By Casey H. Rawson

On a February night in Reading, Massachusetts, fourteen tweens and teens arrived at a YMCA gym, where they were greeted by two teen librarians from the Reading Public Library, the YMCA’s teen director, and five members of the Boston University Quidditch team. For the next two hours, the teens entered the fictional world of Harry Potter by forming teams, participating in clinics where they learned the basics of their chosen positions, and then playing an actual Quidditch game, complete with brooms. This program met all the benchmarks of success typically applied to a public library event: it was well attended (registration was required, and there was a waitlist); it was well reviewed by participants, library staff, and partners; it led to numerous future events with the BU team; and, of course, it was fun (according to feedback from participants and library staff).

But this program wasn’t just fun. By adding just a few features to the program design, teen librarian Renee Smith ensured that the Quidditch clinic would also teach students valuable information literacy skills. While planning the program, Smith (a former teacher) set four objectives for the event:

  • introduce teens to the sport and larger community of competitive Quidditch;
  • develop teens’ skills on how to play various positions (both defense & offense), plus have them learn the rules and objectives of the game;
  • engage teens in a collaborative and teamwork spirit; and
  • connect teens with literature in a unique way by evaluating how real and fictional versions of the game compare (Smith, 2017, personal correspondence).

These objectives guided Smith as she planned the program’s structure. They also align with information literacy standards included in national guidelines for school and academic librarians. For example, standard I.D.3 from the most recent AASL Standards Framework for Learners (American Association of School Librarians, 2017) specifies that learners can “enact new understanding through real-world connections” (p. 1)—like the connections Smith wanted participants to make between a fictional game and real-world practice.

To assess participants’ progress toward these goals, Smith observed them informally during the program and included a sharing circle at the end of the event in which participants verbally shared what they had learned with each other and with the facilitators. Smith recalled:

It was amazing to hear them describe their experience in person. I feel they walked away with an understanding of how to pursue opportunities for further play, how to setup [sic] a game themselves, how to play each position, and a true appreciation for the fictional game in the books. (Smith, 2017, personal correspondence)

There seems to be little resistance to the idea that children and teens learn in public library spaces. Academic and practitioner journals often highlight the public library’s role in literacy development (e.g. Campana et al., 2016; Caputo & Estrovitz, 2017; Estrovitz, 2017), information and media literacy (e.g. Nielson & Borlund, 2011; Valdivia & Subramaniam, 2014), and STEM / STEAM (e.g. Barlett & Bos, 2018). However, many public librarians do not see themselves as teachers. This implies that much of the learning that happens in public libraries is incidental—tangential to the “real” purpose and design of these spaces and programs.

In this book, we make the case that public librarians should embrace an explicit instructional role as a core part of their professional practice. We acknowledge that this would represent a significant shift in the professional identities of public librarians. However, in making this shift, public librarians would be following in the footsteps of both academic and school librarians, whose instructional roles are widely acknowledged now but are relatively recent additions to their professional responsibilities (Gilton, 2012). In fact, the shift toward taking on a greater instructional role is already underway, as illustrated in the most recent professional competencies documents from both the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) and the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA).

Compared to the 2009 ALSC Competencies for Librarians Serving Children in Public Libraries, the 2015 update includes an expanded focus on instruction for youth in public libraries, including knowledge of educational frameworks and collaboration with other educators. See Table 1, below, for a comparison of the 2015 and 2009 competencies related to instruction. In this table, N/A indicates that the 2015 competency was a new addition to the document.

Table 1. ALSC Competencies Related to Instruction, 2015 and 2009

2015 Competency2009 Competency
I.4: Understands theories of infant, child, and adolescent learning, literacy development and brain development, and their implications for library service. I.1: Understands theories of infant, child, and adolescent learning and development and their implications for library service.
I.5: Understands current educational practices, especially those related to literacy and inquiry.N/A
II.2: Instructs and supports children in the physical and digital use of library tools and resources, information gathering, and research skills, and empowers children to choose materials and services on their own. V.1: Instructs children in the use of library tools and resources, empowering them to choose materials and services on their own.
III.1: Designs, promotes, presents, and evaluates a variety of programs for children, with consideration of developmental stages and needs, interests, and goals of all children, their caregivers, and educators in the community. VI.1: Designs, promotes, presents, and evaluates a variety of programs for children of all ages, based on their develop-mental needs and mate-rials and interests and the goals of the library.
III.2: Acknowledges the importance of physical space to engage and foster learning, and establishes appropriate environments for programs that respond to developmental needs and abilities.N/A
III.4: Integrates literacy-development techniques in program design and delivery, engaging and empowering caregivers in a culturally competent way. N/A
III.7: Delivers programs outside or inside the library to meet users where they are, addressing community and educational needs, including those of unserved and underserved populations. N/A


Even as we argue that public librarians should embrace the label of “teacher,” we also acknowledge that the public library is not a traditional learning environment. Both school and academic libraries can be considered sites of formal learning: structured learning that takes place in an educational or training institution, is recognized by relevant authorities, and can result in a diploma or other qualification (UNESCO, 2012). Decades of research have given us a relatively rich understanding of how teaching and learning happen in this type of space. More recently, a large body of research has contributed to our understanding of informal learning: unstructured, often spontaneous learning that occurs in the course of daily life and through the motivations and activities of individual learners (UNESCO, 2012).

