Adventures in Libraryland

My journey into librarianship.

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:

  1. Instructional Partner
  2. Information Specialist
  3. Teacher
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. The school library program promotes reading as a foundational skill for learning, personal growth, and enjoyment.
  3. The school library program provides instruction that addresses multiple literacies, including information literacy, media literacy, visual literacy, and technology literacy.
  4. The school library program models an inquiry-based approach to learning and the information search process.
  5. 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!

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4 thoughts on “A Job Description for the 21st Century School Librarian

  1. fitinfogirl on said:

    Are we not amongst the most fascinating field within the most intriguing time period any of us have ever seen? Once again your post made me, one – laugh (which my overworked student mind can always appreciate), but second say – hoorah! Yes! Absolutely! I am definitely taking an academic approach to my studies – aiming to venture into the academic librarianship. Yeah, my focus is more college/university librarianship oriented but I think the role of any academic librarian is as you describe – instruction partner, information specialist, teacher and program administrator. And I so agree that program administrator is the baseline of any academic librarian (it doesn’t’t matter if you’re talking K-12 or higher ed) but should not be the primary role. I do have to say though, I am perplexed, that our primary role is seen as a partnership – that through the years, the role of the librarian in learning is still undervalued as its own stand-alone resource. Everyone blames technology for that phenomenon, but the underestimation of librarian expertise and resource in scholastic endeavors has been around for many years prior the technological boom. And in my opinion – technology has made our services and expertise all the more essential in the quest of research and understanding. I further share your concern over the adoption of such standards here in America (and I’ll let you speak about Canada) – I have come to realize that just as I regularly must defend my academic choice to pursue a MLIS in today’s environment, we will always have to defend the essential value libraries and particularly their librarians bring to the academic endeavors of all ages! It’s a good thing I have a background in marketing – I think we’re all gonna need it!
    And I must say, thank you for the reference to Empowering Learners: A Guidebook for School Library Programs – I am inundated this semester studying program development, online education, and assessment. I shall meet you at the end within the book’s conclusion, my friend!

    • Hi “FitInfoGirl,”
      Good to see you and thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I hear your concern about the emphasis on collaboration potential weakening the position of libraries or the librarian. The key is that the librarian in any community does bring a set of expertise that is unique. The information specialist role is key and even though, in a school community, the librarian is not the content specialist when working with other teachers, there is so much that she brings to the table, especially, as you point out, with advances in technology and how information is managed. I’ve always been of the opinion that one should lead from the middle even when I was doing a lot more conducting than I am now. We are facilitators. Although we have to be better advocates, in a lot of ways, our presence should be felt most once it is missing. We don’t need to be up front leading students, teachers and patrons. Ours is a service role and our success is measured by the success of those we serve.

  2. In response to this: “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”

    In my experience working with both inner-city schools and reservation schools, the programs depend entirely on the greatness of the librarian. Our librarian just recently retired, and we have not found anyone to fill her position. As I was reading over the job description, I felt like they left out so much. The job description read mostly as a manager of technology (the computer lab) and of accounting for books. Our former librarian did so, so much more.

    I wish I could send this on to the human resources people and ask them to update the job description.

    • Great that you had such a wonderful librarian. If you take a look at the full document, you’ll see that for each of the guidelines that I quoted, there are a fair number of more specific tasks, and I’m thinking that the intent is that that is merely a starting point. You’re right, there is so much more that a great librarian does. If you’re in the market for a new librarian, you might want to get your hands on Empowering Learners. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment and good luck in your search!

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