By Anna White
There has been more literature about academic librarians saying ‘no’ in the last decade than in previous time periods. However, much of the existing work discusses how academic librarians might say ‘no’ to optional activities, such as serving on an extra committee or taking on an additional research project. As budgets and staffing levels decrease but expectations and responsibilities increase, academic librarians may find themselves in the position of needing to say ‘no’ even to regular duties: this paper presents a review of the literature on when, why, and how librarians say ‘no’, drawing from work on vocational awe, service orientation and deference behavior, and criticism of the one-shot model. Additionally, the article will present findings from a survey describing the experiences of approximately 285 American and Canadian academic librarians with instruction responsibilities who have had to, imagine needing to, or never plan to say ‘no’ to instruction opportunities. The results examine whether personal and professional demographics, burnout, pedagogical concerns, and other factors impact if an instruction librarian is likely to ‘just say no.’
In 2022, my institution entered a season where we lost or were not able to immediately fill the equivalent of six full-time instruction librarian positions. Since most instruction librarians at my institution are responsible for 20-40 sessions each semester, depending on subject area, research need, and semester timing, that meant there were now anywhere from 120 to 240 instruction sessions now split between our remaining eight instruction librarians on top of their typical session load. Our instruction program met to discuss how we would handle instruction requests in the coming year. The outcome of that conversation was that we all—supervisors included—agreed that we could say ‘no’ to an instruction session for a variety of reasons, such as the session content not seeming meaningful or an individual librarian simply not having the time or energy.
Most members of the group also admitted that they rarely or never say no to instruction even when they think they should. I was one of them; throughout my early career, I had agreed to instruction sessions that I didn’t have time to plan or that didn’t seem to have a purpose that directly served students. I had worked hard to build goodwill and positive relationships with classroom instructors in my liaison areas, and I didn’t want to lose face or seem combative. However, when faced with an increasing instruction load without relief in other areas, and without a clear end in sight, I knew I needed to reevaluate how I engaged with instruction. I was thinking of myself, but also of my newer colleagues, who may not have had any idea of what their instruction load could look like or what kind of agency they had in creating it. That conversation led me to these questions: How often do librarians with instruction responsibilities turn down or say no to instruction opportunities? What are the characteristics of that group? What experiences have they had in saying no? This paper presents findings from a survey describing the experiences of approximately 285 American and Canadian academic librarians with instruction responsibilities who have had to, imagine needing to, or never plan to say ‘no’ to instruction opportunities.
There has been more literature about librarians saying ‘no’ in the last decade than in previous years. Occasionally, particularly in public libraries, practitioners discuss how to say ‘no’ to requests that are out of job description or illegal, such as providing medical or legal advice. Some of this literature looks at academic librarians saying ‘no’ to ‘other duties as assigned’: projects, service commitments, and other extracurricular activities (Barrientos, 2016, Spencer, 2022). Authors acknowledge that saying ‘no’ to these opportunities, especially as an early career librarian, is difficult, both because individuals may be trying to build their CVs and because librarians often have or have been trained in a “service orientation” that emphasizes “getting to yes” rather than saying no. Moeller (2020) points out that early librarians were typically white women because they were perceived as submissive service providers and that even now, guidelines such as RUSA (Reference and User Services Association) emphasize the role of the librarian in offering emotional support.
The push for constant ‘yes’ may be driven by professional fear—that we will miss out on something good (Barrientos, 2016; Almeida, 2018; Farkas, 2022) or that we will lose face in the eyes of the academic community at a time we wish to prove our worth (Wallis, 2015). When Macke and Bach (2012) weren’t able to give a full yes to instruction requests due to time and staffing restraints, they “thought about ‘just saying no,’ but then realized … [it] would reflect poorly on our institution and our role in the academy. A negative response was out of the question” (p.408). Some, like Eva (2018) find that their libraries say ‘no’ too often to new ideas, squashing potential growth and exciting collaboration.
For academic librarians who teach information literacy sessions, ‘no’ can be even more complicated. For many, instruction is a foundational responsibility of a position, and the expectation to teach is clear. Unlike regular classroom faculty, who receive a schedule each semester and know exactly how many hours they will spend teaching, an instruction librarian begins each academic year awaiting instruction requests. A librarian might have standing relationships with a number of area faculty and anticipate teaching sessions they have taught in the past, but as the institution brings on new instructors and begins new classes and programs, they might unexpectedly find themselves with new information literacy sessions to teach.
In many cases, this is a marker of success; outreach is a frequent job duty listed alongside instruction, and many librarians genuinely enjoy and value the time they spend in the classroom. Regardless of passion, some libraries may not have adequate staffing for all requested instruction sessions. Academic libraries in the United States experienced a steep drop-off in hiring during and immediately after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020 and 2021 (Department of Public Employees, 2023). In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Mary Jane Petrowski, Associate Director of the Association for College and Research Libraries, noted that between 2012 and 2021, full-time academic library staffing decreased by 20%. In that same time period, full-time librarian positions decreased by 9.6% (Kim, 2023). A number of factors, including recessions, institution closings, low morale, reduced compensation, and global pandemics may have influenced the number of library workers leaving the profession and may explain why institutions did not or were not able to hire (Kim, 2023; Ewen, 2022). While employment has risen since 2021, some libraries may still feel a sense of austerity (DPE, 2023). As a result, a librarian instructor may not be able—or want—to take on every instruction session offered to them.
