Humor in library instruction: a narrative review with implications for the health sciences




Library Instruction, Information Literacy, Humor, Narrative Review


Objective: The review sought to gain a better understanding of humor’s use and impact as a teaching and learning strategy in academic library and health sciences instruction and to determine if the most common techniques across both disciplines can be adapted to increase engagement in medical libraries’ information literacy efforts.

Methods: This narrative review involved retrieving citations from several subject databases, including Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts; Information Science & Technology Abstracts; Library & Information Science Source; PubMed; and CINAHL. The author limited her review to those publications that explicitly addressed the use of humor in relation to some form of academic library or health sciences instruction. Studies examining use of humor in patient education were excluded.

Results: Scholars and practitioners have consistently written about humor as an instructional strategy from the 1980s onward, in both the library literature and health sciences literature. These authors have focused on instructors’ attitudes, benefits to students, anecdotes, and best practices summaries. Overall, both librarians and health sciences educators have a positive opinion of humor, and many instructors make use of it in their classrooms, though caution and careful planning is advised.

Conclusions: Commonalities between the library and information science literature and health sciences literature provide a cohesive set of best practices and strategies for successfully incorporating comedy into library instruction sessions. Health sciences librarians can adapt several of the most commonly used types of instructional humor (e.g., silly examples, cartoons, storytelling, etc.) to their own contexts with minimal risk.

Author Biography

Elena Azadbakht, Health Sciences Librarian and Assistant Professor, Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, University of Nevada, Reno, NV

Health Sciences Librarian and Assistant Professor


Fulton TL. Plain (well, not just plain) fun: the potential for humor in the academic library “one-shot lecture.” 1985 Jun. (Available from: <>. [cited 1 Apr 2109].)

Archibeque O. Laughter in the library: the use of humor in bibliographic instruction. Colorado Libr. 1987 Dec;13:26–28.

Perret R. Librarian attitudes toward classroom humor. Ref User Serv Q. 2016;55(4):261–6.

Vossler JJ, Sheidlower S. Humor and information literacy: practical techniques for library instruction. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited; 2011.

Robinson VE. Humor and the health professions: the therapeutic use of humor in health care. 2nd ed. Thorofare, NJ: Slack Incorporated; 1990.

Bobp ME. Tips for teaching the “MTV generation.” Coll Undergrad Libr. 1998 Mar;5(1):91–4.

Sarkodie-Mensah K. Using humor for effective library instruction sessions. Cath Libr W. 1998 Jun;68(4):25–29.

Arnsan D. Libraries, laughter and learning: the rubber chicken school of bibliographic instruction. Community Junior Coll Libr. 2000 Jul;9(4): 53–8.

Marshall J. What would Buffy do? the use of popular culture examples in undergraduate library instruction. Presented at: Annual Meeting of the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association; Toronto, ON, Canada; 2002 Mar. (Available from:>. [cited 1 Apr 2019].)

Brewerton A. “Laugh? I nearly learnt how to use a database!” a serious article on the use of humour in teaching information skills. SCONUL Newsl. 2002;26(8):27–33.

Walker BE. Using humor in library instruction. Ref Serv Rev. 2006 Feb;34(1):117–28.

Francis M. Using fun to teach rigorous content. Commun Inf Lit. 2013 Feb;6(2):151–9.

Beitz JM. Keeping them in stitches: humor in perioperative education. Semin Perioper Nurs. 1999 Apr;8(2):71–9.

Chiarello MA. Humor as a teaching tool: use in psychiatric undergraduate nursing. J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv. 2010 Aug;48(8):34–43.

Hayden-Miles M. Humor in clinical nursing education. J Nurs Educ. 2002 Sep;41(9):420–4.

Lee CJ, Lamp JK. The use of humor and role-playing in reinforcing key concepts. Nurs Educ. 2003 Mar;28(2):61–2.

Liu YP, Sun L, Wu XF, Yang Y, Zhang CT, Zhou HL, Quan XQ. Use of humour in medical education: a survey of students and teachers at a medical school in China. BMJ Open. 2017 Nov;7(11).

