Instructional Literacy: As Librarians, We Can Shape Ourselves into Educators by Devising Our Teacher Identities

By Booth, Char | American Libraries, June-July 2010 | Go to article overview

Instructional Literacy: As Librarians, We Can Shape Ourselves into Educators by Devising Our Teacher Identities


Booth, Char, American Libraries


Face it: Teaching is hard. It's hard from any angle, using any technology, to any learner. Even for those enviable (and few) "natural teachers," being an educator is as at least as challenging as it is rewarding. Not only does teaching take skills, preparation, and diligence; it demands bravery, humor, and self-awareness.

Now more than ever, librarianship has an instructional slant: From school library media specialists to academic librarians, we increasingly embed ourselves in curricula and classrooms, lead workshops and training, and create digital learning materials as a matter of course. Moreover, the librarian-as-teacher is beginning to enter the popular Zeitgeist: Marilyn Johnson's widely publicized This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All (Harper, 2010) portrays today's librarians as connected and techdactic. and a library-supported Digital Literacy Corps was among the provisions of the National Broadband Plan recently proposed by the FCC. These developments help bring the educational work we have been doing for decades--helping individuals navigate and thrive in the information society--into the limelight.

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There is some irony in the timing of this development: a national debate about teacher training and effectiveness is raging, yet most of the country's go-to digital literacy educators--e.g., librarians--were not systematically trained to teach in the first place. Sparked by the transition from Bush's No Child Left Behind to Obama's Race to the Top. the impact of instructor skills on student performance is an area of growing contention among scholars, instructors, and policy works. The economic crisis and resulting cutbacks, closures, and layoffs directly impact the digital-literacy load of all K--12, academic, and public libraries, making the education we do all the more critical as our users struggle to sharpen their skills in the face of higher stakes.

Despite this reality, most library instructors and trainers (with the exception of school media specialists) are self-taught and struggling to varying degrees with a teaching role we did not necessarily expect. How can we librarians shoulder the growing teaching load we face and the range of skills and abilities it requires? The answer: by building our instructional literacy.

The untrained masses

Librarians are educators by default. From the quickest reference interaction to the most in-depth information-literacy initiative or staff-training program, librarians and library staff teach, train, present, and design learning materials in every aspect of our jobs, all the time. Through instruction, assistance, and mentorship we help individuals in every corner of society develop personal learning environments, find and evaluate the information they need to thrive, and empower themselves to be lifelong learners. We work with people outside the formal education system, for whom networks of learner support are often unavailable. We also support learners inside the system with research-skills instruction, assignment triage, and help navigating the digital learning environment. Not only are we personal research coaches, information mentors, and technology consultants to the vast majority of society, we constantly train ourselves and our colleagues to stay one step ahead of this ever-changing landscape.

It's likely that teacher training was not a programmatic aspect of your library education. Beyond a token information-literacy instruction class or public-speaking training here and there, most working library instructors pick up teaching and training as they go. Other educators spend years learning pedagogical theory, instructional approaches, and assessment strategies; yet by comparison librarians are pushed into the ring with relatively shallow skills.

According to survey research among teaching librarians I conducted in late 2009, only about a third (N=398) completed any education-related course work during their LIS training, and only 16% indicated that it was required. …

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