Instruction Issues in Special Libraries
by Laura J. Haverkamp and Kelly Coffey


Although many in the library field imagine a special librarian as a solitary researcher in a corporation, the role of special librarian is more varied and dynamic.  First, a special library is an information resource that serves the needs of a specific population.  There are many different types of special librarians, from art librarians, to chief information officers, to medical researchers.  Then, one must consider the wide range of research needs of the users of special libraries.  Finally, one could consider the specific role of the special librarian as an educator within a company or system.

When considering the special librarian as educator, one must consider the relevance of teaching library use in a special library setting.  Education in a special library is any kind of training provided for the users, "that teaches the users how to make the most effective use of the library system" (Tiefel, 1995).   The librarian can play a significant role in teaching users how to identify what information they need, how to find, evaluate, and choose the best information.   In this manner, a special librarian offers an invaluable service to any organization that has information needs.

Need for Education

The clients of special libraries are a diverse group, with a wide range of skills in library use.   Though some clients may have advanced research and computer searching skills, there are other users who are unskilled in using a book index or search engine. Whether one is teaching users how to access a new CD-ROM, or training advanced searchers in command languages, providing clients with new skills and more efficient search strategies fulfills an important need in a company. Though a largely intangible benefit, creating satisfied learners is an important goal for the special librarian.

Having happy clients provides another benefit to the special librarian.  Pleased library users become a crucial part of marketing the services provided by the special library.  In an atmosphere where many corporate and special libraries are being forced to justify expenditures, cut costs and personnel, or even worse, close, marketing becomes an ever more crucial aspect of special librarianship.

While a marketing plan may include many aspects, including a web page, flyers, newsletters, e-mail announcements, posters, magnets, and personal interaction, education initiatives should be included in any librarian's marketing  scheme.  Providing positive learning opportunities to users creates a loyal client base.  Users who are pleased with library services will advertise the library by word of mouth.   Also, the librarian who promotes educational opportunities is in effect advertising library services at the same time.  Any good publicity or attention that education garners for the special library helps to maintain the library as a significant division of the organization.

Keeping the library visible and valuable is should be a primary goal for the special librarian in the current atmosphere of budget cuts and downsizing.  For the librarian interested job security, and concerned with maintaining and improving a special library, education can be an important part of achieving visibility and value. The librarian who offers orientation and training to new employees, who anticipates the research and learning needs of longtime employees, and who is able to interpret and train folks on new technology, is a librarian who offers a company valuable skills. As he or she becomes the information "go to" person, he or she also becomes the "do not let go" person.  Thus offering education and training becomes a tool for guaranteeing employment.

Different Types of Education in Special Libraries

While our discussion so far has considered special libraries as one entity, when considering educational opportunities in special libraries, it is useful to examine different types of libraries. There is a large variety of special libraries, to include special academic libraries such as business, law, medical, and music, archives, art and museum libraries, corporation, film, government agencies, humanities, law, medical, music, news and photo, rare books, and theological libraries to mention a few. These libraries share the fact that each serves a special population, yet the needs of each population can be quite different.

Because the many types of libraries are so different, the special librarian has the tough task of choosing which education resources to offer that will best serve the information needs of his or her specific client community. For instance, a corporate librarian would find it useful to train employees in the use of a new intranet system. He or she might offer group instruction, an online tutorial, or one-on-one instruction on the usefulness and tricks of the system. Because sharing internal information is especially important in the corporate world, the development and training provided by the librarian could provide a distinct business advantage.

Education in an academic special library would have a more research specific approach. A librarian might decide that group training in a classroom setting is most efficient. An academic librarian might also focus on teaching particular tools, such as the online card catalog, Internet searching skills, and how to use basic reference sources. The academic librarian could focus on presenting resources that would best serve his specific population.

In contrast, a medical librarian would have to provide very specific training. Because the research needs of medical professionals are so specific, and correct and current information is so crucial, the education needs are also very precise. Doctors and medical researchers would need to learn how to access and search the very latest information in medical databases and would have to keep up on the technology changes associated with those databases. The medical librarian could offer individual training, or small group tutorials with hands-on access to the database. Although these examples are very specific, they provide a glimpse of the variety of settings and educational options available to the special librarian.

