts and listened to lectures but were not expected to do much outside reading or research. Exams consisted largely of students recalling what they had read or heard in lectures. College libraries were open limited hours and were mostly used by faculty and other scholars. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, American colleges and universities began to adopt what was known as the empirical, or German, model of education, which required students to engage in experimentation, independent reading and research, and critical thinking (Rothstein, 1955). As a result, college students needed to use their college library and, like their counterparts in the public libraries, found it difficult both to find resources and to use them once they located them.

By the end of the nineteenth century, libraries began to establish reference departments with dedicated staff to answer patrons’ questions and help them navigate the library systems to find and use the resources they needed. Instruction was a part of the services provided by reference staff from the beginning. In his foundational article on the topic, written in 1876, Green acknowledged that many patrons need help in using the library, and he encouraged reference librarians to “give them as much assistance as they need, but try at the same time to teach them to rely upon themselves and become independent” (Green, 1876/1993, p. 80). Green’s writing was reflective of its time in its gendered portrayal of the helpful female librarian, and the patriarchal and even condescending tone in which he suggested that librarians needed to guide patrons toward “good books” that would enlighten them. Nevertheless, his article demonstrates that as long as librarians have been directly helping patrons use library resources, they have been offering instruction to develop the skills to use the library on their own.

The focus on library instruction has shifted somewhat over time, largely in response to the changes in technology and the relative ease of access to information. Historically, information was scarce and had to be accessed through relatively complicated systems like catalogs and indexes that required at least some knowledge of classification systems and specialized terminology. Even when information first began moving online in the 1970s, the systems were difficult and expensive to search. During this time, library instruction focused largely on search skills, teaching people how to navigate these various systems and tools to find the information they needed.

Now, online search engines have become more intuitive, and the Internet and mobile devices have enabled people to access information from anywhere at any time. Although they tend to rely on relatively unsophisticated searches (Jansen & Spink, 2006), most people feel confident in their ability to find information on their own (Purcell et al., 2012). However, information overload and the ease with which information, as well as mis- and disinformation, is spread online have highlighted the need for people to carefully evaluate the information they find. Research shows that people are not very skilled at assessing information and identifying misinformation (Harrgitai et al., 2010; Lewandowski, 2008; Stanford History Education Group, 2016), and that people are confused by “fake news” and concerned about their ability to detect it (Barthel et al., 2016). While library instructors continue to teach search skills, and learners still need these skills to find information efficiently and effectively, the ease with which people can now access information is freeing librarians to spend more time on areas that require more critical thinking, like evaluating information, developing a research topic and researchable questions, and recognizing fake news, as well as professional and life skills such as finding and applying for jobs online, researching companies and products before making important purchases, and finding trustworthy health and financial information.

While the instructional role of librarians in school and academic libraries might seem obvious, this role extends to all kinds of information settings. Research shows that information professionals across settings, including public, corporate, and special libraries, value instruction services and regard the ability to teach and knowledge of information literacy standards as important competencies for their staff (Curtis, 2019; Lai, 2011; Matarazzo & Pearlstein, 2014; Matteson & Beate, 2019; Saunders, 2014, 2019; Weiner, 2011). Instruction plays a similarly important role in archives. Because archives typically have closed stacks that preclude self-service and browsing, and strict policies and complex finding aids impacting access, most patrons must consult with an archivist for assistance in navigating and accessing the collection. Further, many high-school and undergraduate programs are increasingly adding primary-source research to their curricula. As such, archives are devoting increased attention to instruction (Anderberg et al., 2018; Krause, 2008; Schwier & Champion, 2020).

Despite this long history of instruction, some information professionals are hesitant to identify as teachers, even if they value and appreciate their instructional responsibilities. One reason for this reluctance may be that instruction librarians often report feeling under- or unprepared to take on instructional roles (Julien & Genuis, 2011; Walter, 2008; Wheeler & McKinney, 2015). Research suggests that not all LIS programs address instruction topics in depth, and the courses that exist are rarely required (Anderberg et al., 2018; Saunders, 2015). As aspiring instructional librarians or current instructors looking to improve our practice, how can we fully embrace our identities as teachers? First, we should recognize the many elements of good teaching, from knowledge of learning theory and instructional design practices to methods of engaging delivery and self-assessment. Then, we must find ways to develop and continuously improve our practice across these areas. Finally, we need to keep abreast of the trends in the field, so we are prepared to meet challenges and maximize opportunities.

