Outreach is…education

Librarians are educators. Sometimes we teach users how to navigate databases. Other times we help them discover new books or movies. We show them how to use the copier, where to get tax assistance, and how to buy a used exercise bike off of Craigslist. When we do these things we also teach users the value of libraries and librarians. We help them discover the roles we can play in their lives. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

Instruction is a fear that many librarians avoid overcoming. It’s also a beloved activity many librarians strive to get better at. Whether you are standing in front of  a class, working one-on-one or handing out swag at a community event, you are doing some kind of instruction. Here are a few ideas for the myriad types of instruction we do that have worked for me or fellow librarians.

  • Think in terms of learning outcomes. I do this even for fun programs I plan or tours I give. What do I want people to learn? Do I want them to learn how to find full text outside of a database? Do I want them to learn how to contact the library if they need help? Do I want them to connect our collection to an interest of theirs? Do I want them to discover the personal value libraries have to them?

    Here’s a guide to get you started thinking in terms of learning outcomes. And here is a good list of verbs to use when creating LOs, based around Bloom’s Taxonomy. Learning outcomes help me really think through my goals and expectations for what I do.

  • Potentially assess the LOs you care most about. As my teacher Melissa Wong shared, this is not about assessing YOU, but about assessing what people learned. In instruction classes, I hold competitions (“first group to find a peer-reviewed article about Lady Gaga using a database wins a rubber ducky!”). The winners then have to come up to the front and show their process in order to obtain the priceless rubber ducky.

    With tours I might do a scavenger hunt which people really DO love especially if there is a prize at the end, even something simple like a pencil or bookmark. Sometimes assessment for me comes in touchy-feely ways such as when students come to me saying a friend recommended they see me for help. Or when I get asked a question on research in the weight room.

  • Start out group instruction or group tours with a think-pair-share.  Ask them to discuss a question with someone next to them and be prepared to share answers. Questions I like include: what’s the most intimidating thing about using the library/doing research? What kinds of resources and services do you want from the library? What’s your favorite thing about libraries?A think-pair-share establishes from the get-go that folks will be expected to participate. I call on them at random to share, which lets them know anyone can be called upon! Plus it helps loosen them up and establishes that this tour/instruction is for them. I can then tailor my outline to their needs.
  • More words of wisdom from Melissa Wong: if people leave with a sense of confidence, they will be satisfied. This could mean leaving confident in the fact that a friendly librarian will help them.When I give tours I always stop at the service desks and ask the students working there: “so, what do you help people with?” This gives the listeners a sense of not only what they can get help with, but hopefully a sense of confidence in the staff working there. They are no longer strangers behind a desk: they are people with help to offer…willingly! A personal connection makes people more confident and comfortable.When I use a culminating exercise to give students a chance to show off what they have learned, they hopefully take with them a sense of accomplishment and confidence in using the library. And yes, I know, sometimes it might be a false one.  Which is why I try to hit more the idea that we are here to help and point out self-help options, too.
  • When I give tours or instruction for classes, I ask the instructor if I can assign them some work. Most are willing to do this and add the points to their cumulative while some say no and others offer it as extra credit. I usually ask them to find something fun (an encyclopedia article on gnomes plus the call number for a book on gnomes in our collection) and email me by a certain time.
  • Make them teach. I’ve done this for both tours and instruction. I divide them into groups and give each group a series of tasks to figure out. Figure out how to find a peer-reviewed article on racism in high schools from Academic Search Premier. Figure out how to search our catalog for Magic School Bus books, find one on the shelf and bring it back. Figure out how to check out a DVD, renew it and return it.  Each group gets 20 minutes to complete their tasks and then they have to come back and show their classmates/fellow tourists how they did. I find this works especially well with Adult Education students who are more willing to explore and then share mistakes made in the process. The mistakes they make are often the most helpful for me and them: I can see common mistakes I might need to address and they get to see that everyone else is having trouble using the library!
  • A favorite instruction activity for classes: have them make lists on giant Post-Its of all of the reasons why they might have trouble finding research for an assignment. Then I show them all of the potential solutions. Sometimes the solution might be “change your topic.” But it gives them a chance to air excuses and me the chance to address them head-on.

A few resources I love for instruction:

  • Adventures in Library Instruction podcast: a monthly podcast about teaching info lit in library instruction.
  • Edutopia.org: funded by George Lucas, this org rewards and promotes best practices of innovative teaching with lots of focus on technology. I never fail to learn something new about teaching from this, even if I’m reading about a second grade class learning social studies in New Orleans. Covers many topics we care about such as the Digital Divide.

I believe all librarians teach. It’s one of our greatest legacies as service-providers.

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