The Teacher-Librarian As Literacy Leader

By Braxton, Barbara

THERE WERE TWO PICTURES-ONE THAT WOULD MAKE A PRINCIPAL SHOUT WITH DELIGHT AND ONE THAT WOULD MAKE A TEACHER-LIBRARIAN WEEP WITH FRUSTRATION. The first was that of a large group of students, predominantly sixth-grade boys, waiting impatiently for the library to open at lunchtime to go in and continue reading the Deltora Quest series (a series of extremely popular books by Australian author Emily Rodda) so that they could earn the next gem for their belt in the challenge. The second was that of a group of sixth-grade students squirming and squiggling in their seats as they struggled to understand the nuances of To Kill a Mockingbird, being read aloud by their teacher, even though the teacher had already said, “Most kids would have missed the relevance of the trial, anyway.”

If we look behind the canvas to find out what was really the difference between the two pictures, it soon becomes clear-the first has the input of an experienced, qualified teacher-librarian; the other does not.


Once upon a time, the teacher-librarian was regarded as the literature expert in the school. Staff and students alike sought suggestions for books to read alone or aloud, and the teacher- librarian matched titles to interests, abilities, developmental levels, curriculum needs, and a host of other factors that put the right book into the right hands.

The literacy-through-literature role was the prime responsibility of the teacher-librarian.

But time and technology have marched on. Despite continued stereotyping of teacher-librarians as little old ladies in sensible shoes reading stories to children in the autumn of their careers, the role is now much more diversified. For instance, Information Power: Building Partnerships for Learning (American Library Association & Association for Educational Communications and Technology, 1998) identifies four major roles of the teacher- librarian:

Teacher: works with students and other learning community members to develop information literacy skills within the framework of best practice pedagogy based on up-to-date knowledge of learning and teaching practices

Instructional partner: collaborates with teachers to design and assess authentic learning tasks that are founded on using old information to create new

Information specialist: acquires and evaluates information in multiple formats and multiple sources and shares this information with the staff and students

Program administrator: develops policies, programs, and practices that enrich and enhance student learning; also manages budgets, people, equipment, and facilities

The Canadian Association of School Libraries also emphasizes the collaborative and information literacy instruction roles of the teacher-librarian, in its 2003 publication Achieving Information Literacy: Standards for School Library Programs in Canada. Furthermore, the Australian School Library Association (2001) identifies three distinct roles for the teacher-librarian:

Curriculum leader: focuses on embedding information literacy skills across the curriculum

Information specialist: provides access to a variety of information resources in equally various formats

Information services manager: develops a collection that reflects the ethos of the school and supports the curriculum

Perhaps it is significant that none of these works by teacher- librarian associations focuses on that “old” role of fostering a love of literature, although the Australian document (in its curriculum leader profile) does include maintaining “literacy as a high priority, engaging students in reading, viewing, and listening for understanding and enjoyment.”


In 2004, Nancy A. S. Miller conducted the “Oklahoma Association of School Library Media Specialists Time Task Study” in Oklahoma schools to clarify the various roles of teacher-librarians and to identify the proportion of time spent on each role in libraries that were staffed by one or more professionals and one or more library assistants. Miller’s concern was that despite the findings of research in a number of states, school libraries remained “so understaffed that they fail to achieve their potential to impact student learning and that staff reductions and program elimination were often due to a lack of understanding of what professional librarians do” (p. 1). Miller’s research shows that teacher- librarians in all categories (elementary, middle school, and high school) spend most of their day involved in the task that Information Power describes as program administrator (American Library Association ft Association for Educational Communications and Technology, 1998)-particularly, collection development-and that when the library professional was actually teaching, less than 20% of that time was devoted to fostering reading. As expected, this task was highest in the early years of elementary school but fell away sharply as students got older and more independent.


Although the reasons for the variations in duties are diverse and dependent on the school situation, it nevertheless appears that there is a need to review and renew our role and highlight the teacher part of teacher-librarian, especially, those responsibilities that relate to fostering reading.

This task is even more important if we consider the findings of recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development studies (2004, 2007). In 2003 and 2006, OECD conducted its Program for International Student Assessment, including 15-year-olds in more than 40 industrialized countries. The 2003 study concluded that the most important predictor of academic success was the amount of time that students spent reading and that this indicator was more accurate than economic or social status; that the time spent reading was highly correlated to success in math and science; and that the keys to success lay in teaching students how to read and then having them read as much as they can.

Even if the umbrella organizations for our profession have changed the emphasis, we as individuals can put ourselves into our school and district policies and procedures through their literacy plans. First, however, we need to ask and answer two critical questions: How does the library contribute to literacy and learning in this school? How do we ensure that the library is the curriculum center of the school? If we have these questions answered, with evidence, before we attend planning meetings, we can argue our position from a strong perspective.


