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The teaching roles of the college librarian.


This article describes the teaching role of college librarians. Many people in and out of academia are unaware of the teaching responsibilities of college librarians. This article presents an overview of the instruction that takes place and talks about the importance of information literacy.


People normally think of teaching faculty as having the greatest impact on student's learning, while this may be true the college librarian also plays a major role in teaching students. College librarians may not always be teaching a class for credit but a lot of teaching and instruction is still taking place. The fact that technology is consistently changing the way information is accessed increases the need for library instruction.

A definition of a college librarian is an individual employed as a librarian at a college or university. In order to become a librarian a person must have obtained a master's degree in library science. According to the American Library Association (ALA), "The master's degree in library and information studies is frequently referred to as the MLS, however ALA accredited programs offer degrees with varying titles such as Master of Arts, Master of Librarianship, Master of Library and Information Studies, or Master of Science" (2002, para. 2). ALA currently accredits 58 programs at 56 institutions in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico.

Literature Review

Academic librarians teach a variety of classes on a regular basis. Classes taught can range from a freshman English literature class to a doctoral research seminar. The classes can be a one or two session lesson, a semester long class or be a class in itself. Other classes taught could be free seminars offered to the university population on a database, search engine, or any number of other library services or skills. Librarians also teach classes to other librarians and library staff.

In an article dealing with the librarian's contribution to learning and teaching Peter Godwin (2001) states "librarians are key players in facilitating student learning in higher education. This has always been true, but recent trends in student behavior and technological change have made our role even more significant" (p. 3). He goes on to say "the speed of change and complexity of current information sources provide great challenges for librarians, the role as guide and facilitator to staff and students alike reflect great credit on the library profession"(p. 4). Marian Winner (1998) encourages librarians to get involved in teaching, she states "Librarians should form partnerships with classroom faculty and be encouraged to teach both subject content courses and research methodologies courses. Learning how to identify, locate, access, and evaluate information utilizing the latest technology and critical thinking is crucial to scholarly inquiry" (p. 28). She also makes a strong case for librarians by noting,
 Librarians are the experts in this role and must ensure that it is
 taught and fully integrated into every academic course. Librarians
 should be encouraged to take on such work in all settings, and
 libraries and librarians should be reimbursed and rewarded for
 this increasingly important responsibility (p. 28).

A current buzzword in library science right now is "information literacy." Information literacy can be defined as the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, and effectively use that information for the issue of problem at hand" (National Forum on Information Literacy, 2001). Teaching information literacy is not solely the responsibility of librarians though; teaching faculty must become involved too. Nimon (2001) points out
 academic libraries must show that their resources and services are
 effective in aiding student learning and supporting the research
 activities of staff and students. A partnership between library and
 academic staff to foster students' information literacy has long
 been seen to be the most effective way to achieve this goal (p. 43).

Technology has dramatically changed the way research is done in libraries and because of this librarians must keep pace with the changing technology. Students are now able to access tremendous amounts of information over the Internet from their home or at the library but they cannot always decipher quality useful information from the large amount of bad information on the Internet. Smith and Phillips (1999) found that students are attracted to "easy access to information via a quick search without specialized knowledge of reference materials, indexes, or the materials that constitute the inner pathways of the academic library"(p. 23). It is the librarians' responsibility to teach students where the good information lies and how to separate it from the bad; this is really what information literacy is all about. Students need to learn that there is more to research then doing a search on Google or Yahoo. Smith and Phillips (1999) summarize this point by stating "the pedagogical challenge for library management, computer administrators, and faculty is to encourage students to critically evaluate the authority of the sources they use, whatever the information medium"(p. 26). Balas (2001) makes a great point about technology and librarians by saying,
 our basic roles have remained the same: to preserve culture and to
 help people find the information they need. Technology has enhanced
 our abilities to fulfill these roles because it has provided us with
 much better tools--and we're not afraid to use them. This may be the
 biggest change in our profession--that even though we preserve the
 past, we don't live in the past, and we no longer hesitate to take
 advantage of the newest technologies (p. 60).

A task that is closely related to teaching in the library is providing reference at the reference desk. This is probably one of the most misunderstood jobs of the librarian but also one of the most common. A reference librarian is a librarian that works at the reference desk (question desk, information desk, help desk) and provides assistance to students with their research. Contrary to popular belief the assistance provided by reference librarians does not always involve just the reference collection. Questions can range from a simple request "do we have this particular book in the library?" to a more in depth question like "how do I find information on my speech topic?". Librarians are taught how to approach and handle what is called the `reference interview'. Librarians first try to understand just what exactly the student is looking for and then determine the best way to locate the information and at the same time teach the student how to do this on their own.

