Challenges for teacher librarianship in the 21st century: Part 3 – Status and role

In Part 1, published in Connections 66, page 10, Barbara Combes discussed the challenges that technology presents to teacher librarians and suggested strategies to effectively respond. Part 2, published in Issue 67, page 5, covered the challenge of time and workload with strategies to help deal with these issues. Here she deals with a final challenge.

The challenge of status and role

A major challenge for teacher librarians over the last ten years has been establishing our status in the school community and clearly communicating our role. After the heady days of the 1970s and 1980s, when the importance of school libraries was clearly recognised through centralised funding and professional staffing, we have now reached a stage where libraries of all kinds are under threat, even though research tells us that proactive school libraries make a huge difference to student learning outcomes. Across the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and the UK, libraries are underfunded and understaffed. In some cases, they have been closed or transformed into internet cafes. There are several reasons for these changes.

There is a belief on the part of politicians, systemic educators and senior administrators that technology can be used to provide a wide range of ‘free’ resources for schools (SOCCI, 2000). Underpinning this belief is a basic lack of understanding about information as a commodity, the internet, issues such as copyright and intellectual property, and the hidden costs of technology.

Library professionals who have focused on the service and management aspects of their role at the expense of teaching and learning have contributed to the library’s poor image. We have not placed the library squarely at the centre of the school’s core business – that is, teaching and learning. Many of us have seen the teacher librarian’s role as simply that of providing an opportunity to ‘escape’ from the classroom. Parents, industry stakeholders, administrators and society are demanding a more professional attitude and more accountability from teachers. They want graduates who are flexible and adaptable – who are able to cope with a constantly changing workplace and learn new skills as they go. Rather than being an escape option, the library should be the centre of teaching and learning for the whole school community. The TL should be leading and supporting educational change.

A lack of succession planning has only enhanced the stereotype of librarians as grey-haired, middle-aged women who are technological dinosaurs in a new information age. Instead of plunging into this brave new world, many of us are still standing nervously at the water’s edge, afraid to get our toes wet. Many who have successfully begun swimming are still caught up in the service ethic and fail to capitalise on their expertise. Teacher librarians and librarians are not perceived as leaders in their school communities, either in terms of curriculum or technology.

Clearly, if we are going to survive, this perception needs to change. We need to change. We need to accept that part of our role is educating administrators, teachers and the school community about the new information landscape and our role within it.

Strategy 1 – Learn to prioritise

Prioritise your time and value yourself. These are two important steps towards changing perceptions about your status and role within the school community. Have a booking sheet for library staff, so you can plan and set aside time for your professional and teaching duties, management/housekeeping tasks and collaborative meetings. Avoid crisis management and actively discourage teachers from using the library and yourself as stop-gaps for their poor planning. Your time and expertise is valuable and you need to let them know it!

Strategy 2 – Be realistic

Change is an intimidating process, both for an individual and their organisation. Incremental change and education are the best strategies to use here. Slowly introduce new procedures, plan your staff/school community education program and always let people know well in advance if you are going to change things. Always ensure that change is for a specific purpose related to the teaching and learning outcomes of the school. Also, save your energies for the important things. Don’t shift furniture, re-write policies and procedures or change things unless there are clear cost-benefits for the school (and then make sure that you articulate those benefits). Use technology as a tool to make time and space in your day. Don’t allow library management to overwhelm you or dictate why and how you do things. Take charge and be in control. Of course, in the real world this takes time, patience and persistence. Always take little steps, be kind to yourself and remember your value.

Strategy 3 – Become a strategic planner

Use the following strategies to differentiate yourself (Green, 2004) and become a leader.