Teaching Adult Learners

In addition to the many different types of instructional formats, a librarian needs to be aware of the needs of his or her learners. Of particular concern to a librarian who serves a special population, are the needs of the adult learner. As a trainer of adult learners, the special librarian needs to be aware of a number of different teaching dynamics. One should consider motivation, techno-phobia, accessing prior knowledge and learner expertise, validating learner input, and learning and teaching styles.

Though as a teacher of adults a librarian should not face disciplinary problems, adults do often need some external motivation. In the situation where employees are forced to attend training presented by the special librarian, motivating the learners becomes especially important. In the special library situation, a good strategy to begin a lesson is justify and sell the skill or information that one is teaching. If one can prove to one's students that the skill can help their job performance or improve their work life, one is more likely to find a receptive audience of learners.

One big impediment for adults learning new research skills, is a fear of technology. Many adults have limited exposure to technology, and have a fear of the changes that technology represents. The librarian’s job as educator is complicated even further by the fact that so many information resources are now computer or web based. This knowledge would behoove the librarian to do some serious needs and skills assessment of his or her clients before offering training, especially technology based training. Based on this assessment, the librarian could adjust the training to suit the technological skills of the learners, and could address the fears of those learners who feel particularly reluctant to engage with technology.

Another benefit to assessing students needs, is determining one's students strengths. Students, especially adult students are more receptive to instruction if their previous knowledge is accessed and called upon. Thus, the role of librarian as teacher changes from knowledge dispenser, to knowledge elicitor and facilitator. Certainly, the teacher should provide information, but adult learners feel validated if their skills are acknowledged and utilized.

Validating the learner and acknowledging the learner's expertise can have two benefits for the librarian educator. Making the learner feel important and helpful, whether adult or child, makes a learner more receptive to a trainer's input. More importantly, the librarian has to contend with the ego of the adult learner. A special librarian who trains doctors or lawyers in research methods faces particular challenges. Acknowledging the advanced skills, degrees, and sometimes age and wisdom of one's clients, takes a librarian a long way in creating an audience of receptive learners.

Learning Styles, Teaching Tactics

Making learners more receptive is the goal of much education study. Currently in education there is much discussion of learning and teaching styles. Some basic knowledge of teaching and learning styles is helpful to any professional who presents information or trains others. The five basic learning styles are visual, aural, tactile, kinesthetic, and text-based learners. Teaching styles can correspond to the different learning styles, but most frequently educators rely on the lecture and notes method by which they were taught. Any educator worth his or her salt needs to expand on his or her teaching skills in order to access and accommodate the many styles of learners.

Most presenters and educators are aware of the importance of visual learning. The visual learner prefers to learn by seeing things. Visual aids in the form of photos, presentation slides, cartoons, web pages, graphic organizers, film or video, or any type of chart or graphic can provide much needed concrete visual information to the learner. It also serves to add variety and interest to a presentation.

Sound can be another terrific tool to hold a learner's attention. Use of music, clapping, tapes of different speakers, or simply asking students to read aloud provides another stimulus and memory cue to students. The aural learner also benefits from interactive debate and discussion. Vocal participation benefits most learners, as students must formulate and organize their thoughts before speaking, and then all the learners benefit from the various opinions and solutions expressed.

Particularly important to the librarian educator is the tactile learner. The tactile learner enjoys learning by touching and manipulating objects, or by working on specific concrete problems. It is especially important for the librarian to be aware of these learners when providing computer-based training. If at all possible, each learner should have his or her own terminal, because it is much easier for all types of learners to remember a skill they have actually practiced. Anytime a teacher can get learners manipulating information or materials, he or she is providing a concrete and effective learning experience.

