Research Agenda for Library Instruction and Information Literacy

ACRL IS Research and Scholarship Committee

In the April 1980 issue of C&RL News, the ACRL Bibliographic Instruction Section (BIS) Research Committee published the Research Agenda for Bibliographic Instruction. The Research Agenda outlined important research questions related to instruction programs in academic libraries, with the hope that research would inform decisions about effective approaches for providing, managing, and evaluating classes and programs. Since its release over thirty ago, many aspects of the instructional environment have changed including identification of new user populations, development of increasingly networked technologies, reorganization of campus agencies, increased emphasis on academic accountability, and an evolving educational role for libraries and librarians.

Charged with updating the document in both the years 2000 and 2011, the ACRL Instruction Section (IS) Research and Scholarship Committee reviewed research articles formally published in the United States, and gathered input from national conferences to identify important research areas relevant to academic library instruction programs in the current environment. While many of the original issues still lacked substantial research, new themes also arose. Similarly, the scope of the document was expanded to include an emphasis on information literacy, reflecting the transition that our institutions and organizations are experiencing.

The Research Agenda for Library Instruction and Information Literacy is organized into four main sections: LearnersTeachingOrganizational Context, and Assessment. Each section poses general questions with the goal of encouraging those interested – practitioners, researchers, and students alike – to conduct research around these important areas. Many studies published since the previous Research Agenda have focused on a specific environment, situation or audience, making it difficult to generalize the conclusions for other contexts. It is hoped that this Research Agenda will encourage researchers to experiment with a range of research methods, to revisit issues and focus on different variables, and to collaborate among institutions so that results are meaningful for wider audiences.


Academic library users represent diverse ages, backgrounds, and abilities. Information seeking behaviors, technological competencies, and research skills vary widely among learners, presenting a challenge for librarians. By understanding more about these audiences, instruction librarians can create meaningful educational environments and enduring library instruction programs that meet an individual’s current and future needs as a student and lifelong learner.

A. Audiences

Over the past thirty years formal and informal library instruction has evolved to include many groups previously underserved or unacknowledged. These populations include groups such as: at-risk students, English-as-a-second-language (ESL) and international students, students with disabilities, returning adult students, off-campus and distance education students, high school groups, faculty (including part-time, adjunct, and retired), graduate and teaching assistants, campus staff, administrators, and librarians themselves. Not only does each of these audiences present unique issues for library instruction and information literacy programs, many of them overlap to create complex student groups containing even deeper levels of diversity.

  1. How can the emergence of new campus audiences have an impact on academic library instruction?
  2. How can instruction programs best recognize and adapt to changes in the characteristics of and variety of targeted audiences?
  3. What issues should librarians be aware of for marketing and promotion, and outreach to these groups?
  4. How might the type, timing, and location of instruction be best tailored to each audience?
  5. Conversely, how can learning objects be reused for multiple audiences without compromising learning?

B. Skills

In order to locate and use information resources efficiently, students must develop and employ a host of information literacy skills.   Critical thinking and ethical use of information remain key practices for students and faculty alike.  The ubiquity of the internet for many user groups, the continuing rate of technological change, and larger social fluctuations regarding the purpose and practice of higher education all demand that students develop a broad set of skills in order to succeed in school, work, and life.  How have information-seeking behaviors of library users changed?

  1. How has use of the Web changed perceptions and use of the library?
  2. How is technology altering the need for certain types of skills?
  3. What impact do the following educational trends have on the development of effective information literacy skills, concepts, and habits?
    • Shifts in scholarly communication practices
    • Trends toward digital learning objects and online learning
    • Student learning opportunities outside the traditional classroom

C. Learning Styles

Tailoring library instruction sessions to accommodate various learning styles – such as visual, auditory and kinesthetic – has gained prominence in the past few decades. However, recent literature has questioned librarians’ reliance on a learning styles approach.  And yet, discerning how different learners will learn most effectively, how to balance the variety of styles preferred in one class, and how to adapt to these learning styles in both traditional and online learning environments requires special attention.

  1. What evidence exists for determining different learning styles?
  2. How effective are different methods of instruction for addressing various learning styles?
  3. What characteristics of learning environments positively impact the experiences of people with each of the various learning styles?
  4. What impact do different learning styles have on the effectiveness of various teaching methodologies?
  5. What impact do online learning environments have on learning styles and what are the implications for library instruction?
  6. How can we promote active learning to accommodate all learning styles?


As with all instruction, library instruction and information literacy can be informed by a variety of pedagogical theories and techniques. The design and implementation of a library class or course will be driven largely by the teaching methodology the instructor adopts. Methods (such as problem-based learning, collaborative learning and hands-on learning), tools, (such as presentation software or electronic classrooms), and the nature of the class, (such as credit, non-credit, course-integrated, or optional), all affect the impact of the instruction given. Greater understanding of how these various issues influence teaching and learning will help librarians improve instructional practice.

