Modular Short Form Videos for Library Instruction

In Brief

Expensive software isn’t necessary to create effective tutorials. Quick, unedited tutorials created on social media, such as on Instagram or Snapchat, may be more effective. These short form videos (SFVs) combine the advantages of animated GIFs with the advantages of screencasts: modularity, repetition of steps, and animated visuals supported by pertinent audio. SFVs are cheap (or free) and easy to make with materials libraries already possess, such as Internet access, computers, and smartphones. They are easily replaceable if the subject changes. The short form forces librarians to get right to the point. Finally, SFVs are easily disseminated on social media and have the potential to go viral.

by Cindy Craig


In this article, I describe how I came to use social media videos to teach library skills and abandon the screencasting format. I describe some key learning theories for effective tutorials and how various tutorial formats fit those theories. Finally, I provide some tips for making tutorials in Instagram or Snapchat.


Screencast tutorials, such as those made with Camtasia Studio and Adobe Captivate, have become a staple for instruction librarians. Over the course of my academic library career, I’ve made dozens of screencast tutorials on a variety of topics such as avoiding plagiarism, using subject databases, printing from library computers, and reserving study rooms. The advantage of video tutorials is their ability to provide library instruction around the clock. And with enrollment in online courses at an all-time high, online instruction is more important than ever.

However, there are significant drawbacks to screencast tutorials. One is that they can be difficult to make. If your library has the budget for a professional screen capture program, the learning curve for using it may be too high. Also, when a vendor decides to change a database platform a week before the new semester starts, your carefully made tutorial is instantly stale.

Another, and perhaps more significant, issue is: are students actually using online tutorials? In one survey of undergraduates by Colosimo and Kasuto (2012), one third reported they would not watch screencast tutorials for a variety of reasons, among them “no need,” “no time,” and “no interest.” This finding points to some worrying issues regarding online tutorials (and information literacy instruction in general). Many undergraduates, especially those new to college level research, tend to overestimate their information literacy skills, a phenomenon known as calibration (Yates, 1990). Another is that today’s students are used to a high level of human-centered design in their computing devices. Library tutorials seem clunky and confusing compared to the seamless app interfaces they take for granted on their mobile phones and tablets. Students will ignore screencasts if they are over three minutes long, take too long to load, don’t play well on a mobile device, or are not available at the point of need (Plumb, 2010; Slebodnick & Riehle, 2009).

How can instruction librarians overcome these barriers and create tutorials that are effective and engaging? Two learning theories may be of help: cognitive load theory and dual coding theory.

Key Learning Theories

Cognitive load theory asserts that, for learning to take place, the demand on working memory must be minimized. Working memory, which is our mind’s temporary sketchpad, can only hold about seven units of information for about a maximum of twenty seconds. Information not encoded into long term memory disappears from one’s mind (Miller, 1956; Peterson & Peterson, 1959). Think about being introduced to someone new, only to forget their name moments later. Researcher John Sweller (1994) found that novice learners, such as undergraduates, are especially vulnerable to cognitive overload. He recommends decreasing cognitive load by putting smaller bits of information together into chunks. For example, a seven-digit phone number is easier to remember because it is clustered into two chunks. Ideally, tutorials would demonstrate step-by-step how to perform a task, known as a worked example. A library tutorial about a database, for example, would show each step to finding and using the thesaurus feature.

Dual coding theory, developed by Allen Paivio (1975), asserts that students learn more effectively if their visual and verbal channels are engaged at once. Pairing words and images in a meaningful way, such as with a mnemonic device, decreases the demand on working memory. In a screencast tutorial created in Camtasia, for example, one could use the callout feature to highlight a key concept, such as the word “abstract”, and pair it with footage of a database record. Even better is to pair audio narration with moving images, since only using visual elements can still overwhelm working memory. Think about the extra effort it takes to watch a film with subtitles.

