The Teaching Librarian Versus The Teacher
by Susan Ariew, University of South Florida
As someone who has been both a classroom teacher at the secondary school level and at the college level as well as a teaching librarian, I have observed that the culture of the library as a teaching environment is more complex than the culture of school and university academic departments. The differences between the classroom teaching environment and the library teaching environment as well as the differences in questions of identity that arise for librarians presents unique challenges, opportunities and barriers for those librarians who teach.
The Complexity of the Library Environment
The teaching mission of academic libraries and their librarians is not a given in the same way it is a given in academic teaching departments. In fact, much of what is done with teaching depends on how high a priority library administrators, academic faculty on campus, as well as college and university administrators give to library instruction. Indeed, the entire teaching role of librarians has been challenged by the likes of Stanley Wilder, people who feel that “information literacy” is just bunk created by librarians to make themselves feel more important than they are (see "Information Literacy Makes All the Wrong Assumptions" in the January 7, 2005 Chronicle). It would follow that because the teaching role of the library varies from library to library and institution to institution, the way in which librarians embrace the role of teaching would also fluctuate a great deal. Unlike the classroom teacher who is assigned so many classes, so many students, and so many credit hours a semester, much of what started as traditional BI and then later evolved into information literacy was created not from an internal imperative, but from external demands. Unlike teaching departments on most campuses, much of what has happened with the instructional mission of academic libraries has been defined, shaped and created in response to forces outside the library, forces like academic faculty requests for library instruction and faculty frustration with students who lack skills in evaluating their sources. Thus, the new and changing role of the teaching library and librarian is much less established (or even autonomous) than other traditional library functions such as cataloging, interlibrary loan, circulation, reference, special collections, or collection development.
One of the reasons that the teaching mission of academic libraries might be called into question relates to the multitude of competing roles, responsibilities, and obligations of librarians in academic libraries. How do those non-teaching librarians in academic libraries view those who do teach? Does the teaching mission seem like an important priority to them too? Typically large university library departments become specialized and isolated. Such isolation offers more efficiency in terms of library operations, but it can also result in interdepartmental fragmentation, and with that fragmentation a lack of communication or understanding among personnel across departments. Thus, those who involve themselves in instructional efforts can be isolated from those who do not. Moreover, the importance of teaching and other instructional efforts is not a universally shared value nor is it recognized by everyone in the library.
In contrast, if you are a teaching member of, say, an English Department where everyone teaches some writing or literature classes, the sense of fragmentation and even conflict about priorities and resources isn’t quite as much a problem. There may be lack of understanding about faculty research in academic departments among colleagues, but everyone is pretty much on the same page with regard to understanding teaching responsibilities and the commitment to the mission of instruction. One question that arises from all this is how can the teaching mission of large academic libraries be embraced as a fundamental value in all areas and departments of academic libraries?
Conflicting Identities--Librarian as Teaching Faculty
Along with fragmentation among librarian roles in large university libraries, one also sees a fragmentation among librarians with regard to how they perceive themselves as faculty and as teachers. At one institution where I was employed, several librarians had a different views of what it meant to be “library faculty.” As a teacher-librarian, I saw a faculty role in what I did each day as I taught classes, helped students with their research either at the reference desk or during one-on- one consultations, or worked in my college on committees and special projects. I actively collaborated with academic faculty in the field of education and enjoyed a collegial relationship with them, sometimes even more than with my librarian colleagues within the library. However, there were some librarians who stated flatly that they didn’t see themselves as being like academic faculty at all, “faculty” title or no title, nor did what they do bear any resemblance to faculty. Some of these colleagues were librarians who had never been in the classroom, or who had become librarians long before instruction had been a priority within the library. Still others took the position that librarians shouldn’t be wasting their time engaging in research or scholarly activities. Many of these librarians viewed my collaborative activities with academic faculty as “going native” and did not feel that I stayed within proper boundaries assigned to me. If you explore the literature about librarians, faculty status, and tenure, you still see an identity crisis, one that has yet to be resolved satisfactorily. Who are we? What are we? How do we fit within the context of our institution? These are questions that continually plague academic librarians. They are not the kinds of questions that plague academic faculty
Librarian as Teacher
The identity problems of academic librarians also relate to their teaching roles. Some librarians have resented the onset of the information literacy movement simply because it makes more complicated the instructional challenges presented to them. What once was sufficient as “BI” or “library training” is now no longer considered meaningful. As the information literacy imperative has grown, more and more demand is placed on integrating library instruction into the college and university curriculum and on providing quality instruction in a systematic and programmatic way. This may place demands on librarians who do not have sufficient background in teaching and learning to meet those demands. Moreover, if some librarians do not see themselves as faculty, how can they see themselves as teachers? Are the two identities and roles related to one another and if so in what way? In contrast, those who are classroom teachers have less of an identity problem. Their teaching roles are clear. The role of faculty is defined, though instructors and junior faculty may have concerns about their faculty rank within that role. While academic faculty have a research appointments along with teaching, there is never a question about whether teaching is essential work for them to be doing or whether the support for their roles as teachers is a given. While support for library instruction is now part of most academic library cultures, the extent to which librarians are actually supported in their roles as teachers can vary greatly.
My own dual career as a librarian and as a high school/college level English teacher has led me to reflect upon the contrasts between the teaching librarian and the classroom teacher. There have been times where I have felt like a displaced teacher when working in the library environment and like a librarian out of her element as a classroom teacher. In the end, however, I find that my experiences in both arenas have complemented one other tremendously. Examining the similarities and differences of academic faculty vs library faculty roles and identities might be a way to illuminate the challenges and therefore assist librarians in meeting those challenges proactively. Perhaps, in defining clearly what a “teaching library” is all about, librarians and administrators can integrate the instructional mission of the teaching library beyond the limited boundaries of just the instruction/reference librarians and departmental activities.