The importance of school libraries in the Google Age

By Kay Oddone

We continue to hear about the lack of trained library staff in schools, despite ongoing research indicating that the presences of teacher librarians lead to improved learning outcomes. Kay Oddone highlights the many benefits teacher librarians can bring to the wider school, and why their role is integral to both student and staff learning.

In Australia, access to the internet is almost ubiquitous. In 2014–15, 85% of the Australian population aged 15 years and over were internet users, with 99% of people aged 15–17 using the internet (ABS 2016). With such widespread access to information comes the commonly asked question: now that we have Google, do we still require libraries and librarians? This question is particularly being pressed in schools, where smartphones mean that both teachers and students carry a wealth of information in their pocket, and school budgets are increasingly stretched between a wide range of competing demands.

Regular newspaper articles spread the gloomy news about the demise of the teacher librarian; articles such as 'Teacher librarians on borrowed time' in The Age (Preiss 2014) speak of funding pressures in Australian schools — but this is not just a local phenomenon. 'The calamity of the disappearing school libraries' (Kachel 2015), published in The Conversation last year, deplores the closure of school libraries and the perceived redundancy of the teacher librarian role across the United States of America.

Fortunately, in Australia almost all schools still have a library — and thanks to the Building the Education Revolution funding which prioritised school libraries in primary schools (Gillard 2009), many are quite new. Despite this, there are huge variances in terms of staffing, facilities, and resources. The most recent survey of staff in Australian schools by the Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) found that between 2010 and 2013, the number of teacher librarians in primary schools dropped from 5,600 to 1,300; fortunately secondary teacher librarian positions remained fairly steady (ACER 2014). This leads to a situation where many libraries are empty and, as Nick Earls (2015) observes, in those cases 'classroom teachers are expected to take up the slack', training students to check out books, as if this is all that teacher librarians do.

The situation is dire, but the battle is not over yet. One of the key challenges for library staff is to convince the principal — who is often the decision-maker regarding allocation of staffing funds — that teacher librarians are so much more than the 'keeper of the books'. The role has changed, and it is constantly evolving to meet contemporary teaching and learning needs.

There are multiple reasons why schools must retain the teacher librarian role; and why, despite easy access to Google, this role is more important than ever.

Love Libraries, Save Libraries Poster

The reasons below will not be news for teacher librarians, but they may surprise others who are not aware of the capacity and potential of a qualified teacher librarian. Why not use this article as a catalyst for discussion with your school's administration team — and spread the word about why the world needs teacher librarians.

A qualified teacher librarian and a well-resourced library increases student achievement

Overwhelmingly in local, national, and international studies, a positive correlation is found between the presence of a qualified teacher librarian and student achievement. Extensive research also finds that administration — most specifically principal — support for the teacher librarian role and the school library significantly enhances the positive impact the library has on student achievement (Haycock 1999; Oberg 1995; Oberg, Hay & Henri, 2000 cited in Hartzell 2002).

Scholastic's publication 'School Libraries Work!' (2016) includes reports from 25 states in the USA, as well as findings from the National Center for Literacy Education, and the School Library Journal's analysis. The research suggests that having a qualified school librarian, a well-developed library collection, and collaboration and co-teaching between the teacher librarian and teaching staff all elevate student learning.

In Australia, research demonstrates similar findings. Principle findings from the most recent Australian School Library Survey (Softlink 2015) suggest there is a positive correlation between annual school library budgets, the number of qualified teacher librarians employed, and NAPLAN Reading Literacy results. This relationship has been consistent since the annual survey began in 2010.

Teacher librarians can provide access to curated information that specifically meets student and staff needs

Trying to find quality information on the internet has been described as trying to take a sip of water from a fire hydrant. Even choosing a novel to read can be an overwhelming experience when faced with the millions of titles available through providers such as Amazon.

A library offers access to high-quality information and resources that have been carefully curated to meet local needs. Teacher librarians have been specifically trained to help teachers and students find the information they need, and know how to model and teach these skills so that the top hit on Google ceases to be the most popular option. Teacher librarians can share tips and tricks for searching online, provide access to databases and indexes that can drill down into areas that a surface Google search cannot reach, and are familiar with the collection of resources that are currently available.

