Challenges for teacher librarianship in the 21st century: Part 1 – Technology

What are our challenges? Before seeking solutions and strategies to the challenges that face teacher librarians in a changed information environment, it is important to identify clearly what these are so we know exactly what we are dealing with, before seeking out solutions and strategies. Attached to these challenges are personal and professional issues that may be confronting and uncomfortable, and require us to re-evaluate ourselves and our performance.

Our challenges are:

  1. technology
  2. time and workload
  3. status and role

These challenges will be discussed in three parts over three issues of Connections.

1. Technology and the changing nature of information

The information environment has changed radically during the last twenty years and technology is now a significant factor in how we work, play and learn. For young people especially, technology is an integral part of their everyday landscape. Many young people have never known a world without instantaneous access to vast quantities of information using a multitude of formats, text types, graphics and multimedia. They are the ultimate consumers and for them, technology is a transparent part of their social, economic and educational landscape. They have no fear of technology. Adults observe and marvel at their seemingly effortless and sometimes simultaneous use of a wide range of technologies, often without referring to instruction manuals.

Understand your role within a changing context

So our first challenge as teacher librarians is to come to terms with this changing information landscape. Our second challenge is to assist others to make sense of this sea of information, which is growing exponentially. For many of us, these are fundamental challenges to overcome. We are members of a greying profession. Many librarians and teacher librarians consider they have already had their major flirtation with technology in the form of automated catalogues, the introduction of (Web) OPACs and the convergence of information telecommunications technologies (ICTs) – changes that were a feature of libraries in the 1990s.

In many schools, the integrated automated library system is the only example of a fully functioning database that has intranet and Internet facilities and that is available for students to learn how to access information electronically in a relatively safe environment. Even a stand-alone automated catalogue requires students to use the same skills to be able to find information electronically as those used to search the Web – a salient fact rarely advertised by the teacher librarian and acknowledged by administration, teachers or students. Many teacher librarians are reluctant to move out of their comfort zones again and accept the new challenges that continuing advancements in technology pose for educational environments and school libraries.

In many cases teacher librarians have become library managers, rather than teachers. While the day-to-day management of the library's systems is essential for the smooth running of the facility, it is one that can be left in the capable hands of a trained library technician (or a competent library officer, depending on your staffing). The teacher librarian should be acting as a manager in this role, rather than a hands-on technician. The first step towards taking up the challenges posed by technology is to accept that your role is not the day-to-day management of the library – it is so much more.

Update technology skills

The second step is to get serious about gaining and updating your technology skills. This can be daunting, exhilarating and incredibly satisfying once you get started. It re-connects you to what is happening in the world of information, acts as intellectual stimulation when you re-engage with your peers and leads to lifelong learning – something educators, schools and teachers often preach about, but rarely model in actual practice. You can access formal short courses or self-initiated Web tutorials in how to use wordprocessing, slide show and desktop publishing programs or you can learn how to create Web pages and use collaborative tools such as Moodle ® and chat. You can access tertiary certificates to upgrade your qualifications, or complete a Masters degree on evidence-based practice in your school.

The completion of formal courses is a commitment to personal professional development that goes beyond attending conferences and sharing best practice, although these are very important as well. Of course Rome wasn't built in a day and updating yourself will take time. You also want to avoid becoming the network technician – this is not your role either. If schools are serious about the provision of technology and the educational benefits that it can provide for students, then they will fund the appointment of a network technician. You do not want to suddenly become manager of the network as well, where you spend your days troubleshooting broken equipment, disciplining students/staff for inappropriate use or documenting missing mice, malfunctioning screens and broken connections.

Develop strategies to manage the new information context

In your role as information specialist, you do want to have a say in policy development, the implementation of learning technologies and how they are integrated in curriculum programs in the school and how the network is used for access to information, resource-based learning and curriculum development. To do this successfully you have to have some knowledge of what is happening in the world of information outside the school.

Strategy 1 – learn to prioritise

Determine what you need to do to update yourself and set in motion a realistic timeline. You need to enjoy yourself, otherwise your learning will become as tedious as some of the programs we inflict on our students.

