My Advice for New Instruction Librarians

In the last three months, I’ve been interviewed about information literacy by two students. One was working on her MLIS and taking her first instruction course. The other was working on a dissertation, and I was a participant in her study on information literacy programs. These interviews started me thinking about what I’d tell new librarians interested in information literacy instruction.

Here’s my advice for new instruction librarians entering the profession:

At least 50% of being a librarian is building connections with people.
Instruction librarians thrive by connecting with faculty members and recognizing how they can help faculty members reach their objectives. This often means informal office visits, commercials at departmental meetings, invitations to coffee, and noting when students show up at the reference desk with research assignments. If 50% of your job is connecting, the other 50% will be easier.

Quality matters.
We only get a few chances, so getting it right matters. When you have built a relationship and a faculty member has devoted class time for instruction, don’t screw it up. Do all of those things they teach you in library school (communicate objectives, chunk up class time, prepare exercises, and prepare assessments). Work hard to be good at your job.

Caring matters more than quality.
Faculty members can be very forgiving if they know you care. Be available for students. Follow up with faculty. Send faculty members articles and ideas. Care about the content you are teaching. Care about the success of students. This is the kind of thing that is tougher to teach in library school.

Easy is better than good.
(I am stealing this from the folks at the Bibliotech podcast.) As instruction librarians, our goal should be to make faculty members more effective. If our involvement means layers of hassle, piles of forms, and additional complications, then faculty members won’t mess with us. We may hold up idealized views of information literacy, but the reality is that we are one of many interests competing for faculty members’ time.

Write solid, useful rules and then break them often.
Managing (or being a part of) an information literacy program will require rules. These rules will define roles, outline content, and reserve time (and rooms). Rules are never written to drive innovation forward. Rules are written to prevent action. They are often great in the abstract, but require adaptation when applied to concrete reality. New librarians may need time to recognize which rules can be broken, but, to be successful, you will need to break them.

Be bold. (Do not believe the low expectations of others.)
Most people (especially in higher ed) love librarians, but they don’t expect much out of them. This is an advantage, because the value we add will surprise them. However, it is extremely important for new librarians to ignore the low expectations of others (within libraries or outside of libraries). Faculty, administrators, and students do not recognize the evolving nature of libraries, and they are often quick to throw up limitations around our work. Refuse to be held back.

swansonphotoNever give up.
New librarians have trouble recognizing that our work is a marathon and not a sprint. Progress can be slow, and after a while, you can feel beat up. Look for opportunities to refresh. Connect with people who have positive energy. Don’t forget that our work matters. Embrace the moments that remind you of this. Let go of the moments that drag you down.


Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.