Librarians have noted that instructors don’t always request the most pedagogically supported sessions (Wallis, 2015; Meulemans and Carr, 2012; Belzowski and Robison, 2019; Pashia et al., 2015). For example, classroom faculty might request a session on the first day of the semester to ‘get them in the library’ or time their request to coincide with their own absence, using the librarian as substitute or ‘babysitter’. Other times, the request is so generic and attempts at follow-up so fruitless that the librarian is left only with “show them the library” or “teach them to do research” (Meulemans and Carr, 2012). What is an instruction librarian to do with that? Finally, there are sometimes disagreements or misalignments between what classroom faculty think an instruction librarian should do and what the librarian feels is pedagogically supported. As Wallis (2015) put it, the only response to “can you just show them the databases?” is “I’ve thought about it, and the answer is no.” Behler and Waltz (2020) describe shuttering their instruction program for an entire semester when they sensed the work was no longer aligned with the goals of the program.
Some librarians would prefer to reject the one-shot library instruction session entirely—or, at the very least, make major revisions to the model. In a guest editorial for C&RL, Pagowsky (2021) argues that the one-shot model (defining “one-shot” as a stand-alone lesson) may be “worse than nothing,” as it contributes to burnout and keeps librarians in “cycles of ineffectiveness” in which librarians design sessions without sufficient information, teach, and then attempt to assess without meaningful feedback (p.301). Beyond that, critics of the model assert that one-shots encourage superficial teaching and learning with minimal evidence that the method is effective (Pagowsky, 2021; Brecher Cook, 2022; Bowles-Terry & Donovan, 2016). Though librarians may wish merely for more time or a greater number of sessions, without curricular integration or other instruction options, that time might be wasted (Santamaria & Schomberg, 2022). However, the ability to say ‘no’ to the one-shot—or even to make the one-shot as effective as it can be—typically requires a relationship or partnership with classroom instructors.
And yet, the literature suggests that disciplinary faculty do not always view librarians as their partners in curricular instruction (Alwan et al., 2018; Christiansen et al., 2004, Phelps & Campbell, 2014; Given & Julien, 2005). In fact, not all librarians view themselves as partners or even teachers (Wilson, 1979; Nichols Hess, 2020; Julien & Pecoskie, 2009). Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that many librarians struggle to advocate for themselves and the library in conversations with disciplinary instructors, especially in the early-career stage.
Instead, librarians may participate in deference behaviors by “yielding [their] own preferences, wishes, desires, wants, or principles” to those instructors, often in order to maintain relationships (Silverstein, 2013, p. 16). The Deference Scale (McCartin, 2020) was developed to measure these deference behaviors in teaching-focused academic librarians; a later study found that 25% of respondents typically “cede authority to faculty” even when those faculty have a limited understanding of information literacy, sometimes to ensure that information literacy instruction occurs at all (McCartin & Wright-Mair, 2022). McCartin and Wright-Mair (2022) also discovered that librarians likely to show deference to classroom instructors were also more likely to say that their primary purpose was to serve disciplinary faculty. It is difficult even to serve, much less collaborate, however, when communication between the library and the instructor is as sparse as it is often reported (McDonough & Buchanan, 2021; Meulemans & Carr, 2012). Many argue that librarians must step away from such a service mentality in their work with classroom faculty in order to participate in true collaboration, both for student engagement and because “when a problematic request is fulfilled, it only ensures that librarians will receive more requests like it” (Meulemans & Carr, 2012 p. 83, Owusu-Ansah, 2004, Buchanan & McDonough, 2021, Pashia et al., 2022).
The service orientation to which many librarians are bound may arise, in part, from a sense of vocational awe. Vocational awe is, as described by Ettarh (2018), “the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good, sacred notions, and therefore beyond critique.” When instructor librarians feel that their work is sacred or a ‘calling’, it may be more difficult to say ‘no’ to a proposed session, even if that session is poorly communicated or planned, or draws on dwindling or non-existent time and energy resources. Ettarh posits that vocational awe that demands self-sacrifice can contribute to burnout: exhaustion, alienation, and/or lower than average performance as a result of stress (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Healthcare, 2020).
Wood et al. (2020) found that almost 50% of United States librarians experience burnout following administration of the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory, a finding similar to Affleck’s 1996 study using the Maslach Burnout Inventory, in which 53% of respondents reported burnout. Repeated overload of instruction-related responsibilities or endless one-shot sessions that never seem to produce visible results could contribute to symptoms of burnout for librarians. Burned-out librarians may need to say ‘no’ to sessions for a period of time to recover; librarians on their way to burnout may benefit from carefully selecting which sessions they choose to engage with and advocating for additional labor resources when necessary.
