By Casey H. Rawson
The public library, the local gateway to knowledge, provides a basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups.
— IFLA/UNESCO Public Library Manifesto, 1994
Are public librarians educators? Should they be? We believe the answer to both of those questions is yes. Public librarians are distinct from classroom teachers in several key ways, and we are not arguing that the distinctions between these two professions should be eroded. However, not all learning occurs in formal classrooms, and not all teachers work in schools. We believe that there are instructional roles that public librarians can and should fulfill. As evidenced by the examples shared in this book, there are many public librarians who are already embracing this role, and many learners who are benefiting from their work.
The Public Library Association (PLA), a division of the American Library Association, offers this advice to those considering a career in the field:
Forget what you think you know about public librarians. These days a librarian does a lot more than check out materials and shelve books. Technology expert, information detective, manager, literacy expert, trainer, community programming coordinator, reader’s advisor, children’s storyteller, material reviewer, and buyer are just a few of the hats a public librarian wears. A job in today’s public libraries offers a diverse and exciting range of responsibilities, projects, and opportunities. (Public Library Association, 2011, para 1)
We agree that public librarians already wear many hats, and we acknowledge that it can be daunting to think about balancing yet another one on the pile—that of “educator.” However, we believe that instead of being just another hat, the educator role can instead become the thread that binds all a public librarian’s other hats together—making it easier to see the connections between the varied roles and strengthening the whole. Embracing the educator role is not necessarily about adding something to your practice, but rather about shifting your understandings of what you are already doing and your perceptions of the children and teens you serve.
For the field to make this shift, as school and academic librarians have done before us, several things are needed:
In both the school and academic library fields, there is a large and growing body of academic research addressing questions such as:
- What does teaching and learning look like in this space?
- What is the curriculum that is taught here, and how does that relate to student learning standards developed by professional organizations within our field?
- What challenges do learners face when constructing knowledge about information literacy and other topics taught in our spaces?
- How can school and academic librarians effectively collaborate with other educators to improve student learning?
- How does existing research in the field of traditional education apply to the library setting?
- What does the planning process look like for school and academic librarians?
- How does the librarian’s instructional role relate to, complement, and/or complicate her/his other roles and responsibilities (such as collection developer, manager, and information specialist)?
- What does culturally sustaining / culturally responsive teaching and learning look like in a school or academic library?
Historical research shows that in many cases, inquiry into best practices for instruction in school and academic libraries actually predated the widespread application of these ideas (Craver, 1986). For public libraries, too, the establishment of a body of research related to instruction in this setting and public librarians’ role as educators, may encourage the field to move forward in this area. It is important to note that research does not have to be carried out only by academics—public librarians themselves can conduct and publish their own action research.
For instruction to become an accepted and expected part public librarians’ jobs, other stakeholders must be aware that public librarians are capable of teaching valuable information and skills to library users. Penetration of this message among stakeholders such as pre-service public library educators, public library administrators, and parents will require sustained advocacy both from professional organizations, such as YALSA, and from individual public librarians already practicing this role.
Pre-service Training in Instructional Methods
If professional organizations and public library institutions expect public librarians to take on an instructional role, they must ensure that librarians receive training in this role as part of their MSLS programs. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, where this textbook was written, students in the public library track are encouraged (though not required) to take a course in instructional methods titled Instruction for Youth in School and Public Libraries. Similar coursework could help prepare a new generation of public librarians who are equipped and motivated to develop and deliver high-quality instruction.
Support from Library Administrators
Planning instruction takes time and resources. To most effectively practice the instructional role, public librarians should have protected time available for them to develop and deliver instruction. Public library administrators can ensure that their librarians have this time and other resources (such as physical materials) necessary to develop an instructional program.
Commitment, Courage, and Creativity
Public librarians who have already embraced the instructional role are participating in defining what that role will look like and what its impact will be. They often undertake this work not because a supervisor is pressuring them to, but because they believe it to be valuable. They do this work without clear guidelines, and often without guarantees of success. For public library instruction to become more widespread, we will need more committed, courageous, and creative librarians to take on this challenge.
The universe of what can be learned is infinite, and children and teens will only encounter a tiny sliver of it in the formal learning environments that structure most of their days. The public library can play a powerful role in expanding that universe for learners and in empowering them to take ownership of their own knowledge construction. But to do this effectively, we need to do it intentionally. We hope this text has given you the tools you need to turn your own intentions about instruction in the public library into realities.
Public Library Association. (2011). Careers in public librarianship. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/pla/resources/tools/careers