If your school librarians are feeling beleaguered these days, well, they have good reason. Consider:
• The ranks of certified school librarians have been decimated in recent years by districts struggling to balance budgets.
• The explosive growth of anywhere-anytime digital content in K12 districts threatens to make the concept of library-as-media-center an anachronism.
• And in the most recent blow to librarians, the city of San Antonio announced plans in January to open the nation’s first bookless public library, where all content will be available exclusively on e-readers.
So is this the beginning of the end for school libraries? Not by a long shot, says Susan Ballard, president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL). Enlightened administrators realize that school librarians still play a pivotal role for students, guiding them through search processes and helping them find appropriate, reliable, vetted resources in print and digital format for research and other classroom projects.
And the role of information navigator is becoming ever-more important. A November 2012 Pew study, “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World,” which polled 2,462 middle and high school teachers, found that 83 percent of participants agreed the amount of information available online today is overwhelming to most students.
Custodians of Information
Helping students sift through oceans of information and teaching them how to find and vet appropriate content for research is a digital-age challenge that students in earlier generations did not have to face, says Ballard.
Marcie Post, executive director of the International Reading Association (IRA), adds that the school librarian is “a digital age lynchpin,” more important than ever to maintaining the integrity of information so integral to teaching and learning. Searching, researching, and accessing critical perspectives in all subject areas, as well as coaching and guiding students, is increasingly necessary, she adds.
What today’s school librarians really need are advanced skills in instructional technology and media, says Jill Hobson, director of instructional technology for Forsyth County Schools in Cumming, Ga. Ideally, librarians perform various tasks, including working collaboratively with teachers to plan and design curriculum, delivering professional development on the newest technologies and resources, and piloting and reviewing emerging hardware, software, and web-based resources.
Creating a sense of community and transforming the library into a user-friendly space are other 21st-century services librarians are charged with to ensure the library stays viable.
Library to Learning Commons
Building that sense of community requires an environment that accommodates and encourages physical and virtual learning, says Ballard. “School learning commons,” a term coined in 2008 by former AASL President David Loertscher, describes a flexible, student-centered space where students and teachers have access to mobile technologies, digital and print resources, and modular spaces that can be used for collaborative activities, content creation, presentations or even performances.
The library needs to stop being a place where children are forced to be quiet, and more closely emulate a café style environment where students can bring food and drink and relax in a comfortable setting, says Hobson. There should be open spaces, chat areas, places for students to work independently on their laptops or tablets, or in groups to leverage use of such technology resources as videoconferencing or editing software.
In a learning commons scenario, the librarian’s day might consist of: providing IT support to a small group of students who are editing an original video using high-end software; helping a student work on a personal technology device and find the best digital resources; giving primary-age students a review of printed books on the topic of pets; and conducting a training session for grade 8 social studies teachers on web-based products that allow students to connect with peers around the world and aligning such activities with Common Core State Standards.
Keith Fiels, American Library Association (ALA) executive director, says transforming libraries to learning commons reflects a philosophical change, from the library as a “passive warehouse” to a more active community center, learning center, and study center.
Center for Technology Innovation
School libraries should also be centers of innovation and experimentation. Ballard says libraries should offer Wi-Fi, iPad or laptop carts, high-end video editing and podcast software, and videoconferencing equipment that helps develop “transliteracies,” or skills in the use of multimedia.
Hobson says that one high school, five elementary schools and one middle school library in Forsyth are equipped with media:scape technology from Steelcase, a high-definition video-conferencing solution that allows students to plug in their own devices and collaborate via large screens for cultural exchanges or projects with other learners around the globe.
At about $15,000, says Hobson, media:scape technology is an example of an item most school leaders cannot afford in multiple quantities, but might be able to make available to all students through the school library.
Advocacy Key to Survival
For libraries and librarians to overcome the perception of obsolescence, advocacy on several levels is needed, experts say. Jeffrey Katz, ALA’s assistant director of the office of government relations, says librarians have been especially vulnerable to layoffs because they are not protected under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Through an ALA School Library Task Force, Katz, Fiels, and others are lobbying to ensure the next ESEA reauthorization includes language addressing the importance of libraries and librarians to schools.
On a local level, librarians need to aggressively conduct public relations campaigns, says Connie Williams, teacher librarian at Petaluma High School in the Petaluma (Calif.) City Schools.
Williams, an advocate for the California Campaign for Strong School Libraries, says she and other members write letters to parents, board members, and other stakeholders, present at conferences, such as the Global Education Conference and the California School Librarian Association (CSLA) conference, and participate in site-based committees, department meetings, and other communications activities where decisions are being made about curriculum and budgets. “Librarians should brag, brand, and create logos for their libraries, and have business cards, among other things,” says Williams.
She teamed up with teacher librarian Anna Koval from Casa Grande High School, of the same district, to brand the name and website, “Petadata,” which includes resources on intellectual property and digital content for students, teachers, and the community. Williams and Koval put the Petadata logo on bookmarks and publicity about their databases, and bring in authors to speak with students at schools and community members.
In the same vein, Shannon Miller, librarian and technology specialist at Van Meter (Iowa) Community Schools, harnesses social media to brand and achieve visibility for her blog, the Van Meter Library Voice. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Skype are among the tools she uses to open doors to NASA experts, authors, and others in the world beyond her school of 600.
“With all the cutbacks in schools, it’s tempting to look at the library or media center and say I could recover [up to] $50,000 dollars with that space,” says Post. “But with all the services librarians provide and especially with the upcoming adoption by most states of the Common Core placing a much greater emphasis on informational texts, librarians will have a greater role to play than ever.”