Some librarians have found ways to say ‘no,’ or to negotiate for effective information literacy sessions. Many try to say ‘no by saying ‘yes’ — that is, they offer alternatives to the instruction session that has been proposed (Ford, 2009; Pashia et al., 2015). As previously mentioned, Behler and Waltz (2020) moved their program away from teaching for an entire semester, using that time to curriculum map and create a program that matched instructional values and classroom needs. Others recommend that librarians curriculum map, set detailed instruction goals, and plan for instructional alternatives to in-person sessions as part of the negotiation process (Buchanan & McDonough, 2021; Ford, 2009). At the individual level, Langan describes learning to avoid the “foot-in-the-door” method in which librarians agree to take any session just to build familiarity with faculty. Instead, she says, she “will not teach without a copy of the assignment, a syllabus, or a list of learning outcomes.” Her emphasis on communication with teaching faculty enables her to work towards true faculty partnership (quoted in Buchanan & McDonough, 2021, p.29). However, some adjustments will be needed at the programmatic level, and it is okay to ask your supervisor, director, or library administration for more support (Pagowksy, 2021; Buchanan & McDonough, 2021; Pashia et al., 2015).
The experiences of all instruction librarians are not equal. Academic librarianship is an overwhelmingly white and female profession. Gendered emotional labor expectations, such as that of the ‘Mommy Librarian,’ may create a perception that a librarian is a warm, nurturing figure who works to the benefit of their patrons and to the detriment of their own needs and, it goes without saying, never says no (Emmelhainz et al., 2017; Sloniowski, 2016). Librarians from minoritized professional groups, such as BIPOC librarians, experience the workplace–and information literacy instructional spaces–differently. Three female BIPOC academic librarians wrote about their experiences, noting increased levels of emotional labor compared to their white colleagues (Rhodes et al., 2023), echoed by other work that suggests BIPOC librarians experience greater demands on their time to participate in diversity initiatives or to support others as “hired help” (Damasco & Hodges, 2012). Additionally, BIPOC librarians experience identity-based microaggressions from patrons and colleagues, bear the pressure of representing their race as “the only one” who looks like them, and have their expertise and professional identity challenged more frequently than their white colleagues (Alabi, 2015; VanScoy & Bright, 2017; Gonzalez-Smith, Swanson, and Tanaka, 2017). Not only can these different experiences contribute to higher levels of burnout and low morale (Kelly et. al, 2021; Davis Kendrick, 2019), but they may also make it more difficult for BIPOC librarians to say ‘no’ to instruction sessions for fear of being seen as unprofessional or difficult.
While past literature has descriptively identified the pressures or concerns of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ the present study is, to my knowledge, the first survey that aims to capture the experiences and feelings of instruction librarians who may say ‘no’ to instruction opportunities, an issue of particular importance for new, busy, and supervising librarians. Topics covered in the literature review, such as vocational awe, deference behavior, and service orientation may influence this population’s behaviors and attitudes towards their instruction work. The results of this study may be of particular interest to library supervisors, managers, and coordinators of instruction programs as well as to librarians looking to build sustainable, meaningful instruction into their work, regardless of their current workload.
In winter 2023, I wrote a survey designed to capture the experiences and perspectives of instruction librarians in the United States and Canada who have said no to an instruction session, can imagine themselves saying no to an instruction session, or who never plan to say no to an instruction session. The survey collected demographic data related to respondents’ personal and professional identities and asked for detailed information about times they have said ‘no.’ The survey is primarily multiple choice, with free text options offered to capture responses not included in the choices. Additionally, the survey includes free-text questions where an individual’s experience may be too detailed or unique to fit neatly into a multiple-choice option. The survey was reviewed by several librarian colleagues and members of Grand Valley State University’s Statistical Consulting Center, who were concerned with whether the question formats lent themselves to reasonable statistical analysis. The survey was sent to all national (United States and Canada) and state-or-province library association groups that listed an instruction or information literacy interest group, round table, or sub-committee in the United States and Canada. Participants are librarians with instruction responsibilities currently employed by an American or Canadian institution of higher education. The survey opened on January 4, 2023, and closed on February 4, 2023. The survey was administered via Qualtrics and collected no identifying information.
I worked with Grand Valley State University’s Statistical Consulting Center to provide analysis of quantitative data using SPSS. A two-predictor logistic model was fitted to the data to determine relationships between personal and professional demographic elements (race, gender, length of time in position, amount of instruction in position, tenure status) and the likelihood of having said ‘no’ to an instruction session in the past, as well as to determine the relationship between personal and professional demographics and experiences. Logistic regression allows us to predict whether an outcome (in this case, whether a librarian has said ‘no’ to an instruction session) is likely to occur based on an input variable (such as time in position, gender, tenure status, or race). Statistical significance was determined using a standard alpha of .05. Free-text responses were isolated and coded for theme, as indicated in results.
The survey received 315 responses. Removing incomplete submissions (n=31) resulted in 284 unique respondents.
88% (n=234) of respondents identify as female; 9% (n=23) as male; and 4% (n=10) as non-binary, gender-queer, or gender-fluid. One respondent identifies as transgender. These numbers differ slightly from reported national numbers; the Department for Professional Employees (DPE, 2023) indicates that in 2022, 82.2% of librarians in the United States were female. In 2018, 73.6% of librarians who responded to the Census of Canadian Academic Librarians were female.
