"Can't anyone be a teacher anyway?": student perceptions of academic librarians as teachers.

Author:Polger, Mark Aaron


It is fascinating to view job postings for librarian positions. Over the past ten years, it seems that more job postings are asking for librarians to be able to teach classes. However, when the authors graduated from library school, there was only one course offered, with limited enrollment, which taught library school students how to teach. Most library school courses offered taught us how to provide reference service, develop library collections, catalog materials, archives and special collections, business librarianship, government documents, digital and/or virtual libraries, and library management. While teaching skills are in demand, not all librarians receive formal training on how to teach.

The issue of faculty status is also part of the teacher identity equation. Both authors are employed at the City University of New York (in New York City) and both were hired as faculty. Our expectations are the same as teaching faculty; yet, our job functions are very different. Many CUNY Librarians teach "one shot" library instruction classes, 1-2 hours in length, and most are non-credit bearing. There are some CUNY campuses that teach semester long credit bearing library instruction classes, but those are few and far between. Library faculty work a five- day work week, twelve months a year, and have the same expectations to teach and do research like teaching faculty, who typically work nine months per year, and who are not expected to be on campus five days a week like library faculty. We are, however, considered non-teaching faculty.

For this particular study, we wanted to focus on student perception s of the academic librarian as a teacher. Librarians have debated the meaning of teaching in the profession. Now, we want to turn to our students. Our goal in this study is threefold : T o add to the literature on the philosophy of teaching ; to help broaden our definition of teaching ; and to identify how students in and out of the classroom perceive our roles as teachers in an academic library context.

Background and Related Work

Definitions of Teaching

The Oxford English Dictionary (Simpson, 1989) defines "teacher" as someone who teaches, instructs, or gives instruction in a school. The verb "to teach" is defined as imparting knowledge or instructing one how to do something, "especially in a school or as part of a recognized programme" (Soanes, 2008). "To teach" is also defined as the act of giving systematic information about a subject or skill, and enabling someone to do something through "instruction and training." (Abate, 1999). Other verbs used to describe teaching include to show, present, direct, and to guide (Simpson, 1989). These terms were used by our respondents to define what a teacher does.

Our definition of teaching is more inclusive and addresses components of knowledge transfer, interaction, and the exchange between the learner and educator. Our definition of a teacher is: anyone who uses a variety of methods to share knowledge with another person. It is our belief that anyone can be a teacher and teaching and learning can occur outside of the classroom. The definition from the various Oxford reference titles is limited and restrictive. It assumes that teachers are bound to a classroom. It also assumes that there exists no participation from the student. The Oxford definitions assume students are sponges who just receive information from the teacher, but who do not question or participate in the process of acquiring knowledge. We argue that teaching and learning is an exchange of interacting, of participating in a dialogue, and both learner and educator must use various methods in order to best disseminate knowledge.

Professional identity, status, and teaching

The literature on librarians as teachers focuses to a large extent on the following questions: What constitutes teaching, to what extent do librarians teach, and what does teaching mean to the profession? Wilson (1979) sparked lively debate on whether librarians teach. It grapples with the meaning of librarians' professional identity. Plagued by stereotypical images of the spectacled librarian with a bun and obsessed with gaining status, librarians, argues Wilson, believe in the organization fiction that they are teachers. They identify with the teaching profession because it is easily understood and provides a "comforting self-image". Furthermore, this fiction is used to elevate librarians to the status of teaching faculty. She argues that librarians are obsessed with status. As well, their identity as "teachers" represents a fiction because they do not teach. They inform, not teach, and they react to content rather than disseminate it, identifying, acquiring, and disseminating various methods to retrieve content (Wilson, 1979). Wilson does state that librarians sometimes teach, but teaching is not part of their professional role as librarians. Similarly, Peele (Peele, 1984) argues that librarians are involved in educating, but they come second to college teachers. Teachers have specialized knowledge in one discipline, whereas librarians must have general knowledge in a variety of disciplines in order to assist students with their research queries. He also argues that librarians are responding agents concerned with the structure of knowledge and not the actual content (Peele, 1984). Like Wilson, Peele states that librarians cannot be teachers because their two Master's degrees are not equivalent to a college instructor's PhD and their 1-2 hour library instruction classes are not equivalent to a semester long credit-bearing course.

We want to bring attention to a number of issues raised by Wilson and Peele. The first is the question of the meaning of teaching. Teachers appear to be concerned with content and disseminating content. Librarians, on the other hand, inform and respond to content. Second, qualifications are an issue. Lastly, according to Wilson and Peele, teaching credit-bearing, semester long courses constitutes teaching. We find this assertion excludes other forms of teaching. It should be noted that both Wilson and Peele are writing before the explosion of the World Wide Web, Google and Wikipedia. Librarians now find themselves teaching users how to critically appraise and evaluate information on the Web. Many also have subject expertise and teach semester-long credit bearing courses in Information Literacy instruction, Information Retrieval, evaluation, and critical appraisal.

Others have expressed a different standpoint on the teaching question. The very nature of reference work, write some authors, involves teaching (Budd, 1982, Elmborg, 2002). Budd claims that reference librarians do not solely teach users how to use the library, but they also assist them in researching their subject areas. There is an artificial line, he writes, between information provision and instruction: Teaching involves the two acts (Budd, 1982). Budd pointedly asks, "at what point does providing information end and instructing begin?" He also argues that librarians' expertise is not limited to library science. Many librarians hold second Master's degrees and have strong subject expertise so they can enhance student learning with their subject knowledge. Budd's opinion overlaps with that of Elmborg. Both authors consider the reference desk a site for teaching, both explain that the reference interview is central to the teaching function of reference librarians, and both assert that the library is an integral part of the academic (research, teaching and learning) mission of colleges.

Elmborg argues that librarians should consider use constructivist learning theory in order to teach effectively at the reference desk. According to the Dictionary of Education, constructivist learning can be described as "knowledge, meaning, and understanding that are actively constructed by learners by a process of development, which builds on what they already know, causing them to adapt and grow."When teaching is delivered by a constructivist, their role is not to deliver facts, but to provide learners with the experience which allows them to pose their own questions, hypothesize, explore, predict, and investigate knowledge for themselves" (Wallace, 2009).

Elmborg adds that librarians teach a method rather than a particular subject and they help develop and...

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