Computers in Libraries
Vol. 20, No. 3 • March 2000
Reflections on What Happens When Librarians Become Teachers
by Kimberley Donnelly

Pondering their fledgling years of teaching experience, 
a group of faculty librarians talks about how they see 
themselves, and how others now see them differently.
Instruction librarians and teaching libraries are getting a lot of attention these days. Are you thinking you should pursue these activities in your library? Would you like to become a teacher? Do you think you should? Most librarians agree that someone has to teach our library users how to use our resources effectively, and that somebody should be teaching students effective ways to use the Internet for research. However, few agree on who should teach and just how the instruction should be carried out.

On some college campuses, the logical solution to teaching research is to create a course. While this may be an objective worthy of librarians’ advocacy and involvement, a delicate balance exists between the rewards and the costs of becoming a teaching library.

Here at York College of Pennsylvania (YCP), librarians were thrust into the classroom in 1997 when a two-credit, core-curriculum information literacy course was introduced. Generated by a faculty task force as part of a new core, Information Literacy 101 (IFL) is dramatically changing the jobs and roles of our librarians and focusing attention on the library, since it’s designed and taught by faculty librarians. Schmidt Library, formerly viewed as an academic support service, is now an integral part of the educational mission of the college. Hundreds of students pass through the turnstile every day on their way to the IFL classroom.
“IFL has radically altered our reference service.”
The changes we’ve seen are both philosophical and practical. For this article I’ve gathered some personal reflections—my own and those of our other faculty librarians. So I am offering some firsthand insight into what happens when a group of librarians becomes teachers. All the changes are connected to the way our relationships are changing, the amount of time and energy that IFL requires, and the kinds of shifts that IFL is causing in our priorities.

Building Relationships and Facing New Realities
In pondering the changes, we all agree that the biggest rewards of teaching IFL 101 are the long-term relationships we make with students. As we get to know students in the classroom, we learn astounding things about the typical student researcher. One librarian sums up our experience: “We no longer have an idealized view of the typical student researcher.” In fact, many of us are concluding that there is no such being as a “typical student researcher.” Some of the library services we have previously viewed as nice extras, like full text and online request forms, are truly critical to the single-parent or full-time-working student.

Because we lead students on a journey through a complete research process, we see the cognitive, technological, emotional, and physical roadblocks that they encounter when performing research tasks. For example, students using commercial Internet services cannot access the library’s subscription databases from home. Students are easily frustrated by the slow system response times and can miss important information because they are impatient with the search process. And we put our new knowledge to good use: Based on what we learned about how students use the library Web site and how we are teaching them to use it in IFL, we completely redesigned our Web site last summer.

Observing and grading student research has also been eye opening. We are developing a better understanding of how students perceive information and the difficulties in communicating research strategies to them. Last week at the reference desk, an IFL student wanted to know how to do “trunk casting” in a database. Even concepts as simple to us as “truncation” can be daunting for students! One librarian values her new recognition of students’ developmental stages, commenting, “Some students can be moved to a higher level of reasoning; some have great difficulty.” Because our classroom is a group learning environment with three students sharing each PC, variations in students’ baseline research and computer skills can make the course difficult to teach. Relationships among students can be rocky as they attempt to share a computer and complete group work. Yet some of the best interaction in the classroom takes place when students teach one another.

As we build classroom relationships with students and as we grade their research projects, our priorities for the library collection are shifting. We can no longer make selection decisions based upon what we think students ought to use, but rather on what they will use (like indexes with integrated full text). We see an ongoing need to encourage the rest of the campus faculty members to require all types of resources in their assignments in order to reinforce the basics we teach in IFL 101. Additionally, we are increasingly able to measure and observe the outcomes of our service to students. Student class evaluation forms and grades provide proof of our contributions to student learning.

Reference Desk Service: Seeing Various Viewpoints
We were used to providing individualized assistance with a student’s specific questions. We were comfortable with that responsibility. While we occasionally visited a class at a professor’s request for bibliographic instruction, our primary contact with students was at the reference desk. Even though we provided many hours of service, many students never passed through the library’s doors. IFL has radically altered our reference service. Teaching has increased our sensitivity to student questions and needs, but it has also cut into our time for providing reference desk service and perhaps reduced the need for that service.

As far as the future of reference desk service, our librarians have divergent views. Some, myself included, believe that students get better service from librarians by interacting with us in the classroom. We think that by teaching, we are proactive in our service to students. The ideas of reference appointments and enhanced online reference services have been brought to the table for consideration. Others feel that, even though basic concepts are addressed in IFL 101, students continue to require individualized assistance at the point of use. One librarian remarks that a “combination of reference and classroom is best.”

Library director Susan Campbell points out that reference and classroom are “entirely different services,” and she believes that students receive “exceptional service both places.” Even so, she recognizes that some of the librarians feel that “much of their tradition has been lost.” She emphasizes that some have struggled to adjust to new roles and responsibilities, yet she is convinced that IFL 101 is the right focus for our energies.
“We can no longer make selection decisions based upon what we think students ought to use, but rather on what they will use.”
Changes are taking place in the amount of reference service we provide and in the ways we approach reference questions. The number of reference questions has dropped dramatically, so it no longer makes sense to provide constant professional desk coverage. Student assistants cover the desk about 6 hours each day. When librarians are present at the desk, we are frequently multitasking—collecting background information for class or planning lessons. Teaching responsibilities expand to fill every available moment.