  • Observe your colleagues closely. Who is the most powerful or influential person in the school? It may be the principal, but could also be the deputy, the registrar, the teaching-learning coordinator, the computer teacher or even the secretary in the front office. Target this person and find out how they see your role and the role of the library. You cannot change your status if you don’t know how you are perceived by the key players in the school.
  • Make decisions based on educational outcomes rather than organisational ones. You must have a clear educational vision and couch all your discussions with staff in an educational context. This gives you credibility as a teacher and information specialist. Provide professional development for staff to help them become more technologically literate. You will gain respect and influence.
  • Don’t just belong to educational committees and groups within the school, offer to chair them. As the chairperson, you will be doing what you do best – delegating and organising tasks, and collecting and collating information. It is always the chairperson who knows what is going on in the school.
  • If you have complaints, then keep them focused on educational issues. Always have positive suggestions ready, and be ready to be an active participant in any solutions.
  • Become the resident expert on how students learn best in your school. Know the current strategic goals of your education system and the school, relate these to the curriculum, identify the gaps and seek to fill them.

Strategy 4 – Learn to delegate and collaborate

Know your staff, empower them and work with them to build a cohesive library team. They need to feel valued too. Always be a model for best practice. You and your team (even if the team consists of one untrained library officer and some volunteer parents) should present a united vision of the role of the library in your particular school. While your library should always have a client focus, avoid simply doing things for teachers and students. Make every occasion, no matter how small or trivial, a teaching-learning opportunity.

Strategy 5 – Don’t make assumptions

Don’t assume anything. Successful curriculum programs engage students only when the students know and clearly understand what is expected of them.

  • Use technology to enhance learning outcomes for students, rather than just as an administrative or organisational tool.
  • Create templates, ‘how to’ FAQs, instruction guidelines, skills review sheets, pathfinders and directional signage to assist your students.
  • Get away from the library or information skills model and work towards integrating skills development where it is most relevant to the student – at the point of need during a curriculum program.
  • Don’t assume that students know how to evaluate information, participate in group discussions, take notes or write assignments.
  • Work with teachers to develop generic information literacy templates to scaffold and guide student learning. Initially this will be a lot of work, but the templates are re-usable. As learning objects, they provide consistency for students and allow you to develop a highly structured, safe learning environment in which students can exercise autonomy and independence.
  • Become a curriculum designer and specialist support teacher for staff, and a facilitator and guide for students.

Strategy 6 – Staff professional development

Share your expertise and knowledge with teachers. You want to position yourself and the library as the information and curriculum hub of your school community. You want to be perceived as a curriculum leader, designer and professional development support teacher. You want to be the catalyst in your school for the development of innovative and exciting teaching-learning programs aimed at literacy and information literacy skills. It is the library (or ‘information hub’) that will help students to become lifelong learners, not silos of outdated content locked away in subject specialist areas. It is your role to help teachers and students to make connections across the curriculum, transfer generic skills and further develop their literacy and information literacy.

Strategy 7 – Promotion and advertising

Initial perceptions are very important. Use the below strategies to change your image from someone who is focused on the management of the library to someone who is vitally interested in curriculum and student learning outcomes.

  • Always arrive early and leave late. (Though there is a fine line between being perceived as hard-working and being perceived as disorganised.)
  • Always carry a box of books in a trolley. This sends a message to other staff that you are hard-working and a teacher too.
  • If a request was unreasonable, don’t be afraid to tell the person how it will be done much better next time, when you have time to provide the resources and assistance required to help students achieve their learning outcomes.
  • Actively advertise yourself to your parent community. Their support can be invaluable and provide more publicity than anything else.
  • Choose your collaborative partners wisely. Look for innovators and people who are more open to working differently. Note that this may not necessarily be the younger teachers in your school.

Changing perceptions and your status in the school will be a slow process, but persistence, careful planning and the smart use of technology can make a difference.


We have much to do and overcome as a profession. There are new challenges on the horizon as technology influences the information landscape, funding becomes tighter and the expectations of society become greater. We need to meet these challenges head-on.

Teacher librarians are a resilient and determined bunch. Our most enduring characteristic is a capacity to move forward, change and support each other by sharing best practice. So if you only take away from this article a little bit of hope, one new idea/strategy, a new contact, a reaffirmation that what you do has value, and the recognition that your job involves much more than library management, you will have begun the journey. Rediscover learning along with your students, and keep yourself young in mind and heart.

Barbara Combes
Edith Cowan University

This article is based on the keynote address presented at the Libraries linking learning and literacies conference, South Africa, 8–11 August 2006. 


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