Applying Adult Learning Theory in Virtual Libraries

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

October 15, 2019

In two previous posts, I wrote about the theory of andragogy and its application to training and instruction in special libraries. Now, I want to examine this theory for application in virtual libraries.

Despite the distance between the users and the librarians, virtual libraries can easily provide training and conduct training sessions. Organizational stakeholders need to know how to use the library just as stakeholders in face-to-face work environments do.

For those who read my previous posts on andragogy, I do not want to belabor its principles. However, for those of you new to andragogy, I include the key assumptions of the theory below. There are several assumptions Malcom Knowles’ makes about adult learners and each is useful for application in virtual libraries.

Application in Virtual Libraries

In virtual settings, librarians can use various approaches to support each of the six assumptions.

1) The need to know: “Adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it.”

In order to help organizational stakeholders understand why the library is relevant to them, this information needs to be placed in prominent positions in virtual communication. If an email is sent about new services and resources, the relevancy of the content to various users should be clearly articulated. This may mean sending targeted emails to different departments instead of sending organization-wide communication.

2) The learner’s self-concept: “Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions, for their own lives. Once they have arrived at that self-concept, they develop a deep psychological need to be seen by others and treated by others as being capable of self-direction.”

When users of virtual libraries are not comfortable with their knowledge of the library, they may just avoid it altogether, because it is harder to build relationships or know where to begin seeking help when it can’t be done in person. However, other users of virtual libraries may find it easier to send a quick email asking for something rather than taking the time to figure it out themselves (I know I am guilty of this!). Since Knowles’ stated that adults need to be seen as capable, it is important to embed support that meets the needs of users where they are. This can take the form of:

a) Making it clear who is responsible for what services and resources in your library. Then the communication will hopefully get to the correct person.

b) Being proactive in contacting stakeholders to remind them of what is offered by the library.

c) Highlighting examples of what librarians do for the organization.

d) Developing short tutorials that can be accessed on demand.

3) The role of the learner’s experience: Adults come into an educational activity with both a greater volume and a different quality of experience from that of youths.

The role of the learner’s experience has many implications for virtual libraries. It is likely that very few of your organizational stakeholders have experience with virtual libraries. Therefore, they may not have a clear idea of how to interact with librarians or of the resources available to them. Since they cannot walk down the hall and ask questions, you as the librarian, need to ensure the library is set up in a way that is intuitive. This includes making it clear who to ask questions of. To connect virtual libraries to the prior experience of your organizational stakeholders, I recommend engaging in user testing. Do not create libraries for librarians, but instead, create virtual spaces that make sense to your users. If possible, work with a user experience designer and then test the virtual components of the library with users. Figure out what works and what needs to be changed.

4) Readiness to learn: “Adults become ready to learn those things they need to know and be able to do in order to cope effectively with their real-life situations.”

In virtual environments, library users are most likely contacting the library because there is a work situation with which they need assistance. When virtual stakeholders are reaching out to you it is important to ask specific questions to get all the information you need. Make sure you fully understand the situation and then reply. One thing to remember is the importance of explaining why you are seeking additional information. If you do not need more information, don’t ask for it. However, if you do, be clear why more information is needed. When a reply to a message for assistance is received with questions and not an answer to the original request, users can quickly become frustrated. It is important to clearly explain yourself in virtual communications because body language and tone of voice cannot convey your reasoning, as they could in person.

5) Orientation to learning: “In contrast to children’s and youths’ subject-centered orientation to learning (at least in school), adults are life-centered (or task-centered or problem-centered) in their orientation to learning.”

Library users in virtual environments will only watch tutorials if the information is directly relevant to a task they need to complete or a problem they need to solve. When describing tutorials, services, or resources offered by the library consider including labels that specifically address common workplace tasks and problems. You may also want to consider categorizing services and resources by task or problem.

6) Motivation: “Adults are responsive to some external motivators (better jobs, promotions, higher salaries, and the like), but the most potent motivators are internal pressures (the desire for increased job satisfaction, self-esteem, quality of life, and the like).”

In virtual environments, motivation can be challenging to tap into. In fact, in one of my previous posts I added that motivation was not something I saw as being particularly relevant to my interactions with library users. In that post, I said that after reflection I realized I could recast the library as a way to make users’ jobs easier. The same can be done in virtual libraries. When the online representation of library services and resources is organized around tasks and problems stakeholders need to solve, the message is clear: one of the reasons the library exists is to make work lives easier.

*All quotes on the theory of andragogy from Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2011, pp. 63-67.


Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2011). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (7th ed.). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

<a href="" target="_self">Lauren Hays</a>

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri. Previously, she worked as an Instructional and Research Librarian at a private college in the Kansas City metro-area. Prior to working in higher education, she was employed by the National Archives and Records Administration and worked as an intern at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum. Please read more on Lauren’s skills for special librarians, and you may want to take a look at Lucidea’s powerful ILS, SydneyEnterprise.

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