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Language Hang-ups: Why are we “instruction” librarians?

Words Tend to be Inadequate

Illustration by chrispiascik  (via Flickr)

I know many academics, librarians, and academic librarians who can’t help but get bogged down in semantic debates. They either feel so passionately about language and word usage that they can’t contain their opinions, or they just like to hold up document revisions out of spite/ego/a twisted sense of amusement. I like to assume the former explanation for language hangups, even though I often grumble as meetings progress well past their hour mark because of a group’s inability to get the wording just right.

Although hard on my own writing and word choices, I tend not to get to sucked in to arguments over semantics because I think that at some point we all just need to let it go and head home for dinner. But lately I’ve been really bothered by one word–really, it’s use–that’s never been problem for me before, and isn’t particularly controversial at all.


Specifically, when used as such:

  • library instruction
  • information literacy instruction
  • instruction session
  • library instruction session
  • instruction coordinator
  • conduct/hold an instruction session

You get the idea. Here’s my hangup:  Why is it Instruction and not Education?

Why are we instruction librarians conducting library instruction sessions as a part of an information literacy instruction program that has an instruction coordinator? Why are we not just librarians who teach relevant classes as a part of our information literacy education program? Is this a holdover from when we used the term bibliographic instruction? I ask because I don’t seem to have the capacity to determine the right keywords to answer this question by searching in various library-related databases (thanks, but no thanks, LISTA).

To a certain degree, language is important in that it helps members of group communicate with a shared sense of meaning and understanding. Despite variations in the term information literacy it’s generally one that all librarians use in conversation and practice. The same can easily be said for library or information literacy instruction. We all understand what an instruction session is and what we mean when we say we are instruction librarians, but a huge problem arises when we use that language outside of libraries in our respective academic environments where our peers say classes, education, teaching, and learning. Colleges and universities aren’t creating Centers for Instruction they’re creating Teaching & Learning Centers.

I think it’s easy to argue that librarians aren’t using instruction in place of teaching and education when we talk to people outside of libraryland; that we’re sophisticated enough to engage in the code-switching necessary to effectively communicate with faculty and administrators in the language they understand. Even if this is true (which I would argue it’s not), I think that when all of our professional literature, associations, and subsequently, documentation for tenure and promotion (for those of us in those kinds of positions) are expressed in a language that is fundamentally different from the way that teaching and education is expressed by our peers in K-12 and higher education, we have a problem. Yes, every discipline has its language, but in every discipline you have classes, teachers, and education (i.e. it’s math education, not math instruction as an expression of a discipline that teaches people how to teach math).

Our library is currently recruiting a new Research & Instruction Librarian. You’ll notice that we changed the typical reference to research but left the instruction bit in. At the time I didn’t give it much thought, but now that I’ve been thinking about what our language use potentially implies about our profession and how it can impact our relationships with others, I CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT IT.

Am I just missing something? Is there a good reason instruction has become our descriptor? Are there readings I missed in grad school that might help put this issue into perspective?


  1. This is a great topic! We discussed this at greater length in my academically-bented librarianship classes in grad school. I think “Instruction” is an older generation librarianship term that no one has thought of a widespread synonym for in the 21st century where “instruction” encompasses everything you stated. I also think that people avoid putting “Teaching” or “Educational” in a job title because they want to distinguish that the position is not for subject librarian liaison position with the Education/Teaching majors… my two-cents is replacing “Instruction” with “Learning”.

    • It’s so cool to learn that you’re discussing this issue in MLS programs. Mine did not.

      Your comment is yet another vote for adding the word “learning” into our titles somehow, which I think speaks to what we value: helping students learn.

  2. My first thought is that we use titles like “instruction librarian” help to differentiate from the field of education in instances where “education librarian” might indicate “librarian to an education school.” At the same time, titles like “music librarian” could mean both “librarian to a music school” but also possibly “librarian of music and musical resources” depending on the institution. Similarly, “science librarian” or “engineering librarian” or “business librarian.” “Instruction” is a description of duties, not a statement of subject, but by that measure why not “teaching?”

    This post is so apropos of my current dilemma. Our director is retiring, our jobs are shifting, and we are considering the job description of a new librarian as well as changing our own titles and descriptions. I’ve been doing some looking into titles that would seem to broadly encompass what I do while being more descriptive to the college community outside the library. As you say, language, and more specifically job titles, are meant to communicate. My current favorites are Teaching and Learning Librarian or, simply, Learning Librarian. The last one does get awkward when you introduce yourself, though: “Hi, I’m a Learning Librarian.” “Oh, really? What are you learning?”

    • Learning Librarian can definitely get awkward! I was just talking about this language debacle with a friend who was a school media specialist (how’s that for a vague title?) before working in academic and special libraries and always hated the term “teacher-librarian,” as though all librarians don’t teach in one way or another.

      I really like “Teaching and Learning Librarian” as a potential alternative, but to people outside of libraries I usually just say I’m a librarian and then proceed to (briefly) describe my specialization.

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