The Pros and Cons of Reinventing the Wheel

Now that the slower summer months are here I’m taking some time to work on a couple of big projects. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about online tutorials. We have a large student population and a relatively small library, and I’m always looking for ways to extend our instructional efforts. Tutorials covering various research skills, information literacy competencies, and library services may be one way to stretch our resources and reach more students and faculty than we can in the classroom or at the reference desk. And tutorials delivered via video, audio or text can provide additional means of instruction to accommodate multiple learning styles.

On our library website we link out to several great tutorials from other colleges and universities. There are also many online tutorial repositories out there with loads of good content, including ACRL’s own PRIMO: Peer-Reviewed Instructional Materials Online Database. MERLOT, the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, also features research-related tutorials.

But recently I’ve started to think that we should create our own tutorials. Local conditions are certainly a factor. Some resources, like the catalog, are unique to us, so we can’t just link out to another OPAC tutorial. But we are part of a large university system, so in theory we could link to tutorials for shared resources created at other campuses.

There may be usability issues as well. When patrons open a linked tutorial from another library — even if it’s in a new browser window — I worry that we may lose them from our own website. If we use tutorials from other libraries, we must consider how to direct users to those resources from our own library homepage. What about training materials provided by database and service vendors — do they have a place alongside our own, librarian-created online instructional materials?

There’s also the issue of branding: must our online instructional materials have our own logo and library name? I wonder whether local branding is important to students and faculty, and how our users feel when they’re directed to a tutorial created by another institution.

Academic libraries come in many shapes and sizes, though we all share a similar mission of which instruction is a critical component. But no institution has infinite funding and personnel. While the tools for creating web guides, audio podcasts and video tutorials get easier to use (and less expensive) by the day, it still takes time and effort to create them. And many institutions have already created excellent online instructional materials.

Do we spend too much time reinventing the wheel when we create local versions of tutorials on common topics? Is it smarter to link out to materials created by other entities? Or is a mix of the two the best strategy?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

10 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Reinventing the Wheel”

  1. Another pro for doing local tutorials — in an academic setting — is that the creation of tutorials can be done by students and serve a variety of learning purposes. Putting together a good tutorial is not easy. To do it right often requires a variety of skills; technical and script writing, design and tech skills, understanding the product, audio production, voiceover work, project management, etc. The creation of a tutorial can be a good excuse to get a number of departments to work together on a combined project; a type of learning that is getting more and more emphasis, since that’s the way real-world businesses usually get things done.

    There is also a relatively low “failure barrier” with tutorials. At novice levels, many of the skills necessary to create a more dramatic, long or production-intensive product just aren’t there. You don’t want, for example, a first time script writer to try to write a 2.5 hour screenplay. The pressure is too high and the price of failure — for him/herself and the rest of the team — can be problematic. Tutorials make a good “cutting your teeth” project to help students understand the basics and interdependencies of multi-media production.

    In many organizations, tutorials take back-burner, since they’re often considered a “nice-to-have” rather than a “got-to-have.” If you turn the creation of them into a student-based, multi-disciplinary project, the final output will be (often) higher quality, everyone gets to learn something, and you end up with great tutorials and better informed students.

  2. I am the Literacy Instructor at a medium-sized university, and I have thought about not re-inventing the wheel when it comes to tutorials also. I have used some of the tutorials from PRIMO because they are such high quality. If they fit into my lesson plan, I will show them in class with an explanation to the students that this came from UCLA, or wherever.

    I have embedded one or two into the Blackboard course materials. Because of admin restriction I cannot post links on our website. What I had not thought about before I read your article was the idea of usability and branding. I thought that any good information the student would get from us would be beneficial, no matter where it originated from.

    I’ve tried using Captivate to create my own tutorials, but it is very time consuming and complicated. The finished product is not as good as ones I can get from other libraries. So, I’m going to keep using what is already out there, until I have more time or more skills to create my own tutorials.

  3. I’ve been thinking about the “not reinventing the wheel” issue lately, as well. Ideally, I’d love to see something like JibJab for common library instruction topics. If you’re not familiar with it, JibJab is a silly website that allows you to personalize e-cards and videos with your own photographs. I’d love it if there was a way to do something similar with common instruction topics – something that would allow individual librarians to brand the video easily with their institution’s banners and what-not, and host the video on their own servers.

  4. I’m pro re-inventing the wheel…I think that having a tutorial (especially if it has audio narration) come from the library and librarians that students will be working with adds a valuable affective component to the online learning object.

