The Evolution of Library Instruction

image via Denise Chan on Flickr

image via Denise Chan on Flickr

The other day I read Lane Wilkinson’s excellent post about his thinking as he and others are tackling revising the ACRL Information Literacy Standards. This is important work since, as Lane points out, they were approved 13 years ago. Much has happened since that time and this is a document that affects a lot of libraries. Libraries around the country use it to guide their own teaching, college competencies, and accreditation. Lane talks about the idea that instead to simply teaching skills and abilities such as evaluating information, we teach intellectual virtues and dispositions.

This got me thinking about library instruction more generally and the way that it has changed through history and even the way my view of  it has changed since I was in library school. It seems to me that library instruction has undergone an evolution over the years in both the way we talk about it and the way we approach it and teach it. This evolution has been a three step process and each of them build on and are informed by the previous one.

1. Bibliographic Instruction

This type of focus is very tools based. In bibliographic instruction, students are taught how to use our catalog or our databases. They are taught how to do Boolean searching and how to use a table of contents. Many pieces of this instruction are necessary and also inform the other evolutionary iterations. Students need to know how to use our library specific tools to find and evaluate the information they need. It’s much easier to teach tools, but if we simply stopped at teaching students that we have stuff and how to use it we would be doing them a disservice. That is why an evolution was necessary.

2. Information Literacy (ACRL standards from 2000)

For the most part, our current evolutionary step, as Lane points out, is focused on teaching skills. These are important skills like locating and evaluating information. We use tools like the CRAP test and we teach research strategies. Much of the way we devise our own local competencies is based on the language of teaching student the skills and giving them the abilities to succeed in challenging research and in meeting their various information needs. But this language can be limiting. If we are only providing them the skills and abilities and not aspiring for something greater, students may be able to succeed in college but when they get to the real world will they be able to continue that success?

3. Information Sophistication

Something we talk a lot about at Champlain College is fostering “habits of mind.” This sounds similar to the idea of intellectual virtues that Lane was putting forward. I’ve heard other librarians talk about this same idea in different terms as well. We want to help students become not  just literate but sophisticated and fluent in their use of information. This involves not just learning skills but applying and practicing those skills to develop certain habits and dispositions. A student who is sophisticated when it comes to information does not just know how to evaluate a source of information, but would have have the habit of regularly questioning and critically examining information they come across instead of taking it at face value.

Teaching habits of mind is not something that is simple though, and it might involve different pedagogies. At Champlain we often try to use the inquiry method which is directed specifically at teaching habits of mind and helping students to form “an educated response.” Our awesome new Assistant Director for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment Alan Carbery has had significant experience with Problem Based Learning and I’m excited to learn more about it and try some new methods. In both of these cases the methods focus on giving students experience in working through problems and doing critical questioning. These methods allow students to practice the habits of mind needed for someone who is sophisticated in their use of information.

Each of these evolutionary steps are necessary for students. They cannot develop skills if they cannot use tools to find information. They cannot develop habits of mind unless they have skills that they can practice. But when students leave college, they shouldn’t just be literate–they should be fluent, sophisticated. It’s an aspirational view of library/information instruction. I hope to hear more librarians continue to talk about it and I’m glad that Lane’s view will be represented when the ACRL standards are being revised. We have to remember that we are not just trying to help students succeed while they’re in college. We want to prepare them to succeed in life.

Andy Burkhardt


  1. Thanks for sharing my post! And I think you’re absolutely right that what I’m calling intellectual virtues are the same as Champlain’s “habits of the mind”.

    Out of curiosity, I wonder what your response is to those who argue that intellectual virtues/habits of the mind are already implicitly included in the current ACRL Standards. I’m of the mind that implied standards aren’t really standards. What’s your take?

  2. Lane, I agree that implied standards are not actually standards, and when interpreted by a variety of people in the profession could easily get lost. What we want to create are students who are information literate, not students who just have information literacy skills (there’s an important difference there). But I can see their argument. In the large standards like #3, “The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system” I can see a habit of mind implied there, but is there a way to make it even more explicit? That way the focus would be the disposition or intellectual virtue.

    Would there be a way to have intellectual virtues or habits of mind be at the apex of the standards and have different higher order and lower order skills roll up into them? I think the language that is used is important and it can impact the way we provide instruction.

  3. This is great, and exactly the sorts of things we are grappling with at the University of Arizona: how do we teach “habits of the mind” as the main goal and position skills more as a means to an end. When using the standards in learning outcomes for teaching these higher order skills, it is difficult to account for critical thinking. The example of Standard 3 you give is a good point that being able to evaluate, yes, would be higher on SLO taxonomy, but can you really measure that beyond standard skills? We could have students do the CRAAP test, but how much of that is just finding and plugging in answers? All really good things instruction librarians need to be thinking about. I am really looking forward to seeing the revised standards.

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