By Margaret Adolphus
Australia is one of five Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries where literacy and numeracy has declined over the last 10 years. Coincidentally (or not), according to a government survey of school libraries commissioned by the Hon. Julia Gilliard MP, many of these receive budgets below 1975 levels (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2011, p2).
Several large-scale studies in North America have shown that well-organized and resourced school libraries have made a measurable difference to students’ academic performance (and students also rate the performance of their libraries highly).
(For a summary of this research, see Scholastic Library Publishing, 2004.)
This article will look at developments in school libraries, drawing from reports in the UK, US and Australia about the situation in their respective countries, as well as research and opinion pieces from Emerald authors.
By school libraries, we mean those for pupils at primary or secondary level (K12). A school library can be many things, from a pile of books in the corner of an office to a designated state-of-the-art building with the latest technology and content that it purely digital.
It can be staffed by a teacher as part of his or her other duties, by a librarian, or by someone with qualifications in both areas (a teacher librarian). It can be peripheral to the school, another administrative function, or at its centre, with the person in charge reporting directly to the head or other member of the senior management team.
The school library has a number of functions, most notably:
- Offering a learning resource for the whole school, which includes providing teacher-led sessions and encouraging information literacy and independent learning.
- Acquiring, organizing and evaluating information resources, in print, digital and multimedia form, as well as an ICT infrastructure.
- Promoting and supporting reading.
- Offering a quiet place to study, particularly to do homework.
The context: regulation and funding
The benefits of school libraries is acknowledged at the highest level: the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) produced a report, ratified and published by UNESCO (2000), which recognized the role of school libraries in promoting literacy.
However, whether or not a useful service is offered has a lot to do with the immediate policy and legal framework within which that service operates, which is mostly at national level. (In some countries, such as Australia, funding may be at state or territory level.) National policy varies considerably from country to country.
Writing in 2003, Elisam Magara and Joyce Bukirwa Nyumba bemoan the lack of legislative framework for school libraries in Uganda. There are a number of different initiatives, but these are not coordinated at national level, increasing possibility of duplication and patchy provision.
Whilst some schools do maintain libraries, few have qualified librarians, and sometimes the library’s offering is just a collection of books. Where a trained person is employed, the terms of their employment are not clearly defined, resulting in job insecurity and poor motivation.
Lack of legislative framework is not the sole preserve of poorer countries. There is no legislation requiring schools to have a library in the UK. Responding to a report from the UK’s Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), one blogger claimed that making school libraries and librarians statutory would much improve their ability to make a difference to learning (Flying Start, 2010).
Right at the other end of the scale, the Republic of South Korea has legislation in place which defines the role of the school library as supporting teaching and learning, as well as the way in which it should operate (Lee, 2011).
In the US, the Department of Education administers a programme, Improving Literacy Through School Libraries (LSL), which provides up-to-date library materials and ensures that libraries have qualified staff. Other legislation includes key provision to help school libraries.
The legislative framework, and support at government level, clearly has an impact on funding.
In the US, the Report on the State of America’s Libraries from the American Library Association (2011) claimed that the 2010 economic downturn had left most school libraries unscathed – except in high poverty areas, which saw cuts of 25 per cent as opposed to 9.4 per cent norm. (Although the LSL programme does provide some grants to "high poverty" schools.)
In the UK, the CILIP survey revealed that nearly a third of school libraries had experienced cuts. Again, schools in the poorer areas, and ones with smaller budgets, were particularly badly affected (Streatfield et al. 2010).
For funding to be appropriate, it is important that legislation be linked with a specific vision of what the school library should be. In countries such as Uganda and Nigeria, for example, there is great interest in achieving universal primary education, and in libraries as part of that.
However, with most of the help coming from NGOs, there is no overall coordination, and projects may only cover certain areas, have clearly defined but limited objectives, or be downright unsuitable.
In Uganda, the East African Book Development Project supports reading camps in schools, and also aims to establish school libraries in rural and slum areas (Magara and Nyumba, 2004).
In Malawi, surplus Western books are shipped over to form the basis of school libraries. Such books may be unsuitable for the local context (Anderson and Matthews, 2010).
What does the school librarian do?
The effective library positions itself at the heart of the school, providing vital support to both teachers teaching and learners learning.
