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Career Strategies for Librarians
Learning to Teach: Providing Library Instruction
by Sarah Andrews

This article will summarize how I learned to provide library instruction while working in an internship at
an academic library.  If you need to provide library instruction but don’t have any formal training, this
information may help you prepare.

When I started library school, I assumed I would work in technical services, so I took classes in
cataloging, databases, and collection management.  During my last semester, I was assigned a
practicum at a public library.  I quickly realized I loved public service work.   

While surveying job ads, I realized that I needed to build up some teaching skills quickly, because most
of the jobs I was interested in involved teaching patrons to use the library.  Because I was already done
with my degree, I pursued an internship in Instructional Services at the University of Iowa Libraries.

Although I have supervised staff and trained library employees for many years, I soon realized I had a lot
to learn before I was ready to stand in front of a room full of college freshmen.  Fortunately, my internship
supervisor trained me incrementally.

Background Reading

I began my training by reading a number of books and articles on information literacy, as well as
subscribing to the Information Literacy Instruction Discussion List     (http://www.ala.
org/ala/acrlbucket/is/ilil.htm) and reading the information at the LOEX Clearinghouse for Library
Instruction (http://www.emich.edu/public/loex/index.html).   

Since I did not have any educational background in teaching, I also read about identifying and teaching to
different learning styles, as well as some basic articles on classroom etiquette and controlling
students.  I reviewed the manual our university provides to teaching assistants to get a more
comprehensive overview on information specific to our institution.

Acting

My supervisor surprised me by giving me articles on basic acting techniques.  I was very skeptical about
this at first, but I discovered she was right.  I learned how to warm up my voice, relax my body, and project
my voice.  I appeared self-confident during my initial instruction sessions, but I was really just acting.

Observation

I observed eight different librarians teaching different library instruction classes.  The classes were a mix
of general library instruction for graduate or undergraduate students and course-integrated instruction.  I
watched how the librarians interacted with students, how they moved around the room, and the way they
presented information.

Since I was sitting in the back of the room, I was usually able to tell when the students were bored,
engaged, or lost.  I took notes and found something surprising at every observation.  These observations
made me aware of subtle differences that greatly affect the outcome of library instruction.  Here are
some tips I recommend:

Send an email reminder to participants a week or so in advance.  Introduce yourself, give the location of
the class, and reiterate what will be covered.
Put up signs to direct students to the classroom.  Remind library staff at all service desks about the
class.  Students often need directions to the room location.
Be in the room and ready to go half an hour before the scheduled start time.  Students may show up
early.
Be friendly.  Stand by the door and greet every student.  Write your contact information on the board or
pass out cards.  Encourage students to contact you after class.
Remind everyone to turn their cell phones off or put them in silent mode at the beginning of the class.
If your class includes using technology, have a helper present in case students become lost or you have
technology glitches.
Prepare handouts on colored card stock so they look important.
Allow time for students to practice as part of the class.
Bring a selection of general library handouts to the class, and encourage students to take them home.
If possible, linger in the room after the class in case any students want more practice time or have follow-
up questions.

Practice

I taught a class that was developed by other librarians, but I still had to practice and customize the
presentation to my own style.  I spent approximately ten hours practicing in the room in which I would
teach.  I had to work to get my timing right and practice moving around the room while I was talking.

Although I had a script, I needed to customize the language to my style.  I also selected some props to
use as examples.  To illustrate the concept that multiple words can mean the same thing, I used a Diet
Coke can and asked students, “What do you call this”?  

Practice with an Audience

After I seemed comfortable on my own, I gave a demonstration to three experienced instruction
librarians.  They pretended to be students at an instruction session that I was teaching.  I quickly found
out that I wasn’t comfortable answering random questions or pausing long enough to allow students to
respond.

After the session, I received feedback from each of the librarians.  Each of them had a different
perspective, but they provided useful information.  After the demo, I realized I needed more practice
before I would be comfortable teaching by myself.

Then I practiced in front of an audience of paraprofessional and student library staff.  I asked outgoing,
honest people to be my practice audience.  At the first practice, audience members interrupted me
almost constantly with suggestions and questions.  After a couple of sessions, I felt confident enough to
face a real class.

Team Teaching

I taught my first three classes as part of a team with experienced instruction librarians.  I covered either
the first or second part of the class, as well as working as a helper in the classroom during the rest of
the session.

I used my newfound acting skills to appear confident working as part of a team because I knew the other
librarian would step in if necessary.  I also learned what kind of questions actual students asked—their
questions were actually much different than I had imagined.   

