The recent crisis would have been a real problem if school libraries were only about the library space and the physical collection. Thankfully this is no longer the case and has not been for years. Yes, there were adjustments to be made but all in all school librarians stepped up to the mark in their hundreds. I would love to say thousands but unfortunately, as school budgets change so does the apparent need for a school librarian.
During lockdown, the Great School Libraries campaign, organised by CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals), CILIP SLG (School Libraries Group) and the SLA (School Library Association), worked together with school librarians to ensure that they had access to the resources they needed as they appeared. Many publishers and online resource suppliers provided resources free during lockdown, and it was great to see everyone pull together. The Great School Libraries campaign website has some great lockdown case studies that demonstrate the role of the school librarian during this time, from ebook collections to online resource support and more (Great School LIbraries, 2020).
All of this amazing work has been done in dire circumstances but what happens when life and work get back to normal? Normal for many school librarians is very frustrating. Normal for many school librarians is hidden behind the lack of understanding of what a school librarian does and normal for many school librarians is a constant battle to demonstrate the expertise hidden behind the school library door.
But why is this? Ask many schools what their school librarian does and you will get many different answers. Most will say that they keep the library tidy and issue and return the books alongside supporting Reading for Pleasure and yes, this is part of their job but there is so much more and getting that message out there has been very difficult.
Why do not all schools have school librarians?
I should start by explaining why school libraries are not what they should be. Currently in the UK, there is no statutory legislation for schools to provide a school library with a qualified librarian. Because of this, schools who have very difficult financial constraints on their budgets can choose not to employ a qualified librarian or not have a library at all if they wish. Now thankfully many schools do still see the important link between school libraries, literacy and Reading for Learning. The Great School Libraries campaign carried out a survey in 2019, for England, Wales and Northern Ireland and reported that many schools, especially in England, did have school libraries but were not likely to employ a qualified school librarian. However, schools in areas of deprivation were less likely to have one at all, which is very concerning (Great School Libraries, 2019).
What we have seen over the years is schools who know and understand the value of books and reading to students have tried to maintain some kind of library service for their students. Some have employed school librarians on very low wages which does not attract qualified librarians, but instead, people who are happy to work in school libraries and to do the job that everyone thinks school librarians do… keep the library tidy and issue and return books and support Reading for Pleasure.
I agree this is far better than nothing at all but the gap between those schools who do employ qualified librarians and those that don’t gets bigger. Across the country, we are seeing a huge disparity between those that have and those that haven’t. The problem is twofold, firstly the lack of access to quality resources and technology. Secondly, the access to an information specialist who can work across the curriculum. Both have shown to impact on student outcomes.
“Since 1992, a growing body of research known as the school library impact studies has consistently shown positive correlations between high-quality library programs and student achievement” (Gretes, 2013 and Scholastic, 2016 as cited in Lance & Kachel, 2018) … “In addition, newer studies, conducted over the last several years, show that strong school libraries are also linked to other important indicators of student success, including graduation rates and mastery of academic standards” (Lance & Kachel, 2018).
Obviously, the legal and financial situation for school libraries does not look good at the moment, so what can we do about it? The obvious place to start is to focus on making sure that everyone knows what the role of the school librarian is.
If I am honest, I am not sure how I worked it out. I certainly was not taught school librarianship when I did my degree or my masters. I joined the CILIP SLG, learnt from colleagues and watched what was happening across the world. I was particularly interested in the way the Americans ran school libraries with Teacher Librarians who have a dual qualification.
But there was no common documentation here to clarify the role. I found the school librarian’s role in teaching information literacy fascinating and knew that when schools here talk about school librarians that they should be making this link too. A School Librarian’s professional skill is, without question, working with and learning from information and as the world heads deeper and deeper online this is something that schools should be aware of. However, if I found it hard to work out what I should be doing as a school librarian, how can we expect our schools to know and understand?
How can schools find out what the role of the school librarian is?
There have been many articles written about the role of the school librarian and in all of them, the list of things that they can do is huge, so today I want to focus on how schools can find out what they can expect from a qualified school librarian and show you ways to begin to support your students through your school library.
The best place to start is by looking at the IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) School Library Guidelines https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/9512 and FOSIL (Framework Of Skills for Inquiry Learning) https://fosil.org.uk/fosil-cycle/. The IFLA School Library Guidelines highlights the essential role of the school librarian in education with a clear manifesto which states:
“The school library provides information and ideas that are fundamental to function successfully in today’s information and knowledge-based society. The school library equips students with life-long learning skills and develops the imagination, enabling them to live as responsible adults”. School Library Manifesto
Chapter 5 of the Guidelines specifically talks about the core instructional activities of the school librarian clearly defining the role across 5 key areas:
- Literacy and Reading Promotion
- Media and Information Literacy instruction
- Inquiry-based learning models (e.g., FOSIL)
- Technology Integration
- Professional Development for Teachers
It is clear from these Guidelines that a school librarian’s skill set is more than most people understand but how do we ensure that schools get the most from their school librarian? I’m afraid I don’t have the perfect answer but what I can do is highlight ways that I can see changes that will hopefully open up opportunities for some of you.
