Practical How-To Guide: Communicating and Collaborating with Faculty Instructors

By Melissa Barton

A row of Harlem Renaissance books on a library cart.
Books for a session on Harlem Renaissance publishing at the Beinecke Library. Photograph courtesy of Melissa Barton.

The majority of instruction sessions organized or led by librarians and archivists involve hosting either individual or multi-session visits from a longer credit course, whether graduate, undergraduate, or K-12 students. This How-To Guide provides advice and practical steps for librarians and archivists in collaborating with the instructors of those courses—referred to here as “faculty” but often graduate student instructors, high school teachers, and instructional leaders in other roles.

It seems worth acknowledging at the outset that collaborations between library and archives staff and faculty instructors at colleges and universities can often lead to misunderstandings and even hurt feelings. [1] Those in each profession sometimes don’t understand the demands and schedules of the other, and those coming from each profession may have different learning priorities—such as information literacy competencies vs. content mastery. Added to these factors may be an underlying discomfort with openly discussing teaching practice: teaching practice tends to feel very personal to individuals in both professions, and neither information science professionals nor higher education faculty receive adequate pedagogical training in a typical course of study. [2] These factors highlight the importance of transparent communication, setting clear expectations, and practicing empathy when embarking on any collaboration.

This How-To Guide offers brief tips in three areas: initiating faculty outreach, communicating about course support, and troubleshooting. Keep in mind that each institutional context is different and not all of these tips will work at every institution; moreover, in many institutional contexts, responsibility for these tasks may be distributed across multiple roles. The main aim of the guide is to encourage users to make the most of their communication with potential collaborators.

Initiating Faculty Outreach

Don’t wait for faculty instructors to come to you: proactively reaching out to faculty whose courses may benefit from a visit to your collection can result in multi-year relationships.

  • Get in front of new faculty. New faculty members will be teaching new courses, and potentially have room and flexibility in their planning to build primary source instruction into their syllabi. If you can, get on the schedule for new faculty orientation to showcase your collection’s strengths, describe your instructional program, and highlight past successes. 
  • Review faculty bios in key departments. Invite faculty to meet one-on-one to discuss both their research needs and teaching with the collections. 
  • Reach out to regular users of the collection. If a member of the faculty frequents your reading room, but doesn’t teach with your collections, ask that person to meet with you. Take a good look at their course descriptions and syllabi (if available) and be prepared with suggestions for ways you might support the course(s) instructionally.
  • Search the course catalog for classes that are an ideal fit for your instructional program—some institutions focus on research seminars for first-year students, advanced seminars for history students, etc. 
  • Communicate and collaborate with subject liaison librarians. Often the first point of contact within the library, make sure your liaison librarians understand your instruction program and are prepared to promote it to faculty.
  • Send summer reminders. A friendly reminder near the end of the summer recess often jogs faculty who are deep in syllabus-writing to consider including a visit to a collection in their practice. This can be as simple as a mass email to faculty with whom you’ve already established contact. (Mass emails to faculty lists could work, too, if you have access to them.) You may also want to include in your reminder a link to the Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy, inviting faculty to consider building some of the learning outcomes into their overarching course goals.
  • Remember that some people prefer to help themselves. Have information on your website outlining instructional support offerings, with sample instructional goals, past materials lists, and instructions for how to plan a session. (See, for example, Houghton Library’s teaching page or Emory’s Rose Library.)

Don’t wait for faculty instructors to come to you: proactively reaching out to faculty whose courses may benefit from a visit to your collection can result in multi-year relationships.

Communicating about Course Support

It’s vital to communicate mutual goals, ideals, and needs as much as possible up front, before a session begins. Faculty may have unconscious expectations and not even realize until a session, when suddenly they’d love for you to give a mini-lecture on the history of your collection. It is better to manage these expectations at the outset to avoid surprises.

