Wednesday, May 4, 2011

PL 14/11: Librarians as teachers

Filed under: 1bib, education, IFLA — plinius @ 12:54 pm

We take for granted that public libraries are places of learning.

But can they also be places of teaching?

Three years ago I coordinated a project that explored the use of librarians as instructors in adult education. In this project (called VOLARE) we offered basic training in the use of the web to people who lacked elementary digital skills.  After a planning period in the autumn 2007 the actual production, or delivery of service, took place during the spring 2008. Here I sum up some of the lessons we learned about teaching, with a focus on the immigrants that participated.

Supply of teaching

Finding workable approaches was also a learning process. Originally we wanted to offer training courses with librarians as course instructors. The project coordinator (Plinius) had long experience as a course designer and instructor. But when we started to look at the concrete details, our ideas changed.

The problem was a double one. Effective learning requires a supply of teachers as well as a demand from learners. Most librarians are not comfortable with formal teaching in front of a class, however. They are accustomed to meeting the users individually or in very small groups (2-3 persons). Large libraries often have people on their staff who like to teach in a classroom. But if all trainers should come from this group, most of the staff would be excluded from the project.

At the same time we recognized that there was no lack of digital courses outside libraries. Those who wanted organized training could find courses in service centers for immigrants, at evening schools for adults and through voluntary organizations dedicated to digital training for seniors. Some of these courses were even offered inside libraries, but with outside instructors.

Librarians often teach, but they are not trained as classroom teachers. Ordinary courses depend on standardized curricula. All participants must move through the material at roughly the same pace, as a body of soldiers marching to the front. The library’s field of expertise is to support the learning processes of individuals or small groups working on a joint project, not the management of learning in large classes.

The main “teaching activities” inside the library consist of reference work, giving advice on books and other media, and assisting with the library’s technical equipment. Increasingly, librarians are also involved in the design of libraries as a an educational space. We concluded that digital training for immigrants had to build on these strengths. Turning librarians into classroom teachers was not in the cards. What librarians are trained to do, through studies and daily practice, is to meet people where they happen to be and to help them with “the next step” forward. Reference librarians do not just provide answer. They also try to sneak in some additional knowledge about sources and search strategies.

Demand for training

There is, at the same time, a real demand for such individual training. Many adults do not know where to start. The are often reluctant to sign up for regular courses, where they have to follow a fixed curriculum and a set rate of progress. They do not want to expose their uncertainties and lack of skills to the instructior and their class mates. Courses demand a greater commitment of time – and the hours may not suit everybody. Some are not even sure they want to start. A single session allows them to test the water before they jump in. People with a bit of experience find it easier to join courses or to study on their own. They know what to expect. Let me illustrate:

Poor knowledge of Norwegian. Had heard about our service at the library. No previous knowledge of PCs and the web, so we started at the very beginning, with mouse and keyboard. We used [popular subject-oriented web portal in Norwegian] as a concrete example. We looked at the functions available through the buttons on a web reader and at the difference between an index and a subject portal. [Man from abroad, about 60].

We called our service: “New to the web” to emphasize that this was aimed at beginners. We offered a total of eight hours per week at the Drammen Library, four hours per week at Hønefoss (after Easter only) and two hours per week at the Fjell branch library, alternating between a young Turkish speaking female and an older Urdu speaking male instructor. The latter were not librarians, but known and respected in their communities. Since they spoke Norwegian and English as well, they could also assist other visitors.

Expensive and necessary

From an economic point of view individual sessions are obviously very expensive – just as expensive as reference work. The cost per hour equals the librarian´s salary – with thirty to fifty percent added. Staff needs time to prepare, to do some follow-up (includes logging), to co-ordinate sessions, to share and learn from experiences. Clearly, one-on-one service cannot be the normal mode of training. But it is also clear that some people are unlikely to start with a regular course:

The family had a PC at home, but that was constantly occupied by her two teenage kids. Her husband normally paid the bills, but planned a visit to their home country, so she wanted to learn how to use a web bank. We went to the bank she used, but she had not received her password and her digital code generator yet. I showed her how to write the bank’s URL in the address field. She did not feel quite comfortable with the mouse, but tried and managed not too badly.She was going to get a library card, so that she could train on our PCs. After the session I showed her how to log in from scratch – and told her to ask for assistance from the staff on duty if necessary. [Woman from abroad, about 60]

Since courses follow preset curricula, they cannot go into the many specific questions, needs and desires that particular people may have without slowing everybody else up. The older people are, the more they stress relevant learning. That requires great flexibility from the instructor:

Her grandchildren had signed her up and she was eager to learn. But she knows absolutely nothing – cannot even steer a mouse. It was a terrible feeling to sit there with her, not knowing how to tackle the situation. Finally I put my hand above hers to show that it is possible to press the button in a quiet and controlled way. It did not help much. When the 45 minutes had passed, I felt I had confused her further rather than helped her. She thanked me when she left, and shook my hand. She said she wanted to book a new hour. She had not been scared away, at least. [Elderly woman from India].

Staff that works with people from non-Western countries need some additional skills. They ought to have some information about digital resources in other languages and from other cultures. Often they have to deal with pedagogical challenges, either because the students are less than fluent in a shared language – Norwegian or English, or because they lack contextual knowledge that we can take for granted when we deal with “westerners”. Let me illustrate:

He did not know Norwegian very well. We had to mix Norwegian with a few English words. Sometimes I did not quite understand what he intended to say, but I hope he could use what I taught him. He asked several questions about the hard disk, for instance how one can find the actual size of the memory. He had had problems with Yahoo Messenger on his own PC and had delivered it to a repair shop. The staff had explained that the whole disk had to be replaced. This sounds like a scam to me. If the hard disk had actually been broken, many more features would have been affected. [Man from Iran, about 60].

A new professional role

When we undertake this form of teaching we are changing the nature of library work. This project created a broader area of contact between users and librarians. When you spend repeated hours with the same student, helping her master a series of different tasks on the web, you get more involved in her life. The consultation is professional, since the encounter takes place in the library. But the setting, two persons sharing a computer, is rather informal. You learn about family and friends and personal interests. With immigrants, who are struggling to master a totally new environment, you also function as a cultural guide.

The librarian-cum-instructor has to manage a more complex professional role. How far should she go to help – with recommendations or warnings about suppliers, with advice on institutions, with the drafting and editing of letters, with bookings of tickets and changes of passwords? When we train with real-life problems on the web, the line that separates professional assistance from personal involvement becomes thin indeed.

This is particularly true when we work with immigrants, who often lack the social and conceptual resources that natives take for granted. They are strangers in a strange land. The public library is one of the few bridges that connect the world they left behind with the world they have entered. The librarians that guard the bridge need not be computer experts. But they require both pedagogical and intercultural skills to do their work well.


This blog post is taken from the 2011 IFLA paper


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