After each class, I reviewed how things went with the other instructor.  We discussed our thoughts on the
class, and I also got some tips and hints from more experienced presenters.  I found I needed to count
to ten in my head after I asked a question to allow students enough time to formulate an answer.  I also
learned that sometimes walking down the aisle would grab the attention of students whose minds were
wandering.

Solo Teaching

Finally, I had to teach by myself.  I spent a few minutes before the class warming up, stretching, and
calming myself.  Then I made sure all of the technology worked before the students arrived.  A wise
library school professor advised me to always have at least one backup version of a presentation on
another format of media.  You never know what to expect when you rely on technology.

I survived my first class.  My supervisor asked me to have each student fill out an evaluation form.  By
reviewing the students’ comments, I discovered what I was doing both right and wrong.  Most of their
suggestions were easy to implement—for example, they wanted to know where certain departments
were located within the library.  Several students commented they liked it when I pointed to links on the
screen and then clicked the mouse.   

After teaching several classes, I still needed help getting students to respond.  I also needed some tips
on controlling the classroom, because some students were not only not paying attention but also being
disruptive.  I discussed these problems with my internship supervisor, and she offered suggestions.  I
also reviewed my observation notes.  To get more responses from students, offer positive feedback
whenever you get a response.  Words like “good,” “right,” and “anything else?” ease fears about giving a
wrong answer.   

I also learned that if you are working with databases, check and make sure they work and that you get
the search results you expect right before the class.  During one of my classes, I found out the search
screen had changed overnight.  

Conclusion

Preparation will help make library instruction easier for you.  If you plan to offer instruction, start by
observing other librarians carefully.  Watch for verbal and nonverbal communication, and look for
commonalities.  If someone’s style seems particularly effective, shadow him or her as often as you can.  
Offer to act as a helper for instruction sessions if someone seems reluctant to have you as an observer.

Read broadly.  Articles on teaching and acting as well as on library instruction can be useful.

Practice in front of people who will critique you honestly.  You won’t get better if your faults aren’t pointed
out.  Practice until you can relax in front of the room because you know your topic.  This will help ease
your fears around real students.

Ask for help.  Librarians love to help people.  If you don’t have anyone available to confer with at your
library, ask a good teacher for suggestions.  You can also consult librarians at other institutions for help.

Have fun.  Instruction is one of the easiest ways to see how your work can improve someone else’s life.   

Recommended Resources

Grassian, Esther S. & Kaplowitz, Joan R. (2005). Learning to Lead and Manage Information Literacy
Instruction.  New York: Neal-Schuman.

Kolb, David A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development.
Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

Woodard, Beth. (2003). Technology and the Constructivist Learning Environment: Implications for
Teaching Information Literacy Skills [electronic version].  Research Strategies, 19 (3/4), 181-192.  

Sternberg, Robert J. (1997).  Thinking Styles.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

Bodi, Sonia.  (1990). Teaching Effectiveness and Bibliographic Instruction: the Relevance of Learning
Styles.  College & Research Libraries, 51 (2), 113-119.

Vine, Rita. (2001).  Real People Don’t Do Boolean: How to Teach End Users to Find High-Quality
Information on the Internet.  Information Outlook, 5(3), 16-23.  Available from http://www.findarticles.com

Akers, Jeanine. (2004). Discovering Your Teaching Style: Seven Ways to Enhance Your Classroom
Presence.  College & Research Libraries News, 65 (5), 251-3.

Ritts, Vicki & Stein, James R. (n.d.).  Six Ways to Improve Your Nonverbal Communications.  Retrieved
October 1, 2005 from: http://honolulu.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/m-
files/m-commu1.htm  

Hogan Hamm, Patricia. (n.d.).  Teaching and Persuasive Communication: Class Presentation Skills.  
Retrieved October 1, 2005 from Brown University Decameron Web site: http://www.brown.
edu/Departments/Italian_Studies/dweb/pedagogy/class-pres-skills.shtml    

Boice, Robert (1996).  First Order Principles for College Teachers: Ten Basic Ways to Improve the
Teaching Process.  Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

Rose, Karel & Linney, Margaret. (1992). Teaching & Acting.  Liberal Education, 78 (3), p.24-28.

Oswald, Tina A. & Turnage, Marthea. (2000).  First Five Minutes.  Research Strategies, 17 (4), 347-51.  

About the Author:

Sarah Andrews works as a library assistant in the Acquisitions Department of the University of Iowa
Libraries, and as a substitute Information Librarian at the Iowa City Public Library.  She wishes to thank
Marsha Forys for accepting her as an intern.  Her website and blog are at http://www.iowalibrarian.com .

Article published Apr 2006

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