To do this most effectively, it must have the support of management. According to the CILIP report (Streatfield et al. 2010), it is preferable that the librarian report to someone with an effective voice who also has sufficient time, and knowledge, to provide assistance and mentoring.
Supporting teaching and learning
The first duty of the school librarian is to support teaching and learning throughout the school at all levels, not just first year and sixth form.
In some places, such as Australia and the US, school librarians may be dual qualified in teaching and librarianship, and referred to as a "teacher-librarian".
The Australian Government report referred to earlier (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2011) describes this role as focusing on:
- Learners and learning – understanding student learning needs and supporting them through a variety of suitable media, with the aim of fostering independent and creative learning.
- Teachers and teaching – cooperating with teachers to plan and implement information literacy programmes.
- Resourcing the curriculum – offering evaluated collections in a variety of media, print and digital, text and visual, that meet curriculum needs.
- Facilitating access to the library’s collection, and supporting both literacy and reading for pleasure.
- Developing the physical environment – offering both physical and digital learning spaces which are purpose designed for independent learning.
Information literacy and pedagogical work is also a high priority with British and American school librarians.
According to the CILIP survey (Streatfield et al, 2010), 87 per cent of librarians contribute to information literacy work in their schools. In the US, 2010 saw a modest increase in hours (0.5) spent in information literacy work, to a total of 15 hours a week.
But what exactly is involved in the provision of information literacy? Some examples are (Streatfield et al, 2010, ALA, 2011):
- Planning and conducting lessons, often team-taught with another teacher.
- Using ICT to link to external resources, as well as bookmarking and reviewing relevant sites on the WWW.
- Actively contributing to, and even managing, the school website, Intranet or VLE, including linking the library site to the Intranet so that resources can be accessed outside the library.
- Supporting teachers by proactively determining their needs (for example, getting hold of schemes of work, and supplying them with appropriate resources, engaging with them and putting them in touch with other teachers with similar tasks and interests). Sometimes, school librarians train teachers in the use of electronic resources.
- Developing online materials including tutorials, blogs, wikis etc.
- Encouraging independent learning. In that they have a large number of available resources which have been vetted for their educational suitability, and from which the student can choose, libraries by their very nature do this.
- Encourage information literacy by developing and resourcing assignments and projects which involve judicious use of information sources.
In an age when students of all ages seek instant answers from Google, the school library can offer a model of a structured information environment. For this reason (and the balance between digital and other media will be explored elsewhere) it is important to have all media, including print, to give experience of different search and reading techniques (Shenton, 2009).
(Shenton provides a useful discussion of the importance of a hybrid information environment, and of whether or not the Internet encourages shallow reading, with opinions from such figures as Susan Hill, read the article here.)
As an example of failure to understand how to "work" a library, Sajjad ur Rehman and Sumayyah Alfaresi describe a piece of research on information literacy skills among Kuwaiti high school students (2009). They report that over half did not use the school library, and of those who did, few borrowed books, and many were deficient in basic catalogue use and search.
Even where there is no properly qualified librarian, the library can still have a strongly educational purpose. Anderson and Matthews (2010) comment (p579) that teachers in Malawi value the library highly – "you can’t teach everything…one who have found difficulty…they have to go to the library".
The school librarian is there for play as well as work, in that he or she can encourage reading for pleasure.
Most librarians are involved in literacy work, either directly in the classroom or by obtaining useful resources to help teachers. They may also promote reading through particular activities, for example groups, reading clubs, author visits, awards for reading etc.
In some countries, where there is no proper infrastructure of school libraries, reading initiatives are particularly important as a way of developing literacy.
Anderson and Matthews (2010) refer to a series of case studies in seven different African countries collated by Rosenberg (2003, p.575).
Strategic management and evaluation
Strategic activity means having a policy in place, as opposed just to responding operationally. That policy should be approved by the school’s senior management and should guide library strategy.
Having an endorsed policy, that is linked to overall school improvement, is an indication of the library’s perceived importance. Some respondents to the CILIP survey said that the library was not considered important enough to merit a policy (Streatfield et al., 2010).
Strategic librarians evaluate what they are doing. Two approaches are discussed by Shenton (2011), both of which concentrate on the reactions of the pupils. He also suggests that positive comments be made public as part of advocacy.
