Friday, January 20, 2012

School Libraries: Applying Innovative Ideas to a Threatened Species

While there are few who would argue that school libraries in Canada are in "good" health, there are even fewer who seem committed to supporting their desperately needed evolution. Those "few" are people who have the power to influence how school libraries are staffed and designed. One of the most powerful hang-ups that most people (parents and teachers, alike) have about school libraries is that they exist to support student reading. Walk into a local school library and you will see a collection of print materials that supports recreational reading for youth. You will see very few non fiction sources including encyclopedias and other reference tools. These are "online" and there seems a pervasive assumption that children can get their research material from the "Web". So, while reading is critically important to student acheivement, this CANNOT BE the ONLY thing school libraries should be focusing on.

It is time for drastic change.

And when I say, drastic...I am not kidding.

Ironically, as school libraries struggle to exist and be staffed, the Web becomes an increasingly tangled mess. For example, Google has recently come under attack because its results focus on paid or "optimized" placement and granular results that provide little meaningful context. The ability to peruse actual information sources has been greatly compromised to serve more lucrative, commercial ventures. Since most grown-ups struggle with finding context specific and ACCURATE information, it is a mystery how children are expected to do what many adults cannot.

This brings me to my suggestion.

I suggest that school libraries need to reinvent themselves as something much more sophisticated than what they currently are. They should not be a simple wharehouse of neatly (if you are lucky) catalogued materials to serve children. They should be "idea centres" where students, staff and faculty can put their ideas together for the purpose of innovation. This is NOT about repackaging a library and renaming it a "Learning Commons". This is about changing the PURPOSE of the library. What it is called is not important. It is what it DOES that is important.

The term "technology" is central to many discussions around the future of libraries and education. However, although learning to use technological tools may have value, the real value is in critical thinking. Critical thinking requires an environment that is conducive to creative thought and what could be more appropriate than a library in providing that environment? It could be an environment where librarians, teacher-librarians, library technicians, students and other staff are able to congrgate, discuss, and share.

A huge area of concern for most people is personal information management - managing the deluge of the information that shapes their decisions and activities. Students and teachers both need help with this. This goes far beyond the need for library to have neat shelves and catalogued books. Although private enterprise has moved into this area, this does not resolve the problem for the majority of people. Indeed, its absence in schools deprives our children the opportunity to become informed citizens. Creating productive, creative and informed adults should be central to the ambitions of our schools. However, by abandoning the school library - watching it waste away as its supply of resources is choked off by school districts - we ignore the future and what our children will need to be successful in it.

Since Canada will rely increasingly on its knowledge base to compete in the global marketplace, it seems bizzarre that school districts would forsake their libraries rather than invest in them. This investment, to clarify, goes well beyond funding collection development and a lonely teacher-librarian or library techncian. This investment should be in INNOVATION by creating spaces where all members of a school can congregate, research, share, problem solve and create. To believe that all of this can be achieved in a single, segregated classroom is misguided. To believe that this can happen without an "idea centre" is misguided. To believe that collaboration and equity among ALL school staff and teachers is critical to student acheivement is on the path to creating new centres of learning for our children. For our future.

I have had the pleasure of working with dozens of folks in school systems, and have learned a great deal about their constraints. Some of it resides in a lack of respect for non-teaching staff and an inability to think outside the proverbial "box". If no action is taken, school libraries and their potential for shaping the future educational outcomes of students will be eliminated. Entirely. If no effort is made then, perhaps, we deserve it.

What we have done in school libraries is simply not good enough and the proof lies in their pallid state. It is the responsibility of our ENTIRE COMMUNITY to fix this. It can start with you.

To solve the school library problem, we need people to think brilliantly and act courageously.


Moira Ekdahl said...

I am confused. As a TL who works constantly with other TLs to ensure we are "cutting edge" in our thinking about and designing new ways for working with teachers to support their work and to integrate technology and new resources with teaching and learning for now and for the future, I am not sure what to make of an article that is so blind to the nature of our programs and of educational change and so clearly lacking in respect for TLs who are deemed to be disrespectful of support staff. Of course, as a teacher, I am inclined to suggest that more research and homework needs to be done to ensure accurage depiction of the teaching programs you describe and to put substance into the thesis of this piece. You risk seeming blatantly anti-educator and self-serving. But then I am one who teaches for critical examination of the perspective of the sources in the inquiry dimension of the school program I have developed in the new Learning Commons where our students read for pleasure and for information and knowledge. Bring on 21C Learning: TLs are there to support the school as a community of learners and readers.

Christina Neigel said...

While I would never suggest that there are not teacher librarians who are working tirelessly to evolve school libraries or learning commons, this evolution does not seem to be taking place in enough communities.

I am not clear on how suggesting that our communties become more attentive to this disparity makes me
"blatantly anti-educator and self-serving", I realize that there is sensitivity around the idea that change might involve more participation and support from others besides the teacher librarians. I am suggesting that parents, school boards, library workers of all ilk, have a role to play in creating better library support services in those schools that have very little or none at all.

Is it not possible that special education assistants, speech therapists, technicians, and teachers could also have access to information support in their school libraries so that the library can be a more collaborative space for all? Is it self-serving to suggest that librarians have no expertise to share with teacher librarians? Is it self serving to suggest that school libraries deserve better resources?

We are all on the same team - creating an informed citizenry.

The innovations that you allude to should be shared and showcased so that those who live in districts with virtually no school library support services can see "how" things can be improved.

You suggest that TL's "are there to support the school as a community of learners and readers" and yet, sadly, many schools don't even HAVE a teacher librarian. So what can be done?

