In all the discussion about reviewing and changing our education system, one aspect of the school seems surprisingly absent: there is little, if any, considered discussion about the role of the school library in secondary schools.
This should trouble us, given the clear research evidence from a range of international studies that school library services in secondary schools impact positively on student learning. Lance (2002) observes “the school library is one of the few factors whose contribution to academic achievement has been documented empirically, and it is a contribution that cannot be explained away by other powerful influences on student performance”. More recent studies (see, for example, Moreillon, 2013 and Loertscher, 2017) show that this impact remains consistent at a time when technology is fundamentally changing the way we access and engage with information. The research is also unequivocal that these positive outcomes are enhanced when teachers and librarians work together to deliver the curriculum.
But in some ways, this lacuna is not so surprising: discussions about the role of the secondary school library have been missing in New Zealand for a long time. The last review of secondary school libraries took place in 2005, in an ERO report on information literacy in schools, whose findings and recommendations appear to have sunk without trace. New Zealand’s policy documents on libraries in schools are woefully outdated, and successive governments have systematically reduced essential services such as the National Library School Services. Professional groups such as SLANZA, and the National Library, have failed, despite their best efforts, to generate a broader discussion. One could conclude that at the highest levels of educational policy making and resource allocation, the school library has all but ceased to feature as an integral part of our national education provision.
Yet it has never been more important for schools to develop their students’ information literacy and higher order thinking skills. In an era of “alternative facts” and “fake news”, when the rate of information available is growing exponentially, and search engine algorithms are creating (without our knowledge or permission ) silos of information, our students need to know how to find, critique and use information effectively. This is reflected in the New Zealand Curriculum, with its emphasis on developing the research skills of our students, and its promotion of literate, informed and connected citizens, especially in the senior secondary school. Why, then, are we not nurturing and developing this school resource that is both available and most qualified to help develop those skills?
I’ve been part of a team researching libraries in the senior secondary school for two years now. And what we’ve found is deeply worrying. In a national survey we found that librarians are undervalued and under-utilised; many (if not most) are excluded from decision-making and curriculum development, unless they have strategically cultivated a relationship with specific teachers or departments. Librarians who had retrained after a teaching career told us about the shock of being treated as second class citizens, with little to contribute except by being “helpful”. Further, it seems that few schools have whole-of-school information literacy policies and practices which are fully implemented within the school curriculum. Many teachers have an outdated understanding of the technological advances in information searching, which means that they are ill-equipped to assist their students develop the research skills outlined in the curriculum. But teachers may be unaware of this lack of contemporary understanding about libraries, and their own information skills gap – after all you don’t know what you don’t know – and therefore are unlikely to ask for help from the one staff member, the librarian, who might have the expertise to assist.
There’s also a danger of assuming that our students are “digital natives” and therefore highly capable of information searching and usage – meaning that resourcing the library is less important. The reality is that digital natives may have grown up with social media and Google but they’re highly unlikely to develop sophisticated research skills without explicit and focused instruction.
So what needs to happen?
First, we need to review the role of the school library services as central to the curriculum. We need to ask hard critical questions: what should library services look like in the technological age? How might the librarian be brought into the delivery of the curriculum? The current review of schools offers us this opportunity, and organisations such as SLANZA are well placed to feed into this discussion.
Second, we need to make the provision of a library a statutory requirement in secondary schools, with clearly established standards to ensure they are digitally equipped and professionally staffed to meet the aims of the curriculum. Librarians need to be funded for professional development and qualification (there are currently no specific school library qualifications in New Zealand) and their positions stabilised by being funded out of the staffing rather than the operations grant (as one librarian told us “my salary is competing with the price of toilet paper”). Yes, we are suggesting that librarians should have the same status as teachers in their schools.
Third, we need to reposition library services in schools. Our research has shown that teachers are most likely to see the library in terms of a physical and digital space, and less likely to see it as embodying curricula expertise in the form of a librarian. We need to conduct PLD in schools that will demonstrate how teachers can work in partnership with librarians, to facilitate our students’ learning and critical thinking skills. And we need to encourage opportunities for librarians to offer PLD to teachers around database availability and usage for both their students’ assignments as well as their own continuing professional learning.
There is a lot of rhetoric around libraries being “the heart of the school”. At the moment this idea is not fully realised in most New Zealand secondary schools – indeed, our research suggests that the library exists at the periphery of school life. As we move into a space of reviewing everything about our education system, we need to include a fundamental reconsideration of the shape and resourcing of secondary school library services – and to bring the under-estimated school librarian from the edge into the centre to confirm how valuable a resource they are now, and will be into the mid-21st Century.
Lisa Emerson is Director of Teaching and Learning in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University. She is also the co-leader of a TLRI funded research project on information literacy in the secondary and tertiary sectors. The research team comprises both secondary and tertiary librarians, as well as teachers and researchers: Senga White (Southland Boys’ School), Catherine Doughty (Whitireia Polytechnic), Heather Lamond, Ken Kilpin, Angela Feekery, and Rose O’Connor (Massey University) and Anne Macaskill and Anna Greenhow (Victoria University of Wellington).
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