86% (n= 242) of respondents identify as white, 5% (n=14) as Hispanic or Latino/a/x, 4% (n=10) as Asian or Pacific Islander, and 2% (n=6) Black or African American. Less than 1% (n=1) identify as Alaskan Native or Native American. Respondents were able to select all applicable identities. In 2022, 82% of librarians in the United States identified as white, 8% as Hispanic or Latino/a, 5.1% as Asian or Pacific Islander, and 4.3% as Black or African American (DPE, 2023). Of the respondents to the Census of Canadian Academic Librarians, 89.6% identified as white, .6% as Latin American, 4.43% as Asian or Pacific Islander, and .84% as Black. Because of the relatively small number of respondents who identify as BIPOC or something other than white, for purposes of data analysis in this study BIPOC librarians are grouped together.
68% (n=200) of respondents hold faculty status at their institutions. 25% (n=74) are staff, 4% (n=11) administrators, and 3% (n=8) other. 51% (n=150) of respondents are not offered tenure in their positions. Of those on the tenure-track, 27% (n=78) are tenured and 22% (n=54) are not yet tenured.
Who Says No?
62% (n=181) of respondents indicated that they have said ‘no’ to an instruction session in the past for a reason other than being double-booked. 64% (n=182) can imagine saying ‘no’ in the future, while 10% (n=29) cannot imagine saying no in the future. 26% (n=75) selected ‘maybe.’
Analysis suggests that time in position and amount of instruction in position are significant for having said no in the past, though it should be noted that the confidence intervals are wide ranges as a result of a relatively small sample. The logistic regression model found that we can be 95% confident that the odds of saying no to instruction are between .127 and .552 times lower for those who have been in their position five years or fewer compared to those who have been in their position for more than 15 years. Odds of saying ‘no’ to instruction are between .183 and .626 times lower for those who have been in their position five years or fewer compared to those who have been in their position for six to fifteen years (see Appendix). This result is unsurprising; in the first five years of their career, a librarian is building relationships and often increasing engagement in the classroom. Additionally, they have simply had fewer years in the classroom to say ‘no’. In the next ten years of their career, they may learn their own instruction boundaries or have received enough requests to increase the likelihood of saying ‘no’ to one of them.
|Time in Position||Have Said No (%)|
|6 to 15 years||66.9%|
|> 15 years||70.6%|
Similarly, those who responded that instruction is “a little” or “a moderate amount” of their position were between .302 and .872 times less likely to have said ‘no’ to an instruction session compared to those who responded that instruction was “a lot” or “nearly all” of their responsibilities (see appendix). While these are subjective measures, it does indicate that the more time a librarian spends teaching, the more likely they are to have said ‘no’ to an instruction opportunity. As with years in position, this may be common sense–a busier instruction schedule may leave less time and energy for taking on additional sessions.
|How Much of Position is Instruction||Have Said No (%)|
|A little/Moderate Amount||54.9%|
|A lot/All or Nearly All||67.5%|
The model indicated that race, gender, and tenure status did not have a significant influence on whether a respondent has said ‘no’ to an instruction session. This is surprising given the amount of literature on the experiences of academic librarians of color, but likely reflects the lack of diversity in the already relatively small sample. Additionally, while the model did not find tenure status to be significant in saying ‘no,’ 69 survey respondents indicated that “tenure or other job protections” would make them more confident in saying ‘no.’
Why Say No?
The most common reported reason for saying no to a session was lack of planning time or that the request came too close to the date of instruction (n=140, 80%). Other common reasons included that the requested session wouldn’t be useful or was not pedagogically supported (n=96, 55%), that the librarian was too busy (n=53, 30%), or that there was insufficient communication with the instructor (n=43, 24%).
Nearly 30% of respondents selected ‘other.’ These ‘other’ responses were coded into three groups: librarians said no when they felt they would be “baby-sitting” (taking a session when the professor or instructor planned an absence). Several of these respondents indicated that they learned to say no to ‘baby-sitting’ after sessions without the instructor went poorly.
Respondents also discussed saying no because they lacked resources–time, labor, or other workload balances. One response described a program that “no longer [has] enough librarians to support a traditional one-shot model,” while another expressed “concern with scaling instruction to meet need.”
Finally, librarians said no to sessions that they felt were out of scope because they did not align with student learning outcomes, because they requested services the library does not offer (such as particular citation instruction or tours), or because the topic was better handled by another campus service.
Of the 38% respondents who have never said ‘no’, 71% (n=71) said they don’t say ‘no’ because of concern of how it would reflect on themselves or the library. 69% (n=69) said they are trying to increase their instruction presence, and 64 % (n=65) said they were concerned about how it would impact their relationship with the instructor or academic program. Additionally, 57% (n=57) said they have never wanted or needed to say ‘no’. Only 2% (n=2) responded that they are not allowed to say ‘no’.
How does it feel to say No?
Overall, saying no is a negative emotional experience for librarians. 66% (n=181) of respondents who have said no to sessions in the past indicated that they felt guilty about saying no. 40% indicated that they felt relieved (n=114) and/or uncertain (n=113). Other emotions were empowered (26%, n=72), fearful (22%, n=61), confident (11%, n=58), and excited (1%, n=4). Many respondents selected both positive and negative emotions, indicating that they felt both empowered and guilty, for instance. Respondents who selected ‘other’ included negative emotion words such as frustrated, annoyed/irritated, stressed, worried, lazy, disappointed, disgusted (with themselves), worthless, incompetent, inept, and sad. One (1) respondent indicated that they felt justified, and three (3) described neutral emotions or ‘feeling nothing.’
