No time to gather dust

Faster than a librarian's 'ssshh' can silence a rowdy teenager, the average school library is evolving and shows no sign of slowing down. Catherine Kerstjens takes a browse through the future library and considers the challenges facing teacher librarians.

Faced with an explosion of content not otherwise available in hard copy format, schools are having to rethink the way they gather and catalogue resources.

'Schools are realising the extraordinary potential for a library's digital collection to be three, four, even five times the size of the standard school hard copy collection', says Colin Bell, founder and CEO of Concord Australia.

Bell's background in education and information technology, together with his experience in dealing with library catalogues, prompted his peers to challenge him to come up with a system that responded to the changing needs of the library. As a result, a library management and a content management system were developed.

Bell pinpoints the introduction of the Victorian Certificate of Education in 1992, together with the introduction and subsequent wide use of the Internet, as the moment when the issue of managing current content became a concern for schools. Issue-based assessments in Years 11 and 12 English require students to be able to access newspaper and magazine articles to form argumentative and opinionative responses. 'It was crucial to the Victorian curriculum that students and teachers be able to research and locate such items', elaborates Bell. 'But the way in which these resources were being handled within the "traditional" library was for the content to be stored away in library vertical files. This meant that, more often than not, resources disappeared after first use as their access was limited by the lack of a search mechanism.'

Di Wilson, a teacher librarian and the Information Research Coordinator at Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne, agrees that this is a challenge facing teacher librarians and recognises that it is one that must be faced now. 'Low staffing levels can no longer be used as an excuse for not adapting to the changing needs of the school library and its ever-growing digital collection. Ten years ago these resources and skills may have been seen as an optional extra but now they cannot', says Wilson. 'Establishing the relevance of digital resources and making systems, opportunities and networks available to teachers and students - this is the job of the teacher librarian. Teacher librarians must embrace these developments and recognise the wonderful opportunity they represent to put themselves on the teaching map, or they will be left behind.'

Novel idea?

A teacher librarian since 1981, Wilson has witnessed many developments and changes in library management first-hand. Starting out working with card catalogue systems, she recalls a time when it was easy to know the library's collection well. However, as catalogues grow in size and range to meet the increasingly sophisticated needs of students and teachers, not only has the library changed but so too has the role and skills base of the teacher librarian.

In addition to finding digital resources and making them available, Wilson sees the teacher librarian as playing an important role in educating teachers and students to locate their own resources. 'Not only do we need to give students access to useful resources but, at the same time, we need to allow them to develop the skills to find those resources themselves', explains Wilson.

Teaching students to be critical users and arming them with the skills to conduct 'smart' independent searches, whether these skills are used with the school's library catalogue or on a range of search engines, are essential life skills in the modern information age. It is within this contemporary school context that The Le@rning Federation's (TLF) learning objects and digital resources stand to make a valuable contribution in Australia and New Zealand. 'Students are used to information in this form and respond to the interactive elements within TLF products', says Wilson.

Reflecting on a past project, where she collaborated with a group of teachers to make a learning web to complement the classroom-based study of a book on the curriculum, Wilson recognises the potential of TLF learning objects and digital resources. The time involved in sourcing material from the State Library, conducting picture research and liaising with publishers for the relevant permissions for the learning web was immense.

TLF's digital resources project is providing schools with access to materials that offer flexibility in their approach to complementing curriculums. Consisting of a single item - from a film excerpt to still images or an audio file - each digital resource is accompanied by an educational value statement that suggests ways in which it can be used in class.

From the original Australian prime ministerial broadcast announcing war in 1939 to a song commemorating Phar Lap released shortly after his death, the array of materials being made available is incredible. 'The digital resources offer a new perspective to our studies', says Amy Kennedy, a student from an inner city Melbourne high school. 'They help me to connect with important moments in Australian history.'

At times, even booking a room or equipment to watch a video as part of class learning can prove an obstacle to providing students with access to different types of learning materials. With the TLF digital resources, students and teachers are able to easily access original source materials and gain important context in their classroom learning.

Book end

Teacher librarians stand to play an important part in the successful development and use of digital resources within school libraries. They understand the resource needs of teachers and students and are able to assist and facilitate the use of digital resources at a school level. 'With our knowledge of the curriculum, teacher librarians are able to establish a connection between a learning object or digital resource and relate it directly back to learning in the classroom', details Wilson.

It is no longer possible to wander through the aisles of a library and put your fingers on every available and valuable resource. 'We are now in a phase that entails a "process of discovery", where teachers are building their confidence and competence in searching for resources', says Bell. 'The ability to access digital content management systems from home or from the staff room without having to physically visit the library further aids this process, where teacher preparation time can prove restrictive.'

This age of discovery is one that Wilson sees as an opportunity for teacher librarians. She considers making the time to speak to teachers and showing them the relevance of these new resources as an integral stage towards schools reaping the rewards of their digital collections. 'Teacher librarians should be grabbing these opportunities with both hands. Yes it takes time, it is often messy and can be frustrating, but the rewards are worth every moment of it', says Wilson.

Whether you're a teacher, student, librarian, content provider or administrator, the future of the library is open for debate. It appears that this is a conversation that won't be shushed.

Catherine Kerstjens
Production Officer
The Le@rning Federation

This article first appeared on page 10 of EQ Australia, Issue Three, Spring 2005, 'Online Teaching & Learning'. EQ Australia is a quarterly magazine published by Curriculum Corporation. More information is available at