What's more, with increasing numbers of resources available digitally, library catalogues are becoming far richer than simply lists of books that are currently sitting on shelves. A well-developed library catalogue provides access to collections of books, DVDs, CDs, and other physical resources, as well as ebooks and audiobooks, links to websites, reviews of apps for installation on mobile devices, and more. This movement toward seeing the library catalogue as a social space (Tarulli 2012) is being adopted across many libraries — but in schools, it is driven by qualified teacher librarians.

Teacher librarians take pride in developing library catalogues without 'dead ends' that take users directly to high quality resources. The top ten 'hits' on a well-developed catalogue are probably much closer to what a teacher or student is looking for than the top ten 'hits' from a simple Google search.

A teacher librarian works to develop a reading culture and to raise the levels of information literacy across the school

Teacher librarians know and love literature. They promote texts in a variety of formats, including novels, ebooks, audiobooks, graphic novels, picture books, and magazines. Teacher librarians' knowledge of literacy development, current releases, and popular culture ensures they have the ability to suggest the right book to entice the reluctant reader, and to share joy with the compulsive bookworms when new titles by favourite authors are released.

The teacher librarian has a unique role in the school. Having qualifications in both teaching and librarianship, they are familiar with pedagogy and curriculum, and also have expertise in resource management, information literacy, and literature (ASLA 2014). Not being tied to a particular year level or subject area means that they interact with everyone, allowing them to develop a 'big picture' of the school in a way that few others can.

In the age of 'infowhelm', having an information expert on staff, who can not only identify the right tool or piece of research but can also teach staff and students the skills and strategies required to access it, is essential. Teacher librarians are experts in content curation, and they can create digital lists of resources that are carefully evaluated, selected, and distributed in easily accessible ways.

School libraries provide a social space to meet, collaborate, research, learn, share, and relax

The school library can be seen as one of the only spaces in a school which is truly free — the space that is not 'home' or a 'classroom', and which can be without academic, sporting, or family expectations. While some may insist that the stereotypical 'silent' library should still exist, many school libraries provide a space to meet, talk, eat, study, relax, make, and play. Along with great examples of modern libraries such as the State Library of Queensland’s The Edge, school libraries can also be welcoming, flexible learning environments. School libraries have long been a place of refuge from the playground for many students, and now, with changing technologies and concepts such as makerspaces becoming commonplace, libraries are even more exciting to explore than ever before.

As Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, states: ‘[Libraries] stand for a certain freedom, and privacy of thought and search and expression. They stand for private study in a social space; they are safe . . . places of sanctuary. . . And they are trusted’ (cited in Furness 2015).

The challenge for school libraries now is how to effectively combine the physical and the virtual — to find the right balance so that the library is not seen as a dusty remnant of the past, but as a living incubator of ideas, learning, and innovation. Without a teacher librarian available to direct this growth, this challenge often goes unmet, and the library, which represents a significant investment of school funds, does not meet its potential.

A well-resourced school library and a qualified, passionate teacher librarian can transform a school. A qualified contemporary teacher librarian can:
• plan and teach collaboratively across all year levels and subjects
• encourage an active reading culture
• develop an inquiry-based learning culture
• provide advice and information on cutting-edge technologies and pedagogies
• manage and develop relevant and responsive collections of physical and digital resources
• and provide professional learning for teachers, admin, and other school community members in areas such as information management, social media management, and resource development.

The connected teacher librarian is an indispensable part of every school in this information age.

How can a school exist without one?


Image credits

Kay Oddone

Kay Oddone

Doctoral student, Consultant, and Teacher

Linking Learning

Kay Oddone is an educator with experience across a range of settings, having worked at school, system and tertiary levels. She has commenced doctoral studies in the areas of social media and connected learning and has presented at a number of national and international conferences. Her interests include contemporary libraries and resourcing, digital technology in learning, content curation, social media and copyright, makerspaces, Creative Commons, and open source initiatives.