Nahas VL. Humour: a phenomenological study within the context of clinical education. Nurs Educ Today. 1998 Nov 1;18(8):663–72.

Parkin CJ. Humor, health, and higher education: laughing matters. J Nurs Educ. 1989 May;28(5):229–30.

Parrott TE. Humor as a teaching strategy. Nurs Educ. 1994 Jun;19(3):36–8.

Smith CM, Noviello SR. Humor in the classroom using faculty skits. Nurs Educ. 2012 Oct;37(5):198–201.

Southam DM, Schwartz KB. Laugh and learn: humor as a teaching strategy in occupational therapy education. Occup Ther Health Care. 2004 Jan 1;18(1–2):57–70.

Ulloth JK. The benefits of humor in nursing education. J Nurs Educ. 2002 Nov;41(11):476–81.

Ziegler JB. Use of humour in medical teaching. Med Teach. 1998 Jan 1;20(4):341–8.

Ziegler JB. Humour in medical teaching. Med J Aust. 1999 Dec 6;171(11–12):579–80.

Warnken PN, Young VL. Application of training principles and techniques for successful library instruction. Ref Serv Rev. 1991;19(4):91–6.

Smith FA. Perspectives on...the pirate-teacher. J Acad Libr. 2007 Mar;33(2):276–88.

Liebman R. Make ’em laugh: a different approach to library orientation. Technol Horizons Educ. 1980 May;7(4):36–8.

MacAdam B. Humor in the classroom: implications for the bibliographic instruction librarian. Coll Res Libr. 1985 Jul;46(4):327–33.

Petry BL. Adding zest to OPAC instruction: humor and the unexpected. Coll Undergrad Libr. 1998 Jan;5(2):75–85.

Chauvet S, Hofmeyer A. Humor as a facilitative style in problem-based learning environments for nursing students. Nurs Educ Today. 2007 May 1;27(4):286–92.

Osborne NS. Librarian humor in classroom and reference. 1992 Jun. (Available from: <>. [cite 1 Apr 2019].)

Piemonte NM. Last laughs: gallows humor and medical education. J Med Humanit. 2015 Dec 1;36(4):375–90.

Trefts K, Blakeslee S. Did you hear the one about the Boolean operators? incorporating comedy into library instruction. Ref Serv Rev. 2000 Dec;28(4):369–78.

Tewell EC. What stand-up comedians teach us about library instruction: four lessons for the classroom. Coll Res Libr News. 2014 Jan;75(1):28–30.

Booth-Butterfield S, Booth-Butterfield M. Individual differences in the communication of humorous messages. Southern Commun J. 1991 Spring;56(3):205–18.

Ulloth JK. Guidelines for developing and implementing humor in nursing classrooms. J Nurs Educ. 2003 Jan;42(1):35–7.

Whyte SB. Stuffy no more: passion and humor in the library. Coll Res Libr News. 1996 Mar;57(3):138–141.

Meer PFV, Ring DM, Perez-Stable MA. Engaging the masses: library instruction with large undergraduate classes. Coll Undergrad Libr. 2007 Aug;14(1):39–56.

Antonelli M, Kempe J, Sidberry G. And now for something completely different…theatrical techniques for library instruction. Res Strateg. 2000 Jan;17(2–3):177–185.

Wylie MA. This nurse educator is “hooked on humor.” J Emerg Nurs. 1997 Jun 1;23(3):272–3.

Christian E. The art of storytelling. AALL Spectrum. 2014 Feb;18(4):27–29.

Saunders L. Teaching the library: best practices. Libr Philos Practice. 2002;4(2). (Available from: <>. [cited 1 Apr 2019].)

Overcash J. The use of story as a teaching strategy when educating students in geriatric oncology. J Gerontol Nurs. 2010 Jul;36(7):54–9.

Tewell EC. Tying television comedies to information literacy: a mixed-methods investigation. J Acad Libr. 2014 Mar 1;40(2):134–41.

Pease RA. Cartoon humor in nursing education. Nurs Outlook. 1991 Dec;39(6):262–7.






Knowledge Synthesis