The BI Knowledge Base: A Brief Retrospective

The BI Knowledge Base: A Brief Retrospective

Table of Contents


Anniversaries beg the issue of a celebration. The BIS-LIRT joint 15th anniversary, coupled with the ACRL President's theme of professional recruitment, offered this year's [1992] planning committee an opportunity to loosen our collective ties. After brainstorming our way through many cutting-edge topics, we decided to have a party. We've invited interesting speakers, invoked illustrious spirits from the past, revisited some of BI literature's "greatest hits," and have taken the liberty of minting a new term--BI Knowledge Base--to celebrate the occasion.

Like any expert system, the importance of the knowledge base rests in how we use it, not how robust it is. The research and theory of many, including librarians and educators, informs what we are trying to accomplish. The knowledge base is a composite of inquiry and inspiration. What follows is a cross section of the knowledge base from practitioners, scholars, and recruits who have helped build the discipline.

"If discipline is defined as a branch of knowledge or learning, and if knowledge is defined as facts gathered by study or observation, and if learning is defined as the acquiring of knowledge or skill in a special field, then bibliographic instruction is indeed a separate discipline...Bibliographic instruction has its own body of knowledge, its own theory of learning, and its own framework of skills."

Anne Roberts, quoted in "Library Instruction: A Column of Opinion" edited by Carolyn A. Kirkendall. Journal of Academic Librarianship 8 (July 1982): 160.


What do we know about this discipline, if indeed we all agree that it is a discipline? We know that librarians have endorsed instruction for more than 100 years.

"A librarian should be more than a keeper of books; he should be an educator...No such librarian is fit for his place unless he holds himself responsible for the library education of his students...All that is taught in college amounts to very little; but if we can send students out self-reliant in their investigations, we have accomplished very much."

Otis H. Robinson, "Proceedings," American Library Journal 1 (November 30, 1876): 123-24 as cited by Edward G. Holley, "Academic Libraries in 1876," College & Research Libraries 37 (January 1976): 15.

"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" - Alphonse Karr, 1849, French philosopher, Les Guespes. Paris, 1849.

So, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Otis Robinson's exhortation to move beyond the confines of gatekeeping sound surprisingly contemporaneous. More than a century later Joan Bechtel could write lyrically that

"The primary task then, of the academic library is to introduce students to the world of scholarly dialogue that spans both space and time and to provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to tap into conversations on an infinite variety of topics, and to participate in the critical inquiry and debate on those issues."

Joan Bechtel, "Conversation, A New Paradigm for Librarianship?" College & Research Libraries 47 (May 1986): 221.

Between Robinson and today, many others have reflected on the librarian's role as teacher:

"Such haphazard, unscientific teaching as librarians now undertake must be scrapped: and we must evolve and train instead a group of bibliographical instructors, a new species which will combine in one individual the librarian's knowledge of books and bibliographical procedures with the instructor's ability in teaching method and the skilled imparting of information."

Charles B. Shaw, "Bibliographical Instructions for Students," Library Journal 53 (April 1, 1928): 300-301.

"Competence in the use of the library is one of the liberal arts. It deserves recognition and acceptance as such in the college curriculum. It is, furthermore, a complex of knowledge, skills and attitudes not to be acquired in any one course but functionally related to the content of many. It should, therefore, be integrated into the total curriculum. But it cannot be so integrated until the faculty as a whole is ready to recognize the validity of its claim and implement this recognition through regularly established procedures of curriculum development."

Patricia Knapp, "A Suggestive Program of College Instruction in the Use of the Library," Library Quarterly (July 1956): 230.

"Forget this silly pretense of playing teacher."

Jesse Shera, "Role of the College Librarian: a Reappraisal." Library Instructional Integration on the College Level: Report of the 40th Conference of Eastern College Librarians. Chicago: ACRL,1955:6.

"As with any movement, those involved with BI identify with one or more generations in its development. Those who helped gain the first toehold for BI in reference services in the 1970's recall the first generation emphasis on BI as library orientation. In the 1980's the second generation of BI enabled the development of ideas and methods, and saw the positioning of BI as an integral component of reference services. The third and nascent generation of BI will see the inevitable shift in focus from solely print-oriented library services towards information provision in numerous formats...for diverse user groups."

American Library Association. Association of College and Research Libraries. Bibliographic Instruction Section. The Evolving Educational Mission of the Library. Edited by Betsy Baker, Mary Ellen Litzinger, Randall Hensley, and Beth Sandore. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 1992, p. xxii.


Every institution and individual charged with teaching is concerned with goals: behavioral, cognitive, affective, immediate, short-term, and long-range. Our teaching objectives are the mileposts which mark progress towards the goals of empowering users.

"What then, do we want?...At first, we want students to be struck by the difference between a high school library and a college library...Leading directly from this, we want them to realize there are relevant reference sources for almost any topic...A Third point is that certain principles comprise a search strategy that can be applied to almost any topic...And fourth, students should realize that no student, no matter how well trained, can be aware of all the useful reference sources..."

Evan Farber.

"The role of bibliographic instruction is not only to provide the students with the specific skills needed to complete assignments, but to prepare individuals to make effective life-long use of information, information sources, and information systems."

American Library Association. Association of College and Research Libraries. Bibliographic Instruction Section. Read This First: An Owner's Guide to the New Model Statement of Objectives for Academic Bibliographic Instruction. Edited by Carolyn Dusenbury, Monica Fusich, Kathleen Kenny, and Beth Woodard. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 1991, p. 5.

"The search a dynamic, complex process in which basic constructs are construed and reconstrued as progress is made through levels of information need--from ambiguous to specific. Students need to be made aware of that process of seeking information."

Carol Kuhlthau, "Developing a Model of the Library Search Process: Cognitive and Affective Aspects." RQ 28 (Winter 1988): 241.


