Librarian as Educator: doing outreach, access and education with schools

This is a blog version of a Librarians in Training session that I co-presented with Ryan Cronin. We decided to write this up for people who attended as something to refer back to, as well as for those who were unable to attend due to meetings/family commitments/geographical location etc.

Please note that this was presented for a Cambridge University audience so a lot of the terms and references will be specific and may not make sense to all. We hope that this session (and blog post) helps people considering trying new outreach and engagement activities and we aim to show that it isn’t scary and can actually be a lot of fun!

This is a very long write-up, hence the cut!

The post has been blocked out in an interview style as we co-presented many of the sections. GC stands for me and RC stands for Ryan. We’ve also included our Prezi!

Aims of session

Our own experiences

Why do outreach?

Making contacts

But what about…

Tea and biscuits!


Presenter bios

Ryan Cronin 

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Works at St John’s College

Runs education and outreach events with local schools

Interested in connecting people with library collections in new and innovative ways

Georgina Cronin

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User Experience Librarian at Cambridge Judge Business School

Has worked at UL and Scott Polar Research Institute

Wrote MSc dissertation on e-resources in academic libraries

Likes user engagement

Our experiences

Experiences at SJC using collections for teaching

RC: St John’s College library is one of the largest College libraries in Cambridge and is divided between the modern Working Library, used by current students and the 17th century Old Library which has extensive special collections on a vast range of subjects. School visits and education activities are generally run in the historic and impressive setting of the Old Library. While there are issues of safety/security of special collections, I firmly believe that they are there to be used as a learning resource for anyone with an educational interest.

At St John’s I have run sessions on many different subjects from the Abolition of the Slave Trade to English language, for all ages from primary to sixth-form. We do bespoke sessions on request from teachers, but also have a menu of regular sessions that we offer on the library website.

Most sessions, due to the limitations of using rare or fragile material, take the basic form of a library exhibition. In order to prevent it being boring, worksheets, quizzes, treasure hunts and discussion points are used to guide a school group around the exhibits. The design of the session is normally focused around one or two specific and interesting items such as a first edition of Darwin, or Johnson’s dictionary. Other items from the collection are then used to expand a general theme and give an historical or subject-specific context to place the ‘main’ item within.

I try to have a chat with the teacher or group leader of any school group before they come to visit, either in person or over the phone, in order to establish what they expect and want from a library visit, and what we can offer them. This is also a good chance to sort out details about parking, lunches, loos and other practicalities as well as reining in any unreasonable requests teachers might make.

Once I have designed a session with the help of a teacher, and run it once to see what works well, I may make minor alterations and then the session can be added to the website and re-run multiple times with minimal effort.

Experiences at SPRI supporting museum education

GC: The SPRI Library is a very varied collection with a wide range of multi- and inter-disciplinary materials. I would say that the main aims of the Institute are three-fold: to research, preserve and educate. The academic/research staff of the Institute research the physical and social changes taking place in the Polar Regions. The Polar Museum preserves the historical heritage of the Polar Regions (including exploration artefacts to more contemporary sculptures by Inuit artists) as do the Archives and Picture Library collections. Finally, the output of these various activities are transformed through education and are communicated to schools and the public through the outreach and access process.

The Polar Museum has a dedicated education role which is currently run as a job share, so there are two people responsible for carrying out outreach activities. By working with them on existing programmes and developing new ones, I have been able to use the library collections to enrich teaching, bringing more varied materials and facts to each session, and I have also enabled schools and the public to have the opportunity to take part in sessions within the library space itself.

This is important because, while the library is open to the public, a lot of people don’t realise that it is just the next floor up from the Museum and so often feel very special being allowed up as a “real researcher” for an afternoon.

Many of the sessions that I have run and co-taught have been based around a core theme, rather specific items in the collection. Sometimes these themes fit well within the context of the collections and sometimes they don’t. You have to be imaginative when interpreting certain resources. One example is a sports science college group that we recently hosted, who were looking at preparing for an endurance hike through mountains in Austria. While not immediately obvious, a lot of the historical and contemporary material of polar exploration fitted well within the remit of the session, with examples of Captain Scott’s calorie intake and other considerations on his Antarctic expeditions creating a lot of discussion and points of inspiration for the students.

Depending on the topic of the session, we have tried to offer hands-on elements wherever possible. While the Polar Museum is more limited due to the valuable nature of the collections (even though they can provide handling materials), the Library is in a good position to provide electronic resources, paper materials, press cuttings and other resources that visitors can refer to as part of their session. Anything of higher value/fragility can be displayed in glass cases in the same area of the Library where the session is to take place so that participants can work on all the resources at the same time.