The Consequences of Saying No
Over half of respondents (n=111, 63.4%) felt there were no consequences, either positive or negative, as a result of saying ‘no’ to an instruction session. The majority of those who did feel they faced consequences felt there were both positive and negative impacts. Female respondents were almost twice as likely to indicate that they experienced some kind of consequence (either positive or negative) as male respondents. Though only 10 respondents indicated that they experienced negative consequences of saying ‘no’, all 10 were female (a likely outcome, as the majority of survey respondents were female).
Of 20 respondents who left short-form descriptions of consequences they felt they faced, over half (n=13) felt that saying ‘no’ resulted in damaged or strained relationships, either with academic departments, individual instructors, or library administration. Several mentioned that the faculty member to whom they said ‘no’ never made another request, though they couldn’t be sure it was because of the ‘no.’ While 13 is a comparatively low number, respondents who had NEVER said ‘no’ to an instruction session were asked to explain why not — of the 101 responses to that question, 71% (n=71) said they were concerned about how it would reflect on them or the library and 65% (n=65) were concerned about how it would impact their relationships with the instructor or program. It seems these concerns are, if not well-founded, not entirely without basis as some librarians do report needing to repair relationships and library image after saying ‘no.’
However, 10 respondents felt their relationships with classroom instructors improved after saying ‘no,’ describing enhanced collaboration, new imagination for sessions, and more respected partnership.
Discussion and Limitations
It is difficult, if not impossible, to capture a full picture of the academic librarian position. A survey is insufficient to identify the many factors that may lead a librarian to say — or not say — no, including personality and library culture. Additionally, the overall lack of racial and gender diversity in the sample makes comparison across groups more difficult. A more focused project on the deference behaviors of academic librarians of color may provide different insights.
Neither the survey itself nor the distribution method is without fault. List-serv distribution does not allow for a measurable response rate; I don’t know how many people received my survey, so I cannot calculate how many responded. Similarly, because I can’t know the demographic makeup of all potential respondents, I cannot confidently say that my sample is truly representative of the population, though it does closely mirror national statistics. Within the survey, the question “When you have said no or imagined saying no, how have you felt (select all that apply)?” offered seven multiple-choice options, along with “something not listed here.” Of those seven options, four could be considered ‘positive’, two ‘negative,’ and one ‘neutral.’ Because the options presented were not coded evenly (three positive and three negative), respondents may have been unintentionally influenced to select certain choices. Similarly, there was an oversight in the options presented for the questions “What reasons did you have for saying no (select all that apply)” and its partner question, asking what reasons respondents could imagine having, whether they had said ‘no’ or not. A multiple-choice option was omitted from the latter question (“insufficient communication with the instructor,” limiting the utility of those responses and comparison between it and other questions.
While the survey was extensive, it did not ask, for example, how many instruction librarians were employed at respondents’ institutions, which could influence whether an individual is likely to say no to a session; a well-staffed library is more likely to be able to accommodate instruction requests. Similarly, the survey did not provide an operational definition for “instruction session”; while over 60% of respondents teach between 1 and 20 sessions per semester, one outlier reported that they teach over 100 sessions per semester, or 1.3 sessions per day in an average 75-day semester. What counts as a session? Is a ten-minute PowerPoint introduction to basic library services a session, or are learning objectives and assessment plans required?
Future research could delve into these additional factors or investigate additional qualitative evidence, such as through memoir or interviews.
I am not necessarily advocating that instruction librarians make a regular practice of saying ‘no’ to sessions. I received several emails throughout the survey process from librarians and administrators concerned that encouraging colleagues to say ‘no’ would reduce collaboration and hurt the image of the library on campus, in keeping with the concerns represented in the survey.
In fact, results — and my personal experience — suggest that most librarians try hard to get to ‘yes,’ offering conversations, negotiations, alternate lessons, times, and strategies in order to provide meaningful instruction to students. We know that if students don’t see us, they might not receive any information literacy instruction at all, and we want to do our jobs. We want to be helpful. We want students to have the skills they need to be information literate citizens of this and future worlds. These attempts, while sometimes approximating deference behaviors, reflect the goodwill partnership of academic librarians. ‘No’ is not a way to throw our weight around or try to bargain for professional respect.
Instead, I believe that library instruction groups and individuals should set what Petersen (2022) calls “guardrails”: structural boundaries and intentions, in this case around what it means to teach as a librarian. As a group (or individual), do you consciously choose to engage in deference behaviors? Is the assumption that you will always do what the instructor asks you to do? What do you do in instances of low communication, then, when you aren’t sure what the instructor wants? When instruction requests increase without a corresponding decrease in other work, what should you do?
What differentiates a ‘guardrail’ from a ‘boundary’ is that individuals are responsible to uphold ‘boundaries’, while “the onus for maintaining [a guardrail] is on the group” (Petersen, 2022). Several librarians in my program have individual boundaries for the number of instruction sessions they will take in a day or a week. For example, in the busiest weeks of my semester, I (mostly) accept no more than two lesson preps per day, or four total sessions, whichever comes first. I’ll teach two sections of Class A and two of Class B the same day, but not three sections of Class A in addition to two of Class B or one of Class A, one Class B, and one Class C. Over time, I’ve learned that my energy and focus can’t be sustained beyond four sessions or two different lessons, and the quality of my teaching suffers. If I’m offered sessions beyond my stated boundary, I negotiate dates or create online learning materials to achieve the same outcomes.