Choosing the Best Tutorial Format

Taking these learning theories into account, one might think the best choice for tutorials would be the screencast, since it combines moving database footage with audio narration. My own research found that this was the case. I compared two tutorials on a biology database: one a screencast featuring audio narration and callouts of important concepts, the other a series of web pages with static screenshots that students could click through. In a follow up quiz, the students who watched the screencast scored higher than the other group (Craig & Friehs, 2013).

However, a 2012 study by Lori Mestre found the opposite. Most of her students also preferred using a tutorial with static screenshots than watching a screencast. Their reasons included:

  • Ability to quickly return to a section explaining a step.
  • Ability to skip around sections instead of watching a video beginning to end.
  • Ability to get the big picture by scanning the whole page, then returning to individual steps.
  • The screencast was tedious to sit through.

The few students who preferred the screencast liked the mouse movements and the highlighting. They also found the voice narration explaining each step to be helpful.

So, considering these conflicting findings, I wondered what format would combine the best aspects of a screencast with the best parts of a static web page tutorial. That’s why I was intrigued when I came across a 2014 article in Lead Pipe by Karl Suhr about using animated GIFs for library tutorials. Suhr noticed that animated GIFs, which he considered antiquated and distracting, had recently made a comeback as a storytelling device in the form of jokes and memes. As information literacy instruction is also a form of storytelling, animated GIFs might be a good format for library tutorials. Suhr’s reasons included:

  • A group of pictures gives immediate feedback as to how much information is being conveyed. A screencast, on the other hand, doesn’t give much of a clue as to what the user is committing to.
  • Pictures have natural break points between steps.
  • A series of images enhances closure, which is the phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole. Comics artists employ closure by carefully sequencing panels and knowing what to keep “off-screen.”
  • A series of animated GIFs combines closure with the dynamic element of video.

Suhr recommended making a series of animated GIFs displayed in a sequence on one screen. This could help users understand “a multistep process that depends on properly executing the one before it,” such as searching for a book in the library catalog. Animated GIFs are also a good choice for practical reasons in that they are easy and cheap to make and don’t require a broadband connection to view.

Trying Short Form Videos

At that point, I decided screencasting might be dead and to switch to another online tutorial format. I wanted to combine the best aspects of animated GIFs and Camtasia videos. Also, I wanted to reach students through their smart phones, which were seemingly ubiquitous. So, I turned to social media.

I decided to try Vine as a format for library tutorials. At the time, Vine was still a very popular video sharing service that at its peak had 40 million users. The videos were only six seconds long and played in a continuous loop. The constraints of this format enhanced creativity by requiring users to tell stories with quick cuts and non-sequiturs (Hern, 2014). Some users gathered millions of followers by becoming masters of short-form storytelling, such as Gainesville, Florida native Thomas Sanders, who, incidentally, developed a comic series called “Storytime” (Fenn, 2014).

I planned out a series of Vine videos showing each step in a research process.

  • Step one/Video one: Locate the PsycINFO database on the Psychology LibGuide.
  • Step two/Video two: Perform a search and browse the records.
  • Step three/Video three: Use PsycINFO’s Term Finder to find relevant results.

A colleague, April Hines, and I created this series using her smartphone and my computer screen. April narrated the videos while I clicked through the relevant screens. She approached the narration as an undergraduate student browsing through the library’s website doing research. For instance, in the first video, she says “I need articles on pet therapy” as a mouse cursor clicks on the PsycINFO link. The second video shows the list of PsycINFO results as she says, “These are all about PET scans. Am I using the right terms? Let me try the Term Finder.” The cursor clicks on the Term Finder link at the top of the screen. The third video shows the thesaurus terms for pet therapy. April’s voice says, “Oh, Animal Assisted Therapy” as the cursor clicks on the thesaurus term. As a new list of records pops up on the screen, she says, “Much better!”

