Is Classic Library Instruction Outdated?

by Elizabeth on April 7, 2010 · 5 comments

in libraries

I’m a huge of fan of library instruction. No, wait, take that back. I’m not a huge fan of library instruction; I actually think library instruction is kind of pointless. Case in point: Once upon a time, when I was a graduate student (not to mention employed!) I was in an elevator at the largest library on campus when two students got in holding worksheets. They were joking around about being on a scavenger hunt and I happened to notice that one of the instruction librarian’s names was on the sheet. They were doing something for a library instruction session. The library students in the elevator with me started to giggle when we all realized what they were doing. The two students looked confused so we told the students that we were librarians. As the doors opened, we wished the students good luck and one of them said, “I don’t need it. This is pointless because I’m a senior”.

That took me by surprise because what is a senior doing in a library instruction class? I could see if it was an advanced course that involved some research, but it was clear that this was a very easy instruction session aimed at new users to the library. I knew this because I participated in this same library scavenger hunt as a freshman in undergrad. So what was a senior doing in that session? And more importantly, what was he going to learn?

A lot of librarians think that instruction is pointless. The students don’t listen; they’re too busy playing on the computers. But I think that, when done well and correctly, instruction can be very beneficial. I’m a huge fan of teaching information literacy. I interpret that to mean teaching students how to search so no matter which database or catalog they end up in, they can find what they need. The key is learning how to search, not just where the books are or what databases are best for a particular type of assignment. My version of information literacy also teaches how to evaluate sources to determine their credibility. This is especially important when looking at web resources. But plain old library instruction? Teaching students about call numbers and where books are in the library? That’s what is pointless. In this day of fast access to peer-reviewed journal articles, students need to know about databases and other online reference tools. Students need to learn how to manipulate search engines to find exactly what they want and how to judge the validity of that source. They need to be able to critically think. Teaching about print sources is important, but there are very few students who are going hunting through the library for a book when they can find something else just as good online.

So in this librarian’s opinion, classic library instruction is outdated. But teaching students the mechanisms for search is a skill they can use throughout their education and throughout life.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lisa April 7, 2010 at 3:30 am

That being said, you'd be surprised how many students show up at the reference desk because they couldn't find a book because they didn't know how to read a call number. And no, that book/article/chapter isn't always available online (yet!). Students these days come into university/college lacking all sorts of skills and often it's up to librarians to fill the gaps. It's too bad you can't please everyone all the time.


2 Christine April 8, 2010 at 12:28 am

I am one of those terrible students who thought I was too good for library instruction…but I felt like an idiot whenever I had to ask for help with something relatively simple like finding an article. Thank goodness for librarians. 🙂


3 Olivia Nellums April 8, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Recently I did targeted instruction for a biology class, focusing on scientific research and scholarly journals in the databases. Later a student in the class came to the library mad because she didn't know how to use the catalog (for a different class) even though she'd had 'library instruction.'

Can't please everyone…


4 Elizabeth April 8, 2010 at 4:29 pm

It's very true that you can't please everyone. There will always be students who need classic library instruction and I think this is especially true for freshman. Many new college students haven't be exposed to LC classification and/or a library the size of a typical research library. It does take some getting used to. However, what I dislike about "library instruction" is that it stops at using the catalog and typically used databases. Information literacy on the other had, encompasses library instruction as well as teaches searching skills needed to manage any sort of research.
And, Lisa, I know everything isn't online yet, but the average student isn't going to bothor with books, indexes, or bibliographies no matter how helpful they may be. The average student wants their information quick, online, and printable. I think it's important for librarians to recognize this trait in our students and teach them to access even better information that way. We have to work to meet the wants of the students otherwise, they aren't going to come back.


5 Librarian09 April 15, 2010 at 12:18 pm

It needs to start earlier…like in middle/high school. When I talked to a librarian at a college preparatory academy, she said that they have an intensive library instruction for 5th-12th graders. I thought that was a fantastic idea.


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