Another remarkably effective tool for teaching accesses the kinesthetic learner. The kinesthetic learner likes to learn things by moving. A terrific way for a librarian to access this learner is to have instruction stations set up in different parts of the library, which would force the student to move around. One could also set up an instructional scavenger hunt which would force learners to locate materials and information throughout the library. Kinesthetic learning activities often infuse a level of fun in a learning activity, which is lacking in the standard lecture/notes format of presentation.

Text based learners prefer to read and write down information. Those learners who prefer to learn this way benefit from readings and textual handouts. Each learning style however, benefits greatly from a variety of different presentations. The kinesthetic learner benefits from visual aids and the aural learner improves his skills by manipulating new tools. Thus, the librarian educator should be aware of different learning styles and methods of teaching which can reach those learners.


Working in a special library one can find many challenges associated with instruction issues. The first of these are related to the company, such as having the resources to give the instruction that is needed. Funds can be limited, as well as the space and equipment to train the clients. Depending on the size and mission of the parent organization, some libraries will have access to computer labs while other libraries might not even have a public terminal.

Other challenges are issues with the technology of the instruction. Most library instruction will have some basis in technology so this is an issue that will be hard to avoid. One problem will be with the equipment itself – in attempting to deliver a power point presentation the computer crashes or the file saved on a disk simply will not open. Other problems involve Internet sites that have moved or changed design so that the information is not so easily found. This could make the instructor look unprepared or not as knowledgeable. And then there is the issue of instruction materials that are then so quickly out of date and in need of modification.

The Internet challenges in particular can be overcome and maybe even used to an advantage. But one does have to be prepared for them though so not to appear flustered if they happen. After all, the instruction program WAS prepared and there are time and resource limits for repeated preparation. Minor setbacks with Internet sites can be used as a teaching method to encourage the participants to work around the inconstant nature of the web and to explore their options. With handout materials it would be a good idea to keep them on a computer file so changes can be made as needed and printed out prior to a program.

Another challenge is the training of the presenters who deliver instruction programs. One has to stay abreast with the changing technology and new ways of cataloging, archiving and simply accessing information. This can be done through a number of ways such as attending continuing education classes, participating in conferences or professional organizations, reading trade journals or by keeping in touch with colleagues. Depending on the size of the library staff and the support of the parent organization, these options might not pose a challenge to all special libraries since the funding and the time might be available to attend conferences and formal classes. On the other hand, there might not be enough resources to easily meet these needs and so it is up to the individual to stay informed. This is when listservs and journals come in particularly handy.


The planning process is dynamic and continuous. One would most certainly always want to be planning something so that the library continues to have a mission that is unique. Planning that is specific to library instruction is actually a two part process. The first is the planning of personnel to deliver the instruction. This includes the training of the presenters that was mentioned above. It also includes mental preparation such as presentation skills and speaking in public. Considering the popular and interesting poll in which people reported that they were more afraid of public speaking than of death, this is not a part of the planning process to be taken lightly. It is not however a focus of this paper. The focus is going to be on planning for the instruction programs themselves, the second part of the process. This planning begins with consumer analysis.

Consumer analysis

The "if you build it they will come" theory is not the one to apply when planning for special library instruction programming. A more accurate prediction would be "if you build it and they like it and they need it, they might come." The key here is to offer something the clients actually need and want, not something the library or information center thinks they need. Desktop published newsletters with descriptions of the newest websites for a particular field are great only if the clients use them. If not, they consume a large chunk of time and resources that could be better suited to other more worthy pursuits.

Needs can be measured a number of ways – most effectively through informal means like simply being available. For example, get to know employees in different departments, eat lunch with others, and make time for coffee breaks and other informal office gatherings. Depending on the "official" work environment you might hear more information this way as people chat about what projects they are working on, or more likely, complain about the difficulties they have been having. More formal ways of accessing needs include surveys or participation in group/team/planning meetings of the parent organization. While there, suggestions can be made for instruction efforts the library can offer based on the project at hand. The benefit would be instant feedback about the usefulness of such an instruction.

Types of instructional programs

Once the decision has been made that an instructional program is needed, the next step is to decide what type of program would be best. There are a number of approaches to instructional programming and the usefulness of each one depends on both the type of special library and the topic to be covered. A list of possible approaches follow.