The goals we identify can be local and particular or global and idealistic. We test and retest our hypothesis that students and faculty are more successful in their daily work because of our efforts. We do this in the hope that people can do for themselves and evaluate what they find.

"Many instructors simply assume that college students know how to use a library...that this assumption is contrary to fact is well known to every academic librarian who has ever worked at a public service desk...most students enter higher education virtually without any inkling of how to use a library...the only effective way that students will gain a working knowledge of libraries adequate to their needs is to start early in the educational process."

Dennis Dickinson. "Library Literacy: Who, Where, When?" Library Journal 106 (April 15, 1981):853.

"We tend to consider them, if we consider them at all, as an absorbent mass, rather like a sponge, who will operate well in our library only if we can determine the correct things for them to soak up. Therefore, we concentrate on the content of our instruction sessions; students never seem to become to us individuals with knowledge, thoughts and feelings about the library that must be understood, and perhaps overcome, before learning can begin. Yet without a deep understanding of those we address, designing effective library instruction programs is impossible."

Bobbie L. Collins, Constance A. Mellon, Sally B. Young. "The Needs and Feelings of Beginning Researchers" in Bibliographic Instruction: The Second Generation. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1987, p. 73.

"Canned strategies--whether on a blackboard, paper, computer screen or videotape--do not by themselves foster innovation. Successful learning entails flexible reasoning more than sequential performance skills. Hence the decision about how to gear instruction is really a decision about how best to connect natural human reasoning to concepts of information generation, storage and retrieval."

Mary George, "What Do College Librarians Want Freshmen to Know? My Wish List," Research Strategies 6 (Fall 1998): 189.


Understanding the gestalt of the Social Science Citation Index is one thing. Teaching it so that students can use it effectively is another.

"Bibliographic education has begun to concern itself with the concepts underlying the research process. We must concern ourselves with teaching this process."

Cerise Oberman. "Question Analysis and the Learning Cycle," Research Strategies 1 (1983): 23.

"Theory-based instruction also more appropriately places the librarian's focus on the user, rather than on reference tools or the library. With this focus, user education moves into closer alliance with the patron-centered developments in information and reference service."

Harold W. Tuckett and Carla J. Stoffle. "Learning Theory and the Self-Reliant Library User," RQ 24 (Fall 1984): 63.

"Some writers on reference theory and practice clearly believe that the primary function of a reference librarian is to supply requested information. I could not disagree more. I would assert that society does not need more people who are content simply to accept information handed to them by an expert. We need to educate students who are able to discriminate among various sources...and to discover countervailing opinions to those which are first presented to them. We want to help students develop a sense that they receive data from a variety of sources: libraries, mass media, community agencies, politicians, experts and friends."

Elizabeth Frick. "Information Structure & Bibliographic Instruction" in User Instruction in Academic Libraries: A Century of Selected Readings. Edited by Larry L. Hardesty, John P. Schmitt, and John Mark Tucker. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1986, p. 267.

Of course, the question of how and what we should teach, and even if we should teach carries on.

" turning their attention from information provision and toward instruction, academic librarians have ultimately done a disservice to themselves and their clientele...with much of the energy and creativity of public service staffs directed elsewhere, few attempts have been made to move information services beyond the traditional reliance on the reference desk. Librarians must take seriously their mission to make retrievable ' any document or record, for any given purpose, at any given time' and turn away from the quixotic self-deception which has characterized the profession in recent years."

Connie Miller and Patricia Tegler. "In Pursuit of Windmills: Librarians and the Determination to Teach," Current Trends in Information: Research and Theory. New York: Haworth Press, 1987. Also published in the Reference Librarian, 18 (Summer 1987): 132.

On the other hand:

"Without a commitment to teaching, librarians will never succeed in fostering information literacy in any meaningful way, and the esteem in which the profession is held will decline in proportion to the degree which more traditional sources become irrelevant. As collection building becomes less important, and information access becomes more important, it seems inevitable that the notion of the teaching library will become the primary one to which the profession aspires, while the notion of the repository library where the users must learn to fend for themselves will become almost a thing of the past."

Bill Miller. "The Future of Bibliographic Instruction & Information Literacy for the Academic Librarian" in The Evolving Educational Mission of the Library. Edited by Betsy Baker, Mary Ellen Litzinger, Randall Hensley, and Beth Sandore. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 1992, p. 153.


It is encouraging as we continue our uphill struggle for legitimacy that increasing numbers of library school graduates make their way into BI positions. We conclude with a few "bulletins" from these recruits.

"My interest in BI is a natural outgrowth of my enthusiasm for reference work. Only time will tell if my proclivity for one-on-one library instruction extends to group instruction and other learning areas."

Beth Ann Zambella, BI Coordinator, Rutgers University Library

"I have always enjoyed teaching and knew it was something I wanted to do. However, it wasn't until I was introduced to libraries that I discovered the instructional role of librarians. Working in classroom and workshop settings is continually stimulating, but the freedom I have to develop my own style and sessions has made instruction fun."

Carl Phillips, Reference and Instruction Librarian, University of Washington

"Teaching college English for four years inspired me to go into bibliographic instruction because as an English teacher I learned (1) how little college writers know about locating information; (2) how much challenge there is in teaching them to locate and use information; and (3) how much intellectual pleasure many students get from being able to locate and use information. I went to library school on the hunch that teaching students about information would be a rewarding career, and after a year and a half on the job I can report that my hunch was right."

Donald Barclay, BI Coordinator, New Mexico State University

Many thanks to all of you in the audience who sent the committee quotations to include in the BI knowledge base and in the section on recruits. We regret that we couldn't use everything that was sent!


Instruction Section Home Page

Send us your comments and questions