Tina said...

Hi Christina,

I’ve worked as an elementary teacher librarian and although I completely agree that “thinking outside the box” is essential for the longevity of the school library, I’m curious how it translates to real-world examples of activities? I’m curious because all the things you write about- from the library as being a center of ideas and innovation, to embracing all the members of the learning community, to stimulating critical thinking in relation to new technologies, is already being done! In my experience, school libraries:

• Collaborate with community members on various projects,
• invite external groups to attend workshops & seminars,
• serve as a space for collaborative studies between teacher and teacher-librarian (who have previously met in the library to generate innovative ideas on how students will synthesize their learning)
• offer small group instruction & independent study,
• lead as an information literacy space and guides students on relevant issues such as internet ethics, web evaluation, and online information management tools
• create online lessons that connect students with powerful information technology applications (see:
• connect students/staff/teachers with relevant print and online resources,
• offer fun extra-curricular activities related to literacy, including trivia contests, book clubs, technology clubs, etc.
• coordinate peer tutoring, crafting, reading, gaming, blogging…

Teacher librarians in this province are very active in discussing ways to reinvent ourselves- check out the Ning site set up specifically for the purpose of exchanging ideas:

Is it possible for you to provide us with a description on what thinking brilliantly and acting courageously might look like? In what other capacities do you see the school library operating, and how do you see the teacher librarian facilitating these things?

I think it’s great that you’re opening up this discussion- I really see the value in collaborating/connecting with other librarians to move the profession forward.

Christina Neigel said...

Hi TIna,

You are absolutely right, teacher librarians are doing some amazing things in their schools. Somehow, however, these activities are not viewed as "relevant" in terms of where dollars go.
Part of this problem relates to optics and how school libraries are perceived by administrators and tax payers. There is no doubt that there are many good things going on in libraries that still function as something more than a place to exchange books. However, the introduction of the Internet has generated a pervasive attitude that Google will find the answers to all our information needs. This phenomenon goes beyond the school library and is something all libraries must face.
When presented with this attitude, librarians are challenged to dig deeply and determine what their real purpose is. Is it about books? Is it about providing whatever is needed to our communities? Is it about teaching? Once discovered, this purpose must be conveyed to our members so that they can see why they should continue their support and participation in the evolution of libraries.
It is not enough for a librarian to list off all of the good work they do to their members as this does appear self-serving. The results must be conveyed through evidence-based research (so little is done in this area) and case studies.
In comparison with other fields of practice including the broader field of education, there is not a lot of solid Canadian research that demonstrates the need for school libraries. Ken Haycock’s report of 2003, (The Crisis in Canada’s School Libraries) has failed to impact today’s students as school libraries continue to whither. While a handful of studies do show that student achievement increases with access to library services, there is little that goes beyond very basic studies. Some examples include:
- "The Impact of School Library Media Centers on Academic Achievement." From Colorado State Library in 1993 and several follow-ups.
- “The Impact of New York's School Libraries on Student Achievement and Motivation: Phase I” from School Library Media Research, 2009.
- “Assessing School Libraries as Learning Environments: Examining Students' Perceptions in Third, Fourth and Fifth Grades” from the International Association of School Librarianship, 2010.
So research is key. But so, too, is action. While I cannot prescribe what any one school library should do without context, many school libraries could expand their role to serving parents, teachers and children on issues related to information privacy, surveillance, freedoms, technological change, etc. Some of this work could be done in conjunction with public libraries, as well. It is all about providing service at a point of need and timing it accordingly. We need to move past the idea that if someone wants help, they will come to us. While reading remains important, we also have to offer more than basic literacy programs. School libraries have tremendous potential to ease the growing burden of personal information management, technological literacy and research needs of classroom teachers, as well. But all of this needs to be communicated to our boards and government. Too many fight the good fight alone, in their own schools, with little support.

So there is my long-winded response...
And on it goes!

Mandy Ostick said...

The barriers to innovation in BC school libraries are high aren't they? I suspect BC school boards and government would not be sad to see school libraries quietly become obsolete and go away, rather than evolving and reinventing themselves to meet changing needs.

I'm a librarian, not a teacher librarian though, and I think there is hope that school library staff can visibly help principals achieve their goals for their schools and delight parents. We library people need to keep on changing people's minds that libraries are not about book storage, and keep on involving ourselves in activities at our workplaces that people care about.

Getting involved in activities outside traditional library roles involves stepping on toes as we continue to redefine our roles (and we risk seeming blatantly anti-educator and self-serving). This takes a lot of courage if your work environment is hostile to innovation.

Elsie Lyster said...

I think Moira, as a TL within a school district that whole heartily supports her work, doesn't understand what it is like for the rest of us. I am a Library Technician running a library in a K-12 school of over 500 students in Alberta. I work a 32.5 hour week for 10 months (but more like 9 months since I don't get paid for Christmas break, Teacher's convention, Easter break, etc.) My budget is $5000. Although each year teachers receive a cumulative amount for professional development, I receive none. My experience with TLs in this province is that they are teachers put into a library and given the designation of Teacher Librarian.

I fully agree with Christina that there are too few who are committed to supporting school libraries here.

We do need to change the perception of the school library, while at the same time convincing people of the importance of a school library. Some schools have already done away with the school library and some I know of are run by parent volunteers.

I try to make my library an information hub. But with my limited budget and my time constraints, it is difficult to do.

Thank you Christina for posting this blog, I appreciate your viewpoints particularly because they are reflective of my experiences within the Alberta education system.

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