On Teaching

by Phoebe Ayers, MLIS Day

The iSchool has one of the few MLIS programs that includes a required teaching skills and pedagogical theory class. Most student reactions to this class that I have heard range from wishing we didn't have to take it to mild interest, with most people expressing indifference. Few people hate it, but few people seem to love it, either, and for former teachers or those with teaching experience, it's often too simplistic - which seems to be the most common set of reactions to the MLIS core in general.

Few required classes, however, excited me as much as 560. My excitement stemmed not only from the fact that most of the reference jobs that I want will involve a fair amount of teaching, and because I have no former teaching experience, I needed all the help I can get - but also because it was in this class that I saw true possibilities for growth and change in our field, despite the occasionally dated and buzz-word-laden pedagogy readings that we had to wade through. In libraries, all our work of cataloging and collecting and organizing and building systems and yes, even reference, means very little if we cannot both teach people how to use our resources and, most of all, that they should use our resources - that our services are not only important but that we have information that students (and faculty, and staff) need.

In my experience, librarians and other information professionals tend to take the knowledge that libraries house important information for granted. Of course all this work is worth it, we think to ourselves - and of course people should come to us for us, and we can't understand it when they unaccountably don't. But patrons have no idea in many cases what is even in the library, and unfortunately many librarians make no effort to promote what they have. It is not that I see libraries as being in competition with the "information society" of the Internet et al. exactly - it is that most people seem to have only a dim idea that libraries are part of such a society. Increasing potential patrons' awareness of what libraries have and how to use them can only increase their usage and valuation of libraries.

And so I believe that focusing on instruction and information literacy - in every reference transaction, in formal classes and in informal outreach - is important, even crucial, not just to the education of patrons but to the survival of libraries. Although almost every reference job ad I have looked at has gone on in great detail about the importance of innovative bibliographic instruction, many (although by no means all) of the professional instruction librarians that I have met and talked to view teaching as a necessary evil. It is true that teaching is difficult in an environment where, for instance, librarians get no support for developing curricula and are expected to integrate a one-time session into a larger class, but this too must change, under the leadership of library directors, university leaders and school principles, for instruction to be effective and libraries to be truly useful to their population.

In my perfect world, I envision a library that integrates itself into every, or nearly every class on a campus; where subject Web pages are useful (more than a simple bibliography of appropriate sources, but rather an explanation of how information sources relate to the field at large, and how one might start searching); where resources like online tutorials are shared between libraries; and where librarians work together with teachers and professors to highlight the role that information plays in all fields. And teaching is not only important for librarians. Successful software development, for instance, depends crucially not only on communication between developers and customers but also on user training. And instruction can be an integral part of marketing in any context, something that library vendors seem to have known for some time, judging by the flood of invitations to product training sessions I received upon registering for ACRL.

In sum, instruction and information literacy are more than current buzzwords. They are crucial parts of making information projects successful and making libraries relevant. The iSchool is commendable in emphasizing information literacy in the curriculum and the portfolio; however, support for new librarians and information professionals to become excellent teachers must occur across the field. Teaching must not only be expected, but supported, and increased emphasis on teaching new professionals on how to provide effective instruction - above and beyond a single class - should be provided by both employers and schools.



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Page last updated: May 13, 2005