Are Librarians Still Important?
In a word, yes. In fact, they may be an administrator's most underutilized resource. Learn how schools are freeing them up to help students, faculty, and principals find the information they need.
Three years ago, an elite private school in Massachusetts shocked the education world by banishing its 20,000-volume library collection in exchange for digital resources, Amazon Kindles, and flat-screen televisions.
The reaction was immediate. Some applauded the school for recognizing the new way children learn; others sharply criticized the school for going too far, too fast. While almost all high schools still have libraries, the changes at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham reflect a transformation that's taking hold across the country, with more students than ever either using their own digital devices or working on school-issued laptops or tablets.
With books being cleared out of the library, folks wondered back in 2009, what would happen to the person in charge of the room? Would librarians, now called media specialists, be phased out too, replaced, so to speak, with that six-letter noun/verb Google?
For a while, the forces seemed aligned to make this happen. The widespread recession hit school budgets and libraries especially hard. Simultaneously, Apple came out with the iPad and more and more schools opted for either 1:1 or bring-your-own-device programs to connect students directly with their digital resource of choice, whether in the library, classroom, or hallway.
But a funny thing seems to be happening to librarians on the way to extinction. The savviest districts and librarians are remaking the position, breaking media specialists out of the library and bringing them into the classroom to help with projects and research-basically, the same skills that used to be cultivated in the quiet of the library.
In fact, Cushing's library remains the most used space on campus, as students and faculty gather to learn together.
Robyn Young could be example number one of the new type of librarian. In her 12 years, she has never shelved a book. She rarely helps students check out materials. Furthermore, the principal of the high school where she works encourages her to move about the school building freely, regardless of the bell schedule.
"The librarian is a different position," says Mike Swank, principal of Avon High School, near Indianapolis. "It serves a different purpose. She's got to have the flexibility to work with the rest of the staff, to share research and best practices."
Swank understands something that eludes many administrators and educators: The more robust the library program, the better students do academically. Not only that, but a credentialed teacher-librarian can become another instructional leader in the building and a go-to resource for the principal.
"A lot of the librarian's practice ends up in the classrooms," Swank says. "You might think that the success of a class is all to do with the teacher, but a lot of the support comes from the media center."
Proof in the Numbers
The link between strong school library programs and student achievement is well documented. Over the past 20 years, numerous studies have shown that elementary schools with at least one full-time certified teacher-librarian performed better on state tests. In a 2010 study conducted in Colorado, more children scored "proficient" or "advanced" in reading in schools with a full-time, credentialed librarian than those without.
The problem, librarians say, is that few administrators know precisely what they do these days. Many still hold on to the outdated stereotype of the librarian from their own school days-the one who shushed you on your first step into the library-and remain unaware of the potential resource at their disposal. As a result, these leaders are unlikely to go to bat to support librarians in their work or to invest in a strong program.
Today's librarian is less a stern guardian of the collection and more like a curator, eager to share resources she has found and the skills it takes to distinguish good information from bad. "As certified librarians with a master's degree, our focus is on teaching our students," says Young. "If a principal understands that, that's a huge hurdle [overcome] right there."
Librarian Debra Kachel has been helping administrators catch up. She teaches a course, Leveraging School Libraries to Improve Student Learning, for Mansfield University's online master's program in education. Her students have told her that the class has given them a new perspective on how they can best use the skills of their school librarians.
"There are a lot of administrators who believe that the best way to manage staff is to make sure they are in front of 20 to 30 kids all day long," Kachel says. "This is not the case in the collaborative environment of a library. The librarian needs to integrate with everyone."
Avon High has two media centers-or libraries, if you prefer-and Young travels between them on the sprawling suburban campus. One of the things she shows students is how to find credible material and then present it on webpages they build using Animoto, a video slide-show tool.
"We research. That's what we do," she says. "Students are so used to opening up a text and there's the information, but if they are researching, they're going to get a wide variety." Being able to help students sift through information is one of the most vital functions today's librarians can perform.
Flexibility Is Key
Young's flexible schedule at avon High allows her, for example, to host a class of freshmen in the library every day for a week while they research genetic diseases-but then perhaps not see that same class for weeks at a time, as she works with other groups on their projects.
The library program for the Henrico County school district, just outside Richmond, Virginia, whose media services won National School Library Program of the Year for 2011, also stresses flexibility. Ann Martin, who supervises services for the district's 69 schools, tells librarians that part of their job is to educate other teachers about the value of media specialists having flexible schedules.
"Every time you have a new teacher, understand their experience is probably with a fixed schedule for librarians," Martin says. "It's not good enough to just tell them. Show them how it will help."
Recently, second graders at Henrico County's Short Pump Elementary were working on a unit on China. During a library visit, one group learned how to read and create maps, another made dragon puppets, and a third used an interactive whiteboard to compare landmass sizes. Each group was led by a teacher, a credentialed librarian, or a teacher's aide. The lesson lasted 90 minutes.
"If the librarian had been on a fixed schedule, she would have had 30 minutes," Martin says. "The effectiveness of the lesson would have been lost."
Strong library programs have the potential to help close the achievement gap. Seventy percent of the students at another Henrico County school, Dumbarton Elementary, are at or below the poverty line.
When Eileen Traveline came to Dumbarton as principal four years ago, the librarian approached her and asked for more support. "She wanted to work a flexible schedule," Traveline recalls. "It was a good idea. There was some resistance, especially from my older teachers, but we figured it out." Selling ideas to her staff, says Traveline, is all part of the job.
To make room for more library services, teachers at Dumbarton agreed to give up their three weekly prep periods. They continue to have flexible planning time in the mornings but now meet as grade-level teams after school. This allows the librarian to collaborate with teachers and lead special lessons on how to use the library.
"If we weren't doing what we're doing with the library, our children would never get the exposure," says Traveline. "It's not because the parents don't care. They're working three jobs just to make ends meet. This approach takes more time and effort, and it's worth it."