"Can't Anyone Be a Teacher Anyway?": Student Perceptions of Academic Librarians as Teachers
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, eleven months a year, and have the same expectations to teach and do research as teaching faculty.
For this particular study, we wanted to focus on student perceptions 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 & Weiner, 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 & Stevenson, 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 & Weiner, 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 involving interacting, participation, and dialogue between the learner and educator.
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, grappling with the question 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 (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 construct knowledge through the reference interview, rather than give information and instructions.
Teaching credit-bearing courses
The librarian-teacher debate is further complicated by the growth in librarian-taught credit-bearing courses. Librarians who have taught these courses have published their reflections on teaching, and address some of the advantages and disadvantages of librarians taking on this new role. This literature suggests that teaching credit-bearing classes is an extension of their duties. Douglas (1999) writing about her experience teaching a credit-bearing computer applications course at the State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland, argues that teaching such courses (more specifically computer applications courses) is part of an evolutionary progression in the profession. Donnelly (2000) also explores the implications of librarians teaching for-credit courses. She writes that libraries become “an integral part of the educational mission of the college” when they offer for-credit information literacy classes (Donnelly, 2000). As instructors, librarians come to better understand the needs of students and are being proactive in service delivery compared to the traditional reference desk service model (Donnelly, 2000). Douglas and Donnelly both suggest that teaching a credit bearing course is an extension of the services and teaching thrust of the profession. Their articles point out the distinction between bibliographic instruction and teaching a credit-bearing class.
Like Donnelly and Douglas, Kemp (2006) also reflects on her experience teaching a credit course, but also considers questions of faculty status, among several other pertinent concerns. She asks whether it is beneficial for librarians to be teaching and explores this question by analyzing the literature, her personal experience and “anecdotal evidence” (Kemp, 2006). Since the nineteenth century, writes Kemp, librarians were involved to some extent in classroom teaching because many of them were part of other professions. By the 1960s and 1970s, library instruction became a “systematic educational enterprise” in librarianship (Kemp, 2006). Kemp goes on to discuss the debate about faculty status and librarians teaching classes, but citing Elmborg and Lawler (2002) writes that the culture of bibliographic instruction is moving more towards a “teaching culture”. Given this history of teaching in the profession and the shift towards teaching credit-bearing courses, our study turns to students for their opinion about our teaching role.
Student perception studies
Two notable studies on student perceptions of academic librarians informed our project. Fagan (2003) surveyed 48 students in a one-credit library skills course at the Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. The survey asked students about their perceptions of librarians' educational background, the work responsibilities of librarians, the educational role of librarians vis à vis students and the larger university, and the librarian's attitude toward their job and students. Of interest to our study were student perceptions of the teaching role of librarians. Fagan found that 9 out of 45 students referred to some teaching role of librarians, but teaching was otherwise rarely mentioned. Fagan writes that few library studies have explored student perceptions of academic librarians, but she refers to an earlier study by Hernon and Pastine (1977) which informed her research. Hernon and Pastine administered a questionnaire to randomly selected full-time students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. They received 362 responses and conducted follow-up interviews with 20 of these respondents. Their study presented three research questions. One of the questions relevant to our study queried students on the teaching orientation of librarians. Hernon and Pastine found that many students considered the educational role of the library to be “minimal or non-existent” (Hernon & Pastine, 1977). Students believed librarians lead students to knowledge rather than impart it. As well, 31.6 percent of respondents stated that their interaction with librarians could be considered a learning experience “frequently" or "always", but this number increased to 86.6 percent for those responding with the “‘sometimes' category” (Hernon & Pastine, 1977).
In other words, both Fagan's and Hernon and Pastine's studies found that students did not perceive academic librarians to have a teaching role. Interestingly, the results from our study diverge from these findings. We wonder if significant changes in library instruction practices since Fagan's 2002 study may have shifted student perceptions. Hernon and Pastine suggest that future studies ought to examine how students define teaching, because their respondents exhibited “contradictory impressions” (Hernon & Pastine, 1977). This is where our study intervenes and contributes to the literature.
