Career Strategies for Librarians
Developing Teaching and Training Skills
by Jennifer Osborn

Librarians need teaching and training skills as much as we need the more familiar and traditional skills
of our profession, such as cataloging and reference work. We are constantly teaching our library users—
to search the catalog effectively, for example, or to use databases and search engines, or to evaluate the
information they find on the internet. In the twenty-first century, teaching the skills that comprise
“information literacy”—the ability to locate, analyze, evaluate, and use information effectively—is integral
to the job of almost every librarian.

So how do you develop your teaching and training skills? Here are some practical tips:

Learn the principles of adult learning

You will be a much better teacher if you have a good working knowledge of adult learning principles and
practices. The seminal text on adult learning is Malcolm Knowles’ The Adult Learner: The Definitive
Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. Knowles’ educational theories
emphasize the critical differences in the ways that children and adults learn. Adults are much more self-
directed than children, much more willing to take responsibility and to be engaged and motivated in
learning. We are most interested in learning something that is immediately relevant to us, our jobs, or
our personal lives. (We choose what we want to learn; children are told what they must learn.) Adults
learn best by experience, by being actively involved in our learning (by “doing” rather than simply by
listening to a teacher giving us information or instructions). We have a great deal of life experience that
we can bring to a new learning situation (and we need to have that experience acknowledged and
appreciated by the teacher). We also learn from our peers as well as from our teachers, and want
regular and immediate feedback.

Let’s say that you have been asked to teach a library user (or a group of library users) how to find some
journal articles. Your knowledge as a librarian will help you to decide what to teach: which databases to
use, how to construct a Boolean search, how to retrieve the journal articles in full text. The principles of
adult learning will help you to decide how to teach.  

For example, using Knowles’ principles, you will know to choose search examples that are relevant to
your users’ immediate needs (their current project/essay/report/interests) and you will know that they will
learn far more by doing the database searches themselves (with your guidance) rather than by having
you simply tell them or show them what to do. You know that you need to acknowledge their experience—
for example, you let them suggest the keywords for their database search from their own subject
knowledge—and you encourage them to work with and learn from their peers as well as from you by
getting them to bounce ideas and suggestions off one another as well as interacting with you.

If you consciously apply adult learning principles to every teaching or training session that you give, you
will become a much better teacher.

Learn about learning styles

Other theories of adult learning assert that adults have developed particular learning styles and
preferences: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. For example, some adults learn well with diagrams and
flowcharts (a visual learning preference) while others respond to listening to information on tapes or
podcasts (auditory). The key is to provide a variety of methods for your library users: for example, spend
some time talking about the benefits and features of a particular database, then some time showing
your users how to do a specific search. And then, whenever possible, move on to the active learning part
of your session, where your students will do the work for themselves. Remember the saying: “I see and I
forget, I do and I remember.” Retention is hugely increased by experience of the task or skill.

Learn from other teachers

Learning as a student will always be a valuable experience, whether your teachers are good or bad! As
part of your continuing education as a librarian, you will learn from many instructors, whether you sign up
for a session on time management or supervisory skills or simply sit in on a sales demonstration of
new software or an experienced colleague’s information literacy course. For instance, you might learn
some ideas about how not to use PowerPoint (cluttered screens with too many words in too small a
font) or how not to answer audience questions (in a patronizing or negative tone of voice). You might
learn a useful ice-breaker game or find out about a relevant case study that you can incorporate in your
own teaching. Experiencing teaching from a student’s perspective should always be useful to you in your
role as a teacher.

Learn to give excellent presentations

Presentation skills are a vital subset of training skills when you are teaching a group of people. Many
librarians are good trainers in one-to-one situations (such as helping library users at the reference desk
or teaching a colleague how to do part of his or her job) but are reluctant to expand their skills from
individual to group teaching. For advice on overcoming nerves and developing techniques for speaking
effectively to a group, see “The Librarian's Guide to Developing Presentation Skills.”

Learn to give useful feedback

Adult learners need regular and immediate feedback if they are to make any progress in their learning.
There is an art to giving feedback as a teacher or trainer: learn to give it in such a way that your student
will learn for themselves. Overcome the urge to solve your students’ problems for them (“This is how to
do it,” “This is what you need to do”). Instead, ask your students to work it out for themselves (“What have
you tried to do so far?,” “How can you improve that search?,” “What do you need to do next?”). Don’t rush
in with the answer: adult students learn best by making and correcting their own mistakes and by
problem solving for themselves. They also learn from their peers and by helping one another. One
simple but effective technique is to get your students to work in pairs.

Learn to teach all the time

A good librarian will take the opportunity to teach a library user whenever he or she gets the chance!
Even the simplest question at your library’s reference desk can give you the opportunity to help your user
develop his or her basic information literacy skills. For example, a straightforward question like “Where
will I find this book by David Suzuki?” can be answered in a way that will quickly teach the fundamentals
of author searching and call number recognition in the catalog. At the university library where I work, we
have computers that can be swiveled towards the user so that he or she can see what is happening on
the screen and how we are performing a search. If the student has a reading list with him, I would then
take him to the nearest student computer and encourage him to do the next search himself.

Learn to enjoy teaching

On a bad day, with students who haven’t bothered to do their assignments, people who would rather
check their email than do a database search, and network connections that develop agonizingly slow
response times, I would rather be doing something (anything!) else than teaching. On the many good
days, when my students have clearly understood the concepts that I’m trying to teach them or ask
questions that show how far their understanding has progressed, I love teaching. Learn to balance the
bad with the good and you’ll find that helping users learn the skills that you can teach them is one of the
most rewarding things that you can do as a librarian.

Additional Reading

Clark, A.S., and K.F. Jones, eds. 1986. Teaching librarians to teach: On-the-job training for bibliographic
instruction librarians. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.

Honey, P., and A. Mumford. 1992. The manual of learning styles, 3rd ed. Maidenhead: P. Honey.

Knowles, M. 2005. The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource
development. 6th ed. Boston: Elsevier.

Mariner, F. 2006. The teaching librarian: ESL and the academic library. Paper presented at the ALIA 2006
Biennial conference.

Peacock, J. 2001. Teaching skills for teaching librarians. Australian academic and research libraries, 32

Marie Wallace writes excellent articles on the many facets of teaching and training in her “Guide on the
Side” column in

About the Author:

Jennifer Osborn is a Reference Librarian and Staff Development Coordinator at the University of
Adelaide Library in South Australia, where part of her job involves teaching information literacy skills to
indigenous and international students. She has a graduate diploma in Library and Information Science
and a certificate qualification in teaching and training adults.

Article published Mar 2007

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