A Job Description for the 21st Century School Librarian
I have to start by saying that I hate the term “21st Century ______” in education. It really has become a buzzword that poorly describes what it is meant to describe. It implies that on January 1st, 2000, somebody flipped a switch and everything changed. We were teaching one way the day before. The students had certain needs and we had certain tools at our disposal and then, BAM!, the world was a different place in the blink of an eye. A lot of what we did way back in the 20th Century was good. As a matter of fact, much of what we are doing now was being done then. What has changed is technology, and that has changed more since that little switch was flicked than it did before. But, we seem to know, albeit roughly, what we mean by 21st Century Education, so we use the term.
As is typical of my writing, that was not the point of my post. What I really want to talk about is the evolving job description for the school librarian in the (ugh) 21st Century. I came into my role running a school library as a temporary, part-time position covering for a colleague’s extended sick leave. I didn’t have any background in librarianship so I asked around to try to establish exactly what it was people expected from me. The more I tried to get answers to that question, the more I realized that nobody really knew. The teachers just wanted to have a space they could send their kids or somewhere to pick up some vacation reading. Administration didn’t have a clue what my colleague did and there was no written job description. So, when I started reading Empowering Learners: A Guidebook for School Library Programs by the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), all sorts of bells started going off.
I’ve read parts of the book before for various research assignments, but this is the first time that I’ve it read cover to cover. Truth be told, I’m not even finished it yet so please don’t tell me how it ends. What I am finding is that it lays out the role of the library in the K-12 school in a very clear way and in a way that responds to the true changes in education in the past 20 or so years. The document is based, in part, on extensive surveying of practicing teacher librarians to determine what they see as their role. It looks at shifting priorities and notes that teaching was once thought to be the number one job of teacher librarians where partnering for instruction is now number one. That may seem like pure semantics, but there is a significant difference in perspective. Teaching infers a top-down approach. The sage on the stage – lecturer type approach. Instructional partner is more of a collaborative approach that includes some teaching but puts the librarian at a collaborative level with other teachers and students. They say that the emerging priorities should be, in order of importance:
- Instructional Partner
- Information Specialist
- Program Administrator
Besides the collaborative emphasis, this puts administration where it needs to be. It is not the focus of the role as much as it is the tasks that serve the other roles.
They go on to establish five guidelines for the school library program. I read these and thought that they outlined a perfect job description. It is simple and clear with plenty of room to expand for details dictated by personality and particular environments. Here they are:
- The school library program promotes collaboration among members of the learning community and encourages learners to be independent, lifelong learners and producers of ideas and information.
- The school library program promotes reading as a foundational skill for learning, personal growth, and enjoyment.
- The school library program provides instruction that addresses multiple literacies, including information literacy, media literacy, visual literacy, and technology literacy.
- The school library program models an inquiry-based approach to learning and the information search process.
- The school library program is guided by regular assessment of student learning to ensure the program is meeting its goals.
Promotion of reading has been key to school library programs as long as they have existed, but in a world of multiple literacies, it is important to reinforce that reading is as important as it ever was. The advances in technology have had significant impact on how information is recorded, packaged, disseminated and consumed. This is a key difference in how the current world of school libraries need to operate. The impact on the literacies required to understand and interpret information is important as is the opportunities for collaboration beyond the walls and timetables of the physical school. Inquiry and collaboration are not new to education, but never before have they been so widely adopted as integral elements of the learning process and key skills to success in the world beyond graduation.
These guidelines really do serve to summarize what today’s teacher librarian should be doing. I do wonder how widely adopted they are or will become though. Not knowing the American educational system, I wonder if they are adopted at district, state or the national level and mandated as core principles of today’s school library program or if individual school librarians are left to adopt at will. In Canada, we have no similar document. As far as I’m aware, we no longer have a parallel organization to the AASL that would publish such a document. I don’t think that our situation is so different from the US that we need a separate document, however. Personally, I will be taking these guidelines to heart and using them as the backbone of my work. Now, on to seeing how the book ends!