Profile of the City University of New York, John Jay College, and the College of Staten Island
The City University of New York, founded in 1847, is the largest public urban university system in the United States (CUNY, 2009). It comprises twenty three college campuses, eleven of which are senior colleges that offer Bachelor, Master's, and Doctorate degrees. Six community colleges, as well as specialized schools such as the William E. Macaulay Honors College, the Graduate Center, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, the CUNY School of Law, the CUNY School of Professional Studies, and the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education. The university serves more than 243,000 degree-credit students and 240,000 students in continuing education (CUNY 2009).
The John Jay College of Criminal Justice (hereafter John Jay) is a four-year, senior commuter campus located in Manhattan. The John Jay College library has more than 300,000 books, periodicals, and microforms. It also provides access to more than 100 databases and 36,000 electronic journals. John Jay offers Bachelor, Master's, and doctoral degrees in a variety of disciplines. The John Jay College Library has 14 full-time library faculty and 9 adjunct librarians, and serves approximately 14,000 students. The library offers drop-in database and catalog instruction sessions and targets more than 15 different classes for bibliographic instruction. While the college has a criminal justice focus, it also offers liberal arts majors.
The College of Staten Island (hereafter CSI) is a four-year, senior commuter campus in Staten Island. The CSI library has approximately 235,000 books, periodicals, and microforms. It also provides access to more than 150 databases and 26,000 electronic journals. CSI offers Associate, Bachelor, and Master 's degrees in a variety of disciplines. The CSI Library has 15 full-time library faculty and 10 adjunct librarians and serves approximately 13,000 students. The CSI Library teaches more than 250 library instructional classes per academic year. Library instruction is course specific and tailored to support the learning needs of the students. The library instruction program at CSI specifically targets first year undergraduate students. Each class is taught by a librarian and the lesson plan is developed in collaboration with the teaching faculty member.
Both CSI and JJ teach classes that are not credit-bearing, thus this may have an impact on how students perceive the librarian as a teacher in their respective institutions.
Description of the Study
Beginning in the Fall of 2008, we prepared and administered a short anonymous questionnaire (see Appendix 1) both in and out of the classroom at the College of Staten Island (hereafter CSI) and John Jay College of Criminal Justice (hereafter JJ). We sought to examine if there is a difference in perception when we distributed the questionnaire in the class or outside the classroom setting. Questionnaires were distributed immediately after a 1.25 to 2 hour library instruction class. Other questionnaires were distributed to students in the cafeteria of both campuses and at the CSI Library cafe. Questionnaires were distributed by the authors themselves during peak periods of the day when students would be socializing in the cafeteria or campus center. Because the authors knew of key time periods when more students would be present and asked students to introduce their friends to our study, the sampling method used was convenience and snowball sampling.
Since our study did not involve a random sample, our data is not representative of the CSI and John Jay student population. Incentives offered to students who volunteered included colorful pens and chocolate. Some students did not want to participate in the study because they did not like the chocolates or pens, or they did not have the time. The fact that chocolates and pens were given out could have influenced the results of our study.
We started distributing questionnaires in October of 2008 and we continued to do this in our library instruction classes as well as in the cafeteria and in the campus center until the beginning of May 2009.
By the end of our study (May 2009), we garnered a total of five hundred responses and we entered the data (manually) into the web-based survey management tool, Survey Monkey. Our questionnaire included the following items:
For question 6, respondents were given a list of words that may be used to describe the librarian. They were asked to select a term or write another descriptor if they did not perceive librarians to be teachers. Some respondents who perceived librarians as teachers still added more adjectives from the list provided. The adjectives that we included to describe librarians' professional identity include: helpers, guide, detective, gatekeeper, information specialist, information consultant, IT specialist, tutor, and an "other" category, where respondents were able to freely add their own words.
