K-12 Librarians' Roles Shift to Meet Digital Demands
A Washington state district treats librarians as digital mentors
School libraries across the country are trying to forge a new identity, prompted largely by the need to re-establish their relevance in the age of blended learning.
In the Vancouver, Wash., school district, those efforts are being guided by Mark Ray, a librarian who has worked to transform the school library program in his 23,000-student system from feeling outdated and irrelevant into one of the most exemplary programs in the United States, served by 35 “teacher-librarians.”
Librarians have traditionally served an important role in school systems as teachers, particularly in teaching students how to access information. Now, in Vancouver and elsewhere, librarians’ roles are evolving, as districts count on them to help teachers use technology to improve instruction, and to troubleshoot problems with digital systems as they emerge.
In Vancouver, the first challenge was getting the message about libraries’ relevance understood by teachers and librarians themselves, as well as by district decisionmakers, said Mr. Ray, now the director of instructional technology and library services for the Vancouver district.
The school system began its library-relevance initiative with rebranding, adopting the name teacher-librarians, who Mr. Ray said, “teach more and librarian less.” Existing library programs were updated as part of a $24 million technology levy approved in 2013 to pay for new mobile devices, learning management systems, professional development, technology staffing, and digital content.
Teacher-librarians are hired and evaluated by Vancouver’s school principals. To emphasize their increasing role in teaching and learning, teacher-librarians’ work is closely connected to that of the district’s curriculum department, led by Layne Stampfli, and the instructional technology and library services department, led by Mr. Ray.
The district’s instructional technology services department provided multiyear training of teacher-librarians to help launch a new video on-demand service, and then an extensive training program to show teacher-librarians how to use productivity software, video-production technologies, and podcasting tools.
Investing in PD
When an estimated $20,000 in federal Enhancing Education Through Technology funds for the teacher-librarian training ran out, the district picked up the costs to keep the program going despite facing a tight budget.
The district’s investments in some areas, such as professional development focused on technology, has saved the school system money. A major project focused on automating the process for keeping track of library textbooks led by a teacher-librarian, for instance, dramatically improved districtwide systems, reducing costs by thousands of dollars.
A survey of school librarians published in 2011 offered insights on how they provide support for teachers’ technology use. Those National Board-certified librarians worked in well-resourced libraries. Of nearly 300 librarians who responded:
A strong majority, 74%, said they were heavily involved in “collaborating with teachers to use technology in their instruction.”
And 80% said they were heavily involved with “providing teachers with access to technology that enhances their instruction.”
But just 41% said they were heavily involved in the initial process of “setting learning objectives and promoting the integration of technology in classroom instruction.”
Only 38% said they fully or substantially provide teachers with “technological alternatives for assessing student learning.”
Nearly all, 94%, said they were very aware of priorities for “technology and digital-resource use.”
But just 57% said they gave considerable input into those policies.
Some Vancouver school librarians have fully embraced the change brought about by the district’s emphasis on blended learning. But others have struggled to adapt to new approaches to teaching through technology that did not exist when they entered the field, noted Mr. Ray.
“We thought we prepared our teacher-librarians well enough, then we put devices in their hands, and there are things we can’t anticipate,” he said. But since then, many of those staff have “risen to the occasion,” he said, and are providing strong support in areas that include helping teachers use whiteboards, laptops, and touch screens in the classrooms, and helping shape the districts’ broader priorities enhancing instruction through technology.
Traci Chun, a teacher-librarian at Skyview High School in the Vancouver district, was an elementary teacher-librarian when the district began to transform the role of library staff.
“It required the teacher-librarians to be open-minded and willing to not only shift their own thinking, but also be prepared to lead others to start thinking in new and different ways,” Ms. Chun said.
Ms. Chun viewed it as an opportunity to show teachers that “technology isn’t intimidating and can enhance their teaching,” she added. “Most of it was a natural transition—libraries are about learning, and the technology piece was just a new way of learning.”
