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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Teacher librarians, an under utilised asset in schools

Sue Spence
Coordinator, Library/Information Literacy/LOTE/Multiculturalism, Valley View Secondary School, South Australia. Personal website: http://www.teachers.ash.org.au/rblonline/.

It often is easy to overlook the library as a contributor to school improvement, simply because it has never been thought of in those terms. While reformers argue widely that research shows certain things about certain practices, library research most often is not included in the discussion. It’s not that educators actively set out to deny librarians their proper role in school improvement, it’s just that they have never been schooled to think of libraries when they think of school reform. (Todd & Kuhlthau 2003)

The school library and its staff are significant school assets, and need to be considered as an educational investment rather than a cost.

Evidence that quality school library programs positively affect student achievement has been available, but not necessarily well-known, in educational administration circles for many years. There is, for example, strong research evidence (Curry Lance 2000) that student achievement increases in accordance with the level of teacher librarian staffing and the size of the collection and the library budget. Achievement also rises as teacher librarians spend more time planning cooperatively with teachers, identifying materials for teachers, teaching information literacy skills to students, providing in-service training to teachers, and managing an ‘information portal’. These predictors of achievement cannot be explained away by demographic or socioeconomic factors.

In a study involving a survey of over 13,000 students, 99.44 per cent of respondents indicated that school library services had assisted their learning (Todd & Kuhlthau 2003). A full review of the available research has been conducted by Michele Lonsdale for the Australian School Library Association (ASLA).

Thus it can be argued that

Principals should support school libraries because it is in both their students' and their own best interests to do so. Quality library media programs can enhance student achievement, and informed, committed librarians can help principals enhance their own administrative practice. (Hartzell 2003)

The role of the teacher librarian has changed and expanded in this digital information age as shown, for example, in ASLA’s Standards of professional excellence for teacher librarians (ASLA & ALIA 2004), ‘Learning for the future: Developing Information Services in schools’ (ASLA & ALIA 2001), and the School Library Association of South Australia Role Statement (SLASA 2003).

Staffing and resource concerns

Despite this evidence, more and more schools across Australia are inadequately staffed in terms of professionally qualified teacher librarians. An Australian Education Union survey of teacher librarian staffing in South Australian government schools in 2002 revealed 89 per cent of South Australian state secondary schools were understaffed by the Department’s own staffing formula. Staff without teacher librarian qualifications filled 40 per cent of all positions, even though

a (qualified) teacher librarian can contribute to the school community to a significant degree, particularly with ongoing curricular changes and ICT impacting on teacher workload. Teacher librarians ease that workload, not by re-shelving books but by using their expertise to collaborate with teachers; not by covering books but by providing valuable professional development in the use of ICT; not by checking books in and out but by joining committees to develop policies and practices that enhance student learning; not by chasing overdues but by working directly with students to develop their reading and information literacy skills. (Spence 2002)
Teacher librarians associated with the New South Wales Teachers Federation are also drawing attention to their staffing concerns and to the important work they do in raising literacy levels (NSWTLN 2004). Similar difficulties with library staffing exist in other States and Territories and in many non-government education authorities. The issue is complicated by cuts in university courses that train teacher librarians, which of course means less qualified staff to fill positions.

Teacher librarians and problem-based learning

The traditional collaborative relationship between teacher and teacher librarian was exercised through resource-based learning (RBL) methodology, and this remains just as relevant to current learning theory and the increasing impact of the Internet. The use of webquest, for example, is at the leading edge of the new RBL, which is perhaps better named nowadays as inquiry-based or problem-based learning. The collaboration between teacher and teacher librarian can be ‘reflection-on-action’, such as evaluating a research unit, or the more proactive ‘reflection-for-action’, such as designing or reshaping a unit. These ‘moments’ of inquiry or reflective practice (Reid 2004) reduce the risk of plagiarism or cyber cheating by incorporating higher order thinking in assignment questions and by explicitly including information skills in the statement of assessment criteria.

For students to develop lifelong learning skills then, ‘educators too must possess and model these capacities’ (Reid 2004).  Many teacher librarians provide professional development activities in their schools and beyond (see, for example, RBL online resources, Spence 2004). Their combination of expertise in literacy and information skills and knowledge of resources and pedagogy can offer invaluable support to hard-pressed teachers and principals. It is, for example, common for teacher librarians to supply ‘hotlists’ of previewed and selected websites on specific topics to teachers, and there are several examples of school websites that include ‘virtual libraries’ created and managed by teacher librarians, including:

The key role of school principals

There is ample evidence that school principals determine how effective school libraries are (Hartzell 2003), and not just by controlling the purse strings. No matter how well-qualified or enthusiastic a teacher librarian is, if their time is spent keeping the library functioning due to a lack of support staff, they will not be able to enact their teaching role. Collaborating with teachers, promoting reading and literacy, engaging students in exciting global projects via the Internet, are all dependent on the teacher librarian having a flexible schedule.

The citations for Australian Teacher Librarian of the Year provide actual examples of how much more teacher librarians can contribute to their communities, with the support of their principals.

Is your school library and teacher librarian fulfilling their potential as a value-added asset to your school? If not, why not?

If, however, you have a Teacher Librarian of the Year candidate in your school, please celebrate this. Nominations for this prestigious award close on 24 June 2005.


See the author's website for her other published work.



ASLA & ALIA 2001, Learning for the future: Developing Information Services in schools, 2nd edition, Curriculum Corporation, Carlton South, Victoria.

ASLA & ALIA 2004, Standards of professional excellence for teacher librarians. Retrieved 29 April 2005 from http://www.asla.org.au/docs/TLstandards.pdf.

Curry Lance, K, Hamilton-Pennell, C & Rodney, M 2000, How School Librarians Help Kids Achieve Standards: The Second Colorado Study. Retrieved 29 April 2005 from http://www.lrs.org/documents/lmcstudies/CO/execsumm.pdf.

Hartzell, G 2003, 'Why Should Principals Support School Libraries?', Connections, Issue 43, Curriculum Corporation. Retrieved 29 April 2005 from http://www.curriculum.edu.au/scis/connections/cnetw03/46principal.htm.

NSWTLN 2004, Schools boycott PRC for equity. Retrieved 29 April 2005 from http://www.nswtl.net/info/index.htm.

Reid, Alan 2004, Towards a culture of inquiry in DECS. Occasional Paper No. 1, DECS, Adelaide. Retrieved 29 April 2005 from http://www.decs.sa.gov.au/corporate/files/links/OP_01.pdf.

SLASA 2003, Role Statement.

Spence, S 2004, RBL online at http://www.teachers.ash.org.au/rblonline/.

Spence, S 2002, ‘Survey highlights major problems with library staffing’, AEU Journal, SA branch, December 2002. Retrieved 29 April 2005 from http://www.teachers.ash.org.au/rblonline/Library/aeusurveyarticle.pdf.

Todd, R & Kuhlthau, C 2003, Student Learning through Ohio School Libraries. Retrieved 29 April 2005 from http://www.oelma.org/studentlearning/default.asp.


Subject Headings

School principals
School libraries
Inquiry based learning
Information services
Information literacy
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)