What could – or should – your school library offer your school community?

In January, Lisa Emerson (Information Literacy Spaces project director) shared a post on the project blog titled The room of requirement – really? in which she explored discrepancies between the rhetoric about libraries and actual practice. That is, why is there a difference between what people say about the value of their library and what happens in real life?

London Tube 'Mind the Gap' sign
Photo by GregPlom. Pixabay. License to use.

So what are people saying?

Organisations with a vested interest in school libraries — such as the National Library, SLANZA, NZEI, the Ministry of Education, or individual schools — cover a wide range of viewpoints and raisons d'être, so naturally what we say about school libraries or school library staff may be different. It’s important to consider the political, professional, and social environments each of us operate in.

I see several possibilities to add to Lisa’s speculations about the rhetoric vs reality gap.

  • What people say falls along a continuum — ‘it’s the beating heart of the school’ at one end, ‘it’s an anachronism given today’s technology’ at the other, with a wide range of opinions in between. For the most part though, New Zealand school staff say that the library has an important role to play in supporting teaching, learning, and student well-being.
  • What people say reflects their own ideals. The views of library supporters are well-founded in the research, even while we understand that our ideals can be hard to achieve in one library, let alone universally. Perhaps the positive views predominate because people don’t want to write about or read library tales of doom and gloom.
  • What people say is out of step with the change in schools and school libraries. The OECD describes innovative education in relation to four core elements — learners, educators, content, and resources. That is, who is learning, who with, what are they learning, and what with. So, for example, we see moves towards greater learner agency, collaborative teaching approaches, more local curriculum, increased use of digital resources, and innovative learning environments. All of these have a flow-on effect for libraries, and it takes time to figure out how to respond to these changes.
Bar chart showing variation between different school types — contributing, full primary, intermediate, secondary, composite — about how much library supports teaching and promotion of digital literacy and citizenship
One example from the 2018 survey of New Zealand schools showing how their expectations about library services can differ widely.

And what are schools doing?

Again, there is so much variation between schools! However, my view is that two key elements underpin the decisions schools make about their library provision.

  1. The extent to which the school community understands the potential for the library — and everything it can encompass — to contribute to teaching, learning, and student well-being.
  2. Their capacity to make funding and other resources available for library provision. This involves complex decisions — balancing curriculum needs, current operational funding, and property models and constraints.

New Zealand schools foster a culture of continuous improvement, aimed at responding to the unique needs and aspirations of their learners and the school community. Just as each school is different, their library will have its own unique flavour. Your students’ ideal library, and yours, or mine, may well be different — and that’s OK. To me, this reflects the diversity of our needs and preferences and our own experiences.

What more can school libraries do? It depends.

I’m sure we can agree that a single library cannot be all things to all people all the time. I certainly don’t want school library teams over-promising and under-delivering or feeling demoralised about what they’ve been able to achieve. The key to this is having a shared understanding in your school about how you want your library to support the school community, knowing what's needed to make it as successful as possible, and school-wide support for making it happen.

While we know there are many schools who would dearly love to do more with their library but struggle within their current resourcing, be that staffing, funding, space — or all the above! — we also know there are schools who could raise their expectations of the library and library staff.

How we can support schools

Our role within this complex environment is to help schools discover and realise the potential in their school library. Our website, our capability building service, and our recently published School Library Development Framework, are all aimed at helping schools do just this.

Other institutions and organisations who provide support or professional development — such as SLANZA, LIANZA, or the Open Polytechnic — are vital to this effort too.

And, very importantly, we mustn’t forget the hardworking school library staff who collectively have so much knowledge and experience to contribute. Sharing our understanding of best practice, stories of advocacy wins, examples of awesome library initiatives, adds to the pool of evidence in practice available to all schools looking to improve their library.

If there are wonderful things happening in your school library, we’d love to help you tell your story. Leave a comment on this blog post or phone 0800 LIB LINE (0800 542 5463).

Need advice or support?

If you'd like advice and support with developing the services your library offers, we're here to help.

  • In term 3, we are offering a 5-week online course Developing your school library services.
  • Our 1-day learning events Harnessing the power of school libraries for learning and well-being and Open the Book: Developing the school library to support reading for pleasure are happening in various centres around New Zealand this term. Check our web page for dates and venues.
  • School library network meetings are an opportunity for you to talk and share with us and other school library staff great ways to support students in your school. You can phone 0800 LIB LINE or email schoollibraryadvice@dia.govt.nz to find out more about network meetings in your area.

By Miriam Tuohy

Miriam is the Senior Specialist (School Library Development) for Services to Schools.

Post a Comment

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Trish Webster May 2nd at 12:46PM

Taking the step towards a shared understanding of the library's capabilities to support teaching and learning can take a bit of serendipity, or sheer luck, to achieve. After many years of trying to improve collaboration with departments, particularly social science, we had a break through last year. I spoke to the right person on the right day at the right time and we were sent all the curriculum topics for the year. We were then able to make sure that our resources were very visible at the right time - and enlisted our student librarian workforce to create bright displays to highlight them. This year we didn't need to ask, they just sent the information to us at the start of the year. While the department had always valued our expertise and used some of the resources, being informed at the beginning of the year made a huge difference to the support we could offer.

Miriam Tuohy May 6th at 9:18AM

Hi Trish, you're so right - you just never know when a quick conversation can make all the difference.

I hear what you're saying about years of trying, and that can be frustrating. It's super important to persevere and — as I'm sure you were! — be ready to have those conversations about how you can help support teachers when you *do* get the chance.

Wonderful to hear that library staff are automatically included and informed about what's planned for the year and that you're seeing a positive difference already.


Linley Earnshaw May 7th at 9:49AM

It is always a good thing to step back a moment in a busy day and think about our role, activities, links etc.
My immediate thought was that our library is a great big lounge today. There are 26 seniors that I can see from my chair, all reading, studying, working, listening, socialising, texting, talking to a teacher, sleeping. They are peaceful and happy and enjoy having this space. They don't for a minute think they are not welcome, there are no security, gates or closed doors. If that is to be our main role, with less emphasis on books, then it is a role I am happy to be involved with. We will always need somewhere to 'be'. But don't get the wrong idea...classes will be pouring in next week for social studies and science and I will be front and centre delivering information, assistance, ideas and support. Maybe I need to make a formal study and write a paper on our library!

Miriam Tuohy May 9th at 12:43PM

Hi Linley! Your school library sounds wonderful :) So much going on! Obviously, there's a culture in your school that supports all these roles that the library plays, and you have a flexible approach to what your library offers and how it supports different people at different times. That flexibility is so important.

And of course *your role* in supporting learners is super important. Yes, having a great library space that makes people feel welcome is awesome, and your attitude has a lot to do with that, I'm sure :) But then when you combine this with your expertise in helping others access information and develop their research and information literacy skills, you're on to a winner!

I think you should study your library and write about, too :) And let me know if I can be of help.

It would be great to see more research into school libraries in New Zealand, but showing a cause-and-effect relationship (between for e.g. school library staffing and student achievement) is notoriously difficult.

I like to think that despite a lack of *causal* research here, having a decent volume of documented awesome / best practice, data and evidence from action research done by individual schools as part of improving their library services, and so on, is enormously valuable. Your success might inspire others to try something new, and the collective success stories provide a powerful voice advocating for school libraries generally.