This process was much more difficult to coordinate than we thought and took several tries to get right. However, we were able to load the videos onto a Vine account. I also made a LibGuide and embedded each video so they would appear in order on one screen. Users could easily scan the whole series, view them in order, or skip around to different steps.

To assess the new videos, April and I showed them to a focus group of students from our library’s booster club. These students have helped with assessing library services in the past, so they were eager to help. I asked the students to view the PsycINFO tutorial series on their own mobile devices, then attempt to search the database for an article. They had trouble navigating to the LibGuide where I embedded the videos. It was much easier for them to watch the videos on Vine. The students were able to follow the PsycINFO tutorial series to the end and successfully locate articles, but they needed to watch the videos over and over. The students found the narration useful and they liked that the videos automatically repeated.

We had planned a second focus group, but the Vine service was discontinued and our videos were no longer accessible. April and I recreated the series, as well as some new tutorials, using Instagram and Snapchat. These programs have a little more flexibility than Vine. Instagram allows 15 second videos while Snapchat videos are 10 seconds maximum. Snapchat also allows you to add annotations and captions, which makes videos more accessible for users who cannot hear audio narration. In one of our videos showing how to access the list of Project Starter databases, we added an annotation at the bottom showing the library’s web address. Instagram has the Boomerang app, which bounces a two-second clip back and forth. In one of our videos, we drew an arrow to the Off-Campus Access link on the library’s home page. The Boomerang app moves this arrow back and forth, highlighting the link. The full series of videos is located here: https://www.instagram.com/uflibrarywest/.

We showed this second series to a different group of Library Ambassador volunteers. This group was also able to successfully use PsycINFO after viewing the video series. However, some of their responses pointed to some possible challenges that instruction librarians should keep in mind. One is that the Library Ambassadors, already avid users of the library, were very confused by the library’s website. They were unsure how to even find the library’s home page without Googling it. Once they were at the home page, they were unsure how to find and use databases appropriate to their subject areas, often defaulting to the favorite of professors everywhere, JSTOR. One student demonstrated calibration when she claimed to not need library instruction, but showed the most surprise at the skills she learned from the videos.

At this point, my use of social media tutorials is still in the testing phases and has not yet been adopted by my library. However, I believe, based on my analysis and on focus group feedback, that this format has great potential to teach information literacy skills. Going forward, I plan to further explore how best to deliver short form video tutorials so that they are available to students at the point of need. Based on what I’ve learned so far, here are my recommendations for best practices:

  • Carefully map out the research process from start to finish. Don’t assume users will even know how to find your library’s website.
  • Break up the research process into smaller chunks. Think about where users are likely to get stuck or confused. Your videos should help users over these hurdles.
  • If you plan to capture screens from a database, have a partner click through the screens while you hold the smartphone or tablet.
  • As you film, add simple narration to clarify what is being shown. Avoid distracting music or sound effects.
  • Use captions to make your videos more accessible and to reinforce the message.


The best short form videos adhere to dual coding theory in that they combine visuals with just the right audio for immediate impact. Also, the brevity and repetition of short form videos require little demand on working memory. Short form videos on social media are a part of what Juhlin et al. (2014) call the new video culture, which has been made possible by cheap video production tools and high bandwidth. Camera phones have replaced digital cameras for taking photos and videos in everyday use. The image quality of camera phones has increased to a level of quality that was only available to professionals just a few years ago. This has led to video consumers also becoming producers and sharers of content, or “prosumers.” Social media sites provide outlets for prosumer content. The result is a dynamic and diverse video medium that has become a form of dialog. In this new medium, spontaneity and authenticity of videos are more important than careful editing, which helps explain the enormous appeal of services like Vine, Snapchat, and Instagram.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to my internal reviewer, Bethany Messersmith, my external reviewer, Renee Romero, and publishing editor, Sofia Leung for your support and helpful advice. Special thanks to my colleague April Hines for her assistance with creating the videos and with conducting the focus groups. Special thanks to Curt Friehs, my colleague and longtime collaborator on research with online tutorials. And thank you to Lori Mestre and Karl Suhr, whose articles inspired me to take a new direction with online tutorials.