The Art and Science of Teaching and Learning

We have all experienced excellent teachers who managed to grab our attention in class, pique our interest in a topic, and inspire us to work to our potential. What makes these teachers so good at what they do? Though it might sound like a truism, teaching really is both an art and a science. The science of teaching entails the research and theories upon which our best practices are based. As explained throughout this book, research has helped us to understand how people learn, including the circumstances that enable or facilitate deeper learning, and what motivates students to engage with learning activities. This research has informed the development of theories and best practices, which helps us to design effective instruction sessions and learning experiences. For instance, understanding theories of learning stages can help us to scaffold or sequence our instruction so that students are gradually introduced to more difficult concepts and to design learning activities that are neither so easy as to be boring nor so difficult as to be frustrating and overwhelming. Similarly, knowledge of the principles of Universal Design for Learning can guide us in creating learning experiences and instructional materials, and arranging classroom spaces that are accessible to all learners. Critical pedagogy challenges us to reflect on classroom power structures and recognize our own biases and assumptions in order to create a more inclusive and democratic learning environment, and to empower learners to take action to create a more just society.

Methods of assessment and evaluation also enable better teaching. Through evaluation and assessment activities, we can see if students learned what we intended for them to learn, and whether they were satisfied with their learning experiences. This data is crucial for improving our instruction and for communicating our value and successes to stakeholders such as library directors, campus and school administrators, city councils, and boards of trustees.

We can improve our teaching and learn more about our own identity as teachers through reflection and by engaging in a community of practice. Reflective practice involves thinking critically about our experiences in the classroom, whether in-person or online, and asking ourselves questions about what went well, what could be improved, and what we might do differently next time. When we take the time to seriously consider these questions, we can use our reflections to make informed changes to our practice and shape our philosophy of teaching. This kind of reflection, like much of the planning and delivery of instruction, tends to happen alone, but teaching does not have to be a lonely endeavor. Teachers can support each other and help each other grow by working together. We can form communities of practice within our institutions or with like-minded colleagues from other settings to discuss trends in the field and get feedback on issues we have experienced in the classroom or ideas we would like to implement. We can also observe each other teach and offer constructive feedback.

But as noted above, teaching is an art as well. A perfectly planned lesson or learning resource will likely fall flat if it is not delivered well. Part of being an effective teacher involves understanding how our delivery impacts learning and finding ways to sharpen our skills. Good teachers understand that their enthusiasm for the material, along with energy, humor, and empathy, can make content more engaging and increase learning. They also understand how their body language, voice, and pacing affect their delivery of material in both in-person and online sessions.


Activity 1.2: Reflecting on Professional Competencies for Instruction

As outlined in this chapter, instruction librarians need a wide range of competencies to do their job well. You may have developed some of these competencies already through formal schooling or on-the-job experiences. You can further refine your competencies and develop new ones by reading this book, taking a course in instruction, or seeking out opportunities to practice teaching. As noted earlier, instruction librarians should plan to engage in learning and professional development throughout their careers.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  1. What knowledge and skills do you consider essential for instruction librarians? Can you think of knowledge, skills, or even personal qualities not yet mentioned?
  2. What knowledge and skills related to instruction do you already have? How did you develop these?
  3. How confident do you feel as an instructor? What do you think you can do well? Where would you like to improve?


The research and theories outlined here and discussed in depth throughout the text help us to understand not just how to teach but also why we do it that way. One of our jobs as teachers is to become familiar with the theories and research and the best practices they inform so that we can consciously incorporate them into our practice. Resources like this textbook and the credit-bearing courses with which this text might be associated are good places to start. But being a good teacher involves lifelong learning and continuous improvement. We need to seek out new opportunities for continuous learning. Books and articles, professional development courses, conferences, webinars, and even social media and blogs can provide us with new ideas, insights, and knowledge.

