Finishing reading Empowering Learners: Guidelines for School Library Programs, has made me think a lot about the role of the 21st Century Librarian in the K-12 school.  As we move into a more digitally based library environment and the world our students graduate into is requiring different skills of them, the role of the librarian is shifting.

I wrote in my last post on the subject a lot about the specific job descriptions based on what the AASL states in Empowering Learners in the first half of the book.  The second half of the book focuses primarily on the nitty gritty of building the learning environment.  It looks at budgeting, staffing, collection development and the needs of the physical space.  This is fairly straight ahead material.

What interests me comes more for what they write about “empowering learning through leadership,” and the guideline of “the school library program is built by professionals who model leadership and best practice for the school community.”  The school library has (or should have) always been at the centre of learning in the school.  In a pre-digital age, knowledge, or at least information, came from the library so students and hopefully staff would find themselves in the library regularly to take advantage of the library as a curated collection.  The school librarian was also, along with the English department, charged with the encouragement of developing a life-long love of reading.  This meant that the curated collection developed to support the academic subjects (primarily curricularly based non-fiction) and foster a love of reading (primarily non-curricularly based fiction).

As we move into a more digital environment, “facts” and “information” becomes decentralized and access is everywhere one has access to the internet.  While the librarian still has a role in curation in that she develops services that bring together quality, digitally based resources for her community, this role is less important than perhaps it was in the sense that information is now everywhere instead of just in the library.  Likewise, the proliferation of mobile e-reading devices makes access to fiction almost as easy as the finding of facts online.

So, what is the role of the school librarian?  And what differentiates that role from others in the school community?  The role now encompasses differentiated learning, technology education, digital citizenship, and multiple and transliteracies.  The AASL says that the librarians are the ones that need to lead the charge and model the use of these skills and concepts.  We should be taking our libraries into social and interactive virtual spaces.  We should be promoting multiple literacies rather than simply dealing with the traditional aspect of libraries being a place to read as we have always thought of it.

I agree with these statements but I wonder how much of this position is a move to protect one’s job and how much is based around the idea that the library really is the centre of “21st Century Learning” in a school community.  To play devil’s advocate, many schools have people in a position to promote educational technology.  These folks are also concerned about information literacy in terms of searching, organizing and evaluating information.  Could they not be the ones who take up that role?  English teachers have always been in a position to promote the love of reading and literacy in general.  Social studies teachers have always been concerned about research and many teach research skills.  Many teachers are practising differentiated learning and in any truly student-centred school, all should be.   What makes the librarian unique and in a position to be a leader in the school in the ways described?

I guess what makes the librarian unique is his position in the school.  Often, the librarian is not teaching in the same way that classroom teachers are.  The fact that a librarian is not giving the grades on an assignment allows him to be perceived as “being on the students side” a little more.  He can help a student to do well on an assignment while the student doesn’t feel like she needs to fear for loss of marks or exposing weaknesses to the teacher that does grade her.  An English teacher promotes reading by requiring it.  A librarian promotes reading by encouraging it.  A social studies teacher may teach information literacy skills, but it is done, typically, within a more limited, assignment based scope.  A qualified librarian should be aware of more approaches, skills and techniques than a classroom teacher would.  The librarian should have a bigger picture view.  Educational technology is a big part of the school librarian’s job in that knowledge creation and information management is the traditional role of the librarian and it has now moved into a digital realm.  But there are many aspects of educational technology that wouldn’t necessarily fall into the traditional role of a librarian.  The librarian, for example, wouldn’t necessarily have any reason to know software that notates complex math equations while a good, forward-thinking math teacher would.

Perhaps the true value of the librarian in a school environment is that she is truly in the middle of everything.  She knows who teaches what and how.  She knows the resources that are being used and those that are available.  She works like a pedagogical matchmaker, pairing people, concepts and tools in a way that nobody else in the school really is in a position to do.

I would be very interested in hearing other ideas.  What do you feel the role of the librarian is in a K-12 environment?  Are we trying to create roles that don’t really exist in an effort to preserve our jobs?  Or are we truly offering something that is unique and essential to a school community?  How do our jobs overlap the jobs of others and can our job be done effectively by those whose roles overlap ours?  Or do we offer something that nobody else can?

9 thoughts on “The Role of the 21st Century School Librarian

  1. Are we trying to create roles that don’t really exist in an effort to preserve our jobs?  Or are we truly offering something that is unique and essential to a school community?  How do our jobs overlap the jobs of others and can our job be done effectively by those whose roles overlap ours?  Or do we offer something that nobody else can?
    Not sure you should be changing careers if you need answers to these questions.

    1. Fair comment. I obviously believe that there is a role for the librarian in the 21st century school. I don’t believe that libraries have become obsolete. But as the roles shift, I have to think about who else is already doing what part of the role to make sure that I am adding value to the educational community that I serve and that I am putting my efforts in places that are most effective. Sometimes there will be overlap and that is OK. As I say in the original post, the English teacher and I encourage reading in two distinctly different ways. There is room for and a need for both approaches. It is also important to be sure of where overlap doesn’t exist so parts of the role don’t get missed.

  2. Some valid points about school librarian’s roles. I think the role of the librarian should overlap a bit with those of the teachers, providing more than one academic resource for fostering that love for learning or enforcing the importance of research. Personally, with the advent/overuse of resources such as wikipedia, yahoo answers, and personal websites, I think school librarians are moving into the new role of ambassador to the internet from an academic point of view. In my experience, the library is where the kids have access to computers at school anyway.

    1. I agree Lauren. There is overlap and we are ambassadors. I know that in my school, I’m still working on an effective way of providing that amdassadorship. The majority of the students bring their own laptops or other mobile devices with which to do their research. We do have classes where they are taught techniques and skills, but the ideal is to be recognized as the place to come with those online research questions. Teaching in an all-boys high-school, we have the combination of teens know everything, especially about the internet, and boys don’t ask for help. Slowly chipping away at the perceived barrier is the challenge. It will come, but it will take time.

  3. Today’s 21st century school librarians, because of their training and continued professional development, can show others that there are better answers and ways of finding answers to research and educaiton questions than most users pursue. By doing this, they can truly be ambassadors for learning in their school communities.

    1. Amen, Barbara. And, hopefully we can also help others to become somewhat more self-sufficient in their own learning (I’m talking colleagues as well as students) so that we can go on further ahead.

  4. Thanks for asking thought provoking questions. I think it’s always good to question what we do and how we do it regardless of our profession. I have lately been pondering and researching the lack of information literacy skills of incoming college freshmen, and I have come to the conclusion that some of the missing skills are in our teachers as well. So, a way to be leaders in our schools can go beyond our teaching of and support to students. We are in an ideal position to provide training to teachers and administrators about information resources and information literacy. As your situation illustrates, it’s never too late to learn new skills.

    1. Agree completely, Megan. If we’re not questioning, we’ll never grow, personally or as a profession. It is no wonder that our colleagues don’t have the skills. The skills have changed so much recently and the delivery of the information literacy instruction was so hit and miss coming up. I know that I wasn’t taught much and certainly what I was taught, really doesn’t translate well anymore. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

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