· Tours and orientations – This program can be used for practically any library and the content should be limited to the information that is relevant for the group such as parking, entrances and exits, floor plan, signs and landmarks, locations of services and procedures to obtain them, essential resources, etc. This type of program can be scheduled or delivered on the spot.

· Liaison program – A librarian can be assigned to a particular school, program or project to assist with particular needs.

· Point of needs assistance – This service is based on a need to know, like help screens on a computer program.

· Consultation – This is taking the point of need service on step further. One meets with the individual or group regarding a specific information request. Steps to take include organizing the search for information, selecting the appropriate sources, describing or demonstrating the use, and organizing the information found.

· Bibliographic instruction – The focus is on helping clients develop skills and determine effective use of appropriate resources.

· Information management education – These are classes used to help clients increase independence and confidence with levels of information seeking. It is a proactive and collaborative service.

· Curriculum integrated instruction – This service is most appropriate for academic special libraries and is often initiated by the faculty member of the individual course to enable students to complete course-work. It consists of an entire course of study that builds on individual information identification, acquisition, and management skills and helps students synthesize abilities to support lifelong learning.

· User groups – This is a collection of individuals sharing a common interest or skill. An example for a corporate library is having one person from each department being trained as a "power user" for databases so that they can assist others in their department on an as needed basis.

Materials for instructional programs

The following list includes types of materials (print, non-print and combinations of both) that can be used to deliver the types of library instruction programs. Things to consider are authorship, the design and production features, and the distribution of the products.

· signs

· handouts

· printed guides

· maps

· printed tour

· brochures

· newsletter

· handbook

· texts/workbooks

· pathfinders

· policy-related documents

· audiotape

· transparencies

· photography slides

· computer generated slides

· videotape

· Intranet/Internet pages

· web guides

· computer tutorial

Content for instructional programs

The content for instructional programs will largely depend on both the type of special library and the parent organization it supports. For this reason it is hard to pinpoint exactly what specific programs could be offered but keep in mind the instruction could cover either a narrow or broad range of possibilities. For example, a special librarian might be asked to teach email and word processing programs – not exactly what comes to mind when one imagines a special library. On the other hand, the librarian might only be the deliverer of information to clients and there will be no opportunity for instruction. Most likely though there will be either databases (external or internal), catalogs, or the Internet available to the clients.

The Internet hosts a wide realm of instruction ideas, not only because the content is always changing but also because some people have never been introduced to it before. Because the Internet involves several types of activities a basic course could include any of the following: an introduction to browsers and navigation, obtaining information by FTP, how to choose search engines, and how to use mail groups like listserv, Usenet, and newsnet. Because the Internet contains information of varying quality and most of it relatively unorganized, instruction in the intricacies of keyword searching and the use of Boolean logic is usually very helpful. Also, ensuring that clients know how to evaluate the resources found on the web is important. Depending on the subject matter the evaluation of a site differs but checking the following criteria is a good start: when was the page last updated, where is the page/material coming from, such as an educational institution, an organization or a homepage, is the information easy to search, and is the site useful. A different type of Internet instruction class could be a detailed viewing of particular sites of interest.

One of the biggest factors for deciding on the content of the instructional program will be the clients involved because their level of education and knowledge about the particular topic will guide the content of the program. Of course every instructional program should contain goals and objectives and these will be based on both the content of the program and the clients involved. Some sample objectives for an introductory class are given below.

· understand basic Internet vocabulary and concepts (FTP, newsgroup, etc.)

· be comfortable and familiar using a web browser

· be able to use search engines to retrieve useful materials

· navigate to sites within the Internet

· move data from an Internet source to a personal storage device

Creating an instructional program

Once it is determined that the clients need a program, it is time to decide what program would be most effective for the situation. Things to consider when deciding how to present an instructional program are available time, space, and resources. Sometimes the purpose of the instruction is best suited for a demonstration, sometimes a lecture will accomplish the task, and other times hands-on is the best way to go. For example, some instructional programs are best suited for a computer lab but if that type of space, and the related equipment, is not available other arrangements will have to be made. Space requirements also make it important to consider what the maximum number of people for a program should be. The content and type of program will help determine how much time should be allotted. And make sure the budget is consulted when necessary resources are not readily available and need to be acquired.