I’m not alone: 48 survey respondents also set teaching limits—three sessions per day was the most common reported limit. My colleagues have set other boundaries for themselves in response to their unique situations, such as no more than ten sessions in a week, or requiring an assignment sheet and a conversation with the instructor before agreeing to teach. We’ve been able to do this, even now that we are—for the moment—fully staffed, because we have the trust and support of our supervisors.
The results of this survey provide two opportunities to library instruction coordinators, supervisors, managers, and teams. First, to make their expectations as they relate to instruction clear. Most respondents felt that if they said ‘no’ to an instruction session, their colleagues and supervisors would support them (n=220, 78%), but in many cases, that support was implied and not explicit. One respondent wrote that while they’re generally confident in saying ‘no’, they’re also uncertain because their “supervisor is sometimes supportive and sometimes not so [it is] hard to know how they’d react.” If the expectation is that the library must prove its worth by accepting every instruction request and seeking out more, then coordinators, supervisors and managers also have a responsibility to advocate for appropriate, stable labor resources. If the expectation instead is that the library (or individual librarians) will accept and seek out meaningful, well-timed, collaborative instruction sessions and redirect or negotiate requests that do not meet those benchmarks, then the responsibility is to, as Petersen said in her talk at the 2022 Conference on Academic Library Management, “create a match between the amount of work there is and the capacity of your team to do that work well.”
One way to begin setting these guardrails is through policy. However, only 22% (n=53) respondents said their libraries have existing library policies about when to teach and when to say ‘no’ or renegotiate. 64% (n=177) felt that a written policy would make them more confident in saying ‘no’. If the library culture already provides support for saying ‘no’, why not codify it in a policy? More written policy on this topic can help provide equity between individual librarians (since a later-career librarian is more likely to have said no than an early-career one, and since female librarians may receive more negative consequences than male ones). Written policies may also decrease the sense of guilt librarians feel when they need to say ‘no’, since they can rely on the support of their supervisors rather than hope they won’t face consequences. A de jure, rather than de facto, “no babysitting” policy may be an easy place to begin, as many respondents indicated it is one of the times they regularly say ‘no.’ A policy may also come in handy if resources are stretched thin, as in the scenario I described at the beginning of this paper. When there are more requests than a team can fill, how will you decide which to engage with? Our team, for instance, developed curriculum maps for each department, identifying the courses and assignments with the most robust information literacy components. Those courses are our instruction priorities.
Even in times of heavy outreach, it’s important to consider what kinds of instruction you are offering. You may have time for 100 + ten-minute database demos this semester, but is that the kind of teaching you want to offer for the rest of your career? Is that what you expect of your colleagues? What are your information literacy instruction values — either as an individual or as part of an instruction program? How can you move towards teaching more sessions that align with your values and students’ pedagogical need? Teaching boring or ineffective lessons one semester only indicates your willingness to do so again, regardless of your future goals or values. Defaulting to “more sessions, more students” is understandable in many academic climates, since numbers are one easy way to demonstrate library impact to university administration, which could impact budget and hiring allocations.
As a result, some survey respondents felt they didn’t need instruction priorities: They never say ‘no’ to instruction because they are trying to increase instruction engagement. I experienced this in my first years as an instruction librarian. Delighted to be of service and make the acquaintance of instructors, I agreed to many classroom visits without a clear purpose because I had the time and wanted to get in front of students. As my skill in the classroom increased, so did my other responsibilities, and I became aware that I no longer had the time or interest in repeating certain scavenger hunts, quick database demos, or basic meet-and-greets. In some cases, I have been able to leverage my relationship with instructors to negotiate for more impactful sessions. However, other instructors wanted what they had always gotten and weren’t interested in my new ideas. I, and librarians like me, could benefit from initiating and expecting more communication between the library and disciplinary instructors.
Both literature and survey responses repeatedly indicated the importance of communication with librarian colleagues and classroom instructors. 51% (n=141) said that increased communication with classroom instructors would make them feel more confident in saying ‘no’ when necessary, and others suggested that increased communication might reduce the need to say no in the first place. One respondent described a scenario in which, after repeated unsuccessful attempts to communicate with an instructor who “was consistently … not responding to messages …” and “changing things once [the librarian was] in the classroom” they “finally just said [they] weren’t available to teach.” Another felt that while communication didn’t reduce the need to say no, it did lead to more positive outcomes overall, saying, “My turning down late requests has never really been an issue because I communicate very clearly with faculty from the start of the semester to make sure they know what will garner them the best results. I am sure I will have to do this again in the future … and I feel my current approach seems to be working quite well.”
Of course, ideally, communication is a two-way street that allows a librarian to hear about the needs and preferences of the classroom instructor and their students. However, some librarians have relied on their outreach communication to set the stage for the collaboration; if instructors choose not to engage, those librarians can rely on their previous messaging to draw boundaries (such as needing an assignment description within a certain time period). While less structural than a guardrail, that individual stated boundary, especially with the support of a team of librarians, can serve in place of a policy.
