the educational technology journal

Vol 19|No 4|March2010
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Why We Still Need Libraries and Librarians

By Jamie McKenzie, ©2010, all rights reserved.
About author

The above photograph shows a classroom teacher and school librarian teaming in Grand Prairie, Texas to engage a class in exploring questions posed in their wonder boxes. Teacher: Tanya Bailey - Librarian: Evelyn Eddington "Hitting the Books: Back to the Library"

Given the literacy and comprehension challenges facing schools in this decade — especially those presented by the new information landscape — we need libraries and librarians now more than ever. Unfortunately, there are many leaders who are ill equipped to understand these challenges or the role librarians might play in helping teachers and schools to meet them. When this lack of understanding combines with budgetary woes, we are seeing drastic reduction in force across the continent. This amounts to intellectual disarmament. In L.A., for example, as many as 44 school librarians out of a total of 150 were issued provisional pink slips according to an article, "Pink Slips—and Rumors—Fly in L.A." published in the American Libraries' Inside Scoop published March 17, 2010. The same pattern is being repeated in many districts.

This article begins by listing some of the challenges presented by the new landscape and then suggests why libraries and librarians are crucial.

A Wasteland?

Despite the widespread notion that the Internet can replace library collections, there are times when it resembles T.S. Eliot's Wasteland, offering scant assistance, insight or wisdom.

While the Internet offers many treasures, it also confronts the erstwhile researcher with plenty of rubbish. There are those who have compared it to a huge information landfill.

If you try the search above and click on "I'm Feeling Lucky" most days Google will take you to http://www.thetruth.com/
an anti-tobacco Web site.

Virtual Truth

Search engines like Google really are remarkable, but they do not offer reliable information in all cases. Without training in search logic, many users wander about drowning in data that may be distorted, inaccurate, irrelevant or biased.

The Poverty of Abundance

How do we find the good image, the good poem, the trustworthy medical report?

Many times there is simply too much information to wade through. Faced with thousands of articles on prostate cancer, how does the new patient know which ones are trustworthy? Gifted with thousands of photographs of the Horse Guard in London on Flickr, how does the student find the good ones without having to browse through hundreds of mediocre images? Click to see today's collection. The quality will be hit or miss from hour to hour and day to day.

© J. McKenzie, 2009, all rights reserved.

Lack of Navigational Skill or Savvy

A surprisingly large percentage of folks are unaware of powerful strategies made possible by the advanced versions of search engines.

Because few schools have provided teachers with a robust professional development experience in effective searching, both staff and students are often unaware of the ways they can improve their results utilizing functions like the exact phrase search, domains and other features. Many go straight to "simple" Google and fill the search box without much strategy. This approach often takes them straight to Wikipedia. If research is primarily topical, such searches may suffice, as the goal is mainly the collection of information, but research on questions of import requires more skill.

Unfortunate Rituals

As schools hope to improve the comprehension skills of their students — teaching them to infer, interpret and synthesize — longstanding school research practices such as topical research represent a major obstacle to the growth of skills.

When teachers ask students to “Go find out about Joan of Arc,” they are pretty much inviting them to collect, scoop and then smush their findings.

As mentioned in the companion article to this one, "Beauty and the Beast," this approach to research promotes a strain of cut-and-paste thinking that has dire consequences. Topical research should be replaced with inquiry that explores questions of import.

The Traits of Cut-and-Paste Thinking
  • Scooping
  • Smushing
  • A general lack of original thought
  • Susceptibility
  • Surrender

The cluster diagram on the left was produced at the Visual Thesaurus and is published here with the permission of Thinkmap, Inc.

Lack of Readiness for New Standards

Many nations and organizations have been calling for schools to develop the original thinking and creative production of students. Note the documents of the AASL (American Association of School Librarians), ISTE (International Society for Technology and Education) and the 21st Century Partnership:
  • AASL Standards for the 21st-Century Learner (link)
  • ISTE National Educational Technology Standards (link)
  • Framework for 21st Century Learning (link)

Addressing synthesis and original thinking is a relatively new agenda for many teachers and schools one that will require a major investment in professional development.

A National Comprehension Crisis

A number of reports have documented a national (USA) crisis in reading comprehension:.

Note the article, "Adolescent Literacy: Putting the Crisis in Context" by Jacobs, Vicki A, in the Spring 2008 issue of The Harvard Educational Review.

Also note "Reading next: A vision for action and research in middle and high school literacy" Biancarosa & Snow, 2006 - a report to the Carnegie Corporation that concludes that there is a "A Literacy Crisis" in the U.S.A. among adolescent readers.