I have run successful sessions with sixth form students, GCSE students, younger pupils, as well as university-level students. I have also used teaching resources to support students doing extended projects and other work for school.

Using your collections

RC: As libraries, we are very lucky to have excellent collections to use in educational sessions. We essentially have ‘instant resources’ at our fingertips, even though many people may not even know our collections exist! Running educational events is a great way to raise awareness of our resources, especially any specialist or rare items we may have that could be used to illustrate a subject-specific session.

As well as our specialist items, we have in-house knowledge. As librarians, we know our collections well and can share our knowledge with many different audiences. But it doesn’t stop there. In our Colleges or departments we may have Fellows, researchers and students working on a particular area or with particular items, who would be willing to give a talk or lead a workshop with a school group to share their expertise. Everyone enjoys talking about their work, and for many researchers an educational/outreach component is built into their funding, so this gives them an opportunity to develop their own teaching skills.

Running educational sessions with schools and other groups gives us a chance to get to know our collections even better and see them from a different angle. Drawing out the interesting stories of certain items, or teasing out the salient facts of a complex subject for a primary school audience, really helps us to look at our collections in a new way. Further, it gives other people a chance to see what libraries are all about, what we have and why we preserve our collections for the public benefit.

It is important to recognise our strengths and limits. As libraries, we do not tend to have many objects or items that can be handled, so we have to think about ways to make ‘books in cases’ more interesting and incorporate creative, hands-on activities into our sessions. Perhaps teaming up with a local museum would help, as you could then ‘fill in the blanks’ in each other’s resources to offer a more complete educational visit.

GC: I may say this a lot but you really don’t have to reinvent the wheel when doing education throughout the University as there are already a lot of really good education programmes running right now! See if you can support existing education programmes by offering your skills, knowledge and expertise as a librarian.

There may be academics in your immediate community who are already doing outreach and access work with schools, so see if you can help them further through simply offering them a space in the library to carry out their sessions, to offering resources and insights to help make their existing work become richer and more varied. Many academics probably would have no idea that we could even offer this sort of support so it is an excellent opportunity to build new types of relationships with those engaged with teaching across the University.

The same applies for Education Officers or SLOs. Many teams (or even single people) are doing a lot of their outreach work on a shoestring without much support, so they will welcome the opportunity to work with someone else that can help them achieve what they want through their various programmes.

Finally, by putting yourself out there as a library professional and highlighting all the skills that you have to offer not only allows you to connect with a wider range of people across the University, but it also allows you to represent your profession as being more than just books-on-shelves and shh-ing!


If you are lucky enough to be in a department that is attached to a museum or exhibition space, use this resource! Get involved with on-going exhibitions and see if there are ways you can support research, as well as finding ways in which you can embed items from the library collection in to the wider museum collection. One way in which I did this at SPRI was through adding special collection materials to temporary exhibitions, with a small caption explaining a bit more about the item and the existence of the library itself.

However, many libraries across Cambridge are not attached to a museum, but there are ways to connect and work together. Do some research and see what museums have collections that overlap with yours and get in touch with them to see if you can work together on a joint project, joint exhibition or even running education activities together on a shared theme or story. Many museums across the University probably don’t even realise that our library collections exist and we can actually help them with the interpretation and communication of their collections.

What’s in it for us?

This is a valid question. For a lot of librarians, education and outreach often isn’t even our job descriptions but it is still a hugely important thing to be involved with.

RC: There are a lot of intangible benefits of taking the time and effort to get involved in education. The most obvious perhaps is awareness raising. Many people think of libraries as outdated or dull, and if we run interesting activities it can help to change that perception and show that libraries are a place to learn and to have fun. Even within our own institutions, the library is often overlooked. The more education we do, the more we make people aware of what we do and the more people come to see us as central to our institution’s educational aims.

As well as this, we are supporting potential future students by getting young people to see universities and libraries as welcoming and accessible instead of intimidating. Opening our doors to a wider audience can generate goodwill and break down the gown/town divide.

From our point of view as librarians, educational events can become an opportunity to do professional advocacy, by challenging stereotypes of librarians as well as by developing our professional skills.

GC: As I’m sure many of you know all too well, as librarians we often have to appeal for funding to continue maintaining, developing and staffing our collections. Through doing outreach and education, you have an extra arguing point when applying for new funding. For example, the HLF is very pro public engagement, so having a successful outreach programme can certainly not hurt when appealing for funds.

Ensuring the survival of collection funding streams is crucial and building an education programme around your collections in a way that you can then have local and international schools vouching for you to funding bodies can be a very powerful bonus.