As stated previously, I’m not advocating that we become a profession of ‘no’-sayers (as one survey respondent put it, instruction is “literally [our] job”), but that we consider how our instruction can be thoughtful, value-driven, and reasonable as it relates to our workloads. It is clear that we have the expertise to be true partners in the classroom and that we have a desire to, yes, serve the campus community. One way to hold both of those truths at once is to say ‘yes’ to instruction when it is meaningful and accompanied by a relationship with classroom instructors, and ‘no’ when the resources don’t allow it.
Thanks to reviewers Ian Beilin, Ikumi Crocoll, Brittany Paloma Fiedler, Kevin Seeber, and Andrew Asher for their guidance and perspective in writing and revising this piece. Thanks also to the Statistical Consulting Center at Grand Valley State University, particularly statisticians Clara Voelker and Alejandro Hoban, for their skill with SPSS and SAS. Finally, deep gratitude to my colleagues, who have supported and encouraged me in both my ‘yes’ and my ‘no.’ I am so lucky to have you as partners and role models.
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Appendix: Survey Questions
Relationship to Instruction
1. Do your job responsibilities include instruction?
2. How long have you been in a role with instruction responsibilities?
- Fewer than 5 years
- 6-15 years
- Over 15 years
3. How much of your position is instruction?
- None or almost none
- A little
- A moderate amount
- A lot
- All or nearly all
4. On average, how many instruction sessions do you teach PER SEMESTER?
e. More than 40
6. I have a set number of instruction sessions I will teach in a given time frame (select all that apply)
a. Yes, per day
b. Yes, per week
c. Yes, per semester
7. If yes, what is your limit? Give both the number and the time frame (ex: 3 sessions per day, 10 sessions per week)
8. What is your position?
9. Are you tenured?
b. Not yet: tenure-track
c. Tenure is not offered in my position
10. What kind of institution?
a. Community College
b. 4-year Private
c. 4-year Public
d. Something else not listed here:
11. What racial or ethnic groups describe you? Select as many as apply
d. Asian or Pacific Islander
e. Alaskan Native or Native American
h. Something not listed here:
i. I prefer not to answer
12. What sexual and gender identities describe you? Select as many as apply
- Non-binary/gender-queer/gender fluid
- I prefer not to answer
- I prefer to self-describe
Experiences Saying No
1. Have you ever said “no” to a request for an instruction session outside of being double-booked?
2. What reasons did you have for saying no (select all that apply)?
a. Too busy
b. Not enough time to plan (request too close to date of instruction)
c. Lack of confidence in your ability to teach
d. Didn’t think session would be useful/not pedagogically supported
e. Interpersonal conflict with the instructor
f. Insufficient communication with the instructor
g. Feeling burned out/overwhelmed
h. Other reasons:
3. Regardless of whether you have said no in the past, can you imagine saying no in the future?
c. Not sure
4. If yes, what reasons could you imagine having (select all that apply)?
a. Too busy
b. Not enough time to plan
c. Lack of confidence in your ability to teach
d. Didn’t think session would be useful/not pedagogically supported
e. Interpersonal conflict with the instructor
f. Feeling burned out/overwhelmed
g. Other reasons:
5. If you have never said no to an instruction session, why not (select all that apply)?
a. Have never wanted or needed to
b. Not supported by supervisor/administration
c. Still trying to get more instruction, not less
d. Didn’t think I could say no
e. Concern about how it would impact relationships with instructors
f. Reasons not listed here (offer below)
6. If you have said no to an instruction session, what kinds of negotiations or offerings have you made? Select all that apply.
a. Other times in the semester
b. Other formats (online synchronous, asynchronous)
c. Offer other library support (colleagues)
d. Agree upon revision of assignment/library learning objectives
e. I have not negotiated or provided alternate offerings
7. When you have said no or imagined saying no, how have you felt (select all that apply)?
h. Something not listed here:
8. If you have said no to an instruction session in the past, do you feel you faced negative consequences as a result?
c. Not sure
9. If yes, describe those consequences here.
10. If you have said no to an instruction session in the past, do you feel you have received positive consequences as a result?
c. Not sure
11. If yes, describe those consequences here.
12. If I were to say no to an instruction session, I would be supported by my colleagues and supervisors.
a. Strongly Disagree
e. Strongly Agree
13. I would like to be more confident in saying no to instruction sessions.
a. Strongly Disagree
e. Strongly Agree
1. Does your institution have written policy about instruction sessions and when to say no?
c. Not sure
2. What would/does make you more confident saying no? Select all that apply.
a. Written policy clarifying standards for instruction sessions
b. Explicit permission/support of supervisor or administration
c. Tenure or other job protection
d. Increased communication with classroom instructors
e. None of these
f. Something else
1. If you have said no to an instruction session in the past, describe that scenario here. What were the most important parts of your “no”? The most or least effective? What happened? Would you do it again? Would you change anything?
2. Was there a time you said yes to an instruction session you wished you said no to? Describe that scenario here. Why do you wish you had said no? Why didn’t you? What happened? Would you do it again?