In its Fact Sheet, The Alliance for Excellent Education reports:

Adolescent Literacy (February 2006)

In recent years, policy makers have directed considerable resources toward improving the literacy skills of the nation’s youngest schoolchildren, with the goal of helping every child to master the basics of reading by the end of the third grade. However, America’s adolescents face a literacy crisis every bit as alarming as that which confronts their younger siblings. According to The Nation’s Report Card, fewer than one third of eighth graders read at a proficient level. Today, millions of students are leaving school unprepared for college, work, and the many demands of adulthood.

Given the recent financial crisis and the large number of people who signed damaging and ill-advised mortgage agreements, it raises the issue of how well citizens can read the fine print if they lack comprehension skills. Note the article "Reading (and Questioning) the Fine Print" at http://questioning.org/dec08/fine.html

Fascination with Gadgets and Fads

Sadly, at a time when we face this comprehension crisis, many schools have been diverted from serious work on inquiry, comprehension and thinking skills by a glittering parade of new technologies and fads that have little to do with rigor or powerful thought. In all too many cases, schools put the cart before the horse, thinking that laptops, whiteboards and social networking will produce smart students while short-changing the professional development that might translate those investments into actual student growth.

Much of the current fascination with social networking and other gimmickry is diversionary. Rather than emphasizing rigorous learning activities, many are swept up in what amounts to edutainment.

There are no phones that are truly "smart" — although some may be clever and capable of many impressive tricks like helping one find a parked car (The Take Me to My Car App)

Even though the general public is untutored in effective search strategies and information literacies, many feel quite confident of their capabilities, not knowing what they do not know, as is the case with the "Hidden Internet."

Library at Hand?

Smart phones create the illusion of holding the library in one's own hand. No need to travel to a real library?

“I’ve got all of Shakespeare’s plays, T.S. Eliot’s poems and plenty of reference tools on my iPhone. I can Google when I need an answer. Who needs books and a librarian?”

“I can use my Kindle to download and read any book or magazine that I need without leaving home. Why do I need a library or a librarian?”

The Hidden Internet

After polling dozens of audiences, I can report that fewer than five per cent indicate that they have heard of the Hidden or Deep Internet. The implications are serious, as many information experts claim that the majority of high quality reports, articles and data for fields such as physics, chemistry, social science and economics may only be available through these sources that cannot be discovered through Google. Note the article "Finding the Deep Internet When You Need It" at http://fno.org/feb06/deep.html

According to Laura Cohen's tutorial on the Deep Web at University Libraries in University at Albany:

This is distinct from static, fixed Web pages, which are documents that can be accessed directly. A significant amount of valuable information on the Web is generated from databases. In fact, it has been estimated that content on the deep Web may be 500 times larger than the fixed Web. (Click for tutorial.)

The Deep Internet term is also used to refer to collections that are available only by paid subscription. Because specialized articles and information in areas such as law, science and business may be quite costly to produce and organize, the publishers of these resources may require payment for access.

The best way for schools and students to find the deep and the worthy is to take advantage of Debbie Abilock's wonderful page "Information Literacy: Search Strategies - Choose the Best Search for Your Information Need" at NoodleTools. http://www.noodletools.com/

Teacher librarians can play a crucial and central role in equipping all teachers and students with the information skills to transform the new resources into a benefit.

Time for Action

As noted above, the new information landscape presents schools, learners and the society with a number of challenges quite different from those of the previous century. While many technology companies and promoters claim to offer software and knowbots that render the teacher librarian obsolete, this is far from the truth. This article is intended to illustrate how teacher librarians can be crucial players during this time of change — augmenting their school role so that they are providing critically important leadership. I recommend the following steps:
  • Redefine, clarify and communicate roles
  • Educate key decision-makers about those roles
  • Mobilize constituencies to demand sound staffing levels
  • Fight the battle of survival and expansion

Powerful Roles ---> Powerful Impact

Those school librarians who hold stubbornly to a 1950s definition of the job are likely to pass and be forgotten - extinct before their time. While many of the tasks that were important back then remain important in this decade, new challenges must be firmly placed at the core of any survival strategies. By embracing these new challenges and offering expertise not held by any staff members, teacher librarians can make themselves indispensable.

School librarians who embrace these roles will create what I have called, "The Techno-Savvy, Book-Rich Media Center" (November/December 2003 issue of Library Media Connection http://fno.org/apr04/
) and will make sure that the school qualifies for the label, "information literate school community." http://fno.org/sept98/infolit.html

This article will not repeat the content mentioned in the above articles, but the chart below does a fairly good job of laying out the challenge. For those who wish to know more, they can browse the original articles.

