Why We Need Teacher Librarians

So it is global: A brand-new state-of-the-art high school library will open without its teacher-librarian. The West Australian states, “…the number of teacher librarians employed by the Education Department has dropped from 174 in 2007 to 140 this year”.

I love my job. I love being in the library where I get to know kids from preschool to Grade 12 and sometimes throughout that entire span of their lives and beyond. I love to dig deep to try to provide services for students and teachers that will help them teach and learn, make then want to read and of course make them love and value libraries. I want to help them all in any way I can and be available and effective to help them succeed.

But I’m not a teacher. I don’t have the training, time or expertise to help them in the way that a teacher-librarian with full-time technical or even clerical help could. I’ve always felt this way. I would be thrilled to either earn the qualification or work under a teacher-librarian because I truly feel our students need the guidance that curriculum teachers do not have the time or necessarily the skills to provide.

In a recent article at Wired, Clive Thompson writes of a research project led by College of Charleston business professor Bing Pan to discover just how tech-savvy students really are.

Specifically, Pan wanted to know how skillful young folks are at online search. His team gathered a group of college students and asked them to look up the answers to a handful of questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the students generally relied on the web pages at the top of Google’s results list.

But Pan pulled a trick: He changed the order of the results for some students. More often than not, those kids went for the bait and also used the (falsely) top-ranked pages. Pan grimly concluded that students aren’t assessing information sources on their own merit—they’re putting too much trust in the machine.

I have seen the same thing time after time in my school. Walking through the computer lab on my way to deliver some books to a classroom, I asked a student what he was looking up. He was writing something down from the results page of a Google search; had not even clicked on a link.  He told me was working on a Grade 11 Biology assignment and needed the birth date of a prominent scientist.  In the second line of one of the search results he could see “Born:” and a date so considered his search finished. I asked him how he knew it was the correct date and with a puzzled expression, he pointed at the screen and said, “It’s right here.”

“Just out of curiosity,” I said, while his teacher was busy helping another student, “Let’s click on a few of these links and see how they compare.” Luckily, despite not really caring when this scientist was born, the student indulged me and we looked at three of the result links. Sure enough, one out of the three sites disagreed with the other two. Since I had to get the books to the classroom before the end of the period, I was not able to stay and discuss website evaluation or primary resources with this student. I could only hope that my little demonstration turned a little light-bulb on in his head that in the future would lead him to be somewhat skeptical about what he saw on the Internet.

More from Clive Thomas on Why Kids Can’t Search

Consider the efforts of Frances Harris, librarian at the magnet University Laboratory High School in Urbana, Illinois. (Librarians are our national leaders in this fight; they’re the main ones trying to teach search skills to kids today.) Harris educates eighth and ninth graders in how to format nuanced queries using Boolean logic and advanced settings. She steers them away from raw Google searches and has them use academic and news databases, too.

But, crucially, she also trains students to assess the credibility of what they find online. For example, she teaches them to analyze the tone of a web page to judge whether it was created by an academic, an advocacy group, or a hobbyist. Students quickly gain the ability to detect if a top-ranked page about Martin Luther King Jr. was actually posted by white supremacists.

I can chance by a student for a ‘teaching moment’ as above and I can pass on helpful resources like the Computer Literacy page on Frances Harris’ website, but I don’t Teach. I am not a teacher. To be exact, I am classed in my district as administrative staff along with the school receptionist and business manager.

In the U.S. especially, a lot of research has been done to show the crucial role that teacher-librarians play in academic success. I don’t understand why priority has not been placed on ensuring that students are given this important resource. Does no one but me care that we’re bringing up the next generation to be less than adequately armed to make their way intelligently in the world?

Would we want our doctors to learn everything except how to make a diagnosis?


Filed under Library Management

9 responses to “Why We Need Teacher Librarians

  1. Critically examining the findings of research is a really important skill to have. Students would benefit from learning to do this at a young age!

    When I taught computer classes at a K-6 school, I used lessons about the Tree Octopus and the Mountain Walrus to show students that not everything on the Internet is real. If ICT instructors, librarian teachers, and day class teachers all support this type of learning, students will learn to seek out better information on the web.

    Good post!

    • Well, now I know everything about the Tree Octopus and Mountain Walrus as well! These are great sites to use as examples with classes and I’ll be passing them on to my teachers. Thank you! And thank you for taking the time to comment. Maybe it’s my age showing, but I’m getting quite worried about our kids becoming info-sponges. With the over-abundance of information they are exposed to combined with their short attention spans (my humble opinion), I don’t think there is enough time and effort being placed on critical thinking skills.

      • You’re not alone with those thoughts, Cindy. I’ve heard it called “drinking from the firehose,” which isn’t a huge exaggeration. While I doubt that there’s anything physically different about kids these days, they do seem harder and harder to impress, let alone keep focused.

        I just hope that school administrators pay attention to not only the needs of students but also the needs of educators as technology progresses. Misleading internet advertisements and media aren’t making things easier as kids begin to surf the web. Librarians, teachers, and tech support staff for schools all need to work together towards a common goal with this kind of thing.

        How is technology managed at the school and/or district level where you teach?

  2. “Drinking from the fire hose” is a perfect expression, isn’t it?

    You’ve asked a big question and I’ll try my best to answer it. Teaching about and with technology is a big priority in my district, however I believe that the ad-hoc distribution and training are not significantly changing the quality of technology literacy in our students. We have a district Learning Technologies Coordinator, a teacher, who distributes information on resources and provides training to mostly overwhelmed teachers in all 13 schools. There is also a district teacher (I’m not sure of her title) who teaches the use of equipment like smart boards and classroom response clickers. A district team of IT technicians does remote support and school visits for infrastructure installation, maintenance and troubleshooting.

    As library manager with an interest in digital resources and technology, I provide in-school tech support as far as I am able, a task that has evolved from replacing bulbs in overhead projectors to troubleshooting computers. As an important part of curriculum support I recommend digital tools and resources, responding to expressed needs of the staff as well as distributing information on resources that I find recommended elsewhere. However, I almost never do this research at work where I am kept busy all day. It is on my own time that I surf the net to provide this service because it interests me. As an hourly employee lacking professional training, I am aware that this is a service that cannot be expected of me or my counterparts who are almost all working only part-time in their libraries.

    I’m sure that schools and the district are unaware of the particular expertise of Teacher-Librarians. I’m not naive enough to expect that our government will ever provide funding to achieve the ideal, which in my mind is full time TL time along with at least part-time clerical staff in each school. There are other staffing requirements that take priority. I do hold out hope that the district will discover that an itinerant TL (or small team) could greatly augment the service currently being provided by the Learning Technologies Coordinator, disseminating essential skills in a more effective and systematic way to teachers and to students throughout the grades.

    I would like to ask unemployed Teacher-Librarians in my province if they have visited my district’s Instructional Services Director and explored with him the ways that TL skills could support his challenges with technology instruction.

    I hope I answered your question…I’m not at work today, have a little time, and you got me going!…..

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