Challenges for teacher librarianship in the 21st century: Part 2 – Time and workload

In Part 1, published in Connections 66, Barbara Combes discussed the challenges that technology presents to teacher librarians and suggested strategies to effectively respond. In part 2, she examines the joint challenge of time and workload.


What challenges do teacher librarians face in a changed information environment? Before seeking solutions and strategies, it is important to know exactly what we are dealing with. 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.

The challenge of time and workload

Two major challenges for teacher librarians in schools are time and workload. A school presents a very complex working environment where staff often spend more time dealing with crisis management than actual teaching and learning. Dealing with students who have social, economic and physical/health issues means that teachers are not only educators but also instructors, surrogate parents, advocates and social workers. Teacher librarians are often viewed by students as non-threatening. The library has traditionally been the place where students go to escape the terrors of the school yard or an unsympathetic teacher or just to get out of the cold.

Coupled with this social role, the library should also be the centre of teaching and learning in the school. It is the place where students can find information and learn to manage, evaluate, authenticate and use it efficiently and effectively. The library provides physical, human and virtual resources that both teachers and students can use to achieve teaching–learning outcomes. It lets students develop, maintain and expand their literacy skills in a non-threatening environment.

Defining your role

The dual role of the teacher librarian as teacher and library manager is time-consuming and usually involves a workload that is neither understood nor recognised by administration or teachers. Finding ways to deal with these challenges often means changing the focus of the teacher librarian and the library from a service orientation to a dynamic environment that encapsulates the core business of the school: the achievement of quality teaching and student learning outcomes.

Mike Eisenberg calls it our ‘martyr complex’ (Eisenberg, 2005), but I prefer Gary Green’s term, ‘humble functionary’ (Green, 2004). We need to resist the urge to become obsessed with minutiae and library management or housekeeping. Teacher librarians should be focusing on the bigger picture: the provision of information and curriculum specialist support for teachers and students in the areas of literacy and information literacy learning outcomes. Your job is not downloading catalogue records, shelving books or running after a teacher who suddenly appears at your door and wants a video because they don’t have a lesson plan organised. Your job is not crawling under desks checking network cables or plugging in digital projectors for staff who refuse to become technologically literate. Your job is to support teachers in the:

  • design of innovative curriculum that embeds information literacy and literacy skills development – this may include the integration of learning technologies and electronic resources
  • provision of a range of resources (formats) and delivery modes to support resource-based, independent learning.

Develop strategies to manage your workload

Strategy 1 – learn to prioritise

Decide what you can do as one person and prioritise according to your context. If the systems in your library are not functioning well, there are a thousand items to process and get onto the shelves, if the collection requires a major stocktake and weed, if your physical space needs redesigning and refurbishment to make it more attractive, or if the automated catalogue needs a clean-up and rethink, make this a priority. In many cases we work very hard because our housekeeping is not in order and the library’s systems are not functioning at an optimum level. We struggle with day-to-day management issues. If this is your current context, then take the time to fix it. This will allow you to get on with the major part of your role, which is teaching and learning.

Strategy 2 – be realistic

You may be a lone practitioner with assistance in the form of an untrained officer, providing services for up to 50 staff and hundreds of students. Be realistic about what you can achieve. Trying to do too much is as bad as trying to do too little. Always decide in advance the number and type of programs you intend to implement, the collaborative partnerships you intend to establish and what your contribution will be within that partnership. Be kind to yourself.

Strategy 3 – become a strategic planner

Policies and operational plans are formal documents that clearly outline the goals and direction of the library and how these relate to the core business of the school: teaching and learning outcomes. These are essential documents that we rarely complete or update. They provide your Principal with a clear articulation of your role, the place of the library within the school and your expertise, and form a basis for applications for future funding and extra staff.

Your strategic or operational plan should always include a time allocation and clearly indicate who is responsible for completing which tasks. It should provide an analysis of library staff workload and library operations. You should always take the time to evaluate your performance and complete a report at the end of the year. This may be as simple as highlighting those things you managed to complete in blue with some brief commentary about your successes. Those that remain incomplete should be highlighted in red, with a brief explanation such as ‘not enough time’, ‘limited staff’ or ‘budgetary constraints’. These policy documents should be updated and signed off by the Principal every year.

Strategy 4 – learn to delegate and collaborate

Work smarter, not harder. Delegate tasks and empower your staff members. Hold regular meetings where they provide written reports and updates on their areas of responsibility. Include them in the operational planning process and have clear processes and procedures in place. Begin by writing down everything you do and then determine those things that can be delegated. Remember that no one is, or should be, indispensable.

Review good management practice theory by:

  • listening to your staff and creating a team environment
  • giving public praise and recognition
  • delegating tasks and managing/monitoring operations, resisting the urge to check up by re-doing the task
  • clearly indicating your role and sticking to it when collaborating with teachers; don’t offer to do everything just to get access to the students.
Strategy 5 – don’t make assumptions

Don’t make assumptions about your collaborative partner; they may have hidden talents. Always begin your collaborative negotiations from a position of strength. Have a draft program already written that includes a rationale, student learning outcomes from the library perspective, possible activities and resource support (including information literacy documents to scaffold student learning), assessment rubrics and a clear outline of responsibility. When conducting your collaborative interview with teaching staff, always have a sweetener such as tea/coffee and chocolate biscuits on hand. Collaboration with you should always be seen as a positive experience.

Wherever possible, turn student interactions into a tangible teaching–learning opportunity. For example, if the assessment calls for students to produce a PowerPoint presentation, create a series of reusable tutorials where students must gain an introductory, intermediate or advanced certificate/licence in PowerPoint. Tutorials might cover using the software, design principles and how to make an oral presentation. Link the integration of this learning technology to student outcomes and the assessment rubric to be included in the program. Include a pre-test to review prior learning and revise old skills. Use checklists, observation charts, portfolios and rubrics to make assessment less onerous, but consistent and rigorous. Assist in the development and execution of assessment rubrics, and teach with your collaborator wherever possible. Active participation in curriculum design and execution will raise your credibility with staff.

Strategy 6 – staff professional development

Management of professional development for your staff should always include a formal performance management process. Staff become responsible for their own professional development and the process allows for an open exchange of ideas and information. This will ultimately save you time and decrease your workload. You are the ‘ideas person’, the catalyst and specialist support teacher to help teachers design, teach and assess innovative, resource-based curriculum. Good management is the process where others do the work for you. Take the time to help teachers increase their skill levels rather than doing it for them.

Strategy 7 – promotion and advertising

When deciding on your priorities and strategic or operational goals, remember to take little steps. Inform your community about your successes through the school newsletter. Set up displays outside the library, especially during parent–teacher nights. Share your achievements with others at school professional development days, local conferences and in your professional association’s journal or in the local newspaper. Always credit collaborative partners and recognise the support of your Principal and other key players in your school community. Promote yourself, your library, your staff and your expertise.

Barbara Combes
Edith Cowan University

See the next issue of Connections for Challenges for teacher librarianship in the 21st century: Part 3 – Status and role.

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



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Combes, B. (2005). The culture of information usage, plagiarism and the emerging Net Generation. ACCESS, 19(1) 21-24.

Eisenberg, M. (2005). Our time is now. Keynote address presented at the 4th Triennial ECIS Librarians' Conference, Czech it out! International School of Prague, Czech Republic, 10-13 March 2005. Retrieved August 1, 2006 from

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