A librarian helping a student use a computer

Beyond Books: School Librarian Role Shifts to Tech Specialist

18 Apr 2015 by Susie Steckner

As K – 12 school districts revamp classrooms, overhaul curriculum and transform teaching to meet the demands of a 21st century classroom, a critical role on campus is changing too: the school librarian.

Librarians — or library media specialists — are fast becoming the go-to tech specialists on campus. They serve as experts in digital materials and research. They collaborate with teachers in the classroom to enhance learning. They create programs that promote critical thinking and analysis. They teach digital citizenship. They provide technology trainings for colleagues.

In this growing role, librarians are also transforming schools’ traditional library spaces into technology hubs focused on not only research and learning but creativity and collaboration.

“School librarians are highly involved leaders playing a critical role in their schools through consistent and sustained collaboration with other educators, according to a report released in April 2013 by the National Center for Literacy Education. Additionally, school librarians not only participate in but deliver professional development to peers, educators and staff in their schools,” says the report, “Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works.”

Teaching and Learning

The need for library media specialists (LMS) continues to grow as technology becomes more embedded in K – 12 learning. Despite this, budget cuts and staff reductions at schools are affecting this vital position.

K – 12 schools have experienced a significant decline in school librarians in the past decade, from about 54,000 in 2005 to just over 50,000 in 2011, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. On campuses across the country, full-time librarians are seeing their hours slashed or are being replaced with paraprofessionals. In some cases, school libraries are closing their doors.

During the 2011–2012 school year, 79,000 of the 85,500 traditional public schools reported having a library media center. Yet only about two-thirds had full-time, paid, state-certified library media specialists, the center found.

Library media specialists have the opportunity to provide a wide range of services, and their impact can be felt campus wide, according to a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction survey. During a typical week, library staff reported splitting their time a myriad of ways:

  • 29% of their time on basic library media management activities
  • 24–28% on teaching and learning activities
  • 16–23% on program planning and administration
  • 9–14% on information and resource access, and delivery of information resources to teachers and students
  • 15% on duties unrelated to school library services, such as playground duty

Another report found that school librarians are crucial in “enabling and empowering teachers’ skills with digital content.” According to the American Association of School Librarians (AASL):

  • 85% of librarians answer questions about technology tools
  • 33% train teachers on how to locate and evaluate digital content

The report noted the especially important role that an LMS plays in improving student research skills. It pointed out that information available online is overwhelming for students, that students are not seeking out a wide range of sources and that students aren’t able to discern credible sources.

“Increasing amounts of information demand students acquire the skills to select, evaluate and use information appropriately and effectively,” the report said.

Success Stories

When schools actively involve an LMS in teaching and learning, student achievement gets a boost.

In Colorado, fourth-grade reading test scores were 18% higher in schools where LMSs planned cooperatively with teachers, provided in-service training to teachers and taught information literacy skills to students, according to another AASL report. A survey of 13,000 students in Ohio found that LMSs “are agents of resources, information literacy development, knowledge construction, academic achievement, independent reading and personal development, technological literacy and individualized learning,” the report showed.

In classrooms every day, technology programs are stretching beyond the library to meet the needs of teachers and students. Two schools recognized by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) show the value in this collaboration.

Penguin Palooza. In Texas, a hands-on learning project created by an elementary school teacher and LMS inspired students to create digital books. Using iPads, the educators and students collaborated and designed books based on their favorite penguin characters. The project offered focused and innovative technology learning experiences that supported students.

Invisible Influence. In Connecticut, a high school English teacher, technology integration teacher and library department chairwoman designed a project examining how visual media influenced or changed society. Students combined technology with reflective-thinking activities and analytical writing to reach their conclusions. The project taught students to be responsible producers and discerning consumers of information.

Agents of Change

Today’s library media specialists should be thinking outside their traditional roles and services, and extending their reach well beyond the walls of the library, according to a few points in an Intel-sponsored K – 12 Blueprint.

The organization offers several must-do moves for the future, including:

Focus on instruction and resources, not things.

The media specialist should be the go-to person for technology in school, but not only about the “stuff.” Librarians want to encourage teachers to think: “What would be the best resource/tool to teach this concept in my classroom?” rather than “I want to use Twitter with my students. What could I teach to do this?”

Share ideas and suggestions.

Librarians can engage with emails or tweets, updating faculty on the best new resources or curriculum connections for their classes. For example: “Teaching Mythology? Take a photo tour of Rome using Google Maps. Let me know if I can help!”

Serve as the technology hub.

The LMS should be an essential part of a school’s technology program. Offer space for the deployment launch site, find an office for the technology facilitator, share a back room with the help desk, and partner with the tech staff to introduce 1:1 and BYOD at parent meetings and student orientations.

Make the media center a place for creativity and collaboration.

When people think projects, creativity and fun, they should think of the media center first. Librarians can set up Creation Stations with the best computers, color printers and commercial programs that students can use for special presentations, college application portfolios, etc. They may also want to re-purpose another conference room as a Collaboration Station equipped with tools that make it the go-to space for faculty as well as students.

Turn part of the media center into a maker space.

“Maker spaces” offer students a site to experiment with a variety of media — both high and low tech — and engage in DIY projects. These spaces are equipped with a range of tools, from a 3-D printer and film-making software to craft supplies.

Keep the Books, but Ask Why and Which Ones

Librarians need to weed, making space for something different, something that will attract teachers and students. Help students understand the value of the in-depth information found in books over the oftentimes more cursory treatment found in web resources. It’s a life skill to understand when the old standby book is the best option.

Library media programs will continue to evolve as more and more K – 12 school districts embrace technology. For their part, librarians will continue to play an important role transforming teaching and learning. Supporting these programs is crucial, according to the American Library Association. “Schools with a strong library program — and a certified school librarian — ensure their students have the best chance to succeed.”

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