Audience and Outreach

Much of the work of teaching and learning discussed so far in this chapter is focused on the instructor and what the instructor needs to know, understand, and do in order to develop effective instruction and continuously improve. However, another aspect of good teaching involves looking outward in order to better understand the communities we serve and the larger field in which we work, so we can use that knowledge to mitigate challenges and maximize opportunities.

While instruction is an important service across information settings, how that instruction is implemented, what topics are covered, what kinds of instructional strategies are employed, how it is assessed, and so on will vary because each setting serves a unique community, and each community is made up of various smaller communities with their own specific information needs and behaviors. In order to meet patron needs, we need to learn more about our communities. For instance, academic and school librarians will align their instruction with the learning goals, standards, and curricular frameworks of their institution or district. Public library patrons want their libraries to offer classes and learning opportunities in a wide variety of areas, with different segments of the population interested in technology classes, job hunting resources, literacy services for children, and digital literacy programs (Pew Research Center, 2013, 2015; Rainie, 2016). Corporate library instruction will likely address the specific research tools available to employees, with a focus on increasing efficiency and return on investment (Matarazzo & Pearlstein, 2014). One of our jobs as instruction librarians is to read the literature, gather data, and talk with our patrons to find out exactly what they want and need us to address in our instruction. This process is ongoing, and community needs will evolve over time as demographics shift and technology changes.

Understanding our audience needs is not enough, however, if our audience is not aware of the instruction services we provide or does not believe those services are relevant. In fact, a majority of the public library patrons who say they are interested in learning opportunities at the library are also unaware of the instruction programs their libraries currently provide (Pew Research Center, 2015). Academic librarians rely on invitations from faculty members who themselves already feel crunched for time in their courses and are unlikely to request library instruction if they do not see the value in it. Thus, another part of our job involves outreach to patrons in order to raise awareness about our programs and services, and targeted marketing so patrons can easily see how different programs relate directly to their needs and interests. This outreach entails knowing what outlets to use to best reach our audiences and adapting our message to each audience.


On the one hand, this overview of responsibilities and knowledge areas might seem daunting, but on the other hand, we can view them as opportunities. After all, the research shows that our communities value our instruction and want more of it, and our professional associations and colleagues recognize the importance of our role to the field. Our work contributes directly to the educational missions and strategic goals of the field and of our individual institutions. We can build on this support with outreach that raises awareness about our services and how they contribute to achieving institutional goals.

Most importantly, however, as instructors we help our communities develop the crucial information literacy and technology skills they need for informed decision making and lifelong learning. We have the joy of seeing when our instruction “clicks” with learners as they understand a new concept or master a new skill. We get to finish each session knowing that we are involved in important work, and through reflection, professional development, and peer support, we can keep getting better at what we do.

Suggested Readings

Bennett, S. (2009). Libraries and learning: A history of paradigm change. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 9(2), 181-197.

Bennet traces the evolution of three paradigms in library design, from reader- and book-centered approaches to the current learning-centered approach to services and spaces.

Green, S. S. (1993). Personal relations between librarians and readers. Library Journal, 118(11), S4-S5. (Reprinted from “Personal relations between librarians and readers,” 1876, Library Journal 1, 74-81.)

Green’s advice to librarians to both assist patrons in finding materials and teach them to be independent users of the library is the earliest articulation of a teaching role for librarians.

Hopkins, F. L. (1982). A century of bibliographic instruction: The historical claim to professional and academic legitimacy. College & Research Libraries, 43, 192-198.

Hopkins traces the history of library instruction to show that early libraries valued instruction, and after a decline in the first half of the twentieth century, changes in the profession led to its resurgence in the 1960s.

Todd, R. J. (2017). Information literacy: Agendas for a sustainable future. Journal of Information Literacy, 11, 120-136.