In Rieh's (1999) definition, "reference service refers to a variety of activities associated with personal assistance to library users, including selection, liaison activities, bibliographic instruction, and the implementation of electronic products. It also indicates direct librarian-user interaction, which takes place in some physical service points, typically the reference desk" (p. 179). According to Tenopir and Ennis (2001) technology has also changed reference work at the library.
 Reference librarians report taking time with patrons to conduct more
 one-in-one instruction sessions. Instruction includes not just
 database coverage and software, but Boolean logic, search
 techniques, search commands using Windows, Netscape, a mouse, the
 scholarly information process, etc. We impart many more pieces of
 information even though the patron may have asked only one question,
 because the process is a longer and more complex one. In reality,
 the reference encounter may be serving multiple purposes. A
 reference question very frequently involves both answering the
 question and instructing the patron in accessing and utilizing
 online resources (p. 44).

It is at the reference desk where librarians do the majority of their teaching and this teaching is usually done on a one to one basis. The student may approach the librarian hoping to gain some quick information about a particular item or subject but they usually walk away with a lesson on library research delivered to them in addition to having their question answered.

A learning theory that is closely tied to library instruction is learner-centered motivation. The majority of the students who come into the college library are there to complete an assignment and therefore have specific motivation. Santrock (2001) states "what and how much is learned is influenced by the learner's motivation" (p. 371). Santrock goes on to say "mild anxiety also can improve learning and performance by focusing the learner's attention on a particular task" (p. 371). A college student would probably not venture into the library on their own and learn how to use the electronic databases for research, but with an assignment to motivate them they do come into the library and learn how to do research.

Danley and Ford (1999) state "librarians who provide information skills training and assistance to library users are clearly helping the users to think critically and solve problems while learning to meet informational needs"(p. 123). Roy and Novotny (2000) suggest multiple teaching methods when instructing students on library skills. "While people have natural and preferred ways to learn, they can and may need to improve on their strategies. Librarians need to employ multiple teaching strategies in presenting information to assist learners in experiencing the entire cycle of learning, from study about a topic to hands-on application"(p. 136).


The research method used for this paper was strictly a literature review. The literature was reviewed that dealt with college librarians, college libraries, and learning theories. Academic journals, books, online databases, and the World Wide Web were all consulted.


Donohue (2001) summarizes the field of librarianship by stating "You see, although our roles appear to have changed, the basic premise remains the same. We're about information and we always have been. What librarians have known all along, the rest of the world is just catching on to. We're not just about dispensing data, we're about the search for and use of knowledge" (p. 46).


American Library Association. (2002). Guidelines for choosing a master's program in Library & Information Studies. Retrieved on April 4, 2002 from

Balas, J.L. (1999). A librarians' work will never be done. Computers in libraries, 19 (10), 46-49.

Danley, E.B., Forde, J.L., & et al (1999). Unleashing the theory: connecting learning theory to building information seeking skills. ERIC Document Reproduction Service NO. ED437062

Donahue, M. (2001). The autobiography of a modern community college librarian. Computers in libraries, 21 (10), 44-46.

Godwin, P. (2001). Learning and teaching--the librarian's contribution: an introduction. Vine, 122, 34.

National Forum on Information Literacy, (2001). The National Forum on Information Literacy--an Overview. Retrieved online April 4, 2002 from

Nimon, M. (2001). The role of academic libraries in the development of the information literate student: the interface between librarian, academic and other stakeholders. Australian Academic and Research Libraries, 32 (1), 43-52.

Rieh, S.Y. (1999). Changing reference service environment: a review of perspectives from managers, librarians, and users. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 25 (3), 178-286.

Roy, L. & Novotny, E. (2000). How do we learn? Contributions of learning theory to reference service and library instruction. The Reference Librarian, 69/70, 129-139.

Santrock, J.W. (2001). Educational Psychology. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.

Smith, C. & Phillips, C. (1999). Are our academic libraries ready for the Internet Generation? CAUSE/EFFECT, 22 (1), 22-30.

Tenopir, C. & Ennis, L.A. (2001). Reference services in the new millennium. Online, 25 (4), 40-45.

Winner, M.C. (1998). Librarians as partners in the classroom: an increasing imperative. Reference Services Review, 26 (1), 25-29.

Jeffrey R. Luzius, Auburn University, AL

Jeffery is currently a reference librarian. He holds a MS in library science from Florida State University and BS in Psychology from Troy State University.
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Author:Luzius, Jeffery R.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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