Teacher librarians as cultural change agents

"Teacher librarians are involved in the process of change whether they are implementing a program for the first time, making changes to an established program, or participating in some aspect of ongoing school improvement" (Oberg, 1990). The very essence of the work of teacher librarians – improving teaching and learning – requires that they work within the culture of the school and that they also work to change the culture of the school.

The concept of school culture

The concept of school culture has many roots, but the work of the American sociologist Dan Lortie has been a powerful source of inspiration for me. I have been thinking and writing about the concept of school culture in relation to change in schools and school libraries for over 20 years (Oberg, 2009). Lortie (1975) noted that ‘culture includes the way members of a group think about social action; culture encompasses alternatives for resolving problems in collective life’. Lortie identified three aspects of the culture of the teaching profession that make substantive changes in schools very difficult: (1) presentism; (2) conservatism; and (3) individualism: that is, ‘focusing on the short term’; ‘concentrating on small-scale rather than whole-school changes’; and ‘performing teaching in isolation from other teachers’ (Hargreaves, 2009).

In the preface to the second edition of his book, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, Lortie (2002) sees promise for more success in educational reform in trends such as professional development and reflective practice which encourage teachers to work on improving their teaching practice and addressing issues of practice by working together. Professional development and reflective practice involve investments of time and effort to achieve the long-term gain of improved practice, which challenges the orientation of presentism, as does working with others or collaboration, which challenges the orientation of individualism.

Lortie also points out the importance of school and district administrators working to maximise time available for teaching and to think about bringing about pedagogical change in non-hierarchical terms (that is, less in terms of vertical control and hierarchical authority and more in terms of collaborative teaching and innovative governance/administration). Interestingly, one of the promising projects he cites in his book is one in which funds were made available to locate research findings and other professional sources teachers needed in order to work on pressing instructional issues. This sounds to me very much like one aspect of the work of teacher librarians in schools.

Conservatism or moral purpose

Hargreaves critiques educational reform movements in the Anglo–American context (including Canada and Australia), which he says have addressed presentism and individualism in teaching through professional development, reflective practice and collaborative work, but which have avoided taking a hard critical look at conservatism (Hargreaves, 2009). Conservatism runs deeper than focusing on small-scale changes but rather looks at whole-school changes: conservatism insists upon top-down accountability, high stakes testing and standardised curricula for the entire educational system. Conservatism avoids the social and political issues of social equity and social cohesion, and makes us blind to the structures and practices that reinforce inequities and divisiveness in schools, and that make learning difficult for many students, especially those who are already disadvantaged. Hargreaves calls on us to consider the moral purpose of the educational enterprise – to help make a better world for all students; to make a difference in the lives of all our students. However, moral purpose is not so easy to maintain in complex times. Fullan (1999) reminds us that change usually benefits some more than others and that the change literature only rarely has addressed questions of power and equity. The question for all educators dealing with educational reform or innovation needs to be: ‘How can this innovation (such as the collaborative school library program), which is intended to improve teaching and learning, contribute to making a difference for all of the young people in the school, or will it make a difference only for those already advantaged – such as the college-bound, the native speakers of English, or those students whose families can afford 24/7/365 access to new and emerging technologies?’

Working within the culture of the school

Principals value the professional development contributions of teacher librarians in introducing new materials, new technologies and new teaching strategies. In order to provide professional development for teachers successfully, teacher librarians need to be cognisant of the culture of the school. For example, What are the dominant teaching practices? What is the school’s experience with and capacity for change? How are teachers expected to work (in isolation or collaboratively)? What is the role of the principal? How is student success defined and measured? Without this knowledge, even well-defined innovations begun with energy and enthusiasm are likely to flounder.

For the teacher librarian, a good way to start building this knowledge is through discussions with the principal and other opinion leaders in the school. Another is through careful analysis of planning documents such as the teacher librarian’s plan book and the year plans of the school and of individual teachers. Analysis of the data collected might be structured around some or all of the factors found in a recent Canadian study of exemplary school libraries: school board-level policies; school board-level supports; funding models; staffing models; administrative support; demographics; principal knowledge; teacher knowledge; teacher librarian experience; teacher librarian skills; physical features of the library; history of the library; and community and parent involvement (Klinger, Lee, Stephenson, & Luu, 2009). Through this data gathering and data analysis work, teacher librarians should look for evidence of the aspects of school culture that research suggests support change: collaboration, distributed leadership, and ‘intellectual quality’ (high expectations for students and staff). The teacher librarian’s work with teachers and their students also needs to be subjected to the same close scrutiny, keeping in mind that there are non-monetary costs to teachers (time, effort and psychic) in implementing the changes required in using the school library, such as designing instruction using an inquiry model or integrating new and emerging technologies into instruction.

