Time for Teaching: Active Learning and the Modern Librarian

Librarians Active Learning Institute
Photo courtesy of Dartmouth Librarians Active Learning Institute.

Now consider that if you’re picturing a quiet, cardigan-wearing, bespectacled caretaker of books and shusher of patrons, your image is woefully outdated. Though this outdated image still occupies much of our collective imagination, the work of the library professional has evolved dramatically over the last several decades.

In fact, the library professional today—and particularly the academic librarian—is as likely to be found teaching alongside faculty or engaging students in experiential learning as they are to be found cataloguing periodicals or sitting behind a circulation desk. Indeed, as information has become universal, technology has become ubiquitous, and the creation of new knowledge more active and collaborative, the roles and responsibilities of the academic librarian have shifted in tandem with the broader academic landscape.

Today, Dartmouth librarians are engaged across the full spectrum of teaching and learning endeavors of the college. They actively partner on the development of massive open online courses, support students through their first-year writing courses, teach letterpress printing in the Book Arts Workshop, introduce students to rare books and historic documents in Rauner Special Collections Library, and integrate digital media into assignments in the Jones Media Center.

While some Masters programs for professional librarians now aim to equip graduates to fulfill these various responsibilities, it is still possible, says Education and Outreach Director Laura Barrett, to complete a graduate library degree without taking any classes about teaching. Dartmouth’s Digital Collections and Oral History Archivist, Caitlin Birch, had exactly this experience. She says, “When I arrived at Dartmouth and began teaching after just a few weeks on the job, I was in totally unfamiliar territory. I didn’t have formal training and was trying to figure out what was effective and what wasn’t as I went.” Like Birch, most librarians rely on on-the-job training and professional development to acquire these skills, and finding time to hone them can be a challenge.

Enter the Librarians Active Learning Institute. Better known at Dartmouth as “LALI,” the institute began in 2011 and asks participants, “When is the last time you were able to spend several days focused solely on your teaching?” As the name suggests, LALI teaches librarians the practices of active learning pedagogy, which the institute defines with three core principles: meet, engage, and reflect. Participants in LALI learn how to meet students where they are, engage them actively in the process of teaching and learning, and encourage them to reflect on and articulate their own learning process. LALI is facilitated by Education & Outreach Director Laura Barrett, College Archivist Peter Carini, and Associate Director of DCAL Cindy Tobery.

“Through LALI, participants get the background behind what they’ve learned on the job, and an understanding of why the key components of active learning are important,” says Barrett. Using active learning principles, LALI aims to provide teaching librarians with the skills and knowledge to make students “active collaborators in the common endeavor of research instruction.”

Birch participated in LALI in 2015, and calls the experience a game-changer. “Since then,” she says, “I’ve pretty much abandoned the lecture format that I tended to use because it was the primary method I knew from my own education. My classes now always incorporate active learning components.”

Tracy Grimm, a 2017 participant, also welcomed new methods to replace lecturing in her teaching. “I want to make my time with students as productive as possible, and I know lecture isn’t the best approach for my area of focus” she explains. Grimm is the Barron Hilton Archivist for Flight and Space Exploration at Purdue University.

Initially designed for Dartmouth librarians, the institute has expanded in recent years to include more than 20 participants from other institutions each year, as well as a track for special collections librarians and archivists, and a road show that will bring LALI off campus to other universities for the first time this fall. With more than 70 applicants for 23 spots this year, the institute has grown steadily since its inception. Participants now come from all corners of the United States, represent a wide range of academic institutions, and are at a variety of stages in their careers.

Matt Herbison, another 2017 participant and Archivist at the Drexel University School of Medicine, recently transitioned from working with high school educators to supporting undergraduate faculty. “I came here to learn more specifically about what college faculty need,” he says.

The institute aims to take the goals and interests of its participants into account, and seeks participants from institutional cultures that value teaching.

“We hear from participants that they are excited to go back to their institutions and teach others what they have learned, and that’s exactly what we want,” says Tobery.

“We’re trying to infuse the profession,” Barrett concurs. “Ideally, in five years we won’t need to offer LALI anymore, because active learning methods will be so widespread!”

Carini, who was a driving force behind the creation of the Archives and Special Collections (ASC) track, has seen the experience transform the way his colleagues think about teaching. “In many special collections libraries, the teaching approach is more about ‘show and tell’ than active learning,” he says. But in Dartmouth’s Rauner Library, hands-on, active learning with items in the collection is the norm. The Archives and Special Collections track of LALI is intended to share this approach to education, and has helped participants shift their focus to some of the unique aspects of teaching within an archive or special collection. Carini, along with Barrett and Tobery, is looking forward to taking the show on the road in October, when they will offer ASC to a group of colleges in Maine.

From participant feedback, it is clear that LALI is filling a gap that has emerged as teaching has became a core activity for today’s academic librarians. Words like “timely,” “applicable,” and “engaging” are common among these comments.

“I found LALI to be one of the most beneficial professional development experiences of my career,” said one.

“I truly felt the experience was a gift of time,” offered another.


This post first appeared on the website of the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning.

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