College & Research Libraries News

THE WAY I SEE IT: Bibliographic instruction: A corporate trainer’s take

by Kenneth D. Fink

When I was a corporate trainer for Great Western Bank, there were several key principles in delivering and designing train- ing programs for employees, many of them college students working part-time for the company.

These guiding principles, borrowed from adult learning gum Malcolm Knowles and other training professionals, include several key ideas useful to librarians who conduct computer- based bibliographic instruction (BI).

They embrace the notion that adults learn by doing; that adults learn from each other’s experience, as well as from the instructor; that adults want to know upfront why what we teach is worth learning1; and, finally, that learning often happens in direct relationship to the amount of intellectual excitement created by the materials—and the instructor.

It takes practice

The principle that adults learn by doing suggests that teaching research skills via the computer requires computer practice to transfer those skills. Indeed, one could see this principle at work in a typical training session for employees. When I demonstrated on the bank’s computers a deposit with cash back, for example, new customer service representatives (CSR) could not develop this skill without repeated hands-on computer practice.

It was the trainer’s responsibility to describe the transaction, demonstrate the transaction on the computer, and finally give students the opportunity to practice the transaction and receive constructive feedback from the instructor about their performance.

Providing constructive feedback is a subject that deserves a separate article, but briefly, it means describing for students first what they did well and then what might be improved upon. Also vital to student success was giving them the opportunity for practice as close as possible to the instruction. It did not bode well for the instructor or the students if the opportunity to practice a bank transaction came hours after the initial demonstration.

Time: Bl's greatest enemy

So if one is demonstrating how to search the library’s OP AC to a large class, provide a quiz, an exercise, or a game they can do in pairs before you go to on to a new database demonstration. Do not wait until the end of the BI session to give students an opportunity to practice. I say this because the greatest enemy of bibliographic instruction is time. There is simply not enough of it, and librarians (this one included) are sometimes guilty of rushing on to teach another database before the lessons of the previous ones have been reinforced.

About thr authors

Kenneth D. Fink is librarian atPepperdine Universityand California State University, Northridge, e-mail:

The idea that adults learn from each other as much as from the instructor may seem like unconventional wisdom. Studies have shown that adults bring different levels of experience to the classroom. This is plain to see in the varying degrees of comfort students have in searching the Internet, not to mention the university’s subscription databases. When the instructor honors, even solicits students’ Internet experience, ideally at the beginning of a BI session, students are more likely to honor the librarian’s recommendations. Also, let students know at the beginning of the session that you welcome their participation and that you will be calling on them. Then they know they are accountable and they’ll be prepared. Librarians may also want to distinguish between searching the Web and searching the university’s subscription databases on the Web, with which students tend to be less familiar.

Give students the big picture. The big picture is the larger context into which a specific BI session fits. It provides a reason for students to invest their time and energy in mastering what we have to teach. This belongs at the beginning of every BI session. What is the “big picture” librarians can share with students?

At the beginning of the BI session ask how many of them have ever felt clueless about where and how to begin an instructor’s research assignment. Tell them that the skills and resources you hope to impart over the next two hours will change their entire college experience. Guarantee that by the end of the session they will understand at least two electronic and print resources they can use to begin research on their subject—taking the first steps to mastering the resources that will turn anxiety into confidence.

The training principle that learning happens in direct relationship to the amount of intellectual excitement seems almost an insulting notion. After all, learning should be rewarding in itself and not dependent on the instructor’s ability to provide a good time for students. Yet few people would deny that BI includes engaging exercises, some friendly competition, lots of student praise, maybe even a prize or two at the end can turn a first-rate instructional session into a memorable one. There are many books devoted to designing relevant exercises, icebreakers, and games for training sessions. The Complete Games Trainers Play, by Edward E. Scannell is an excellent resource librarians can use to energize bibliographic instruction.2

Give students the big picture. The big picture is the larger context into which a specific BI session fits. It provides a reason for students to invest their time and energy in mastering what we have to teach.

Finally, a heretical suggestion: abolish the term “bibliographic instruction” which causes the eyes of students to glaze over. It is a term that is fine as jargon used by and for librarians, but avoid mentioning it in front of those who receive it. At Great Western Bank, training classes for the traditional “bank teller” function were never called “teller training”. It was more accurately called “Customer Service Training” for employees called Customer Service Representatives. Was there anything wrong with being called a teller? Not at all, except it was a limiting term in describing a position that included considerable people and problem-solving skills, as well as product sales goals.

“Bibliographic instruction” is a limiting term, as well. It does not adequately describe for students the variety of skills required to effectively search and record both print and online sources of information. What should we call bibliographic instruction? The possibilities are endless. A few that spring to mind include, “Research Methods for Student Success,” “Internet and Print Resources for Students,” “Internet and Library Search Strategies for College Success,” “Investigative Skills for College Success.” Perhaps at the weekly staff meeting, librarians could brainstorm other creative alternatives.

Lastly, creative bibliographic instruction is just good customer service. CSRs had customers to please; I had the CSRs to please. They were my customers, just as the students are my customers/patrons now. And great customer, great patron service is what being a librarian is all about.


In the article “Print book bibliographies on the Web,” (C&RL News, March 2001), the author refers to a New York Times article that was not cited. It is Doreen Carvajal’s “The Book’s in Print but its Bibliography Lives on in Cyberspace,” New York Times, May 29, 2000, Al.


  1. Malcolm Knowles, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species, 3rd ed. (Houston: Gulf Publishing Company Book Division, 1986).
  2. Edward E. Scannell and John W. Newstrom, The Complete Games Trainers Play: Experiential Learning Exercises (New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 1994). ■
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