Appendix: Logistic Regression Model
The logistic regression model (binary logit) used question 10 of the survey (“Have you ever said no to a request for instruction for a reason other than being double-booked?” as a response variable. It was optimized using Fisher’s scoring. 315 responses were read, and 264 were included in the model; the remaining 51 observations were removed due to missing variables in the response. 158 of those 264 respondents said “yes,” (they have said no to a request), and 106 said “no.” The data met the binary logistic regression assumptions of independent observations. The model identified that years in position and amount of instruction in position were statistically significant in whether respondents had said “no” to instruction opportunities. The model estimates that the odds of saying “no” for librarians with fewer than five years of instruction responsibilities are .425 (95% confidence interval between .127 and .552) times lower than for librarians with more than 15 years and .443 (95% confidence interval between .183 and .626) time lower than for librarians with 6-15 years of experience. Additionally, the model estimates that the odds of saying no for those with a little or moderate instruction duties are .570 (95% confidence interval between .302 and .872) times lower than for those with a lot or nearly all. These findings are not causal.
|Probability modeled is Q10=’Yes’.|
|Note:||51 observations were deleted due to missing values for the response or explanatory variables.|
|Model Convergence Status|
|Convergence criterion (GCONV=1E-8) satisfied.|
|Model Fit Statistics|
|Criterion||Intercept Only||Intercept and Covariates|
|-2 Log L||355.672||332.943|
|Testing Global Null Hypothesis: BETA=0|
|Test||Chi-Square||DF||Pr > ChiSq|
|Type 3 Analysis of Effects|
|Pr > ChiSq|
|How long have you been in a position with instruction responsibilities?||2||15.9720||0.0003|
|How much of your position is instruction?||1||6.0796||0.0137|
|Analysis of Maximum Likelihood Estimates|
|Pr > ChiSq|
|How long have you been in a role with instruction responsibilities?||5 or less||1||-1.3267||0.3740||12.5809||0.0004|
|6 to 15||1||-0.2428||0.3358||0.5228||0.4697|
|More than 15||0||0||.||.||.|
|How much of your position is instruction?||A little / a moderate amount||1||-0.6666||0.2703||6.0796||0.0137|
|A lot / all or nearly all||0||0||.||.||.|
|Are you tenured?||Tenured not offered||1||0.00392||0.2648||0.0002||0.9882|
|Tenured or on tenure-track||0||0||.||.||.|
|race||Person of Color||1||0.6331||0.4355||2.1138||0.1460|
|Odds Ratio Estimates|
|Effect||Point Estimate||95% Wald|
|Years in position 5 or less vs More than 15||0.265||0.127||0.552|
|Years in position 5 or less vs 6 to 15||0.183||0.626|
|Years in position 6 to 15 vs More than 15||0.784||0.406||1.515|
|Amount of instruction A little / a moderate amount vs A lot / all or nearly all||0.513||0.302||0.872|
|Table of race by Q16|
|race||Q16(If you have said no to an instruction session in the past, do you feel you faced consequences, positive or negative, as a result)|
|Yes, positive, negative, or both||No||Total|
|Person of Color||6|
|Frequency Missing = 23|
|Statistics for Table of race by Q16|
|Likelihood Ratio Chi-Square||1||1.1986||0.2736|
|Continuity Adj. Chi-Square||1||0.6978||0.4035|
|Fisher’s Exact Test|
|Cell (1,1) Frequency (F)||56|
|Left-sided Pr <= F||0.9079|
|Right-sided Pr >= F||0.2032|
|Table Probability (P)||0.1111|
|Two-sided Pr <= P||0.3426|
|Sample Size = 158|
Frequency Missing = 23
|WARNING: 13% of the data are missing.|
|Table of Femaleq26 by Q16|
|Femaleq26||Q16(If you have said no to an instruction session in the past, do you feel you faced consequences, positive or negative, as a result)|
|Yes, positive, negative, or both||No||Total|
|Frequency Missing = 18|
|Statistics for Table of Femaleq26 by Q16|
|Likelihood Ratio Chi-Square||1||2.9000||0.0886|
|Continuity Adj. Chi-Square||1||1.9985||0.1575|
|Fisher’s Exact Test|
|Cell (1,1) Frequency (F)||5|
|Left-sided Pr <= F||0.0760|
|Right-sided Pr >= F||0.9737|
|Table Probability (P)||0.0498|
|Two-sided Pr <= P||0.1565|
|Sample Size = 163|
Frequency Missing = 18
|Table of q7_new by Q16|
|q7_new||Q16(If you have said no to an instruction session in the past, do you feel you faced consequences, positive or negative, as a result)|
|Yes, positive, negative, or both||No||Total|
|Tenured or on tenure-track||30|
|Tenured not offered||34|
|Frequency Missing = 6|
|Statistics for Table of q7_new by Q16|
|Likelihood Ratio Chi-Square||1||0.1163||0.7331|
|Continuity Adj. Chi-Square||1||0.0338||0.8541|
|Fisher’s Exact Test|
|Cell (1,1) Frequency (F)||30|
|Left-sided Pr <= F||0.4272|
|Right-sided Pr >= F||0.6906|
|Table Probability (P)||0.1178|
|Two-sided Pr <= P||0.7557|
|Sample Size = 175|
Frequency Missing = 6