Using Survey Monkey as our survey management tool, we collected and analyzed data for CSI and JJ campuses. The following statistics are broken down below.
Using our entire sample of 500 respondents, 66 percent of students at both CSI and JJ perceived us as being teachers and 34 percent did not (Table 1). When we did a cross-tabulation of data limited to responses collected after a library instruction class, for both CSI and JJ, we found that 80 percent of students perceived us as being teachers, while 20 percent did not perceive us as being teachers (Table 2). When we did a cross tabulation of respondents outside of the classroom for both CSI and JJ, we found that 54 percent of respondents perceived us as teachers while 46 percent did not (Table 3).
We had expected more students to consider librarians to be teachers following a library instruction class. That is, after attending an instruction session, students will have witnessed the sort of teaching roles and duties we have at the college. In fact, a number of respondents explicitly stated that having just attended a library instruction class, they realized librarians are teacher (this will be discussed further below). We also expected fewer students to perceive us as teachers when we ventured outside of the library into the cafeteria, cafe, and campus center.
Student perceptions varied across levels of study (Table 4). We expected more seniors to perceive us as teachers (only 47 percent did so) and we did not expect a 50/50 split among juniors (52 percent perceived us as teachers, 48 percent did not). We surmised that seniors would have more exposure to our bibliographic instruction sessions and, as such, would be more inclined to consider us teachers. When we did a cross tabulation of level of study with our respondents, we found that lower year students at both CSI and JJ perceived us more as teachers than upper year students. These results were unexpected. However, given that almost all freshmen attend a library instruction class, their exposure to the library may have been more immediate and memorable, compared to their senior colleagues. Below is the breakdown of students who perceived us as teachers.
We did a cross tabulation of students from both CSI and JJ who did not perceive us as teachers, we asked the m to describe our function. We received a variety of responses. From the list of pre-set terms, students were asked to checkmark what term would describe a librarian (Table 5). Students were allowed to check off more than one response and this particular question was not mandatory to complete. 209 respondents chose "helper", 139 chose "guide", 96 chose "information specialist", 70 chose "information expert", 33 chose "tutor", 32 chose "educator", 17 chose "other", and 16 chose "information technology specialist".
Of the 500 completed questionnaires, we received 401 responses explaining why students perceive librarians to be teachers or not. We identified three popular explanations why students perceive librarians to be teachers. The first, which was cited by more than 30 respondents, was that librarians teach students how to find information or books, and they explain how to conduct research in the library. In other words, they teach specific skills and methods, or share knowledge of a topic such as citation styles and how to use the library. One student commented: “They explain things and subjects like teachers.” This comment, like many others, also compared librarians to college professors. Second, students stated that librarians are helpful. They help students with their assignments and questions, and as such, are teachers. One respondent wrote: They are “just as helpful and knowledgeable as my professors.” Third, students referred to librarians as being knowledgeable and intelligent. Like professors, they have knowledge to share with students as the following respondent articulated:
Other comments focused on the librarian's role in helping students to graduate or as one student stated “putting people [through].” Insofar as definitions of teaching are concerned, students who considered librarians to be teachers provided definitions of a teacher. One student wrote that librarians “are naturally educators. [They] pass on knowledge”. This definition reflects our broad definition of a teacher. Another student claimed that “a librarian is a teacher because even though they are not always in a classroom, they teach us a lot of things”. This student echoes Budd and Elmborg, who write that teaching occurs at the reference desk, and not just in the classroom. Students who consider librarians to be teachers, then, cite that our wealth of knowledge, helpfulness, and subject expertise in research and other matters make us teachers.