Over the last few years I begun to understand that FOSIL is central to supporting school librarians in raising their profile especially within the curriculum through inquiry-led learning. The more I learned and read the more I realised that this was the way to help schools understand what it is that school librarians do. What has been great is the realisation that in teaching school librarians about FOSIL it really does open doors into the curriculum and one of the best ways to help teachers understand what school librarians can do to support them.
If you head over to the FOSIL Group website https://fosil.org.uk/resources/ you will not only find lots of free resources to help you but also, in the Forum (https://fosil.org.uk/forums/) many helpful discussions on how FOSIL is making a difference. These include, year 2 History – People of the Past, Year 6 Geography – Natural Disasters, year 9 Geography – Tourism, year 10 PE -Restrictive diets all the way up to year 12 Economics – Income and Wealth and much more.
This is not, however, just about giving teachers resources – this is about the impact that collaboration between teachers and school librarians can have on your students. A difference that has been well researched by some of the biggest names in inquiry-led learning. Barbara Stripling, the creator of Stripling’s Model of Inquiry, wrote in a recent correspondence in the FOSIL Forum “The role of professional organizations, national and international standards, and accessible professional development may be pivotal in bringing the profession of school librarianship to a new level of understanding and implementation of inquiry principles and practice. The conversations facilitated by the FOSIL Group are an example of the collaborative effort that will have an impact”.
So if you have read this far you may be wondering how you can get started. I would suggest that you ask yourself a few simple questions.
- Do you have a school library? If not, please ask why.
- Do you have a school librarian? If so, do you know who they are and how they can help you?
- Do you know what resources are in your library for your subject?
- Do you know how to access your school library catalogue?
This simple conversation about resources for your subject with your school librarian can open a door of collaboration that will support student independent learning that you may have never seen before. The simple act of using your school library catalogue as a digital literacy tool supports the use of keywords and access to quality resources in a safe and secure environment. Helping students to learn the technique of research which will support online research in the long term. These simple techniques are a key part of the investigate stage of the FOSIL cycle of inquiry.
Building inquiry around FOSIL allows students to work through the process of inquiry in a structured way, teaching independent information-to-knowledge learning skills, creating good questions, quality research, critical evaluation and allowing students to present their understanding in a way that ensures they give credit for what they find. Collaboration between teachers and school librarians can bring so much to the learning process and together provide students with techniques and resources that will support lifelong learning.
I have real hope for school libraries in the future especially as misinformation, disinformation and mal-information – fake news – become more prevalent. Students need the skills that school librarians can teach and what is needed is now within our reach:-
- IFLA School Library Guidelines – This not only allows school librarians to understand what their role is, but it also gives them something to share with their schools to explain to them too.
- FOSIL – A framework that supports school librarian and teacher collaboration with some ready made resources to get you started.
This is not going to happen overnight but there is a glimmer of light that does make the integration of school librarians into the curriculum possible, and I am delighted to be part of this journey. If the school librarian’s focus is their students and schools can see and understand the role of the school librarian, they then have a stepping stone to a brighter future. School libraries will eventually be able to ensure that schools understand their true value.
Elizabeth Hutchinson is a Chartered librarian and Fellow of CILIP. She worked for the Guernsey Schools’ Library Service from 2003 and was appointed Head of Service in 2014. She is now an Independent trainer and Adviser for school libraries. She was awarded the BEM for services to libraries in 2020, is an international presenter, blogger and writes for CILIP Information Professional. She is Vice-Chair of the Great School Libraries working party and is the founder of an online CPD forum for school library staff and teachers called #LibraryStaffLoveLearning.
Great School Libraries. (2019) Survey Available here
Great School Libraries. (2020). School Libraries during lockdown. Available at: https://www.greatschoollibraries.org.uk/school-libraries-during-lockdown.
Lance, Keith Curry, et al. “Why School Librarians Matter: What Years of Research Tell Us.” Kappanonline.org, 15 July 2020, kappanonline.org/lance-kachel-school-librarians-matter-years-research/.
New York Comprehensive Center. (2011). Informational Brief: Impact of School Libraries on Student Achievement. Available at: http://nycomprehensivecenter.org/initiatives/inits_elearn/resources