How to Apply Adult Learning Theory in Special Libraries

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

August 13, 2019
When I first started working in libraries, I did not imagine education would be such a big part of my job. Instead, I assumed I would catalog, digitize documents, answer reference questions, and conduct research. While I have done all of those things, much of my work has been teaching people how to use tools, helping them understand how to find information, drafting summaries of research to help the library user understand what information is available to them, and conducting presentations.

My undergraduate degree is in secondary education, so I was able to pull from that knowledge and skill set when training and teaching responsibilities grew. However, I had studied the art of teaching teenagers—and the skills did not always translate well to working with professional adults. This knowledge gap led me to research how I could better instruct adults.

Adult Learning Theory

In my research, I quickly discovered Malcolm Knowles, who is considered the father of Andragogy, a theory of adult learning. Andragogy provides many insights into how to create environments that meet the needs of adult library users. There are several assumptions Malcom Knowles makes about adult learners:

  • The need to know
    Adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2011, pp. 63-67)

Adult Learning in Special Libraries

Each of these assumptions helped me create more effective training and engage in more meaningful interactions with library users. When reading about the first assumption—The Need to Know—I quickly realized I had been conducting workshops on the library for new hires without explaining why the library was relevant to them. I made the unconscious assumption that new hires would understand why they’d need to access the resources in the library in order to do their job. However, many of them only realized their need for library resources a few months into the job. This meant I was often going over much of the same content with them again. Therefore, I changed tactics and added a section at the beginning of my presentation that explained why the library and its resources were relevant. To the extent possible, I tailored this section to the new hires’ roles and responsibilities (I obtained this information from Human Resources).

The second assumption—The Learner’s Self-Concept—helped me tailor my individual interactions with library users. Often, it felt like there were two types of library users. One wanted me to do everything for them, and the second type refused to ask for assistance until they were out of options. Once I understood that adults have an internal need to be seen as capable, I realized what was occurring with the two types of library users. Both types did not want me to know they didn’t know how to do something. Therefore, instead of feeling frustrated, I started to see each interaction as an opportunity to help them learn. For the first type of library user, I would (of course!) still fulfill their requests, but I also started including information about specific forms they could complete that would save me time—which ultimately helped them. For the second type of library user, I jumped in to help as soon as I knew their need and reassured them that most people didn’t know how to locate the information they were working to obtain. Then, I reminded them about my job responsibilities and assured them I was happy to assist.

Knowledge gained from the first two assumptions of Andragogy helped me as a librarian, and also helped make the library a more successful department. Our user statistics increased and from my perspective, the interactions I had with library users were more pleasant.

The other four assumptions will be unpacked in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!


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. Her professional interests include the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, information literacy, digital literacy, educational technology, and academic development.

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