For 5-year-olds, reading is what school is all about. It is why they are there, and such is their expectation-if they do not learn to read on the first day, they-go home disappointed and disillusioned.

It is not the role of the teacher-librarian to be the ‘children’s primary reading instructor-that is the privilege of their classroom teacher-but there is much that the teacher-librarian can do to support children’s reading development through the library. Central to knowing how we can accomplish this effectively is having an understanding of how humans learn. Through research by people such as Marion Diamond, Jesse Conel, Peter Huttenlocher, and Geoffrey Caine and Renate Caine, as well as through technological advances in brain-scanning equipment, we know the following:

* The brain constantly grows, and it changes from conception to death.

* The brain develops over three decades, with the sensory sectors being the most active in the first 10 years and with those enabling deep and independent thinking developing over the second 10 years.

* Different ages have different needs and conditions for learning.

* We build new concepts on old understandings, and new information must be connected to a prior experience to make sense.

* Intelligence is not fixed-it is a combination of nature and nurture.

* An enriched environment, with multisensory challenges and opportunities to explore it, has a significant impact on learning.

* Learning is unique and dependent on many factors, many of them internal and intrinsic to the individual.

* There are many ways to learn the same thing, and we each have our own preferences and predilections to ensure success.

* There are two types of learning: first, experience-expectant learning, which comprises basic survival skills and speech and which occurs in a well-described order and in a well-defined time frame, provided one has the opportunities to learn them; second, experience- dependent learning, which is the learning of nonessential skills, including reading, requiring explicit instruction, repetition, motivation, and mental effort, which develop at different times and different rates for each person.

With this knowledge, it is possible to create an environment where students establish partnerships and choose programs in which to participate, all of which will extend, enrich, and enhance their reading experiences.


The first priority for us as teacher-librarians is to get staff and students into the library. It does not matter what books might be on our shelves or what challenges and incentives we offer the students if they and teachers do not come into the library in the first place. Therefore, the most effective place to start is that of examining our library landscape. Is it like the one ruled over by Madam Pince at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series-“tens of thousands of books, thousands of shelves, hundreds of narrow rows”? Or is it a place of wonder and promise, with books begging to be taken and read?

With a little imagination, it is easy to compromise between the austerity of Hogwarts and the flamboyance of the bookstore that thinks that it is a coffee shop. Your library can be a place where students choose to be (even when they do not have to be there), and they can learn while they are there without borrowing a book.

Creating an inviting environment does more than attract and pique the imagination of visitors-it encourages learning. We know this because

* the brain simultaneously functions at many levels as one’s thoughts, emotions, imagination, predispositions, and physiology interact and exchange information with the environment;

* the brain absorbs information directly and indirectly, continuously aware of what is beyond the immediate focus of attention, to the extent that 70% of what is learned is not directly taught;

* learning involves conscious and unconscious processes, including experience, emotion, and sensory input, and much of our learning occurs and is processed below the level of immediate awareness so that understanding may not happen until much later, after there has been time for reflection and assimilation;

* the brain is elastic because its structure is changed, or rewired, by exposure to new experiences so that the more we use it, the better it gets;

* the brain is stimulated by challenge and inhibited by threat so that students who are in safe, secure environments, mental and physical, can allow the cognitive part of their brains to dominate the emotional parts and explore, investigate, take risks, and learn;

* 30% to 600/0 of the brain’s wiring comes from our genetic makeup (nature), and 40% to 70% comes from environmental influences and effect (nurture); and

* the two critical factors in learning are novelty and interactive feedback (National Research Committee, 2000).

So even the most disinterested, disconnected, or disabled student learns in an osmotic way in stimulating surroundings. Other research has demonstrated that our initial attitude toward something is a key determinant in the success of our learning, so if we can persuade each student the library holds something enjoyable for him or her and is therefore an okay place to be, then we are on the way.


Giving your library the Wow! factor does not mean having to change any of your core business practices. It means examining what you do and considering how you can do it with more flair. For example, ask yourself the following questions.

Is the space overwhelming, with stacks and stacks of shelves that could be rearranged so that spaces within the space become child- size? Despite such issues as fire safety regulations, duty of care, light and power sources, and maintaining Dewey order, which determine much of what we put where, it is still possible to create a physical layout that is in touch with the child’s needs and senses.

Are things within easy reach? Young children are hobbit-size, and so shelves and other storage units need to be low. Books need to have their colorful covers displayed, rather than look like soldiers on parade; popular authors and series can be grouped; and regularly changing displays offers opportunities for the child to see and be stimulated by the resources.