1. Pro-D

Because many schools pay woefully little attention to professional development, staff is often ill-equipped to handle the rapidly changing agenda of the Information Age with skill and assurance. Teacher librarians should step into that void and plan 3-4 courses each year for the school that will last from 10-24 hours and offer an appealing and useful menu of adult learning opportunities. Given the comprehension crisis in the USA, the teacher librarian should become the most skilled teacher of those skills in the building and pass them forward so that they will be practiced by all the teachers. Note the article "Power Reading and the School Library" first published in the February 2005 issue of Library Media Connection at http://fno.org/sum05/
Each school should create a five year plan for adult learning with the teacher librarian taking a lead role in developing that plan. In addition to courses to strengthen the teaching of reading, there should be classes in powerful searching http://fno.org/jan98/searching.html as well as classes that help teachers transform class research from trivial pursuit to questions of import. http://fno.org/feb01/pl.html The teacher delivers classes but also serves as an instructional designer and planner.
  • Address the issues raised early in this presentation – making sure all students and staff members are equipped to find good information and make good new ideas
  • Lead beyond technology and information to meaning and literacy
  • Build the information literacy skills of all
  • Show the connection between research, questioning, strategic reading and literacy
  • Lead the invention of resource-based adult learning

2. Curriculum-Development

Because the new landscape is disorganized, many teachers hold back and drag heels rather than suffer the chaos and the disappointments. Good lesson development is a fitting solution to this problem, but few schools provide the time and resources so that teachers and librarians can work together building lessons like those mentioned in the article, "Building Challenging Digital Lessons Quickly" at http://fno.org/Jan2010/quick.html Once teams are formed to create such lessons, the teacher librarian speeds their work along because the biggest challenge is finding quality resources - a specialty of a well trained librarian.
  • Leading the way in the production of rich learning opportunities.
  • Supporting the creation of resource-based learning units tied to provincial standards
  • Introducing good models
  • Identifying appropriate resources

3. Coach

When exploring difficult new terrain, growth in skill and practice is fueled by teaming, as the frustrations and anxiety attached to trying new activities are cushioned by the extra support provided by a partner. Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers' research into adult learning documented the benefits of peer coaching — the increased "sticking power" of new techniques realized when teachers team with trusted colleagues. If a school agrees that students will be frequently challenged to wrestle with questions of import, the TL (teacher-librarian) can lead the way, but that possibility depends to some extent on the staffing levels in any school. Many TLs are heavily scheduled with classes in order to provide classroom teachers with planning periods. If teachers drop off students and leave, teaming is difficult, but many schools ask TLs to cover several schools or schedule so heavily that this kind of coaching is difficult.
  • Leading by sharing, risking, modeling
  • Working alongside classroom teachers in regular classrooms to help with the introduction of technology and information rich lessons
  • Translating theory and literacy into practice

4. Pilot, Navigator, Sage

The TL is the most savvy person in the school regarding successful searching and must guide faculty and staff through the wilderness while equipping them with those skills that will ultimately make them capable of managing independently. Among other strategies, the TL creates school Web pages that serve to connect students and staff with the best current resources, whether they be print or digital in nature. The TL can help to organize the available information so that less wandering is required.
  • Leading by enhancing independence
  • Helping others to manage info-glut and noise
  • Showing them how to navigate through seas of information
  • Pointing out best routes and sources
  • Creating user interfaces

5. Infotect

In many districts, the network interface is designed by IT people who may have never worked with children as teachers or be familiar with the curriculum. Both TLs and teachers should have a commanding role in developing menus, directories and shared drives so that they match the educational purposes of the school. A second grader or a sixth grader should be able to pull down the "FILE" menu and see choices that are developmentally appropriate. The teacher librarian acts as an infotect - designing the information structures to optimize their support of the learning.
  • Leading by designing and shaping systems
  • Mastering interface design
  • Teaming to bring quality information to desktops in a well organized, reliable and user-friendly manner
  • Identifying with teachers those resources requiring purchase
  • Influencing shape, flow, look and priorities of network
  • Building congruence between digital and print collections

6. Archivist, Curator

As schools are pressured to go digital, the TL can help to balance that movement by collecting and displaying resources that appeal to all of the senses - historical artifacts, for example, that might be held in a student's hands and bring the realities of early settlement to life in ways a Web page cannot equal.
  • Leading by preserving, collecting, sharing
  • Shaping the new vertical file
  • Emphasizing multi-sensory objects
  • Protecting heritage

7. Weaver

The teacher librarian helps to build a tightly knit community of teachers and learners who are linked by a shared commitment to rigorous questioning and inquiry.
  • Leading by making connections
  • Creating learning teams and communities
  • Developing threads, tapestries and quilts of meaning
  • Threading the eyes of various electronic needles

Many schools suffer from a lack of communication and cohesion, but the TL can team with the principal and others to develop a sense of shared purpose. When teachers work in isolation from each other, the chance of success is reduced. The principal may ask all teachers to meet with the TL monthly so that their plans and activities are aligned. Teachers alert the TL to units that are coming up so the TL can identify resources and provide support. In addition to this kind of collaboration, the TL supports use of the electronic network so that teachers may share lessons and unit plans along with other resources across the building and the district.

