Becoming an Instruction Librarian with Michael Stephens 

Community Profile
Dr. Michael Stephens

“Now I like to say it’s a class in humanism and library services masquerading as a technology class because we do a lot with technology, but it really, really is about making connections with people. And how we might help them and serve their needs to live good lives in whatever information environment these folks are in.”

Michael Stephens 
SJSU iSchool Professor 

Michael Stephens started his academic career as a communications and film student at IU, but soon after graduating, he found he was not interested in working at any of the local television stations. He instead found a store that catered to one of his other interests: music. Michael worked at a music/video store for several years, and during that time he found that his favorite part was helping customers find songs they had heard on the radio. 

“Back then there was no Google. So it’s kind of up to having the knowledge you had here,” he pointed at his head. “What I didn’t like about [the job] was that you had to be making money for the business. I liked the fact that I could answer people’s questions.”

And that’s what led him to the audiovisual department at the St. Joseph County Public Library in South Bend Indiana, in 1991. 

Starting his Library Journey 

Knowing that full librarian positions required a graduate degree, Michael started his MLIS journey around the same time through Indiana University Bloomington. 

This was before Canvas or online classes were a thing, but he does remember taking a course that was sent via television signal from another Indiana University location to his classroom, but unfortunately, the connection was buggy and rarely worked.

Michael also remembers how particular the program was, especially when it came to cataloging, and how they were required to memorize how to find categories for tests “which is so weird, nobody’s gonna put you in a room to catalog and make you do it from memory.” 

When Michael finished his MLIS in ‘95, he moved into the reference department – which was right around the time more people were gaining internet access through university connections.  

“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to start learning about the internet. And then teaching people, both patrons, and staff how to use it, to answer questions or to see what’s out there or just see what it looked like.”

Teaching Librarians 

Michael remembers how fast it went from getting his degree to starting teaching at his library: “It was like months. And people were so interested. We did PowerPoint presentations about the internet. And then we’d do a little demo for the public in a big meeting room. And we were getting like 100 to 150 people coming in because they wanted to know what it was all about. And myself and another librarian got to be kind of at the forefront of that. We started searching classes and finally got into hands-on learning a few years later once we got enough computers for folks to actually do hands-on-type stuff. So I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed all of it. And I would travel around to branches and do training out there. That was always fun.” 

As an introverted person, Michael knows that library professionals can have a tendency to stick to themselves, but library work often also involves doing some level of instruction and teaching. Even recording lectures or informational videos will take some energy to do. 

“I taught mostly face-to-face for five years when I was at Dominican University, like 6 pm to 9 pm classes, which was standard because so many students were working as they tried to get their degree. I would have people that might drive 90 minutes through the traffic and everything to get in a room to sit for three hours. And I was just so aware of how exhausting that could be. And I always wanted it to be interesting.”

That desire to make classes interesting continued as Michael began to have the chance to teach online. Then he saw the job advertisement for the iSchool.

“The job description actually opened with: “Live anywhere – Teach great students.”’ Yes!, this was exactly what I was looking for.”

Dr. Michael Stephens on shoreline with dogs

Hyperlinked Libraries 

Today, Michael Stephens is a Full Professor at SJSU and teaches two consistent courses for the MLIS degree: INFO 200 and The Hyperlinked Library. 

“I really love them both. INFO 200 is the core class that everybody takes and I coordinate that class, and it’s great. We just did a complete revamp of all the assignments this past summer and recorded new material for each of the course modules.  The other class that I put together when I came to San José in 2011, is  called The Hyperlinked Library. “Now I like to say it’s a class in humanism and library services masquerading as a technology class because we do a lot with technology, but it really, really is about making connections with people. And how we might help them and serve their needs to live good lives in whatever information environment these folks are in.”

Michael knows how varied the experience of a librarian can be, and how varied learning can be from student to student, and has done his best to reflect that in his course assignments, with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” model for following student interests and learning styles. Stephens noted that the literature devoted to learning in online spaces such as MOOCs highlight the need and protocols to promote personalized learning. In his own research, School of Information students responded positively to opportunities to personalize their blogs in 200 and to personalize communication methods with mobile devices. He feels personalization enhances the learning experience. See for more.

“I think people want to personalize their learning. I think our students should be able to personalize their learning because they’re all going to end up hopefully in the places they want to be doing what they want to do.”

For INFO 200 and Hyperlinked Libraries that means all forms of blogging: text, medi, video and audio.

Blogging Librarians 

Michael started blogging in 2003, a year before he started his Ph.D. At that time, there were not many librarians using blogs just yet, and it did catch the attention of the library community, although not always in a positive way.

“Michael Gorman, who I believe at the time was president of ALA called us ‘the blog people’ and said in an advertorial or some such that we’re not used to reading complex texts. I thought, ‘well, hold on a second – why don’t we talk to the bloggers and see what they have to say?’”

So the moment he started his Ph.D. he already knew what he wanted to do, and began interviewing other bloggers for his research study. These pursuits lead to presentations around the globe and to his work writing columns for the Library Journal. 

Blogging is a lot more common for libraries today — some libraries are large enough for their own communications departments, while others may still use interns for this role. In any case, Michael hopes that libraries use people intimately familiar with the story of the institution as its writer. He further advises bloggers to extend their influence beyond the library by getting involved in local and international groups across their preferred social media platform. 

Advice for the Future  

Michael’s advice for current and future MLIS students is to take courses that focus on user instruction or classes that focus on creating learning opportunities for people — anything that falls under “user experience.” 

“I hope that all of our students find their spot when they get their degrees in the information professions that make them feel as though they’re doing something meaningful. And if it stops feeling meaningful, maybe it’s time to switch or maybe totally change what you’re doing.”

We’re leaving behind the period where librarians (or any person) might work for the same company or institution for thirty years and instead may have a more varied journey across information professions. 

“Follow your passions, if you see things that really work, especially in some of the electives the school offers, and we have really super interesting electives to get into some of those for sure. Have a good understanding of how technology is used currently in Library and Information settings and have enough understanding to dive in.” 

Check This Out!

For further reading about staying connected to our hyperlinked libraries, Dr. Stephens recommended some of his most recent publications which can be found online via the King Library website and OneSearch: 

“The Strategic, Curious & Skeptical Learner: Australian Public Librarians and Professional Learning,”  Public Library Quarterly, (2022).

“Student perceptions and use of mobile devices for LIS coursework: Implications for educators,” Journal of Library and Information Science, (2021). 

“Technology, collaboration, and learning: Perceptions and preferences of US public library staff professional development,” Library Leadership & Management (2019). 

“Connected learning: Evaluating and refining an academic community blogging platform,” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, (2016). 

Photos courtesy of Geert van den Boogaard