Are there displays that exploit the brain’s capacity to learn at many levels? Children absorb everything, and artifacts, colors, labels, and subjects can help them build the concept of the library as a fun, alive place-where their imaginations can be entertained and educated. Displays can be large-for example, by creating Santa’s Village at the North Pole-or they can be modest, by putting a single volume on a stand in a prominent place. They can cover curriculum topics, local and international issues and events, genres, slogans and sayings and maybe a line from a lyric, and they can introduce new subjects to the students. They can be short- or long-term, depending on their priority and purpose. They can be static or interactive, offering students opportunities to get involved. They can be created by staff or students, or they can be a joint venture. But they have to be there, and they have to change often.

Do your signs allow even the youngest student to independently find books? If kindergarten children can go straight to the dinosaur books without asking, those children will have the power to become regular library users.


Once you draw the student into the library, the practice has to meet the promise. Specifically, what can we do that will foster reading as a lifelong activity, especially in this instant- information age, dominated by test results, grade levels, and other quantitative data? How can we offer the page as an alternative to the screen?

We know that demonstrations and models are critical teachers- imagine the impact made when students see their teachers valuing and using the library’s staff and services. Therefore, carefully examine and expand the range of services that the library might offer our teaching colleagues, beyond the regular collaborative planning and resourcing of teaching units. Consider the following:

* Suggesting appropriate fiction, read aloud or alone, to support teaching units and enhance understanding and constructing a display on a current curriculum theme that includes related fiction and suggestions for further reading

* Taking a sample of these themerelated titles to a faculty meeting so that they can be previewed and discussed

* Creating bibliographies of related subjects that support common curriculum themes as well as specific titles, ready to be handed to teachers as soon as they ask, “What have you got about . . .”

* Teaching teachers how to use OPAC, particularly if your school has recently upgraded its system

* Suggesting new read-alouds per age group (rather than the same old, same old), including suggestions for how the books might be used within the curriculum

* Offering to gather a selection of books to be used in class for 6 weeks or so and then swapped for another selection-the rotating classroom library-so that students are continually exposed to new reading materials at a range of reading levels, a variety of genres, a variety of formats, fiction that supports the curriculum theme but offers titles for leisure and pleasure (unrelated to teaching or testing), various authors, and new subject areas that pique imagination

* Visiting the class and book-talking a few of the titles in the rotating classroom library to build up interest and enthusiasm before handing it over to the teacher

* Setting aside a time when you can visit the class and read aloud to the students

* Providing books in digital formats to be listened to or viewed by the class so that nonreaders and non-English speakers can share the story

* Asking a class to create a display for the library based on the subject, theme, or genre that it is studying and then incorporating the class’s work as well as appropriate resources

* Suggesting that the teacher be involved when students are borrowing books because the teacher will always know the students’ abilities, interests, and needs better than the best teacher- librarian will

* Asking the teachers, individually and collectively, for suggestions for purchases and ensuring that they have first access to these

* Establishing an early-alert system (perhaps via e-mail) that informs teachers of new books that you purchased that they might like to preview and read

* Offering opportunities for teachers to come and browse the new books at their leisure before they disappear onto the shelves, such as at a brunch-and-browse or coffee-and-chat session

* Having regular lunchtime story sessions when staff members come to share their favorite read-alouds with students

* Creating a display of the staffs favorites from childhood and their current favorites and including photos of the staff reading the books

* Asking classroom teachers to suggest services that would make their lives easier without compromising the teacher-librarian’s professional judgment

One of the easiest traps for teacher-librarians to fall into is that of creating the perception that the library is theirs. One of the hardest things to do is to hand over ownership to the staff and students and become just its custodian. But in the interest of student learning, it is a critical transition to make.

Students will value the staff and services of the school library much more if they feel that it is their place, a place where they are welcome, rather than a place that is an austere shrine to the printed word. Students, especially those in high school, too often get the message that the contents of the library are more important than the clients.

As such, the first rule that should be abandoned is that of silence. No one lives and learns in isolation, and we should be encouraging students to talk about what they have found and discuss their learning. Even those who are seriously studying need to ask a question or two at times to clarify their understanding. When your library is humming, take a tour and discreetly listen to conversations-most students will be on task, and it takes but a look or a word to refocus those who are not. During this time, you will be helping to establish a positive attitude toward the library.

Look for ways that the students can feel ownership of the place and space. There is little that you can do that they cannot, with a little guidance. Consider the following:

* Asking them to actively participate in organizing an author visit by having them provide input into selecting the author, do fund-raising to cover the costs, create advertising posters and displays of the author’s work, prepare a literary luncheon so that they can talk with the author in an informal setting, introduce and thank the speaker, and purchase and present a gift * Developing a library assistants program that has structure and a career path (for a description of how this can be done, see the June 2005 issue of Teacher Librarian)

* Asking students for suggestions for titles to purchase and allowing senior students to spend part of the library budget choosing from a collection of preselected titles. When each student has made a choice, note the title and the student, and ask what attracted him or her to it. As soon as the book is processed, give it to the student to read and have him or her report on whether it lived up to expectations.

