Despite there being a lot of research into how we acquire teaching skills, and how much importance we place on teaching, there isn’t much research into whether librarians even think of themselves as teachers, or of what they’re doing as “teaching”. My research, carried out for my MA dissertation at Sheffield University in 2014, aimed to find out what sort of variation there is among librarians’ conceptions of themselves and their “teaching” activities.
I carried out 6 phenomenographic interviews with librarians from universities in the north of England. Although this is a small sample, they were chosen to ensure maximum variation, and the results are still useful and interesting.
I asked them questions about how they teach, whether they’d call themselves teachers, and what they mean when they talk about teaching. Their answers revealed a range of different conceptions, which I was able to arrange into an outcome space, with four categories describing different conceptions.
Here are the four categories. They vary according to whether the person expressing the conception thinks of themselves as a teacher or not, and whether they think they teach or not.
I will now explain each category in more detail.
People who matched this category were happy to refer to themselves as teachers, and believed they were equals with other teaching staff in their institutions. One participant said “I think we’re really important, and I think that we should be up there and have the same kind of, you know, level of respect and level of… as the academics”. Having academics view you as an equal helps strengthen this conception.
People also talked about teaching being central to their role, and said that every interaction with a student/researcher is a “potential mini teaching session”.
Respondents talked about doing the same work as other teachers – planning, gathering feedback, giving feedback, behaviour management, etc. They also mentioned specific theories or techniques like game-based learning or inquiry-based learning.
They believe IL is complex and conceptual, not just skills-based.
This category is really about being “the same but different”. People who fit this category view their activities as teaching – but a different type of teaching.
Again, the way others in your institution view you seems to have an effect on how you conceive of your role – people mentioned academics/teaching staff viewing them as support or auxiliary staff. Participants who were friends with schoolteachers also felt that they were different to them – talking about “teacher-teacher friends”.
Your conception of IL plays a part in how you view your teaching: if you see IL as mainly skills-based, you’re likely to think of IL teaching as being different to “academic” or “topic” teaching.
People in this category wanted to make clear that they see themselves as not just a teacher – but as a librarian who does some teaching as well as other activities. (This probably depends on your actual job description.) They don’t see any negative connotations associated with being a teacher – it’s just that they see themselves as separate from teachers.
People with this conception talked about teaching being just one part of your role, which contrasts with the categories we’ve already seen. They also suggested that their teaching wasn’t as important as academics’ teaching – it’s just introductory. Compare this category to the teacher-librarian category, where librarians are on an equal footing with academics.
This category involves a reluctance to use the words “teacher” or “teaching”, stemming from a view of teaching as an advanced ability, requiring more training or qualifications than the respondents had.
Again, there was a sense that librarians were not viewed as equals within the institution, due to a lack of “badges” or qualifications. One participant mentioned feeling the need to “keep up with the Joneses”.
This lack of qualifications or perhaps experience made some participants reluctant to use the word “teaching”, preferring to call it “training” or even “workshopping” instead. One respondent noted that they usually called it teaching because everyone else did, but “through gritted teeth” because they didn’t believe it was actually teaching.
There was also a feeling that teaching is prestigious or complex, and perhaps something that librarians aren’t properly part of. One participant mentioned “posh learning labels”. It felt like an attempt to acknowledge that librarians are not proper teachers, whether or not that’s true.
As we’ve seen, there is a wide variety of ways in which the librarians in the study conceived of themselves and their teaching activities. Perhaps you’ve recognised yourself in one or more of the categories; it’s important to note that the category you align with most can vary depending on time or context. Something that really stood out in the responses was that confidence plays a big part in how librarians conceive of themselves and their skills. Your environment, and how others view you, can also have an effect.
Building up skills will help people feel more comfortable with thinking of themselves as teachers. Training, CPD, peer support and knowledge exchange can all help this.
Qualifications can help you feel more equal to other teaching staff – for example, a PGCert in L&T or getting FHEA.
Almost all librarians, in all sectors, do some form of teaching or training. It is vital that new professionals feel confident about doing this, and universities should consider including more opportunities to become familiar teaching theory and techniques.
At Sheffield, the recently revised module on “information Literacy and Information Resources” led by Sheila Webber is now much more teaching-focused and the assessment involves students carrying out and evaluating an IL teaching intervention; the assessment is a piece of reflective writing about their teaching. The module was updated in response both to this research and to feedback from last year’s cohort.
Please do contact us for more information or to discuss the research!
Teaching or training? Academic librarians’ conceptions of their IL activities - Emily Wheeler & Pam McKinney
Teaching or training?
Academic librarians’ conceptions of their
Emily Wheeler and
About the research
•MA Librarianship dissertation, 2014
•Research question: “What is the variation
in academic librarians’ conception of their
•Small sample (6 academic librarians)
•Result: four categories
The Four Categories
I teach I do not teach
I am a
Teacher-librarian Learning support
Librarian who teaches Trainer
I am a teacher
•Refer to yourself as a teacher
•“it is… an integral part of being a
•Base your work on theories/techniques
•Do exactly what other teachers do
•IL is taught, not trained
I am a teacher
•“We’re there to support their teaching”
•Feel different to “teacher-teachers”
•Influenced by environment
My teaching is not the same as others’
•“It’s skills teaching, it’s not topic teaching”
•Practical vs. theoretical/“academic”
Librarian who teaches
I am not a teacher
•“librarians who’ve got teaching
•Librarians are more than “just” teachers
I do some teaching, among other things
•It’s not central to your role
•“Obviously it’s not as important as the
I am not a teacher
•“I don’t have a qualification”
•Others don’t see you as a teacher
I don’t teach, I train
•“I call it teaching… through gritted teeth”
•Teaching is more technical/complex
•Librarians’ conceptions do vary
•Your conception can change
•Librarians who are confident about their
abilities are more likely to feel like
•Your environment influences your
•Training, CPD and peer support will help
improve librarians’ confidence
•Consider teaching qualifications e.g.
PGCert in Learning and Teaching or FHEA
•Knowledge about teaching theory should
feature more prominently at library