How to get them there, and keep them coming back

All the decisions about the instructional program have been made: it has been determined there is a topic that needs to be covered, the type of program and materials and presenter are prepared, and any needed space has been reserved with the maximum number of clients calculated. Now all that is needed is some marketing of the program. Simply put, if clients do not know the program is available, they will not come. The basic marketing principals should be applied for the instructional program to maximize its success. Don't forget the four P's - product, price, promotion, and place.

The same goes for the evaluation of the program. Evaluation is important because by knowing the positive and negative aspects of the program, the idea can be improved upon and delivered more successfully the next time. Evaluations are also a way to get ideas for future programs and can be used to market other programs. Depending on the type of program being evaluated the content of the evaluation can vary. Written evaluations are most common and one will have to decide if they should be anonymous or if the opportunity for following-up with the client would be helpful. Some sample questions for written evaluations are included below.

· Did the class meet your expectations?

· Was the instructor knowledgeable about the topic?

· Do you have comments about the room - temperature, set-up, etc.?

· Would you be interested in attending any of our other programs?

Outsourcing Options

Another time and often cost effective way to provide intensive training to staff is to outsource. It is important to note that there are different levels of outsourcing. The levels of outsourcing range from borrowing plans to having on- or offsite training provided by an expert training service. It is important for a librarian to consider the options available for training. Often, there are lessons, handouts, vendors, or experts available to provide education that will save the librarian precious time and energy for the day-to-day functioning of the library.

The first level of outsourcing is borrowing plans or ideas. A great way to get ideas for library lessons is to participate in a library listserv, especially a listserv that caters to one's own type of library. Another great resource is LOEX Clearing House for Library Instruction, based out of Eastern Michigan University. LOEX is a resource for library educators which warehouses instructional lesson plans, handouts, presentation slides, or just ideas. After becoming a member, one can check out the information, use and adjust the materials to suit one's purpose, and then return the original materials and your modifications to LOEX. All of the instructional materials are donated items. Both of these sources assist the librarian because then he or she does not have to reinvent the wheel.

Another perhaps underutilized resource is library vendors. Vendors of library materials, particularly databases, often offer training and orientation to new users. Using the expert vendor to provide the training is effective both in time and cost. If the vendor can provide the training, then the librarian may focus on learning and not worry about planning and costs.

One may also outsource training by bringing in expert teachers. One may find a trainer at a local college or university, in local business, or in a technology or library training company. Hiring an outside trainer is a great time saver and can be a good selling point for the training, particularly if the librarian is not comfortable with the new technology or skill. An outside expert may lend a sense of importance to the training that the in-house librarian may not be able to muster.

Finally, one may want to completely outsource the training. One may hire training experts who provide an offsite location for training staff in library research and use skills. This type of training provides a level of intensity and focus for staff members that is otherwise not available onsite. The trainers may also provide a level of expertise that the librarian has not reached. Though costs for outsourcing should be considered, very often some level of outsourcing training is most effective.


· Contact any group below to get help with presentation skills.

ACRL/BIS Continuing Education Committee
c/o American Library Association
50 E. Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60611
Web site:

American Association for Adult & Continuing Education
1200 19th Street NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20036-2401
Fax 202-223-4579
Web site:

American Society for Training & Development
1640 King Street, Box 1443
Alexandria, VA 22313-2043
Fax 703-683-8103
Web site:

Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development
1250 N. Pitt Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-1453
Fax 703-299-8632
E-mail: Membership,
Web site:

Association for Experiential Education
2305 Canyon Boulevard, Suite #100
Boulder, CO 80302
Fax 303-440-9581
Web site:

