The Reference Section is Still in the Library

DSCF4574-1In the ‘good old days’ classes came to the library to use the encyclopedia, almanacs, atlas’ and other books from the Reference section.

Nowadays, to a large extent, they are ‘Googling’.

In the ‘good old days’, there were teacher librarians who taught the art of research: how to use the resources effectively.

In the not-so-distant past, it was our job, as non-professional library managers to at least make sure the reference materials were complete and up-to-date so that teachers doing a research project with their class could access reliable materials. It was our job to provide print resources to support the curriculum as theme materials housed temporarily in classrooms or as individual responses to student and teacher needs.

Nowadays teachers are often ‘Googling’ with their students, while the function of many school libraries has narrowed to the provision of free-reading and leveled reading materials along with providing a place to send students who need to be removed from their classes for a multitude of reasons.

Lewis Hine, Boy studying, ca. 1924 Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, we need to transition that time we used to spend on the print reference materials to curating the online versions

It has been difficult for administrators to see that we – their non-professional library ‘assistants’ – can and should still be providing curriculum support in the digital age. And with the continued consumption of time involved in print collection acquisitions, processing and maintenance, student supervision and plant management (none of that has decreased although usage may have evolved), it’s been difficult for library staff to make the transition, to find the time to master the online reference world.


We can still provide resources for teachers and students; to support the curriculum and enhance learning by maintaining an awareness of and assisting with access to the best resources available.

The truth is that as budgets dwindle and resources become more online-based, if we don’t keep pace it will be the students who suffer because although library staff are ideally placed to offer resource assistance across the curriculum, not all stake holders are aware of that. It’s up to us to show them.

UC Berkley School of Information

Ideally a teacher librarian would be in place to teach the skills necessary to navigate and evaluate the profusion of information available, but there are things we can do as resource providers to help teachers do that.


Teachers may not be aware that they can come to the library for help when they are struggling to find suitable resources for a topic. I was unaware that the Outdoor Education teacher was having a hard time finding hands-on activities for her class or that the same teacher needed help with finding good resources to teach Athenian democracy to her Grade 6 Social Studies class. I found out at a one-on-one meeting I had set up with her during one of her preps.

My goal is to meet with each teacher at least once during the year for one period. It’s true that some teachers are harder to pin down than others but I haven’t yet had a teacher that didn’t tell me that they found our meeting very helpful and productive. (It doesn’t hurt that I assemble a goody-bag to give them at the end with freebies, inexpensive school supplies and, of course, a candy or two.)

I prepare for these meetings with a checklist of the subjects they teach and a cart full of related teacher resources and students materials. I also talk to them about each of the subscription-accessed online resources and try my best to determine where I can help.


A formal meeting is extremely helpful but at the very least, try to chat with each teacher about what their resource challenges are.


The generosity of educators online is astounding. Find people you trust who seem to enjoy nothing better than to freely share their expertise in evaluating resources. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest are full of these knowledgeable people – many of whom are teacher librarians. Follow a few in the platform(s) you choose and start bookmarking sites you feel might be relevant. Make it a goal to check out one new resource each day.


Assemble a basic checklist of resources that you can check quickly when a teacher or student requests assistance. I am in the process of that right now and it’s public on my school library webpage for teachers to check themselves if they so desire. (Or for you to steal if it works for you.) You could also use an online bookmarking site. Keeping it online keeps it available from whichever computer you are nearest to, allowing for spontaneous assistance in an emergency.


Create Resource lists for teachers and students that they can access from the school website and show them where it is – often – at staff meetings or whenever you get a chance. Post links that you know are high quality through your own experience or those recommended by people you trust. Include links to sites that you know your teachers and students are using so that they have easy access in the classroom and at home. It’s important to keep the pages up to date, which means periodically checking the links and responding quickly when there’s an issue with a site. It’s also important to keep the list from becoming too bulky or long. Keep it relevant and general.


When you find a good new resource, email it with a short description to the teachers to whom it would pertain. Try not to bombard all staff with emails that aren’t related to their assignment.


Continue to offer print materials as curriculum support in the classroom. A box of books on Ancient Greece (AB Gr. 6) or Small Crawling and Flying Animals (AB Gr. 1) will still add value to the unit, whether or not the teacher specifically requires students to use them. Choosing to pick one up simply to enjoy it will enhance that student’s learning.


In the ‘good old days’ teachers knew that  their students could access reliable information from one of a few sets of encyclopedia, several atlas’, almanacs and other reference materials that were kept up to date in the school library, where there was also qualified staff to help ensure successful searches.

Nowadays there are a multitude of resources that might work, all of which have different interfaces and applications to familiarize themselves with. After a full day of teaching the ever-growing list of curriculum outcomes in the 5 or 8 subjects they are teaching, wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could fall back on a collection curated by the only member on staff whose responsibilities are all about curriculum support?


Recently it was suggested to me that teachers are perfectly capable of finding their own resources. Of course they are! And some teachers are truly self-sufficient, with enough interest in online resources to spend home-time learning for themselves. But in my school at least, and I suspect in most rural schools, teachers are frequently assigned to subjects they have not previously taught and sometimes have very little time to prepare for those changes.

And we all know that teachers are incredibly busy! It is some of the most efficient, effective and dedicated teachers who ask for my help and are exceedingly grateful when I am able to find something for them because they care about the quality of the education they are delivering.

Yes, the book repairs pile up; yes, the stacks are often disorderly; yes, autumn leaves are still on the window when they should be replaced with snowflakes…but that teacher’s ‘thank-you’ feels awesome.


Filed under Education, Library Programs, Online Resources

4 responses to “The Reference Section is Still in the Library

  1. nrkellner

    Your posts are so thoughtful, wise and helpful. I see you emphasize “non-professional library assistant” as your title. And yet, your self-training puts you in the category of professional in my book.
    Keep it up,

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