17 January 2015

Library User Instruction

This fall, I was invited to teach a course on Library User Instruction at my wife’s iSchool. This lead to a question: what is library user instruction?

My first thought was that any client interaction is -- not can be or should be, but is -- user instruction, because that library user will learn something from the exchange. What the user learns depends on us. At a bare minimum, she ought learn that we want to help and that we try to help. If we aren’t conscious of this fact, though, what she learns may be that we don’t care, are too busy, or don’t have what she wants.

After an entire semester of readings and discussion, this is still my first thought on user instruction. The user will learn something form every interaction, and we need to make sure that what she learns is positive. That’s not what all the readings were about, though.

Turns out, my class had previously been focused on bibliographic instruction, and specifically the one-time ‘research lesson’ librarians often provide for freshman composition classes. These are, of course, an important example of instruction by librarians, but we also teach in many other situations. The textbooks weren’t going to cover that and it wasn’t baked into the syllabus, but I tried to make the point by discussing examples from my own career and the students’ work experiences. Still, the class was, of necessity, largely about teaching introductory college research sessions.

The problem, really, is that the course only accounted for the needs of academic librarians, and only for some of them. Public librarians and special librarians teach, too--even private firm law librarians sometimes teach. Sometimes teaching happens in front of a classroom. Sometimes, at the reference desk -- or in a fundraising letter to the local tax base. A cataloger is teaching us what each book is about, and saving us the time to read it. Other examples sound even more forced.

Which all circles around to my original point, so I’ll stop. The course focus should expand, and I’ll work on that if invited to teach it again. In the meantime, you can see my reviews of the primary texts, by John Bean and Joan Kapolwitz, on my other blog. Bean’s Engaging Ideas is about using writing to teach critical thinking across the curriculum; Kaplowitz’s about using learner-centered teaching methods in bibliographic instruction. Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity might be a good addition.

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