Librarian as Teacher: Information literacy in special libraries, or, how to secretly teach people things

When I was in library school I learned that information literacy is something that is taught in classes and seminars, by professional librarians to small or large groups of clients. While the content of information literacy training varied, what was made clear in the model I was presented with was that a client knew when they were being taught information literacy.

However my first few jobs were in special libraries, in corporate environments. I found the difference between information literacy theory and practice very wide. Staff members, my clients, were not going to give 30 minutes or an hour of their time to ‘learn information literacy’ – not the least because they had been doing their jobs well before I came along, what did I have to teach them?

What became clear to me is that in special libraries we have to do information literacy by stealth. Badging it as ‘training’ ensured that no one was interested – but if I could articulate a benefit (such as having push notifications for updated data relevant to their project), my clients were eager to find out how to do this.

Training by stealth

Training by stealth

Training in this environment never happened in groups – it was always one-on-one, and more often was in their workspace, rather than mine. Working in their environment was preferred, as it gave me a chance to understand how what I was showing them fit into their standard workflow. It also gave me a chance to show off – when my client’s team overheard us making progress, they wanted to know more!

Working in special libraries often means working to a greater depth with a smaller group of clients. In a successful special library, you have the luxury of being embedded in the research, development and knowledge management process of the organisation, which allows you to be proactive in your information literacy training. Knowing what people are working on, and how your organisation works with information, you can identify what your clients will need and want, what will save them time and provide better resources. These benefits are often highly specific to an individual or project team.

The Special Libraries Association (SLA) has published a document outlining competencies for information professionals of the 21st century. While it specifically mentions information literacy only once (stating that an information professional “develops, delivers and manages curricula educating clients in information literacy”), there are several points within the document that hint at the stealth role of information literacy, particularly the role of the information professional as a champion of services and business outcomes.

SLA have also published a series of member blog posts about the tasks that information professionals perform – and how to do them well! This makes for good reading for anyone working with information, but particularly for those working in the corporate space.

Alyson Dalby, ILN Director

Posted in Discussion topics, Round 2015B and tagged , , , .


  1. Dear Alyson: Yes! …”one-on-one”…”in their workspace”. I had the same experience. I, on research environments in engineering science and technology. In a recent discussion with my colleagues, they used the model of group teaching, I told them no, single / person to person!

  2. Dear Alyson, I manage a library service in an Australian law firm and agree with your comment that teaching information literacy by stealth, preferably one-to-one works best. Highly capable people like lawyers are more likely to learn if they don’t think that they are being ‘taught’. It also help if you can persuade them that no question is a silly question.

  3. Pingback: Librarian as Teacher: Information literacy in special libraries, or, how to secretly teach people things | International Librarians Network | teaching knowledge and creativity

  4. Pingback: October #ukmedlibs chat: librarians as teachers | ukmedlibs

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