8. Story Teller

While teacher librarians have always been great at reading and sharing stories with students, they have a new charge — the sharing of an organizational story. Our stories can help shape who we are and where we are going. But in all too many cases, there is no shared, intended story to inspire a school. In many cases, stories are more like rumors than effective elements in a planned change initiative. Story creating and telling should be a basic tool of any group trying to build good new futures. Some call this activity scenario building. Others call it myth building. Still others call it visioning. For more on this challenge, note the article, "What is the Story here?" at http://www.fno.org/jun00/story.html
  • Who are we? What do we stand for?
  • Leading by putting values up front
  • Spreading the good word, the myth, the story of change

9. Magician

These are exciting but difficult times for those who would lead schools forward. The work is challenging and the climate fraught with threats and pressures. The roles outlined in this article demand long days and a tough spirit. On the surface it would appear impossible to juggle all these tasks, so the TL must conjure up some magic.
  • Leading by doing the impossible
  • Creating longer days
  • Cooking stone soup
  • Awakening the sleeping
  • Moving beyond technology and information to comprehension and invention

Longstanding Roles

In addition to the many new roles confronting teacher librarians, the traditional roles remain important. In fact, a truly committed school would consider adding to current library staffing levels as a way of meeting the challenges directly.
  • Leading by protecting the classical elements of good learning
  • Encouraging the love of literature and reading
  • Broadening and deepening interests
  • Offering great books and great resources
  • Making research and questioning central
  • Teaming with classroom teachers

10. Inventor

We cannot afford to wait until the dot coms, the corporations, the bankers, the computer makers and the IT folks tell us what our future will be.

Educators must invent a future that is true to their beliefs. Teacher librarians stand in a powerful position to lead that inventive effort. This is a chance to make dreams come true rather than submitting to the darker visions of forces outside the school that often try to impose factory style learning methods at a time when they are not appropriate.

Langston Hughes captured this challenge well:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly

11. Reading Expert

If the TL is the best teacher of reading in the school, she or he can plan an instrumental role in helping the school to reach performance levels on high stakes tests that will protect the school from outside pressures and allow teachers to spend time on something more than the basics. Note the article "Power Reading and the School Library" first published in the February 2005 issue of Library Media Connection at http://fno.org/sum05/powerread.html

Some of the best work being done on effective teaching of comprehension is being published by Stenhouse Publishing, with authors such as Stephanie Harvey and Debbie Miller:

Mosaic of Thought : Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop by Susan Zimmermann, Ellin Oliver Keene, Heinemann, 1997.
Reading With Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades. Debbie Miller. Stenhouse Publishers, 2002.

----- Intermediate and Middle Grades -----

Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding. Stephanie Harvey, Anne Goudvis. Stenhouse Publishers, 2000.

Nonfiction Matters: Reading, Writing, and Research in Grades 3-8. Stephanie Harvey, Stenhouse Publishers, 1998.
Improving Comprehension With Think-Aloud Strategies : Modeling What Good Readers Do. Jeffrey D. Wilhelm. Scholastic Professional Books, 2001.

12. Test Expert

During this decade, performance on tough tests will be a dominant reality for anyone working in schools. The TL makes him or herself indispensable by helping all staff know how to augment the performance of students on comprehension questions that require inference and synthesis. Note the article, "The NAEP Comprehension Literacy Technology Nexus" at http://www.fno.org/apr06/naep.html

NAEP - The Toughest Tests in the Land

NAEP (The National Assessment of Educational Progress) has been around for decades, but it was not until the advent of NCLB that states were required to submit a sample of students to its scrutiny. It has always been a challenging collection of tests with a minority of students achieving proficiency levels.

What makes NAEP so tough?

  • Items require inference, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
  • Students must generate open-ended responses instead of picking from a list of multiple choice items.
  • Success on NAEP depends upon thinking - the ability to make up your mind and figure things out.
  • Memorized patterns don't cut it.

Sample from 8th Grade Reading (click for more)

13. Politician

As a group, teacher librarians have been a bit too polite and reserved while their jobs and positions crumbled under the onslaught of school leaders intent on reducing force and programs. In many districts facing tough budget restrictions with the disappearance of stimulus funds, TLs and their programs are very much at risk. In many cases, administrators hand over the tough choices to staff members, forcing them into cannibalizing.
  • We cannot afford to be silent.
  • We cannot wait until they ask.
  • We must be advocates for smart, balanced, well funded information literacy programs and adequate library staffing levels with certificated staff.
  • We must build partnerships with business people, opinion molders and the movers and shakers of our community and state.

A success story worth emulating is the two year effort by Moms in Washington to convince the state legislature to formalize a commitment to school library staffing and funding. For the full story go to the article in the School Library Journal describing their campaign:

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