Learning to Teach: Theory and Practice

By Anna Holmes

When I started my journey into librarianship, I had no idea that I would end up where I am today. I was convinced I wanted to work in conservation and have a quiet job where it was just me and my books. In January 2022, I acquired a job as a teaching assistant, and everything changed. I realized I had a great passion for sharing the world of rare books and teaching people about the history of the book. Therefore, in the fall of 2022, I also started an independent study under the direction of Education Librarian Maureen Maryanski so that I could learn more about teaching with primary sources and set myself up for a career doing so.

Figure 1: Anna Holmes explaining part of a printing process to a library visitor.

My job as a teaching assistant consists of three 4-hour shifts every week where I assist with selecting materials, set up and clean up, and teaching. So, while I have been working on building the practical side of teaching in special collections, I also wanted to build my theoretical knowledge of the field. This was why I elected to do an independent study. For this class, Maureen and I had weekly reading assignments and meetings every Friday to discuss those readings. I would also submit reflections after classes that assessed how my experience in them fit into the readings for that week.

We started with the Primary Source Literacy Guidelines to provide a foundation for the rest of the semester. We continued with readings from Using Primary Sources by Bahde, Smedberg, and Taormina and Past or Portal? Enhancing Undergraduate Learning through Special Collections and Archives by Mitchell, Seiden, and Taraba. Then we moved on to works like Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks and Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire.

There is a paradox in the field where primary source repositories are expected to use their collections to teach students without being provided the education or resources to do so.

One of the themes I came across in these readings is the expectation of librarians to teach, especially in special collections. There is a paradox in the field where primary source repositories are expected to use their collections to teach students without being provided the education or resources to do so. For example, Hubbard and Lotts advocate for the value of students getting to handle primary sources and how it enriches their learning (2013). Krause addresses librarians’ lack of formal training in her article “‘It Makes History Alive for Them’: The Role of Archivists and Special Collections Librarians in Instructing Undergraduates” (2010). While I have chosen to undergo an independent study focused solely on teaching as a librarian, this education is not something that is required of me or any of my peers.

My situation is unique in that I sought out a position has a teaching assistant and I have been lucky enough to use my time during my MLS to build these skills. Many librarians who end up teaching are thrown in headfirst and must learn along the way. Badhe, Smedberg, and Taormina point out in their introduction: “Though instruction within special collections and archives is often crucial to advancing the educational and research mission of libraries and other institutions, those who find themselves teaching with primary sources are often unprepared to do so.” They emphasize this issue again just a paragraph later where they point out that library schools do not require education-training and therefore librarians have “a noticeable deficiency in the education of the profession.” (2014).

Working as a teaching assistant has opened my eyes to the amount of time it takes to prepare for each class. Meeting with the professors, selecting materials, finding materials, planning the class set up, and more can be tasks that take the majority of my 4-hour teaching assistant shifts. We often start preparing for classes two or more weeks in advance to make sure that we are fully prepared by the time the students come into the library. While most of the readings we covered addressed the lack of education and the lack of resources, I felt that the only reading that really addressed how much time instruction takes was Krause (2010).

Figure 2: Anna Holmes showing visitors how to put together a volvelle as part of the Lilly Library’s participation in one of Indiana University’s “First Thursday” events.

Information literacy is an important skill that I believe can be taught earlier than in undergrad, and using a learner-focused teaching style makes that possible.

One of my ambitions as a teaching librarian is to reach audiences that have previously (and sometimes still are) excluded from special collections. Teaching to Transgress was a source that we used for learning about teaching diverse populations: how to reach people and make them feel welcome to engage with our materials. bell hooks encourages educators to see teaching as a reciprocal process where there is as much to learn from students as there is to teach them. We read Learner-Centered Pedagogy by Cook and Klipfel to learn more about teaching with empathy. This work especially motivated me to broaden special collections to younger audiences. Information literacy is an important skill that I believe can be taught earlier than in undergrad, and using a learner-focused teaching style makes that possible. I want to use my position in a place of outreach to open the libraries I will one day work to wider audiences.

My independent study has affected both how I see myself as an educator and how I see education in libraries as a whole. Reading Teaching to Transgress and Learner-Centered Pedagogy have shaped the way that I view myself in the classroom. Rather than trying to assert my dominance over them, I put myself on an equal level to the students and try to cater my materials and my teaching to their needs. I encourage them to ask questions and to be critical of the materials in front of them. Krause (2010) and Reynolds (2012) have helped me assess my own teaching and to emphasize taking time to reflect after each session. All of these readings overall have given me causes to advocate for, like inviting younger audiences to work with special collections materials and standardized education-training for librarians.

Earning my MLS and working in special collections has been an incredible journey that has emboldened my passion for teaching with primary sources and seated a deep gratitude for the opportunities I have been able to grasp. Not every MLS student has the chance to explore the different areas of special collections librarianship that I have, but I want to be an advocate for those opportunities. If we expect librarians to teach, we should give them the education and background to do so properly. This can be accomplished through independent studies or part-time jobs like I have, but I believe a better way to accomplish this is to require education-training in the library science curriculum. While not every librarian may choose to specialize in teaching, it is clear from the literature that there is an expectation to do so, and providing that education in our degree is the way to set us up for success in our careers.


Bahde, Anne, Heather Smedberg, and Mattie Taormina. Using Primary Sources: Hands-On Instructional Exercises. Santa Barbara, California: Libraries Unlimited, 2014.

Freire, Paulo, 1921-1997. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2000.

hooks, bell, Teaching to Transgress: Education As the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Hubbard, M. A., & Lotts, M. C. “Special Collections, Primary Resources, and Information Literacy Pedagogy.” Communications in Information Literacy, 7, no.1 (2013), 24-38.

Klipfel, K. M., & Brecher, C. D. Learner-centered pedagogy: Principles and practice. American Library Association, 2017.

Krause, Magia G. “’It Makes History Alive for them’: the Role of Archivists and Special Collections Librarians in Instruction Undergraduates.” Journal of Academic Librarianship, 36, no. 5 (2010), 401-411.

Mitchell, E., Seiden, P., & Taraba, S. Past or portal? : enhancing undergraduate learning through special collections and archives. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, 2012.

Reynolds, Matthew C. “Lay of the Land: The State of Bibliographic Instruction Efforts in ARL Special Collections Libraries,” RBM 10, no. 1 (Spring 2012), 13-26.

Anna Holmes

Anna Holmes recently received her Master of Library Science with a specialization in Rare Books and Manuscripts from Indiana University in Bloomington. She continues to work part-time at the Lilly Library in Bloomington as she works to find a career in special collections.