Learning to Teach

Supporting new librarian training

January 2, 2018

Meredith Farkas

When I graduated with my MLIS, I didn’t know teaching would be such a big part of library work. My library school’s one course on instruction was designed for library media specialists, so it didn’t seem a good fit for someone wanting to work at a college or university library. Even now at my alma mater, the list of recommended classes for students wanting to concentrate in academic librarianship does not include any courses focused on teaching. So I, like many new librarians, had no inkling of the shock that was in store when I started working in an academic library.

In that first professional job, at a small library, all librarians—from the director to the systems librarian to the head of technical services—taught classes. None of us had been prepared by our coursework to teach, and no on-the-job training was provided. While my initial efforts to teach information literacy were cringeworthy at best, I learned as much as I could on my own about teaching and clawed my way toward proficiency.

I wish my experiences were unique, but I’ve heard many stories from librarians thrown into the deep end of teaching without support. All LIS programs now offer at least one course focused on instruction, and students in LIS instructional fellowship programs at institutions like University of Washington, University of Maryland, and University of Wisconsin–Madison get to participate in a top-notch apprenticeship program that scaffolds their learning and experiences around teaching. However, many online students and others who do not have access to in-depth programs come into the profession with little-to-no teaching experience because it is not positioned as fundamental to our professional education.

I’ve heard many stories from librarians thrown into the deep end of teaching without support.

Teaching isn’t just for academic librarians; it is a critical service in K–12, health science, and public libraries. And it’s not only something reference services librarians do; archivists and technologists often teach. Strong teaching skills serve librarians who support the work of patrons or other library staff. For teaching to be seen as something less than core to the majority of libraries ignores the reality of what so many of us do.

New librarians without teaching experience rarely find formal training on the job. Libraries like those at DePaul and Towson Universities support shadowing and coteaching for new librarians and offer development opportunities focused on improvement, but few explicitly require training. The Dartmouth College Library is the only one I’ve found that requires teaching librarians to attend a program designed to help them teach effectively. Its Librarians Active Learning Institute was formed in 2011 and has expanded to librarians outside of Dartmouth. That demand outpaces supply for programs like this and the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Information Literacy Immersion Program suggests that librarians are motivated to become better instructors.

All this makes me wonder why most libraries overlook training new librarians to teach. Surely administrators must see this work as valuable. Librarians who teach and work at the reference desk often have the most contact with students. For most faculty, instruction librarians are the face of the library, and bad instruction sessions can sour them on library instruction—or even on the library itself.

More and more libraries are being asked to show the impact of their services on the communities they serve. In academic libraries, that can mean demonstrating the impact of libraries on student learning. Ensuring that the instruction patrons are receiving is of the highest quality seems all the more important. Yet the structures for training—from the LIS degree to workplace training and professional development opportunities—lead haphazardly to a profession of haves and have-nots that don’t serve either our patrons or ourselves as well as they could.