This summer, my department is in the midst of an organizational transition, as we move from a traditional, disciplinary-bound reference department to a “Teaching & Learning” team. I’m excited to undertake this work alongside some really amazing colleagues (and you can bet your buttons that we’ll be writing and presenting on this process in the future), but this context is (for now) only to set the stage for why I’m thinking about the question in the title of this post.
As I’ve been thinking about what a library department of teaching and learning looks like, I’ve been considering what makes someone a teaching librarian (as opposed to a librarian who happens to teach, or a teacher, or some other category of educator). What are the qualities that are unique to this group of professionals, that position us to engage in the work of information literacy instruction?
I started by looking at ACRL’s recently released Roles and Strength of Teaching Librarians, which is pretty useful for thinking about qualities that teaching librarians need to have in order to be successful in their work. There’s a nifty little graphic in the report that shows the various roles that a teaching librarian may need to embody:
Hats off to the committee who put together this report, as it’s helped me to think through goals for a teaching and learning department, and areas where we might need to grow. I certainly self-identify with most (if not all) of these roles, but it still didn’t really help me get at the librarian part of the teaching librarian equation. Basically, if my professional identity is about being a librarian (hint: it is), then how can I view my role and strengths as an educator more explicitly through that lens?
School librarians in K-12 institutions are often explicitly “teacher-librarian” positions, and the Australian School Library Association has a nice breakdown of how those different identities play together. Librarians in these roles (both in the U.S. and elsewhere) typically are required to have training in both education and librarianship–something that academic librarians generally do not, which explains the emphasis in the ACRL document on developing competencies related to teaching and instructional design.
After sitting with this for a few weeks, I’ve come up with a few thoughts on what the specific strengths of teaching librarians might be, and I’d love to hear your ideas too.
- We understand the organization of information and hierarchies of knowledge. Basically, this is the bread-and-potatoes of the library school curriculum, and I’d argue the most important part of having an MLS. All those cataloging and metadata classes? Those ideas are transferable across disciplines, which means that we can usually figure out how information is structured in any given database (with enough time) and help people find the stuff they need with a little librarian magic. Sometimes, even people immersed in a discipline don’t quite understand how or why information is organized in these repositories. Shedding a light on that is what we do.
- We understand the pedagogy of research. On a broad level, we understand what goes into the research process across a variety of disciplines. Librarians contributing to a reference service or leading library instruction have seen hundreds of research assignments–some excellent, some not-so-good. After a few years on the job, we can spot assignment pitfalls from a mile away, because we’ve seen how a large number of people approach this process. I’d argue that even if we don’t have formal pedagogical training, most librarians have some sense of what works and what doesn’t in student research assignments. The challenge is to tease out that knowledge and apply it to our work as educational partners.
- We’re really good at asking questions about things we know very little about. A.K.A. the reference interview. Most people don’t have this skill, because it’s uncomfortable to admit that you don’t know about something and ask a zillion questions to get to the precise knowledge you need to help someone find what they are looking for. But that’s what we are trained to do as reference librarians, and we can put that skill to work in thinking about consulting on research assignments, which could lead to interesting opportunities involving the collections, or a more scaffolded assignment structure, or something equally exciting. Bonus: This is also a student-centered approach, because students might be nervous or afraid to ask questions about something that’s unclear in a research assignment, but we can use our positionality to ask those “stupid questions.”
- We continually bring a beginner’s mind to our work. Again, because that’s the basis for reference. Librarians are trained not to make assumptions, and we can use that same mindset for approaching research assignments, thinking about what students might already know (and what might be confusing), etc.
Of course, we also have idiosyncratic expertise in research tools, disciplinary knowledge, etc. based on our individual unique experiences, and I want to acknowledge those as well.
The more I think about it, the more I think that reference experience (or perhaps a general ethos of reference?) is crucial for the role of teaching librarian. I don’t know that we have to “do” reference, but many of the ideas and approaches that we cultivate in that sphere seem entirely important for teaching work.
What do you think? Are there other things that you would add to this list?