We also identified three popular responses that explain why librarians are not teachers. More than 20 respondents stated that librarians only help, guide or lead them to books and other information: “They only tell you where to find books” or “They do not teach, they just help in finding information.” Interestingly, this response was also popular among students who perceive librarians to be teachers, as noted above. These students stated that the librarian's helpfulness and ability to teach students how to do research, find books and information are characteristics of a teacher. This response resonates with Hernon and Pastine's finding that students have contradictory notions of librarian's teaching role. Second, students explained that librarians do not teach in a classroom, nor do they lecture. Librarians are not teachers “because they are not in classrooms” and they do not assign “homework or tests.” Another student wrote that “[a]lthough they are in the education field, they are not teachers since they do not take the time or dedication like a real professor.” This explanation resonates with the dictionary definition of a teacher. As noted earlier, a teacher is someone who works in a school. While this definition does not explicitly state “classroom”, the connotation of a classroom teacher might be inferred. As well, the discussion about credit-bearing classes pointed out that librarians who teach such courses come to understand the workload of professors and the challenges of marking, which the aforementioned response from a student may be referring to (“they do not take the time or dedication like a real professor”). Third, librarians do not teach a specific subject in detail. One student wrote: Librarians are “not really [teachers], because they only tell you something in general, not in detail.” And another: “I don't think they know a particular subject well nor [can they be] a specialist but they can help or guide you in the right direction so you can inform yourself of information.” This response resonates with Peele's assertion that librarians have general, not specialized, knowledge.
Other responses refer to librarians' qualifications and perceived work duties. One student stated that librarians “just need a degree in library studies” and they do not have a PhD, which is perceived to be needed to teach. Others cited limited, clerical, or stereotypical librarian duties such as shelving, sorting books, taking care of books (“Don't ask questions to them. They are book keepers”), staffing the reference desk (“They just sit there”), and enforcing policies (“They just tell you to be quiet”). Wilson's argument that unpleasant stereotypes compel librarians to identify with the teaching profession may seem apropos here. However, as we write in our discussion below, there are other implications for addressing stereotypes and other unflattering images of librarians.
The results from our study raise a number of issues. First, we surmise that one of the reasons why a larger percentage of our respondents perceive librarians to be teachers, compared to previous studies, may be due in part to the possible increase in librarians teaching users information literacy skills. We have not pursued this question in depth, however. We are simply proposing this possibility. Second, as Hernon and Pastine have noted in their study, student perceptions may compel us to re-examine our library service. We would call this a marketing question. That is, how are our services tailored to meet the needs of students and how do we present and deliver services to students. To illustrate this point, several respondents had mentioned that after attending a bibliographic instruction class did they then perceive the librarian to be a teacher: “I never thought of a librarian as a teacher but I have changed my view after this class.” Another commented: “After this workshop, definitely, but I never knew librarians taught.” Quantitatively speaking, the percentage of students who stated that librarians are teachers jumped from 66 percent to 80 percent after a library instruction class. Certainly, administering the questionnaire after a library instruction session may have biased student responses, but we believe that strong instruction sessions can have a positive impact on student perceptions of librarians and libraries.
Comments from students reflected a range of assumptions about, and perceptions of, librarians' teaching role. It was interesting to read comments such as "can't anyone be a teacher anyway?" and comments like "a librarian teaches method, a teacher teaches subjects". This supports Wilson's argument that college faculty disseminate content and librarians identify and disseminate the methods in order to retrieve the content (Wilson, 1979). It is also interesting to note a comment from one student who exclaimed and laughed loudly, “librarians don't teach!” We asked her what discipline she was in . She stated that she was a science major. This comment may indicate how different majors, for example science majors versus social science majors, use the library differently. It would seem plausible for her to have a different perception of the librarian than the social science student. One of the authors asked her casually what she does when she visits the library. She replied with the simple response that she uses the library to study but she does not take out books or access articles. She also responded that she never visited the reference desk or used the services of the reference librarian.
