The Nonnegotiable Role of School Librarians

What principals know and think about school libraries we have learned largely from our own past experiences and school librarians. I have had the distinct honor and privilege to work with and learn from some amazing librarians over the course of my career. These innovative educators have shaped my belief in the indispensable value of robust school libraries. They also have transformed how I think about learning and how I make decisions as an instructional leader.

Connecting School to the World Outside the Classroom

The new National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries were released by the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) in 2018 and provide a fantastic resource for principals. I would challenge any school leader to review the standards and not see the very real connections and links to the instructional work that our schools aspire toward. The standards can be found at https://standards.aasl.org/.

In their 2016 book Most Likely to Succeed, Ted Dintersmith and Tony Wagner outline the skills that students—and educators—will continue to need as they progress forward in their personal, civic, and professional lives. Many have deemed these “21st-century skills.” Dintersmith and Wagner’s proposed skills include:

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving
  • Collaboration across networks
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurship
  • Effective oral, written, and multimedia communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination

When comparing the new AASL standards with these skills, the role of excellent libraries and school librarians in every school becomes compelling—even essential. School librarians are the resident experts in the development of these skills. Accessing and analyzing information, collaborating across networks, cultivating curiosity and imagination—this is the life blood of an outstanding school library. More importantly, these are the skills that will allow our students to become thoughtful and engaged citizens equipped to navigate a world full of increasingly complex information.

The Hub of the School

Establishing the library as the hub of the school can have a dramatic effect on what learning looks like for students and teachers. Department silos begin to break down as collaboration increases among teachers and across content areas. When schools are at their best, teacher and librarian co-teaching and collaboration are ubiquitous, and this practice can be a game-changer. Imagine the veteran social studies teacher who is the master of their content teaming up with a school librarian who is a master of accessing information, research, and sharing new knowledge on a broader, or even global, scale. The possibilities are endless. For example, librarians might assist students in taking their knowledge and demonstrating understanding through diverse, varied, and deep project-based learning products that are then shared with a wider audience. In short, libraries take learning to a place that is more authentically connected to the world outside of school.

More Reasons to Love Teacher Librarians

Librarians are experts in inquiry, inclusivity, collaboration, curating resources, exploration, innovation, and engagement. They help students to think, create, share, and grow.

Libraries specialize in student choice and student voice.

Libraries specialize in establishing cultures of literacy and inclusiveness by exposing students to invaluable new perspectives.

Questions for Reflection

Are you including your librarian(s) on your school leadership team?

What is your vision for your library?

What pre- and misconceptions might you hold regarding your library and/or your librarians? How are these pre/misconceptions limiting the effectiveness of your library?

How are you advocating for increased library staffing and funding?

How are you supporting your librarian to do transformative, not merely clerical, work?

Is your library a place that students want to be? How can you help make it so?

As leaders of learning in schools, principals set the tone for the culture, and we must begin with a powerful “why.” If our why includes empowering students to be engaged citizens and creators of new knowledge who value inclusiveness, collaboration, accessing information, and thinking deeply, we must ponder carefully the support and vision that we offer to our libraries.

Take some time to familiarize yourself with the new AASL standards and to consider the culture of deep learning that you wish to provide to students. You have a strong asset right in your own backyard. Take a moment to sit down with your teacher-librarian to dream together and to chart a course. Unlock the power of your library to drive a culture of deep learning in your school and always remember, school is not preparation for real life, school is real life. At least, it should be—and your school librarians can help with that.

Scott Beck, PhD, is the director of Student Services for Secondary Schools for Norman Public Schools in Norman, OK. From 2011–19 he served as head principal at Norman High School, a large, comprehensive high school of approximately 2,000 students. Scott became a National Board-Certified social studies teacher in 2008 and was named the 2019 Oklahoma Principal of the Year by the Oklahoma Association of Secondary School Principals. Follow Scott on Twitter (@scottabeck).

9 Comments

  • Bel Camerom says:

    Thank you for sharing, this is incredibly well written and captures the work of a profession that is incredibly burnt out with the level of advocacy required to do our best work. Libraries are places of miracles and madness, student driven spaces that support the development of life long learners.

  • GariAnn Jacobs says:

    This is a helpful article in connecting the classroom teacher to the librarian and stressing the importance of the role the librarian plays in the role of learning in the school.

  • Joseph Boffa says:

    Great article. I have been connected with school libraries since 1958; am currently secretary of the Malta School Library Association; helping schools with their library management systems.

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  • Barbara McLeod says:

    Your wise insight should be a window into understanding all that a librarian can do to enhance the student’s learning experience when collaborating with classroom teachers. Together, teachers and librarians can design and implement student centered INQUIRY experiences and promote information literacy skills. WANTING to find the answer to their questions and knowing how to determine the best resources are key to student success. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. We need more principals to understand the value of encouraging and supporting this important collaborative teamwork!!

  • Paul "Pat" Eck says:

    The Oregon Retired Ed. Association will be having a school librarian speak at our annual convention in May. Supporting certified school librarians in each school library makes good sense and cents. School libraries do make a difference as shown by numerous studies.

  • Elizabeth says:

    Thanks, Scott for writing such an insightful piece about the impact a school librarian can have on a school and student learning. It is a real breath of fresh air to hear a non-librarian talk this way and school librarians across the world thank you for speaking out. We need more people like you with this level of understanding!

  • Hi Scott, an excellent article based around the importance of libraries….I must declare that Libraries are our business at Raeco in Australia/SE Asia/India…..we create spaces the engage the student and the teacher/librarians and spaces that encourage the wider school community to participate, learn and collaborate. Your article will hopefully create a greater synergy between School Leadership Teams and their librarians and libraries. A space that enhances the social, cultural, and academic “Capital” in Schools and wider communities. A great read….thank you

  • Jane Prestebak says:

    Great article about the new standards and the role of the professional teacher-librarian.

    Why did you use a photo of a library paraprofessional or volunteer in the article? Shelving books is not what this article is about.

    I would be happy to provide you with a number of photos that more accurately reflect the role.

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