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The future role of the teacher librarian
As the scope of information and technology continues to expand, Dr James Herring considers what impact this will have on the role of teacher librarians.
I began my career as a school librarian in the UK as part of the local public library service. What struck me when I started — and this is still true today — was that my teaching colleagues were expected to teach their subjects, advise students, and complete administrative tasks. As the school librarian, I was expected to manage the library, taking in book selection, cataloguing and classification, displays and class visits — and advise students, liaise with teachers, complete administrative tasks, and teach students about using information and the library.
So, perhaps I should call this article the future roles of the teacher librarian. I have selected four future roles in relation to information literacy, resources, technology/social media, and social learning, and will address each individually.
Will the future teacher librarian shift further away from the traditional library-oriented roles?
It is universally agreed that as more and more information is thrown at students and school staff, information literacy practices will be even more important for our students in the future, both in school and at home. New sources of information appear all the time, and it seems that while the quantity of information grows, the quality lessens. From primary school, students will need to be taught how to identify the need and purpose for information, how to use information, and how to evaluate and reflect on information and information sources.
Now that is certainly what students need to do today — but to prevent students from being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information available in myriad formats, then the need for effective information literacy practices will continue to increase.
So what will the teacher librarian’s roles be in this area? I see future teacher librarians as educators of information literacy – in the library, in the classroom, and in virtual spaces. I also see them as advocates of information literacy practices within the school community, and as leaders of face-to-face or virtual in-service sessions for school staff. This is a big ask for what will still probably be one teacher librarian per school, but my forecast is that other aspects of the teacher librarian’s role — for example in library management — will be made easier with new technology. Information literacy teacher/advocate/in-service leader will continue to be the teacher librarian’s key role within the school.
There may still be printed books in future school libraries, and, at least in the foreseeable future, there will be — perhaps mainly for recreational reading. Educational resources may increasingly be virtual and cloud-based, and they will no longer be bought and owned by the school, but will be accessed via remote information spaces.
In the past, teacher librarians could keep up to date with the latest educational resources, which were in print form. Now and increasingly into the future, it is not and will not be possible for teacher librarians to be aware of all new resources. One of the current issues in the use of information resources in schools is what I could call the superficial use of the web — and this will certainly continue to be an issue.
In a recent UK newspaper article, writer Donna Ferguson posed the question, ‘How often are students given an internet research task that could be as easily achieved by giving them targeted materials?’ Donna added, ‘Using tech to simply keep a room occupied is the opposite of teaching’. I know that many teacher librarians are already engaged in working with teachers to target relevant information sources — predominantly websites — and I see this role expanding and being linked with their information literacy roles. I see the roles of the teacher librarian in this area as organiser, by bringing together relevant sources for particular subjects and age groups; and as a creator of websites that allow students to use targeted sources.
Technologies such as augmented reality, 3D printing, and advanced cloud computing will have an influence on future schools and school libraries. I see key roles for school librarians in all areas of technology. We are now observing an increased use of social media — which is surely becoming our students’ preferred means of communication with each other — in schools, and I think this trend is likely to continue. Applications such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat will be seen as early examples of social media in the future. No one knows for certain what will replace them, but they will eventually be replaced.
I see the future role of the teacher librarian in this area as an advocate: one of the key people in the school who keeps up to date with social media and technological trends, and encourages the use of these applications where they are relevant to learning. I also see the future teacher librarian as an innovator: a person who finds new ways to use social media and other technology applications in the development of information literacy.
Social learning has existed for as long as people have learned to do things together. Hunter gatherers did not send their children to school, but taught them about the world in family groups. The difference I see in future social learning is that, for example, where students in schools do learn together — sometimes with no teacher or teacher librarian intervention — they learn within their own school communities.
One of the features of future education that I think will become increasingly common is inter-school social learning, where students learn alongside students from other schools in their own country or in other countries. There are examples of this already, with some schools using Skype to allow students to directly discuss issues with other students. As with social media, I see the future role of the teacher librarian as advocate and innovator: one who promotes social learning and finds ways to adapt information literacy development to social learning.
I am not expecting that every teacher librarian will be able or willing to fulfil all of these roles, but I do feel confident that some teacher librarians will be able to. As ever, the most effective teacher librarians will be those who prioritise their role in collaboration with teachers and students — and this means saying no to school staff and students who envisage school librarians in more traditional library-oriented roles.
The robots are coming!
Looking much further into the future — who knows how far? — there are, depending on your point of view, promises or threats that much of the work carried out in our society may be performed by robots. Is it too far-fetched to say that future students might be taught by robot teachers and robot teacher librarians? I do not know the answer, but I will pose the question: ‘If we have robots for teachers and teacher librarians in the future, will education be better or worse?’. The answer of course will depend on many things, including what constitutes better or worse education in the future.
There seems to be little doubt that robots will be programmed to perform basic school tasks, such as administration, basic teaching presentations, and organisation of a virtual library. But what might the robots not be able to do? One answer is that robots may not be able to empathise with students: to understand what motivates them, what worries them, and how different student learning styles will exist in future schools. Of course, robots may be able to do much more than human teachers or teacher librarians, and some people’s nirvana of a school where each individual student’s needs are catered for — educationally and socially — could be realised.
The task for today’s teacher librarian is not to worry about being replaced by robots, but to seek to make a difference to the lives of their students by ensuring that diverse learning opportunities are available during the students’ school years. Technology may come and go in schools, but the promotion of learning will remain the focus of teacher librarians.
Creative Commons licensed (BY-NC-SA). Available from http://flickr.com/photos/30976576@N07/6045929748.
Dr James E Herring
Dr James Herring is a retired academic who most recently taught at Charles Sturt University. James is the author of 11 books on information literacy, ICT in schools, and school libraries. He worked with many teacher librarians in Australia during his research on information literacy, and presented workshops in every state and territory. James is now focused on local history research relating to his home town of Dunbar, Scotland in the 1950s.