Colosimo, A. L., & Kasuto, E. (2012). Library video tutorials to support large undergraduate labs: Will they watch? Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, 68.

Craig, C. L., & Friehs, C. G. (2013). Video & HTML: Testing online tutorial formats with biology students. Journal of Web Librarianship, 7(3), 292-304.

Fenn, M. (2014). Thomas Sanders’ bold, gate-crashing comedy shines in Vine compilation. Retrieved from: https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/vine-thomas-sanders-story-time/

Hern, A. (2014). Vine’s co-founder Colin Kroll: ‘Six seconds just feels right’. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jan/24/vine-video-flickr-colin-kroll

Juhlin, O., Zoric, G., Engstrom, A., & Reponen, E. (2014). Video interaction: A research agenda. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 18(3), 685-692.

Mestre, L. S. (2012). Student preference for tutorial design: A usability study. Reference Services Review, 40(2), 258-276.

Miller, G. A. (1956). “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information”. Psychological Review. 63(2), 81-97. doi:10.1037/h0043158.

Paivio, A. (1975). Coding distinctions and repetition effects in memory. In K. W. Spence (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (pp. 179-214). New York: Academic Press.

Peterson, L., & Peterson, M. J. (1959). Short-term retention of individual verbal items. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58(3), 193-198.


Plumb, T. K. (2010). Creating electronic tutorials: On your mark, get set, go! Journal of Electronic Resources Librarianship, 22(1), 49-64.

Slebodnik, M., & Riehle, C. F. (2009). Creating online tutorials at your libraries: Software choices and practical implications. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 49(1), 33-37, 51.

Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design. Learning and Instruction, 4(4), 295-312.

Suhr, K. (2014). Using animated GIF images for library instruction. Retrieved from: http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2014/using-animated-gif-images-for-library-instruction/

Yates, J. F. (1990). Judgment and decision making. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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5 Responses

  1. Pingback : Instagram and Snapchat Videos as Short-Form Library Tutorials – THE A2J LAWBRARIAN BLOG

  2. Antonio Dias Figueiredo

    Thanks for such a nicely argued text and inspiring research. I’ve just recommended it on my Facebook page (in Portuguese). My only humble comment is that there may be some contradiction between your recognition that “today’s students are used to a high level of human-centered design in their computing devices” and your claim that “spontaneity and authenticity of videos are more important than careful editing.” As iOS11 now lets you produce screencasts for free, I could imagine a two step process where you would: (1) capture the screens from the database on iOS11; (2) edit the resulting video on a cheap but powerful iOS editor, such as Pinnacle Studio Pro, which lets you zoom on to the specific spots of the database screen. This would get round the unfriendly interfaces of present day databases and improve (actually, make possible) legibility.

    1. Cindy Craig

      Hello Antonio! Thank you for your thoughtful comments. (And thank you for your kind comments on my article in your Facebook post!) I should clarify that, while students demand high quality from their computing devices, they don’t necessarily expect the content to be high quality. Pinnacle Studio Pro is $129.95, which, while cheaper than Camtasia and Captivate, may still be too costly for some libraries. The Screen Recording feature on iOS11, used on its own, may be an excellent tool for making tutorials, with the caveat that the tutorials remain simple and brief. I’ll give it a try!

      1. António Figueiredo

        Hello Cindy! Thanks for your kind reply. I was mentioning Pinnacle Studio Pro for iOS, which works beautifully on the iPad. In Europe, it costs 13.99 euros. In the US it should cost between $ 10.00 and $15.00. I’ve used it in the past and was genuinely impressed. The learning curve is a little steep at first, but if you follow a 30 minute tutorial and get used to it, it’s a breeze. Assuming that whoever produces an SFV is likely to produce some more, it might make sense. This is, of course, a mere suggestion by someone who loved your project and would like to help.

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