Todd provides a thorough review of the writing on information literacy, tracing its evolution as a concept and suggesting areas for future research. Recommended for those seeking a literature review that weaves together work from academic, school, and public-library contexts.


American Library Association. (2019). Core values of librarianship.

Anderberg, L., Katz, R. M., Hayes, S., Stankrauff, A., Hodgetts, M. M., Hurtado, J., Nye, A., & Todd-Diaz, A. (2018). Teaching the teacher: Primary source instruction in American and Canadian archives graduate programs. American Archivist, 81(1), 188-215.

Barthel, M., Mitchell, A., & Holcomb, J. (2016, December 15). Many Americans believe fake news is sowing confusion. Pew Research Center, Journalism and Media.

Curtis, J. A. (2019). Teaching adult learners: A guide for public librarians. Libraries Unlimited.

Green, S. S. (1993). Personal relations between librarians and readers. Library Journal, 118(11), S4-S5. (Reprinted from “Personal relations between librarians and readers,” 1876, Library Journal 1, 74-81.)

Harrgitai, E., Fullerton, L., Menchen-Trevino, E., & Thomas, K. Y. (2010). Trust online: Young adults’ evaluation of web content. International Journal of Communication, 4, 468-494.

Jansen, B. J., & Spink, A. (2006). How are we searching the world wide web? A comparison of nine search engine transaction logs. Information Processing & Management, 42(1), 248-263.

Julien, H., & Genuis, S. K. (2011). Librarians’ experiences of the teaching role: A national survey. Library and Information Science Research, 33(2), 103-111.

Krause, M. (2008). Learning in the archives: A report on instructional practices. Journal of Archival Organization, 6(4), 233-268.

Lai, H. (2011). Information literacy training in public libraries: A case from Canada. Educational Technology & Society, 14(2), 81-88.

Lewandowski, D. (2008). Search engine user behaviour: How can users be guided to quality content? Information Services & Use 28(3/4), 261-8.

Matarazzo, J. M. & Pearlstein, T. (2014). The case for business information literacy. Online Searcher, 38(5), 42-49.

Matteson, M. L., & Beate, G. (2019). Unique or ubiquitous: Information literacy instruction outside academia. Reference Services Review, 47(1), 73-84.

Pew Research Center. (2013, January 22). Library services in the digital age.

Pew Research Center. (2015, January 22). Part 4: What people want from their libraries.

Purcell, K., Brenner, J., & Rainie, L. (2012, March 9). Search engine use 2012. Pew Research Center.

Rainie, L. (2016, April 7). Libraries and learning. Pew Research Center.

Rothstein, S. (1955). The development of reference services through academic traditions, public library practice and special librarianship. Association of College & Research Libraries.

Saunders, L. (2014). Who will bridge the gap? [Supplemental material]. Online Searcher, 38(5), SC2.

Saunders, L. (2015). Education for instruction: A review of LIS instruction syllabi. Reference Librarian, 56(1), 1-21.

Saunders, L. (2019). Core and more: Examining foundational and specialized content in library and information science. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 60(1), 3-34.

Schwier, C., & Champion, C. (2020). Place-based instruction in archives. Our pedagogical roots. Comma, 2018(1/2), 195-204.

Stanford History Education Group. (2016, November 22). Evaluating information: The cornerstone of civic online reasoning.

Tyckoson, D. (2020). History and functions of reference service. In M. A. Wong & L. Saunders (Eds.), Reference and information services: An introduction (6th ed., pp. 3-26). ABC-Clio.

Walter, S. (2008). Librarians as teachers: A qualitative inquiry into professional identity. College & Research Libraries, 69(1), 51-71.

Weiner, S. (2011). Information literacy and the workforce: A review. Education Libraries, 34(2), 7–14.

Wheeler, E., & McKinney, P. (2015). Are librarians teachers? Investigating academic librarians’ perceptions of their own teaching roles. Journal of Information Literacy, 9(2), 111-128.


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Instruction in Libraries and Information Centers Copyright © 2020 by Laura Saunders and Melissa A. Wong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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