Also, through the process of researching parts of your collection more indepth for the purposes of preparing new sessions, you may actually find new items or new aspects of existing items. As a result of this, you can use education as a justification to raise funds for conservation and other such activities with these newly found items.

Making the library collections more visible in the context of your college or department, especially through showing how skilled we are as professionals and that we can teach and carry out research too, can only be a good thing. Also, you can build on your professional and personal skills, and those of your team, through developing new education programmes and also applying these to your more immediate student and academic user groups.

Finally, as sad as it is to admit, we often have to justify our existences as people and our collections. Making our work about more than just books on shelves (simplistic I know) is so crucial to the survival of what we work so hard to achieve, and education/outreach/access that is in line with the overall aims of the University is key.

Making first contact


RC: Getting in touch with teachers can be tricky at first, as they do tend to be very busy and do not always respond well to blanket emails. But there are some easy ways around this problem.


Promoting your educational resources on your library website and by social media like Facebook and Twitter is easy and free, and makes a great first step. Simply having a menu of resources and some contact details goes a long way.

However, do not feel like you are on your own and have to go and find teachers and schools all by yourself. Most Colleges and departments have a Schools Liaison Officer (or Access Officer, or Education Officer or some similar title) who already do education and outreach work. They will have a list of contact schools and have experience of making contact and bringing groups in. Get in touch with your local SLO and ask what the library can offer to support their existing education programme!

Likewise, large-scale university wide festivals offer a great chance to ‘piggyback’ on existing events and marketing. Most festival organisers are very happy for people to submit events and exhibitions, and they will do all the advertising for you. They also tend to have a volunteer pool, so they can find you extra staff if needed. These events can get hundreds of visitors a day, so simply putting a pile of leaflets by the door is a great and easy way to market your education programme. You never know who might pick one up and get in touch with you as a result!


GC: Depending on the department, there should be at least one person responsible for outreach and access. This could be as simple as an external affairs person, to someone specifically dedicated to outreach as part of their work. Some departments do the minimum of open days, while other get more involved and run outreach programmes already. Try to get in touch with whoever you think is most appropriate and see what projects you can work together on. By working with people already carrying out engagement activities, you can pool you knowledge and also benefit from existing mailing lists and schools contacts. If you can’t find an immediately obvious person, see what is happening across the department and beyond.


Pretty much all museums should have at least one person responsible for outreach and education. This may be a fulltime or part time role but there should be someone to talk to. As we have already said, if you are lucky enough to be attached to a department with a museum then get involved! Get your collections in cases and support the ongoing teaching. If you’re not part of a museum department, get in touch with museums that have overlap in their collections with yours.

RC: I have done joint events with museums in the past and they have always been great fun. I worked with SPRI on one event where a class came to St John’s in the morning to look at old explorers’ maps, had lunch there and then went to SPRI in the afternoon to look at more recent polar exploration. The day was a great rounded experience for the class, and only half a day’s work for each of us (me and the SPRI education officer) to plan and run. SPRI made contact with the school. We both sat in on each other’s sessions and so were able to share ideas and skills.


GC: External affairs/engagement team. The engagement team and all the outward facing central teams have a wide range of experiences and while they may still not always “get” libraries doing outreach, they’ll certainly be keen to help and advise on new approaches and opportunities to carry out their roles in collaboration with what you are looking to achieve. By getting involved in wider reaching events, you have the opportunities to have the engagement team do promotion on your behalf, give you access to a pool of volunteers and much much more.

Most of the time, people are happy to have the extra help and enthusiasm seeing as every department is doing everything on a shoe string. As with a lot of what we’ve said so far, collaborating and joining forces with others not only makes everyone’s lives easier as you’re then working as a team, but it also allows for libraries to be more out there and more visible as valid partners in the education provision of the University as a whole.

But what about…?


GC: It is possible and achievable to do good education without too much expense. We already have the collections and resources at hand in the library!  The greatest cost is printing worksheets and leaflets, much of which you’ll probably be doing for your existing users anyway. Schools should make their own arrangements for transport, lunch etc. but be aware, they will ask what facilities you can offer anyway.


It is true, there is an initial time-sink in setting up these activities. However, they are things that can be done slowly and organically.  Once an activity or session has been designed and run once, it can be used again and again ‘out of the box’ with little to no alterations, making the time to set up much shorter, and the effort easier. The initial time investment pays itself back! One example of a literal ‘out of the box’ way that the Polar Museum runs activities is through having all the worksheets, pens and other supplies for each activity in a simple Really Useful box which can be handed over to a teacher for a self-guided session. Refill the sheets and its ready to go again!