A. Pedagogy

Library instruction has foundations in educational pedagogies including liberal, traditional, behavioral, progressive, and radical. Simultaneously, the pedagogy of library instruction is furthered by its engagement with disciplines – such as cognitive science, information architecture and design, and human-computer interaction – and concepts such as action research, distance education, home-schooling, learning communities, and multiculturalism. There is a continuing need for research into the pedagogical basis of library instruction, and the application of educational theories and methodologies to actual library instruction.

  1. Has library instruction developed its own theoretical basis and methodologies? If not, should it?
  2. What is the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and what has been its impact on library instruction?
  3. How has the pedagogy of library instruction been affected by the emergence of the concepts and disciplines listed above?
  4. Is library instruction an appropriate setting for teaching critical thinking skills and evaluation of information? If so, what are the best ways to approach these concepts?

B. Design and Implementation

Traditional library instruction classes are developed based on many factors, including varying characteristics of the audience and assignments, course nature and curricula, classroom settings, availability of instructional tools, and faculty needs. Development of information literacy courses or components involves a more holistic approach to determining the educational needs of students as they progress through their academic lives, as well as collaboration with other librarians and educators.

  1. To what extent can instructional projects created to serve one audience be effectively adapted to serve others, such as a program designed for distance education students adapted for the general campus user population or vice-versa?
  2. Can effective, scalable instruction be developed for institutions of all sizes?
  3. What characteristics do successful information literacy instruction programs share and how can such a program be successfully implemented?

C. Methods of Instruction

As with all instruction, teaching methodology used by instructors in library instruction and information literacy has a profound effect on learning.  Studies on effective teaching methods in traditional library instruction continue to gain the attention of academic librarians.  There is a growing need of research into teaching methodology for teaching information literacy within the online environment.

  1. In each environment, what approaches to instruction provide the most effective support for learners?
  2. Can traditional teaching methods be successfully applied to Web-based instruction?
  3. How effective is online instruction compared to more traditional instruction methods?
  4. What is the relationship between effective instruction and the timing of assignments?
  5. How can educational techniques such as active learning, cooperative learning, self-directed or independent learning, and action learning inform traditional as well as online library instruction?
  6. How effective are different methods of instruction to help develop critical thinking skills of learners?

D. Library Teaching and Continuing Education

Librarians need to develop essential teaching skills, to continually learn more effective means of communication with students, to stay in touch with trends, and to incorporate new technology into their work.  Various models currently exist within the profession for developing instruction skills including library school courses continuing education programs, workshops, seminars, conferences, institutes, web-based synchronous and asynchronous instruction, and texts; however research could determine the need for and impact of directing additional resources towards developing librarians’ instructional techniques and expertise.

  1. What are the most effective ways for a librarian to learn fundamental methodologies and pedagogies?
  2. What are the most appropriate instruction-delivery modalities, such as face-to-face or online, to prepare librarians to teach information literacy skills?
  3. What educational skills from other teaching professions are relevant for librarians?
  4. How can an institution ensure that librarians participating in information literacy efforts have the knowledge and skills to make the program successful?
  5. What impact does assessment of instruction, such as teaching portfolios or peer observation, have in the promotion and tenure process?


Library instruction exists both as a function within the library and as a part of the overall mission of the university, college, or educational institution. Library instruction and information literacy programs can be organized and managed according to different models and influenced by the internal structure of the library. The success of information literacy and library instruction initiatives is also highly dependent on the larger institutional environment. Factors such as the level of cooperation between academic departments, the perception of librarians as teachers and faculty colleagues, and expectations for the library determine how these programs are implemented and sustained.

A. Relationship within the Library Organizational Structure

The organizational structure of information literacy or library instruction programs varies from library to library. Some examples of specific organizational models include a separate instruction unit or department with librarians assigned to it, team coordination of instruction, an instruction coordinator who does not supervise librarians directly, and instruction duties merged with reference or subject responsibilities. Organizational differences determine instruction librarians’ responsibilities within the library, with academic departments, and elsewhere in the institution. Questions remain about the benefits and drawbacks of different organizational models.

  1. What impact do different organizational models have on library instruction?
  2. How does instruction as a function overlap with, and what is its impact on, other services in the library such as reference, distance education, and web development?
  3. What professional roles and responsibilities would enhance the ability of librarians to provide high quality instruction?
  4. Is it more effective for generalists, subject specialists, or a combination of the two at different levels to teach information literacy and library instruction?
  5. What incentives support the development and delivery of high-quality library instruction?