Another student completed the questionnaire and commented, “can't anyone be a teacher anyway?” This makes an impression on the authors because it illustrated a very important point. In the literature librarians are not seen as teachers because our classes are not credit bearing and they are delivered in the form of a “one shot” workshop. Students may not perceive us as teachers because of their stereotypes of the “librarian” as a person who checks out and checks in materials and who sits behind a reference desk. They also comment that a librarian “helps you find stuff” but a teacher actually teaches a subject. Is teaching only restricted to subjects? The authors argue that there are many research methods courses where the teacher is not teaching a particular subject, but teaching “method”. Teaching happens out of the classroom in our daily lives. From a new mother sleep training their baby to new pet owners teaching their cats to use the litter box, the authors would agree that anyone can teach. One does not need a teaching degree to be a teacher. It is noted that most teaching faculty at CUNY have PhDs, but many do not have formal training in education.
Our study has a number of shortcomings. First, we did not collect demographic information such as age, gender, race, and ethnicity. This data may have given more depth to our analyses. We were, however, primarily concerned with the various terms students use to describe the teaching orientation of librarians. Second, we did not ask students for their discipline or subject major and we did not ask in-depth questions about student library use. Fourth, student responses may have been biased because librarians administered the questionnaire. We should have used students instead. Our sample was also not representative. We opted for convenience sample, and, as such, our findings cannot be generalized to a wider student population. Chocolates and pens were given to students as an incentive to complete the questionnaire. While this may have increased the number of responses we received, this could have biased student responses. That is, students may have quickly filled out the questionnaire to obtain a pen on the way to class. We also did not explicitly explain to students how we defined “librarian”. In other words, we did not distinguish between library staff and librarians since we wanted to know what the term “librarian” signified for students. As well, we administered a print questionnaire and decided not to use an online survey program such as Survey Monkey. As a result, several illegible questionnaires were submitted. We later entered completed questionnaires into Survey Monkey. Survey Monkey was not entirely reliable in terms of data analysis. Some cross-tabulations produced an unfounded number of respondents. Lastly, we recognize the limits of administering a questionnaire versus a survey. In spite of these limitations, our study revealed some curious student perceptions of the teaching role of librarians.
Future studies could address the shortcomings we listed above and more. Our study garnered responses from only two CUNY colleges. The CUNY system is vast and includes 23 campuses. Those CUNY schools that offer for-credit, library-taught information literacy courses could be included. We only targeted students during "club hours" at CSI, which is a 2-hour time frame when there are no classes. We also targeted students in high traffic areas during the fall and spring semesters. Ideally, students present at different times of the day should be recruited. Also, further studies could include all CUNY college campuses and collect a random sample, thereby obtaining a more representative data set. It would furthermore be fruitful to compare responses from librarian-administered questionnaires and student-administered questionnaires. Lastly, the questionnaire could be designed to ask all students, regardless of whether they perceive librarians to be teachers or not, to select other terms that describe the work of librarians.
Appendix 1- Sample of the Questionnaire
1. Are you 18 years old or older? If you are under 18 years old, you cannot complete the survey.
2. Campus location
3. What year are you in?
4. Do you think librarians are teachers?
5. Please explain your answer for question 4.
6. If you do not perceive the librarian as a teacher, please select some of the roles below that best suit a librarian's role. (you may select more than one role)
7. Have you visited the library before (either physically or via the library web site)?
Table 1. Data from questionnaire, entire sample. Sample size = 500 respondents.
Table 2. Data from questionnaire, Classroom Data, both John Jay and C.S.I..
Table 3. Data from questionnaire, Data Outside the Classroom, John Jay and CSI. Sample size = 300 respondents
Table 4. Data from questionnaire, Level of study (both colleges). Sample size = 478 respondents.
Table 5. Data from questionnaire, Librarian Descriptors, John Jay and CSI
*Respondents were allowed to select more than one descriptor to describe librarians' role.
The authors would like to thank the students who participated in this study, and to our colleges and the Library Association of the City University of New York (LACUNY) Professional Development fund (2009) for funding conference attendance to the Workshop on Instruction in Library Use (WILU) where these ideas were presented.
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