To help support educators like Ms. Chun, Mr. Ray’s team includes nine instructional-technology facilitators who are teachers on special assignment, teacher-librarians, and teacher technology leads—teachers who have a one-period per day release to provide support for their colleagues—as well as a dedicated paraprofessional/technical-support person to troubleshoot problems.
Teacher-librarians in Vancouver fulfill a critical role in educating students and educators about information literacy, whether that information comes from text on paper or a computer screen. “It’s still about providing expert understanding of information resources, how to cite the source, academic honesty, digital citizenship,” he said.
But today, the teacher-librarians are also expected to help “curate and guide learners and teachers to find good content and use it effectively”—a challenge at a time when the massive amount of digital content available to schools resembles the “Wild West,” Mr. Ray said.
The struggle to find qualified people to meet the higher level of expertise, skill, and leadership expected of teacher-librarians has led the district to study the possibility of using microcredentialing programs and partnerships with higher education organizations to help get teacher-librarians up to speed.
Revised Performance Evaluations
In addition, revamped job descriptions for teacher-librarians have required the development of new performance-measurement standards. The new standards will be based on district standards for teachers, which are modeled on the University of Washington’s Five Dimensions of Teaching and Learning framework.
Changes in libraries’ designs are also facilitating districts’ use of technology.
Terri Grief, the president of the American Association of School Librarians, or AASL, said an increasing number of libraries can accommodate not only catalogs of printed materials and other resources, but also easy movable furniture for group projects and individual study, and spaces for multimedia and the use of desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices.
Even so, Mr. Ray said to date, the insufficient power to use the new digital tools in school libraries and classrooms is a prime concern.
“This is one of the least sexy but most important challenges as schools seek to become technology-rich environments,” Mr. Ray pointed out.
Scaling up the changes made in Vancouver to other districts around the country may be difficult, in part, because of a lack of resources, said Ms. Grief, who cited a nationwide decline in school librarian numbers.
Yet the tide is turning in some states.
“Vermont and Michigan restored jobs as legislation was passed acknowledging the impact school librarians have on student achievement,” said Ms. Grief, while schools in the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia are looking to hire school librarians.
Plus, national initiatives and organizations such as Future Ready Schools, Digital Promise, and Follett’s Project Connect are helping to bolster the cause for teacher-librarians to take a central role in the evolution of blended learning, which combines face-to-face and online-learning activities.
School librarians also need to increase their visibility on school leadership teams and invite principals, superintendents, and board members into their worlds to show them how students are learning in modern school libraries, said Ms. Grief, adding that school librarians are invited to bring an administrator for free to the AASL’s national conference Nov. 5-8 in Columbus, Ohio.
Creating Content Experts
“What Vancouver recognized that few others have is that teacher-librarians are content experts and research gurus,” said Jason Tomassini, the communications director for Digital Promise, a nonprofit based in Washington and California that seeks to improve education through technology and research.
He agrees with Ms. Grief that the Vancouver model can be replicated. In fact, the 39,000-student Lincoln district in Nebraska and the 6,000-student Mooresville Graded district in North Carolina are engaging in similar efforts.
Mr. Ray recently was recognized by the National School Boards Association as one of its ed-tech leaders to watch. The list also includes media specialist Andy Plemmons of Georgia’s Clarke County district, which serves about 13,000 students and features a media center offering walking field trips with Google Earth, Skype collaborations with writers and artists, and beta-testing of ed-tech products.
While digital learning has its challenges, Mr. Tomassini sees no downside to giving school librarians an expanded role in blended-learning initiatives.
“It may require districts to shift resources typically used for something else toward library programs,” he said. “But any successful district in the 21st century needs to reassess how it spends its dollars.”
Vol. 34, Issue 27, Pages s24, s26Published in Print: April 15, 2015, as Librarians Adopt New Role: Guiding Blended Learning, District Tech Efforts