Council for Adult & Experiential Education
243 S. Wabash Ave., Suite 800
Chicago, IL 60604
Fax 312-922-1769
E-mail: Membership,
Web site:

ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, & Vocational Education Center on Education & Training for Employment
The Ohio State University
1900 Kenny Road
Columbus, OH 43210-1090
800-848-4815 ext. 4-7886
Fax 614-292-1260
Web site:

Fred Pryor Seminars
2000 Shawnee Mission Parkway
Shawnee Mission, KS 66205
Web site:

Information Technology Training Association (ITTA)
8400 North MoPac Expressway, Suite 201
Austin, TX 78759
512-502-9300 tel
Fax 512-502-9308
E-mail: Executive Director, Doug Upchurch
Web site:

Instructional Systems Association
PO Box 1196
Sunset Beach, CA 90742-1196
Fax 714-846-3987
Web site:

International Board of Standards for Training, Performance, and Instruction
1931 West Wilson Street, Suite 4370
Batavia, Illinois 60510

National Association of Government Training and Development Directors
167 W. Main St., Suite 600
Lexington, KY 40607
Fax 606-231-1928
E-mail: Meredith Cash

National Society for Experiential Education
3509 Haworth Drive, Suite 207
Raleigh, NC 27609-7229
Fax 919-787-3381
Web site:

National Society for Performance and Instruction
1300 L Street NW, Suite 1250
Washington, DC 20005
Fax 202-408-7972

Professional Development Section
c/o Special Libraries Association
1700 18th Street NW
Washington, DC 20009
Web site:

Toastmasters International
P.O. Box 9052
Mission Viejo, CA 92690

Training Media Association
198 Thomas Johnson Drive, Suite 206
Frederick, MD 21702
Fax 301-695-7627
E-mail: Bob Gehrke, Executive Director
Web site:

Web Based Training Association
Web site:

· Contact any group below for instructional materials

ACRL Bibliographic Instruction Section (BIS)
BIS Newsletter
50 E. Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60611

Library Instruction Round Table News
American Library Association
50 E. Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60611

LOEX Clearinghouse
University Library
Eastern Michigan University
Ypsilanti, MI 48197
Web site:

Public Services Section
General Reference SIG
c/o Medical Library Association
Six North Michigan Ave., Suite 300
Chicago, IL 60602

WILU (Workshop on Instruction in Library Use)
c/o Bob Elliott
Leddy Library
University of Windsor
Windsor, Ontario N9B 3P4
519-253-4232 ext. 3161

Web site:

Training Net
Web site:

· Find below some useful discussion lists

BI-L (bibliographic instruction)

BIBSOFT (bibliographic database management)

MEDLIB-L (medical libraries)


Ardis, Susan. (1998). Creating Internet-based tutorials. Information Outlook, 2(10), 17-21.

Bjorner, Susan, Betty Edison, and Edward B. Stear. (1997). Our profession is changing: whether we like it or not. Online, 21(1), 72-82.

Cibbarelli, P. (1998). Guidelines for successfully teaching the Internet. Information Outlook, 2(11), 19-20.

Conner, M. (May 1998). Organizations for learning professionals. <> 19 April 1999.

DeBrower, A., Skinder, R. (1996). Designing an Internet class for a scientific and technical audience. Special Libraries, 87(3), 139-147.

Kautzman, A. (1999). Digital impact: Reality, the web, and the changed business of reference. Searcher, 7(3), 18-19.

Pask, J., Snow, C. (1995). Undergraduate instruction and the Internet. Library Trends, 44(2), 306-318.

Ridgeway, Trish. (1989). Changing teaching styles. Reader's Quarterly, 29(1), 24-28.

Tiefel, Virginia M. (1995). Library user education: examining its past, projecting its future. Library Trends, 44(2), 318-321.

Tanji, L. (1997). The impact of technology on library instruction: Papers and session materials presented at the twenty-first national LOEX library instruction conference. Library Quarterly, 67(1), 83-86.

Tennant, R. (1998). Digital libraries: Learning and retooling. Library Journal, 123(5), 28-30.

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