Public libraries do not fit neatly into either the formal or informal learning categories. Unlike in formal settings, learning in the library is typically non-sequential and voluntary, and it is often not assessed. Yet, in contrast to informal learning, learning in the public library is often preplanned, with a recognizable structure, and guided by a teacher (the library staff member leading the experience). Educational researchers have proposed the term non-formal learning to describe this phenomenon (see Table 2, below, for a summary of the three types of learning).

Table 2. Formal, Non-Formal, and Informal Learning. Adapted from UNESCO, 2012 and Eshach, 2007.

Usually at a school or training institutionUsually at an institution outside of school Can take place anywhere
Usually results in formal certifications Can sometimes lead to certifications Does not result in any certification
Guided by standards May be guided by flexible standardsNot guided by standards
Prearranged Usually prearrangedSpontaneous
Compulsory Usually voluntary Voluntary
Teacher-led Teacher- or learner-led Learner-led
Sequential Usually non-sequential Non-sequential
Learning outcomes are assessed Learning outcomes not typically assessed Learning outcomes are not assessed
Learner motivation typically extrinsic Learner motivation can be extrinsic or intrinsic Learner motivation is typically intrinsic


Compared to both formal and informal learning environments, we know much less about best practices for teaching and learning in non-formal environments. What we do know is that each of these three settings offers unique opportunities, challenges, and mechanisms for teaching and learning. In this book, we have aimed to maintain a focus on what makes public libraries unique instructional sites, while also seeking places where our knowledge about other types of learning environments might be effectively applied in these spaces.

A Note About Terminology

Like other professions, education has its own language—a lexicon that is sometimes called “eduspeak” by those wishing to point out its tendency toward jargon. Though it may be true that education is plagued by an overabundance of buzzwords and passing trends, it’s also true that there are core concepts and frameworks in the education field that have remained stable over time. Knowledge of these core concepts, and the ability to “speak the language” of educators, is one of the hallmarks of the teaching profession. Therefore, in accordance with our assertion that public librarians should embrace the label of “teacher,” we have not shied away from using educational terminology (for example, “differentiation,” “culturally sustaining pedagogy,” and “constructivism”). In recognition of the fact that many public youth services librarians may not have academic or professional backgrounds in education, we have taken care to define these terms and provide examples of their use in public library settings.

Part of the shift toward public librarians viewing themselves as teachers will involve coming to see the children and teens with whom we interact as something other than resource seekers and program attendees. When writing this text, we struggled with what to call these children and teens— “students” seemed too firmly connected to formal academic settings, and “users” seemed too passive to capture the active role that young people play in creating their own understandings within a learning environment. We compromised on the term “learner,” which we felt is less suggestive of a school environment but still appropriate for the scope of potential activities these young people might undertake in a public library.

What You’ll Find in This Book

This textbook was conceived as both a comprehensive review of what is known so far about instruction for youth in public libraries and a primer on core educational concepts and frameworks for current and future public librarians. The intended audience for this text includes graduate or undergraduate students training to work with youth in public libraries and practicing youth services librarians seeking to improve their own understanding of instruction and pedagogy.

In the first chapter, we discuss the content of public library instruction—what, exactly, can and should public librarians teach to children and teens?  The following chapters introduce readers to a variety of frameworks, theories, and methods that can help them plan, implement, and assess instruction in a public library setting. Each of these chapters includes real-world examples of how public libraries are already applying these concepts successfully with children and teens. The final chapters explore ways that public librarians can continue to grow as instructional experts and advocate for the importance of the instructional role in their libraries, in their local communities, and more broadly.

Throughout the text, we have endeavored to maintain an appreciation for the diversity of public libraries, librarians, and the children and teens who visit them. Along with YALSA and ALSC, we share a commitment to “recogniz[ing] … systems of discrimination and exclusion in the community and its institutions, including the library, and interrupt[ing] them by way of culturally competent services” (Association for Library Service to Children, 2015, Commitment to Client Group section). As the field of public librarianship develops its own frameworks for instruction and pedagogy, there is a window of opportunity for us to collectively design a system that does not replicate the race-, gender-, class-, language-, and ability-based inequities that are embedded in formal learning systems. Doing so will require us to have a shared understanding of both traditional and critical approaches to teaching and learning, which is part of what this book aims to provide.

The process of weaving instruction into the fabric of youth services librarianship is only just beginning, and we are excited to contribute a new strand to this effort. We hope that this text will inspire a new group of students, practitioners, and researchers to expand on our ideas, create innovative forms of teaching and learning that are unique to public libraries, and engage all children and teens in powerful and meaningful learning experiences.

Next Page


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Bartlett, C., & Bos, L. (2018). STEAM around the world: Successfully incorporating hands-on learning and diversity into children’s programming. Journal of Library Administration58 (2), 174-182.

Campana, K., Mills, J. E., Capps, J. L., Dresang, E. T., Carlyle, A., Metoyer, C. A., Urban, I., Feldman, E., Brouwer, M, Burnett, K., &. Kotrla, B. (2016). Early literacy in library storytimes: A study of measures of effectiveness. Library Quarterly, 86 (4), 369-388.

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Valdivia, C., & Subramaniam, M. (2014). Connected Learning in the public library: An evaluative framework for developing virtual learning spaces for youth. Public Library Quarterly33 (2), 163-185.

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