Working to change the culture of your school

Changing school culture requires leadership and risk-taking from the teacher librarian. In many schools, implementing a collaborative school library program still constitutes a change in the culture of the school. Often, however, initiating conversations with the principal about changes in teaching and learning in itself may constitute the beginning of a change in school culture. Working with the principal to improve teaching and learning in the school, through the school library or through other school initiatives or reforms, involves the teacher librarian in both giving support to the principal and getting support from the principal. Teacher librarians need to know, and to promote with others, the principal’s view of school goals if they expect the principal’s support for school library program goals.


Initiating conversations with the principal
Mona & co by matsber, Creative Commons Attribution, non-commercial, share-alike

Implications of the concepts of school culture and change

The role of the teacher librarian involves understanding the nature of school culture and the process of change. As I have argued elsewhere (Oberg, 2009), if teacher librarians are knowledgeable about school culture and the change process, they will be more able to set reasonable and attainable goals for themselves and for the school library program, and they will be patient and understanding of the evolution of the school library program.

This knowledge will also enable them to critique proposed innovations or reforms, for the school library or for other aspects of the school’s program of learning, in terms of the mission of the school: that is, the goal of making a difference in the lives of all students. If teacher librarians are knowledgeable about the roles and perceptions of principals and teachers, they will be more able to take responsibility for initiating collaboration with teachers and seeking principal support for such initiatives. Through reflection, observation and conversation, teacher librarians need to gain an understanding of the costs, real and perceived, involved in collaboration.

This will help the teacher librarian to address those costs and to set realistic goals for the implementation of innovations within the school library or across the school with teachers and principals.

We have long understood that implementing the school library program is about improving teaching and learning for all members of the school’s community – the facility, the collection, the technology, and the staff are means to that end. The challenge for the teacher librarian is to be an agent and catalyst for change within the whole school as well as within the school library.

Questions raised by the Finland success story

The success of Finland on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) has long been known and admired. Hargreaves (2009) reports, based on a study of the relationship between leadership and school improvement in Finland, that this success comes from ‘its inspiring mission of creativity and social inclusiveness’. School cultures in Finland reflect the values of trust, cooperation and responsibility. In each municipality, teachers work together to design curriculum within the broad national guidelines and to care for all children in their schools. The culture of Finland’s teaching system reduces individualism through substantive collaboration; it reduces presentism by avoiding external initiatives for accountability; and it shares society’s commitment to serve and protect all citizens from the youngest to the oldest. Surprisingly, although Finland’s polytechnic schools have a well-developed network of library services, there are very few school libraries in Finland despite successful school library projects in two urban municipalities, Oulu and Espoo (Kurttila-Matero, Huotari & Kortelainen, 2011; Niinikangas, 2011). This paradox raises some interesting questions about the reasons for the impact of school libraries on student learning found in the Anglo-American context. Is it related, in some way that we do not yet understand, to the nature of the school cultures in which school libraries flourish? Or is it related to changes in school cultures that are influenced by the collaborative initiatives of the school library program?

Dianne Oberg

Dianne Oberg

Dianne is a Professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.


Fullan, M 1999, Change Forces: The Sequel, The Falmer Press, London

Hargreaves, A 2009, ‘Presentism, individualism, and conservatism: the legacy of Dan Lortie’s, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study’. Curriculum Inquiry, 40(1), pp 143–154

Klinger, DA, Lee, EA, Stephenson, G & Luu, K 2009, Exemplary School Libraries in Ontario, Ontario Library Association, Toronto

Kurttila-Matero, E, Huotari, M-L, & Kortelainen, T 2011, ‘The school library in the information society project in Oulu, Finland’, in L Marquardt & D Oberg, Global Perspectives on School Libraries: Projects
and Practices
, pp 57–70, DeGruyter Saur, The Hague

Lortie, DC 1975, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Lortie, DC 2002, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, 2nd ed, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Niinikangas, L & Poikela, E 2011, ‘Seize the day! Developing school libraries in Finland’, in L Marquardt & D Oberg, Global Perspectives on School Libraries: Projects and Practices, pp 264–278, DeGruyter Saur, The Hague

Oberg, D 1990, ‘The school library program and the culture of the school’, Emergency Librarian, 18(1), pp 9–16, reprinted in K Haycock (ed), 1999, Foundations of Effective School Library Media Programs, pp 41–47, Libraries Unlimited, Englewood

Oberg, D 2009, ‘Libraries in schools: essential contexts for studying organizational change and culture’, Library Trends, 58(1), pp 9–25