  • Use an online form to gather information. This can include basic information and logistics, uploading a syllabus, and questions about instructional goals and assignments. A form can be a gentle way to establish some baseline expectations, such as that instruction sessions will have learning outcomes for students. But these questions can also be off-putting to faculty with differing pedagogical styles, so it’s a good idea to include many friendly offers of help and examples alongside the questions. Forms can also be great for tracking class requests and metrics. 
  • Meet in person. Especially when working with a faculty member for the first time, schedule a face-to-face meeting to discuss the content of the class and expectations for planning and delivery of instruction. Meeting face-to-face will give you a good initial sense of the instructor’s communication style and will help the conversation feel more collegial when discussing more complex or potentially freighted topics around labor distribution and teaching practice. You may want to develop a more or less formal checklist of questions for them to answer. Some questions to consider:
    • What are your goals for the session(s)? (Here you might introduce some or all of the Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy and discuss which goal(s) best fit the instructor’s ambitions for the course, using the PSL Guidelines as a tool for conversation.)
    • Will there be an associated assignment?
    • Do you want to plan a course reserve? Teaching gallery? (Other options as available)
    • Who will select and request materials for the session—course instructor, instructional librarian, some combination?
    • Will you prepare your students for our entry procedures and expectations? Special collections entry procedures and requirements (bag lock up, clothing restrictions) can be alienating for students, and it’s ideal to have students prepared ahead of time.
    • How do you want me to be involved in the delivery of instruction during the session? Do you want me to make introductory remarks about the library/collections/history of the collection? Do you want me to give a handling demonstration (this may be required)? Do you want me to lead an activity/discussion? Do you want me to introduce search/discovery tools? Here you can give some examples of lessons/activities that you think would align with the instructional goals.
    • Since our time is limited, how would you prioritize your goals? What is the most important thing for students to get out of the session?
    • Can my lesson take the entire class meeting time, or will you want time in the session to discuss class readings, hand back papers, make announcements?
    • Will you and your students participate in our assessment program?
  • Share ahead of time. Before the session, continue the conversation by sending the course instructor a draft list of materials you’ll be using in the session and a draft outline of the lesson plan or procedure. 
  • Reflect afterwards. After a session, gather feedback from the instructor. This can be as informal as ending your session five minutes early for a quick conversation or as formal as distributing a feedback form.

It’s vital to communicate mutual goals, ideals, and needs as much as possible up front, before a session begins.

Troubleshooting

Of course, things sometimes go wrong—here are some of the most common stumbling blocks.

  • “I just want them to see what you have here.” Sometimes the faculty instructor’s goals will be centered around building students’ enthusiasm for collections or experiencing the “magic” of collections. [3] These are worthy goals that relate directly to the “Conceptualize” and “Find and Access” goals in the PSL guidelines. You can use statements like these as a jumping off point to propose an activity involving deeper analysis.
  • “I want them to have an experience of discovery.” Orchestrating 20-30 experiences of discovery is extremely labor-intensive for the librarian/archivist and can also feel antithetical to the processual nature of research. Ask the faculty member what qualifies as a “discovery” for them, and whether an experience of digging and finding something—anything—worthy of comment might be even more beneficial for learners new to using primary sources.
  • Expecting too much subject expertise from the librarian/archivist. Collections are vast and many first-time instructors don’t realize that the librarian/archivist can’t be expected to prepare a detailed lecture on any given set of items in the collections. Be honest about your expertise and in what subject areas you are prepared to offer additional content; presumably the course instructor has ample subject expertise. You can always steer focus back to the materials at hand and the information literacy skills you are able to practice and promote with students. If someone asks a question to which you don’t know the answer, treat it as an opportunity to describe how you would go about finding the answer. 
  • Capacity challenges. If you just don’t have room for another session, offer alternatives such as online tutorials, videos, or tours. Keep good measures of the number of requests you receive and use these to advocate with library leadership for more support. 

[1] See, for example, conversations in participatory session led by Melissa Barton and Molly Schwartzburg, “Mixing Hands-On with Do-Not-Touch: Active Learning in the Special Collections Classroom,” Rare Book and Manuscript Section Conference, June 2016.

[2] Sammie Morris, Lawrence J. Mykytiuk and Sharon A. Weiner, “Archival Literacy for History Students; Identifying Faculty Expectations of Archival Research Skills,” The American Archivist 77, no. 2 (fall/winter 2014): 394-424.

[3] Anne Bahde and Heather Smedberg, “Measuring the Magic: Assessment in the Special Collections and Archives Classroom,” RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage 13, no. 2 (2012): 152-174.


Do you have other techniques or strategies for communicating and collaborating with instructors? Start the conversation with a forum thread.


Melissa Barton, Ph.D., is Curator of Drama and Prose for the Yale Collection of American Literature at Beinecke Library. A former high school teacher, Melissa teaches a full credit undergraduate course at Yale titled “African American Literature in the Archives,” as well as averaging 30 individual classroom sessions per year.

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