B. Relationship to the Larger Institutional Environment

Effective instruction programs require an understanding of and collaboration with library stakeholders as well as a familiarity of the larger institutional structure, including departments and campus organizations concerned with student educational outcomes.  The role of information literacy must adapt to the continually changing landscape of higher education.  For example, as more institutions develop college-wide learning outcomes, librarians have new opportunities to make information literacy a part of the institutional culture.  Librarians’ understanding of the many factors that influence an institution’s culture is important when considering changes to existing programs or in the development of new information literacy programs.

  1. What institutional characteristics–academic, administrative, or cultural–lead to an environment supportive of information literacy?
  2. What are effective ways to integrate and promote information literacy outside the learning classroom?
  3. How does the perception of the librarian’s status and role in a student’s education affect the success of library instruction initiatives?
  4. Do campus-wide information literacy requirements facilitate quality library instruction programs and if so, how?
  5. How can we effectively negotiate the role and importance of information literacy standards to professional accreditations, subject area standards, or other model academic standards?

C. Relationship with Faculty

A primary goal of many library instruction programs is to play an essential role in the curriculum planning of the institution. As an increasing focus is placed on integrating and sustaining information literacy programs, collaborating with the faculty responsible for creating and offering the courses becomes essential. Whether promoting library instruction, consulting about assignments, or team-teaching a course, relationships with faculty members on an individual and departmental level become preeminent.

  1. What techniques are effective for promoting information literacy services to faculty?
  2. How can librarians and teaching faculty partner to ensure that students gain information literacy skills?
  3. What are the benefits and drawbacks of team teaching with faculty?
  4. What methods are effective in fostering and maintaining successful faculty-librarian collaboration?
  5. What are the characteristics of effective research instruction conducted by teaching faculty, teaching assistants, or other non-librarians?
  6. Do the different ways in which librarians and teaching faculty perceive research have an effect on how students learn research skills?


Assessment and evaluation are essential parts of documenting the effects and improvement of library instruction and information literacy programs. Future research in the areas of assessment, evaluation, and transferability needs to address involvement from stakeholders other than librarians, and include an integration of discipline-based standards or model academic standards. Information literacy programs need to show that skills learned are transferable from one discipline to another and from secondary school to higher education and beyond.

A. Evaluation of Instructors and Programs

Evaluation of instruction and information literacy programs is a key component in determining the value of programs, activities, and techniques within the educational process and to determine areas needing attention. Administrators are demanding justification for programs through cost-benefit analyses of programs and activities, and requiring evidence of successful learning outcomes.

  1. What are the most effective and ethical methods for evaluating librarians as teachers?
  2. How effective are formative versus summative assessments of instruction in libraries?
  3. How can we institute a culture of assessment at our libraries?

B. Assessment of Learning Outcomes

Assessment of educational outcomes provides measurable accountability for both teacher and learner. On-going assessment allows both teacher and learner to gauge progress and make adjustments in their approaches. Funding and accreditation organizations frequently emphasize focusing on and assessing student learning.

The literature addresses using different assessment tools (surveys, case studies, pre-tests and post-tests, rubrics, portfolios, citation analysis, etc.) for demonstration of and progress toward information literacy.  Current challenges for those assessing students’ information literacy abilities and progress include selecting and adapting tools or combinations of tools for different instructional situations.  Some standardized tests have been developed and implemented.  These tests may integrate assessment of technology skills with assessment of information literacy skills.

Information literacy practitioners are increasingly providing instruction online and have begun exploring assessment for different online tools and situations.  More research will be required as stand-alone and hybrid online instruction continues to grow.

  1. In what ways does information literacy instruction have a lasting impact on the ways individuals approach or think about research?
  2. How do library instruction and library usage impact academic success?
  3. How can assessment of information literacy be integrated into other institutional assessment measurements?
  4. What assessment tool or tools will best assess learning outcomes for a particular teaching situation?
  5. How can standardized tests be best utilized to assess learning outcomes?
  6. What are the most cost-effective methods for assessment of learning outcomes?
  7. What learning outcomes can be addressed with reusable learning objects and how can student progress regarding these objectives best be assessed?
  8. How can learning outcomes best be assessed when teaching information literacy within an online environment?

C. Transferability

Transferability of successful models of information literacy programs — whether between courses at the same institution or between institutions — is important for furthering collaboration and developing models of best practices. Current research concentrates on assessing the instruction designed for specific research projects, and focuses on student attitudes, opinions and satisfaction with a library instruction experience and library research experience. The literature is lacking in longitudinal studies on the impact of library instruction, and the transferability of secondary school library instruction learning outcomes to higher education and on into adult life.

  1. How are the skills and knowledge developed through library instruction transferable to other research assignments, adult life situations, and the workplace?
  2. How can librarians maximize the transferability of skills from one class to another, or one campus to another?
  3. What is the correlation between library instruction and research skill improvement during four years of undergraduate education?

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