    But time constraints are a real factor…so I’m at a place of picking and choosing. I like Laura H.’s idea of a Library JibJab…but also librarians consciously licensing their materials (when possible) as Creative Commons might also help.

    Interesting post…we’ve been talking about this topic just recently.

  5. Tutorials can be very time-consuming to create and maintain. I’d suggest defining the audience for your tutorial and setting a benchmark for success before embarking. We ultimately eliminated our tutorials because students only used them if required by the professors, and professors chose not to do so. YMMV, of course, but sometimes I think many libraries are creating tutorials just for librarians at other institutions to admire. =)

  6. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who’s grappling with these issues.

    Andy, that’s an interesting idea to involve students in tutorial creation. At my library we’ve discussed asking for student help with orientation/tour kinds of videos, but I bet they’d have an interesting take on instructional videos as well.

    Laura, I’ve also thought along the lines of reusable videos that could be locally branded. My college is part of a large university system so I think this could work well for our OPAC especially. We do have a university-wide Information Literacy committee but we have been too busy with other projects to take this on (yet).

    Kim, I agree that tech issues can be sticky with creating tutorials, esp. if you don’t have the ability to modify your library’s website. We are dipping a toe into tutorial creation and will be posting the resulting videos on YouTube for now, which is one way that I’ve seen other libraries go.

  7. I’ve created somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40 tutorials, and I’m sure many of them are reinventions of the wheel. However, that’s not all bad. On one level I see tutorial creation as a discipline that forces me to approach a database (or other process I’m attempting to teach) systematically. In that way it’s part of my professional development.

    Part of my job description is information literacy, so many of the tutorials I’ve created are instruction that is suitable for in-house use only. Particularly, as we have more distance students returning to study mid-life who find electronic libraries challenging, I aim many of my tutorials at them.

    The remaining tutorials are created for in-house use, but also with an eye to submitting them as part of the Animated Tutorial Sharing Project (ANTS). The ANTS wiki has more information on what we do and all are welcome to join and participate.

    The ANTS tutorials are produced under a Creative Commons share alike licence, and while some images that show local material are unavoidable, the focus is on producing tutorials that are generic enough to apply to other libraries.

    ANTS provides people with access to Shockwave Flash Files, Tutorial Source Code (Camatisia, Captivate or Viewletbuilder Files) and Embedding Code for SWF, FLV and AVI files.

    To access the Source code or Shockwave Flash Files, go to our DSpace location at:

    To access the Embedding Code for Flash Movie Files (.FLV) – or to access .FLV, .MPEG 4 or .AVI Files go to our site at LION TV and look under each Episode’s Files and Links.

    To access Embedding Code for SWF Files, go to our Screencast.Com site and look under each broadcast. Files will be listed below.


  8. I incline to let ten thousand flowers bloom, or wheels hit the road, whatever. We (SUNY Oswego) intend to re-invent wheels and to re-use our own and others’ work, whichever best fits the situation. We see screencasting/ podcasting as emerging core insructional tools. Two main remarks:

    1. Give up control. Let the students use what they see they need. When they need it. That seems to work really well in our open stacks. Why not in information literacy instruction?

    2. Learning is always a local phenomenon. Learning is always a custom job. There is always room for a personal, customizable, and local approach to learning.

  9. I’m so glad this post has sparked so much discussion — thanks everyone! I’ve got lots to think about and work with for the summer.

    Duncan, thanks for pointing out the source code for tutorials on ANTS. I knew that they were Creative Commons licensed, but hadn’t realized that the source files were available, too.

  10. Hello everyone,
    I’ve just stumbled over your interesting discussion. And I agree with Jim Nichols to let all kinds of flowers bloom.

    This is what Lotse, Library Online Tour and Self-Paced Education (, currently does. It offers information and tutorials for all themes in information literacy. This is done on a collaborative basis:

    The editorial staff for general information is situated in Muenster, Germany. Then there are local university libraries with their experts all over Germany and Austria, and finally we’ve got editors who are experts for the different subjects (Economics, History, Physics to name but a few). All editors work together to write and update the information given.

    We are currently redesigning and restructuring Lotse and will try to create multimedia tutorials in information literacy on a collaborative basis.

    If you’re interested, have a look at http// or our blog at where we document ideas and results.
    Unfortunately, it’s all in German – so if you don’t know German, contact me via Mail and I’ll be glad to explain more. If you do, feel free to comment in our blog.

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