Some of us feel that teaching has enhanced the quality of the reference service we provide. In learning to teach, I have discovered more effective ways to explain and demonstrate search concepts. Those strategies are easily translated from the classroom back to the one-on-one encounter. The content and concepts we teach add to the expertise that we have to offer at the reference desk. Another librarian believes he is “more sensitive to student questions at the reference desk” and says that he uses those questions as a framework for adding content to his classes. Because of the relationships we build in the classroom, some of us feel that we understand students better than before and that we are better able to communicate possible answers to their questions.

Turning into Teachers: Reflecting on the Changes
Even with five semesters of experience, we are still learning to teach. As searchers, we provided technical expertise in a mediator role. In becoming teachers, we have accepted a new role as mentors, offering theoretical, conceptual expertise. As fledgling teachers, we have our ups and downs. In one librarian’s view, IFL is “a trailblazing experience” in terms of being an approach that few colleges have yet implemented; however, he follows up with a caution that, “We get burned by the same blaze from time to time due to lack of training and experience.” Yet as difficult and frustrating as teaching can be, the librarians are in agreement that IFL 101 is the right thing to do because of the lifelong impact it can have on students.

For many of us, teaching has become the focus of our professional development activities. Teachers learn effective ways to teach, illustrate, and reinforce research concepts. Librarian-teachers find ways to translate their research expertise into short, manageable lessons that students can master. Students depend on context and personal connections to help the research skills “stick.” Librarian-teachers maneuver through the research process, pointing students toward connections and context. The key is to articulate a workable process—not to spout research steps, but to help students to adapt the process to fit their needs.

Teaching is a difficult fit for some of us. Reflecting back on our first semesters, one librarian explains, “Not coming from a teaching background, we were all feeling in the dark in hopes of finding the right approach to teaching.” Another notes, “I never wanted to be a teacher in this formal way.” Because the course was initiated outside the library, some of us continue to see it as an added-on duty, yet others have found teaching a natural extension of our previous services. Even though one librarian finds that the “hardest change” has been “the whole grading process,” most of us think that teaching the course makes us equal with other faculty. One says, “We now understand what it is like to teach a course: class preparation, revising, grading, and dealing with students.” Teaching is not the only issue, though. The continual need to be “boning up on lots of skills” and keeping track of current information trends are common concerns. Because we have to teach search tools and strategies and because of the perpetual changes in these tools, we are learning to pay greater attention to common themes, trends, and elements rather than focusing on all possible tools and keystrokes.
“The key is to articulate a workable process—not to spout research steps, but to help students to adapt the process to fit their needs.”

Today, our workdays more closely resemble teaching-faculty schedules rather than administrative or managerial schedules. Telecommuting and flexible workdays are normal. As teaching professors, we are building more equal professional relationships with the rest of the college faculty. Our groups’ participation in the core curriculum catapulted the library to the center of the college’s teaching mission and made it an integral part of the students’ college experiences.

About Information Literacy 101 at YCP

Mission: To teach information literacy skills to 1,200 students per year.

Method: Each semester, seven faculty librarians and four to six adjunct professors teach 25 sections that consist of 24 students each.

Information Literacy 101 at York College of Pennsylvania (YCP) is a unique blend of technology and library literacy grounded in the American Library Association’s definition of information literacy. Topics include finding information (research strategies, reference sources, books, periodicals, and the Internet), evaluating it, and effectively using it (ethical use of information, YCP network policy, Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, e-mail, newsgroup, and good graphics concepts).

For more information about Information Literacy 101, see our online textbook, Information Literacy eText, at
ifl/etext/ethome.html (click below).

What Is Happening in the Rest of the Library?
“Teaching has forced new priorities,” says Susan Campbell. All the librarians echo variations of the same theme: “IFL swallows a lot more time than any of us expected.” As a result, all of us have reduced time to run an academic library. The other library staff members are rising to the challenge and assuming many of the clerical and administrative duties the professional librarians had performed. Fortunately, the college’s administrators are supportive of upgrading job descriptions and adjusting compensation for the library staff. Because of our decreased participation in the day-to-day operations of the library, we are becoming less visible in the library service areas. Office hours, prep time, and class time all remove the faculty librarians from the front lines. Although this may seem like a drawback to the course, I think it is positive because now librarians are more visible to students within the curriculum and are visible as professors. By spending a full semester in the classroom with every YCP student, librarians are building invaluable relationships.

One of us expresses concern that, even though we know we are working harder than ever, our changed roles may make our staff members feel abandoned. Another librarian praises the staff for making “a valiant effort to keep our services up to par.” While there is consensus that “class is a priority” for the librarians and that we must “work in different ways,” relationships between library faculty and staff can be irritated by a gap between the two groups of workers.

Striking the Right Balance
As a group, we concur that the potential for lifelong impact on students is the force that drives IFL 101 and makes the huge investment of time worthwhile. The costs and sacrifices are great, but then so are the potential rewards. The process of becoming a teaching library requires sincere commitment and passion. During the process, the library becomes a different place. Though the metamorphosis can be painful and trying, when complete, the library is a fresh entity poised to prepare students for life in the digital age.

Kimberley Donnelly is an assistant professor and reference librarian at York College of Pennsylvania (YCP) in York. She holds a B.S. in communication and an M.S.L.S. from Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She teaches two sections of Information Literacy 101 each semester at YCP. Her e-mail address is

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