Published Online: April 23, 1997

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Libraries Seeking Updated Role as Learning Center

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Portland, Ore.

Peter Chalmers remembers how library days used to be. His class would go to the library at Riverdale Grade School on the same day and at the same time each week to learn how to use its resources, to finish an assignment, or to find a book to read throughout the week.

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"We would come into the library, and it would be completely unrelated to what we were doing in class. We'd check out books and do book reports, but our time wasn't spent very well," said Peter, an 8th grader who has attended the school in the Riverdale district here since kindergarten.

Librarian Marian L. Creamer would teach students how the archives were organized, help them choose appropriate books, and make sure they sat quietly reading or working. Teachers rarely entered the librarian's domain or had a say in what the students did there, choosing instead to spend the time planning the next week's lessons.

But a few years ago, Ms. Creamer took a bold step and, after some initial resistance on the part of teachers, began building the library's resources and services and weaving them into the curriculum. Soon the library started to play a much greater role in student learning.

"I wanted the library to be something more than what it was," Ms. Creamer said recently. "I was convinced that if teachers would work with me, the library could become a critical tool for them and their students."

First she abandoned her library schedule and asked teachers to sign up for time at critical points in the curriculum when hands-on research activities and the students' own exploration of a topic could enhance their lessons. She started helping teachers find resources and projects that allowed students to apply their library and information skills to what they were studying in class. She built an information-literacy program that helped students make sense of the growing mass of available data--in print and on the Internet. And she persuaded teachers that the library could be a center of learning rather than just a reading room.

Now, teachers take their library time more seriously, and they take more care in planning activities there that fit well with their classwork.

"There has been a tremendous change in the curriculum," said Carole E. Biskar, a 4th grade teacher at Riverdale. "My units are much richer with Marian helping to provide more resources. My use of library time is much more purposeful."

What happened at Riverdale Grade School is part of a slow-moving trend that experts hope will become the nationwide norm. As more and more parents and policymakers push for improvements in student achievement and demand that schools prepare children for life in the information age, school libraries are becoming centers for assisting in learning.

School library media centers, as many of them are now called, have long been an underused resource, experts say. Many school libraries have been viewed as supplemental and detached from the classroom. Traditionally, librarians have had little contact with teachers and their classroom objectives, except to locate reference materials or provide teacher planning time.

Good librarians these days strive to improve not only the quality of the time that students spend in the resource center, but also of the time spent in the classroom.

"Our focus has been to make libraries learning centers of the school--to change the way kids learn so that they learn actively, they are in charge of their learning, they are responsible for gathering information, making decisions, and demonstrating what they've learned," said Barbara K. Stripling, the president of the Chicago-based American Association of School Librarians.

Collaboration Key

Research shows that rich library collections and properly trained staffs can have a positive effect on student performance, according to Kenneth Haycock, the director of the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and the president-elect of the AASL.

Even with adequate resources and qualified staff members, however, a library media center that does not have the active participation of teachers is almost useless, Mr. Haycock said.

"We know from research over the last 30 years that one of the better predictors of student achievement is the size of the library media staff and the size of its resource collection, but only when there is collaboration and team teaching between the library media specialist and the classroom teacher," Mr. Haycock said.

The AASL advocated collaboration in its guidelines to members a decade ago. The guidelines defined the role of the librarian as not only an information specialist, but also a teacher and instructional consultant.

But in many places, these ideas have not adapted well. Across the country, approximately 93 percent of all schools have some kind of library. As a result of fiscal constraints, however, as many as two-thirds of them have outdated or inadequate collections or lack the guidance of qualified media specialists, according to a survey released by the National Center for Education Statistics in 1994. Though the survey was based on data from 1990-91, AASL officials expect the percentages may be even higher when new figures are released in the fall.

Librarians have typically been regarded as a secondary resource for teachers and students, and collaboration isn't easily cultivated with teachers who remain skeptical of the library's benefits.

Experts hope that is changing. As states and districts implement higher academic standards, and technology fuels the demand for more and better information, teachers are starting to turn to librarians for help, said Elizabeth Martinez, the executive director of the American Library Association.

"The spotlight in this country, in terms of technology and learning, is on school librarians," she said.

Despite the limitations of time, funding, and staff, librarians are trying to step in. "The pressure for teachers to change is higher expectations. They will have to form a partnership with their librarians to meet those demands," Ms. Stripling said. "We now have the vision of what the library media center should be. And I'm confident we will make it happen."

The AASL is updating guidelines for school libraries that include standards and competencies for information literacy for students. They are due out early next year.

Blame in California

For schools around the country, the change has been occurring--ever so slowly--during the past decade or so.

"We are faced with declining resources at the same time we are trying to build on library services," Ms. Stripling said.

Delaine Eastin, California's state schools superintendent, recently blamed dismal school libraries for some of the state's most acute education problems.

California had the nation's fewest school library media specialists per student in 1992--the latest year for which data are available--according to a survey in the School Library Journal. The national average was one specialist per 722 students. Wisconsin had the best ratio at 58-to-1; in California, there were 4,000 students for every certified librarian.

California's schools, Ms. Eastin said, mirror their libraries.

"States finishing at the bottom of the [National Assessment of Educational Progress], like mine, have the worst school libraries. They are the cornerstone of a solid education ... and they have a much bigger role now than they ever have," she told an audience at the AASL national conference here in Portland earlier this month.

One tool that has helped schools rebuild library facilities and services to improve student achievement is the $40 million Library Power program, now in 19 cities, underwritten by the New York City-based DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund.

Ms. Stripling oversees the Library Power program in Chattanooga, Tenn. "We are thrilled at the difference that it has made for teachers and librarians and students," she said. "Students are expected to do more thinking on their own, they are expected to pursue subjects in greater depth. We've moved from gathering a lot of facts and simply covering topics to helping students do in-depth work."

Information Rich

Riverdale Grade School has been lucky. It's located in a small, affluent neighborhood seven miles from downtown Portland, and parents have often provided extra time and money to help the school deal with any budgetary constraints.

Although the library has adequate resources, the transition still wasn't easy. But Ms. Creamer was pushy. She sent teachers copies of research on student-centered libraries and the benefits of collaboration, sat in their classrooms to find ways that the library's resources and services could help students with their classwork, and sat on curriculum committees to help teachers integrate the library and information-literacy skills into their lessons.

Eventually she won most of the teachers over. "We team-teach at this school, so I realized the benefits of collaboration," Ms. Biskar said. "But before, I didn't realize the power of collaboration with the librarian."

States and districts are starting to realize that effective library programs, such as Riverdale's, are not "supplemental," but integral to school success, a notion that Mr. Haycock of the University of British Columbia sees as a hopeful sign for their future.

"There are libraries that have been working in this way for decades," he said. "But now, best practice is becoming common practice. But if we don't start focusing more on school libraries," he warned, "we are really going to have a society that is information rich, but knowledge poor."

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