Strategy 2 – be realistic

Partners, family obligations and real life surprises need to be accommodated. We are not superwomen/men. If you are not realistic about what you can do, there is a real possibility of burn-out, non-completion and a real feeling of failure. When this happens, it is even harder to accept the challenge and begin again.

Strategy 3 – become a strategic planner

We plan our teaching programs; daily, weekly and annual school calendars; and for technology upgrades, but we rarely strategically plan for ourselves. Use those skills you already have to write down a personal strategic plan. Include all aspects of your life, personal and professional. Revisit the plan every six months to reflect on and evaluate your progress. While you may not reach your goals every time, at least you know what your goals are and sometimes you will be successful.

Strategy 4 – learn to delegate and collaborate

Learn to delegate those things that someone else can do, so you can get on with your real job as teacher librarian. Resist the urge to check their work. Delegation means handing over responsibility, empowering others and managing their work. If your library technician or officer has the skills to put up displays, produce brochures and signage, download catalogue records or put things onto the website, then let them do it. You develop the annual operational plan and the content, decide the timelines and performance manage staff.

If you don't have the technological skills you require to complete a task, such as developing a website for a piece of online curriculum or a WebQuest, then collaborate with someone in your school such as the Digital Media or Computer teacher who does have the knowledge and skills. You can even collaborate with students! Use your local expertise rather than trying to re-invent the wheel yourself. You will not only save time and your sanity, but may be surprised at how little you know about your colleagues and their areas of expertise. Extend your collaborative partnerships outside your school. Attend local conferences and become an active member of your professional association. These events and bodies provide opportunities to forge new partnerships and discuss programs at a practical level. The Internet also provides opportunities for you to create virtual networks, participate in collaborative partnerships and share best practice.

Strategy 5 – don't make assumptions

If you are going to assist students and staff to make sense of this new information environment, don't make assumptions about their skill levels. Research shows that while young people are fearless users of technology, they use it at a superficial level. They flick, bounce and surf the Web; they do not know where they are in virtual space; and they trust any information they find via electronic means implicitly (Combes, 2006). They are not effective or efficient users of technology and they don't actually understand issues such as copyright and intellectual property in an environment that uses terms such as open source, free Web, creative commons, freeware, shareware and public domain. It is little wonder that we are now witnessing a 'cut and paste' generation, where plagiarism and breaches of copyright are rife (Combes, 2005). I suspect that many staff members also fall into this category of the superficial user.

Strategy 6 – staff professional development

Professional development for all your staff is essential if you are going to create a dynamic, multi-dimensional library and information centre that is the focus for teaching and learning in your school. All members of your staff need to have ongoing professional development in updating technology skills and sharing best practice with others. You need to include these opportunities in your operational plan and the budget. All professional staff should also be encouraged to pursue further professional development in their own time and at their own expense as part of their commitment to the profession. This should be included in your staff performance management.

Strategy 7 – Promotion and advertising

Always promote yourself and your library. This may take the form of publicising your successes in the parent newsletter, giving your Principal a copy of your latest conference/journal paper, providing your Principal with a report of staff professional development that includes an evaluation of how this will benefit student learning outcomes or offering to share your knowledge in the form of professional development sessions for school staff. Take every opportunity to remind your school community that the library is the centre of curriculum in the school and you are the information specialist and support teacher. Always self-promote. This may be subtle and include simple things as including a library logo and your copyright information on every template, FAQ sheet or teaching aid/document that you produce to assist teachers and students. Always include a direction back to the library and yourself for further information and/or assistance.

Barbara Combes
Edith Cowan University

See the next issue of Connections for Challenges for teacher librarianship in the 21st century: Part 2 – time and workload.

This article is based on the keynote address presented at the Libraries Linking Learning and Literacies, South Africa, 8–11 August 2006.

The article with bibliography appears in the online version of Connections 66 at


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Combes, B (2005), 'The culture of information usage, plagiarism and the emerging Net Generation', ACCESS, vol 19, no 1, pp 21–24.

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