comments 4

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?


Leave a Reply