The speakers for the motion, Emma Coonan and Geoff Walton, and speakers against the motion, Darren Smart and Alka Sehgal-Cuthbert, all delivered passionate and thoughtful arguments to support their respective sides of the debate, which prompted a number of comments and questions from the floor. Despite strong arguments from the opposing side, which received support in the audience, the vote was carried in favour of the motion.
The key arguments from the panel
The proposer for the motion, Emma Coonan, opened the debate with the argument that librarians must go much further in their roles than simply being curators of collections. We must provide support with learning how to use information. Without this support, our collections become a barrier to accessing information and therefore exclusive.
Emma disagreed with Neil Gaiman, who had said “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” It’s not about looking up answers for people. Librarians need to give people the tools to enable them to discern quality information and find the right answers for themselves.
Emma argued that information is never neutral; it’s power. To achieve social justice we must equip people to critically evaluate information. It starts with helping patrons to start asking questions, discern and construct knowledge for themselves. We are teachers because we are librarians.
The proposer against the motion, Alka Sehgal-Cuthbert, expressed concern that librarians are seemingly wanting to re-invent themselves as teachers in the face of uncertainty in a paperless society. She highlighted the continuing value of the role of librarians in curation and in upholding a public sphere that people can come to that is not like a school or a high street, but is a quiet place to read and think. Access to information is secondary to maintaining and developing collections in a setting conducive to accessing information.
Alka claimed that libraries don’t create democracy. A democratic society builds libraries.
Librarians should be able to judge the information that they get in. They should be educated individuals with high level of knowledge but not educators themselves.
Geoff Walton, seconder for the motion, countered with evidence to support the importance of teaching information literacy, based on the results of two research studies he has conducted at the University of Staffordshire and Northumbria University. He stressed librarians’ unique position as intermediaries between a person’s information need and how to access that information; we are there as the travel guides to the information landscape. Our value is enabling students to find the right answers for themselves. The debate is over. It’s not about whether librarians should be teachers; we already are.
Finally, Darren Smart, seconder for the opposing side, argued that visitors to public libraries are not necessarily looking to be taught, but come in to get an answer to their specific question. Lack of time and resources mean it’s not feasible to teach – public librarians have on average 3 minutes at the reference desk with someone. Instead, the service can be better described as mentoring and coaching. Public librarians are there to support their users to learn, but not to teach them. Their job is to make sure the collection contains the appropriate material to support the learning, and to train library staff to find information for them. It aligns with teaching and supports teaching, but it is more of a peer-to-peer relationship.
Following questions and comments from the floor, the panels gave their final thoughts and the Chair gave a summary of the debate. It was clear that there were different views depending on the sector that people work in. As well as Darren’s arguments, a school librarian in the audience pointed out the difference between her role in the library and that of the teachers in her school, who take home marking, carry out assessments and undergo OFSTED inspections. Whereas in the academic setting of Higher Education, Emma and Geoff clearly felt that librarians do have a role as teachers, enabling students to find and discern good quality information for themselves.
The debate was put to a vote, and the overwhelming majority were in favour of the motion that the role of the librarian should be that of teacher.
Rebecca Mogg, Deputy Chair, CILIP IL Group