* Establishing a regular storytime, perhaps during lunch break, when older students can read to the younger ones, individually or as a small group

* Promoting a principal’s reading challenge that allows students to set and meet their own targets and be acknowledged for their efforts with a certificate from the principal. If you use a prescribed list of must-reads, ensure that the books are available from the library, that the students have input into the list, and that they are not restricted within it by arbitrary levels or lexiles.

Handing over the power in this way does not diminish your role, as some fear, but rather enhances it because you will have so many more users of the facility.

Once the students are in the library, there are countless ways that you can enrich their reading experiences. Through the development and promotion of some schoolwide literature-based activities that excite staff and students, you can reclaim the role of the literature expert and demonstrate that when it comes to literacy through literature in the school, you are the leader. Consider the following:

* Developing an interactive competition based on a book or a series, such as Deltora Quest, which requires the students read and reread, which demands higher-order thinking skills, and which can be offered one clue at a time (an outline of the Deltora Quest competition is published in my column in the June 2006 issue of Teacher Librarian.)

* Creating an across-grade challenge by having classes not only predict the ending to a book that you are reading to all of them but also make a display around their ideas

* Setting up hypothetical dilemmas that favorite characters might face and asking students to solve them. These might involve giving advice, constructing something, or being a helping hand.

* Creating a literature-based quiz (with prizes)

* Publishing “If you liked . . . , then try ….” lists and having these prominently on display. Ask the students for their input or have them produce their own lists.

* Creating a display with the theme “You’ve seen the movie, now read the book!” It is amazing how many do not realize that the book came first.

* Establishing a web page or blog from your library site where student reviews of the library’s latest purchases can be published. Students love to see their work in print and accessible to many.

* Constructing a list of activities that are not book reports that teachers might use if they need proof that a student has read a title

* Advertising the dates and details of your state’s or province’s readers’ choice awards, purchasing the books from those awards, and setting up activities that support participation of these. Almost every state or province has an award for elementary readers, and many have young adult categories as well. A list of these awards in the United States is available at awards.html, whereas links to provincial readers’ choice programs in Canada can be found at School_Library_Programs/Reading/.

* Connecting with local sports teams to build partnerships between athletes and students. Many major league baseball teams have reading promotion programs, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the American Library Association run the annual program Step Up to the Plate @ Your Library, campaign/ sponsorship/stepuptothep Iateyourlibrary/stepup2007.htrn. The National Basketball Association has a program called Read to Achieve, www, and the National Football League offers Join the Team, A less formal arrangement with the local sports heroes could work well, too.

* Cooperating with your local public library to produce and promote a summer reading program, perhaps constructing it so that participants can take advantage of some of the reading rewards offered through commercial enterprises such as Target, Pizza Hut, and Six Flags Amusement Parks (Read to Succeed, parks/greatamerica/ ParkPress/articlel 20203a.html).


Once you start thinking about ideas, they just flow, and each one is evidence that you do have a role beyond that of the program administrator (Miller, 2004). By making that role explicit throughout your entire school community, you will show that the development of literacy is heart and soul of what you do and that the budget and time cutters should take their scissors elsewhere.

We all need to make time to demonstrate that what we are doing is based on best practice pedagogy grounded in the latest learning research and will therefore have an effect on those ubiquitous test scores. Then schools might realize that they can have a curriculum leader, an information specialist, an information services manager, a teacher, an instructional partner, a program administrator, and a reading specialist in one person. Seven hats for the price of one salary. How excellent is that!


American Library Association & Association for Educational Communications and Technology. (1998). Information power: Building partnerships for learning. Chicago: Author.

Australian School Library Association. (2001). Learning for the future: Developing information services in schools (2nd ed.). Melbourne, Australia: Curriculum Corporation.

Canadian Association of School Libraries. (2003). Achieving information literacy: Standards for school library programs in Canada. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Author.

Miller, Nl. A. S. (2004). Oklahoma Association of School Library Media Specialists Time Task Study Report. Retrieved December 15, 2007, from TaskReport.pdf

National Research Committee. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experiences and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2004). Learning for tomorrow’s world-First results from PISA 2003. Retrieved December 15, 2007, from www.pisa.oecd .org/document/55/ 0,2340,en_32252351_ 32236173_33917303_1_1_1_1.00.html

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2007). PISA 2006 results. Retrieved December 15, 2007, from \ document/2/0,3343,en_3 2252351_32236191_39718850_1_1_1_ 1,00.html

Barbara Braxton retired as teacher-librarian for the Rilmerston District Primary School in the Australian Capital Territory. She writes the “Strategy” column for TL. She can be reached at [email protected]

Copyright Ken Haycock & Associates Feb 2008

(c) 2008 Teacher Librarian. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.