A major part of a librarian’s work is acquiring resources, whether these be books, videos, DVDs, journals, e-books – or hardware such as computers.
However maintenance, as well as acquisition, is very important: the librarian must ensure that the stock remains current by discarding material that is no longer relevant, and acquiring new stock.
Of course, this is not possible if budgets are being cut, hence the danger of cuts increasing obsolescence. Another problem is that if students spurn non-fiction books in favour of the Internet, then it becomes hard for the librarian to justify the expense of more books, hence the collection can become out of date.
In one "advanced economy" at least, collections have, despite the downturn, remained relatively stable. The US in 2010 saw collections either declining slightly (particularly books and periodicals) or remaining consistent (ALA, 2011).
One trend in the US that is probably mirrored elsewhere is the increase in the library’s virtual presence, with consequent access to databases outside the library building (ALA, 2011).
New devices such as the iPad have also had an impact. For example, in 2010, the Victorian Department of Education in Australia purchased 500 iPads and distributed them across eight schools, as a trial. Now all 300 year 7 students at Ringwood Secondary in Victoria have iPads.
A similar experiment was tried in Tasmania, Queensland and New South Wales (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2011).
A totally digital library?
The number of books in school library collections in the US dropped by 2.5 per cent, according to the ALA (2011). Such a figure is not totally surprising, given the general trend towards digital; the surprise is that it isn’t higher.
However, some libraries have gone totally digital. Several academies in the UK have opened without libraries, believing that the physical library is out of date.
In the US, Cushing Academy, a private school in Massachusetts, announced its intention to go digital in 2009, discarding 20,000 books. Their Fisher-Watkins library now has 100 Kindle devices onto which ebooks can be downloaded (as they can onto students’ own devices).
Needless to say, such decisions have been highly controversial: see, for example, Norm Medeiros’ viewpoint on the subject (Medeiros, 2009.)
Cushing’s detractors argue that students need to find information from a variety of resources, including print. To which Tom Corbett, the library’s Executive Director, argues that students still use plenty of print resources in the classroom, and that e-readers have increased a passion for recreational reading, simply because of immediate access to Amazon’s collection of over a million e-books, far greater than the library could provide in its print collection.
However, the arguments in favour of the traditional library are very strong. The library itself offers a way of organizing knowledge, through catalogues, indexes etc., whereas the web is disorganized and chaotic. Print is easier to search, print collections can be browsed, and the librarian has more control over obsolescent information, and quality control generally, in their own stock (Shenton, 2009).
Corbett, however, believes that most information is now discovered and consumed in digital form, which means that attention needs to be focused away from print information literacy and towards digital information literacy.
The role of the librarian, he believes, is to make sure that "even in this digital age that there is still a cost to high-quality, effective insightful information/literature and that a library can still mediate these costs and assure that the right information and stories gets into the right hands when they need it."
In other words, the librarian still has a gatekeeper role, but one that is based on securing the right digital resources (it’s a myth that information is free), on guiding, and on a greater degree of patron-driven acquisition.
For a full description of the Fisher-Watkins library, and the philosophy behind it, see Corbett, 2011.
This article has looked at school libraries and what they do in a variety of contexts. It has shown that a school library can mean many things, from a pile of books in an office to one composed almost entirely of digital resources.
Research has also amply demonstrated that a good school library can be beneficial to education. We have also seen how many feel that it is too early to get rid of print completely, that a hybrid information environment favours learning.
Poverty means that some nations have not established an effective library service. This is understandable, if not desirable. What does seem even more regrettable is that some so called "advanced" nations are cutting their library services.
Every child everywhere should have a decent library to help his or her education, and to ignite a passion for reading.
American Library Association (2011), "The State of America's Libraries: A report from the American Library Association", American Libraries (Special Issue), available online at http://www.ala.org/news/mediapresscenter/americaslibraries [accessed February 7th 2011].
Anderson, J. and Matthews, P. (2010), "A Malawian school library: culture, literacy and reader development", Aslib Proceedings: New Information Perspectives Vol. 62 No. 6, 2010 pp. 570-584.
Corbett, T. B. (n.d.). The Changing Role of the School Library's Physical Space. School Library Monthly. Retrieved from http://www.schoollibrarymonthly.com/articles/ Corbett2011-v27n7p5.html, accessed 12th February 2012.
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