Also, to make sure your sessions are sustainable, please put everything you’re doing and preparing in a shared folder somewhere. Document everything and list instructions, required resources and other such information so that if you are not around when a session needs to be carried out, another member of staff can just pick it up and go. Also this is a good way of being able to refer back and assess previous activities that you have run.


Teachers, students, volunteers can all help create and run sessions, so you don’t have to spend all your time doing it. Take advantage of your local student and academic population as many will be keen to get involved as it can be an opportunity for them to get experience in teaching and also in communicating whatever research they’re working on. Plus there is always the volunteer pool if you are running an open event. Also, don’t be afraid to say no to a school if they are making unreasonable demands on your time.


RC: I am not a trained teacher by any stretch of the imagination! The great thing is that teachers don’t expect us to be. The whole point of an out-of-the-classroom learning experience is that it will be run differently from a classroom lesson. As long as you know the items well and are enthusiastic then that’s all you need!

Teachers know their class and their abilities as well as what they have already covered, so they are often very willing to take the lead in getting the group to discuss the items on display and ask questions.

Besides, we are all teachers in some sense anyway! If you have ever run a library induction tour, or taught someone how to use a database, or helped with a tricky research enquiry, then you have done teaching. It’s exactly the same skills: breaking down a big complex topic into easy to manage segments and helping people figure out the answer for themselves.

The great thing there is that these skills are infinitely transferable. Skills developed during day to day library work can be adapted to school education, and skills developed doing school education can feed back into regular work.


Feedback is hugely important as it gives us a chance to gauge how we’re doing and gives us good evidence-based reasoning behind what we do. However, please please please PLEASE do not give your school groups paper feedback groups. Everyone hates them and just imagine what a massive downer they’ll be to a really enthused group who have just had a great session in your library. No, there are other ways that are less invasive and more productive.


Informal feedback: carry out observational feedback on the day. Talk to the children as they’re taking part in your session and generally pick up on how everyone is doing and reacting. Follow this up with a post-session debrief with yourself and write down what worked/what didn’t/what you observed.

Formal feedback: Once the teacher and their class has had a chance to go back to school and do their own version of a debrief, email/phone the teacher a few days after to see how they felt it went. This is not only a good chance to get key quotes for your funding and/or annual review need, but also builds on relationship with school. It not only shows you care that the class had a genuinely good time but it builds on your existing relationship and may well keep a conversation going that ensures that school does a return visit. Not all groups do come back as that one visit has served their requirements, and that’s ok. However it is definitely worth your while to have repeat visits as it not only builds new relationships and partnerships, but that school may well tell their colleagues about you and bring in even more new audiences.

RC: Sometimes, primary school teachers get their class to write thank you letters, which are adorable to keep! I remember one who wrote ‘I had a lovely time in the library and I want to be a librarian when I grow up’. So when we do school education events, we’re not only developing our skills, raising awareness of libraries and inspiring future students, we just may be inspiring the next generation of librarians too!

TEA AND BISCUITS! (Or for those reading this as a blog…go get a cuppa as you’ve made it this far and deserve a nice reward! Have a cookie from the Internetz)

Breakout groups

As part of the session, we designed five scenarios for people to discuss in groups. These were based around real life situations that we had both dealt with and so we thought they would represent a good chance to not only get discussions started but also help people get ideas on how to deal with similar events in their own work.

If you want to use these scenarios for discussion within your own library teams, you can download them as PDFs from the following links. We’re happy for these to be used as a free resource, but we did take time designing them so do credit us if you reuse them elsewhere.

scenario 1 scenario 2 scenario 3 scenario 4 scenario 5

Some really good points came out of the discussion of the various scenarios that were handed out. Concerns ranged from issues of security to ensuring that all students had a chance to fully participate in the activities.

Many excellent solutions were also offered, including breaking larger groups up into more manageable sets which ensures that you can ensure minimal disruption to your library as well as ensuring the school groups get the most out of their visit. With regards to students with behavioural issues, it was suggested that the students work towards a final exhibition that is then displayed in the library space. This aim not only gives them something to focus on but it also allows them to have ownership over their work.

The guide leader scenario let some to suggest that the leader could come to visit the library herself and have a mini-training session on how to communicate the themes and resources to her troop, thereby empowering her with the necessary knowledge and allowing the librarian to experience training a teacher of the future!


So, we hope you enjoyed this blog version of our teaching session. It was a long post because we covered a lot of material. If you want to get in touch with us, please do through this blog or via our Twitter accounts. Let us know if you start new education programmes because of what you read here or if you just have comments that can help others. We don’t claim to be experts, we just taught based on our own experiences.

Georgina and Ryan

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