School libraries play a critically important role in the lives and education of children in their communities. Numerous studies over more than two decades clearly link student achievement with high-quality library programs and school librarians. After reviewing 34 statewide studies, researchers Keith Curry Lance and Debra E. Kachel report that these studies’ “most substantial and consistent finding is a positive relationship between full-time, qualified school librarians and scores on standards-based language arts, reading, and writing tests, regardless of student demographics and school characteristics.”i More recently (March 2020), Lance and Kachel reported that school librarians are particularly effective at fostering the kind of inquiry-based and self-initiated learning that “helps students develop self-directed lifelong learning skills that will contribute to their readiness for, and success in, college, career, and life.”ii
Yet, despite such strong evidence of the value of school librarians, budget cuts are eliminating their positions due in large part to the misconception that they are an expendable element of K-12 education. According to Lance and Kachel,iii in 2018-19 (the latest national data available), there were 42,279 school librarians in the US, which is 10,266 or almost 20% fewer than a decade earlier. It is likely that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the numbers further.
Through OCLC’s participation as a Mentor Organization for the grantees participating in the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) program Accelerating Promising Practices – Transforming School Library Practice (TSLP), we have come to know firsthand the tremendous value of school librarians in small and rural communities. In the words of mentor team co-coordinator Nancy Lensenmayer, “School librarians are incredibly passionate, compassionate, resilient, creative, talented and flexible in the face of challenges such as the pandemic.”
Overview of Transforming School Library Practice program
Beginning in September 2019, the IMLS selected OCLC to serve as the Mentor Organization for a cohort of 10 small, rural U.S. school libraries that had received a grant through the Accelerating Promising Practices in Small Libraries program. Individual grantee projects planned to redesign their libraries for 21st-century learning, advance staff skills, strengthen partnerships with stakeholders, and enhance programs and services that will prepare their students for success. As their mentor, OCLC supported the cohort with a facilitated community of practice hosted by WebJunction, hosted three multi-day convenings over two years (in-person or virtual), and provided monthly training, technical assistance, and coaching as the grantees transformed their school library’s practice to better serve their communities. OCLC used a discovery process to “meet grantees where they are” and support both individual and cohort needs as they strengthen the role of their libraries as dynamic learning centers. In 2020, IMLS requested OCLC’s mentorship of a second cohort of five school libraries, which will continue through August 2022; the first cohort concluded in October 2021.
Characteristics of grantee school librarians
As validated by studies, school librarians have a significant impact on the lives and learning of children. While students may have a new teacher each year, they will see their librarian every week (or even daily) for the duration of their K-12 education. Librarians interact with students year after year as they progress from kindergarten to high school to graduation. The OCLC mentor team was impressed with the dedication of our school librarians, who demonstrated 100% commitment to transforming their school library practices and positively influencing the lives of their students, whether in a school of 65 or 6500 students.
Unlike librarians in most academic or public library settings, the school librarian or library media specialist can be a solitary position within the school environment, often seen as a sideline to the important work that teachers do in their classrooms. They may feel isolated in the institution they work so hard to serve. Along with redesigning physical space and equipping it with exploratory learning materials and strategies, grantee librarians have had to transform perceptions among students, parents and caregivers, classroom teachers, and administrators about the potential of the library as more than a place for students to just check out books or go for study hall. They have pursued collaborations with classroom teachers to go beyond supporting the curriculum and be recognized as the hub for cultivating self-initiated and inquiry-based learning for students.
The carefully planned deliverables and timelines of the grantees’ projects were abruptly upended by the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Schools shut down their buildings and made the rapid, chaotic switch to online learning. The school librarians in our cohort were a model of resilience, meeting this unprecedented challenge with flexibility, creativity, and sensitivity to their students’ needs. They understood that not only were students cut off from school materials, they were also severed from the social and emotional connections of being in person. The librarians moved swiftly to support teachers in the online classrooms and to create online versions of the library to maintain some modicum of familiarity and connection between the library and students. They assembled kits of project materials, school supplies, and technology for parents to pick up. They started online book clubs and virtual author presentations. One cohort member placed hand-written jokes in the books for students to pick up, restoring a small human gesture to this remote interaction. Other grantees coordinated efforts to provide food or meals to their communities. Although their projects were temporarily derailed, they transformed library practice in unexpected ways.
Value of the cohort experience
Mentor team co-coordinator Kathleen Gesinger observed that “building community can be a key step to transformation because we learn from each other, celebrate each other’s visions coming to fruition, and offer or experience support when needed.” At the in-person convening that kicked off the first cohort, participants had a lightbulb moment when they all realized that they were a part of a project larger than “just their own” and that they had “found their people” to learn, grow, and share with. Working in small, relatively remote communities that limit their exposure to other schools and librarians, most of them had not experienced this in their professional lives. The bonds formed were especially valued during the pandemic when the group turned to each other to commiserate and find and share support and ideas. Midpoint evaluation results confirmed that this appreciation of the peer community continued throughout. The value of sharing came through during Share-Outs, in which each school librarian gave a four-minute presentation to the cohort on something accomplished within the grant period that could be inspirational or informative for other grantees. In one example, a grantee team shared their experience of shifting their annual K-12 district Media Expo (with a 45-year in-person history) to a highly successful fully virtual event. Their description of the processes they followed, outcomes they aimed for, and tips and lessons learned resonated with the rest of the cohort and will remain applicable post-pandemic. When we learned that the Media Expo reached record-breaking student application numbers (virtual access increased student reach) and attendee opportunities (allowing virtual family, grandparents, and friends to bear witness to students’ great work), our entire group collectively cheered! In the midst of many challenges, we were able to see new ideas and solutions unfold and find great successes.
In their mentorship role, the OCLC team provided a range of opportunities for the cohort to learn together and connect with each other. Monthly cohort meetings focused on training topics of interest to grantees, often learning from subject matter experts they’d typically not encounter. The learning was supplemented by resources, activities, and discussions in the asynchronous community of practice. Time after time we observed our school librarians immediately share and apply new findings and learning and successfully incorporate them into their grant projects. There were periodic one-on-one check-ins to build stronger relationships, make connections around the work others are doing or solutions that have worked for others, and offer individualized support and encouragement. “Demystifying” the administration of their IMLS grants process helped build grantees’ confidence in delivering and reporting their projects. Mid-point evaluation results indicated that mentor support for the cohort was positive, noting increases in every area, including grantees’ library skills and experience, personal knowledge and confidence, engagement with other libraries, and personal contributions to the field. During the final convening, held virtually over three days, grantees shared that having this group and our OCLC team as guides and a tether to project accountability and support was as transformative as their own school library projects and visions.
Building relationships takes time, and it is always worth the time put into these projects and individuals. Over the two years since the launch of the IMLS program’s first cohort, everyone has shared much more than the professional achievements (notable as they are); we have celebrated personal experiences like the birth of a child and a first grandchild, and graduations; we have offered emotional support during medical emergencies, community crises, and the death of loved ones. Everyone involved has been enriched by the cohort and mentor experiences. Every member of the mentor team would gladly stand before a school administration and testify to the value and power of school librarians to cultivate lifelong learning, critical thinking, and social and emotional confidence in students, preparing them for life success. The return on investment is priceless.
i. Kachel, Debra E. and Lance, Keith Curry. Why school librarians matter: What years of research tell us. Phi Delta Kappan. March 26, 2018. https://kappanonline.org/lance-kachel-school-librarians-matter-years-research/
ii. Kachel, Debra E. and Lance, Keith Curry. Linking librarians, inquiry learning, and information literacy. Phi Delta Kappan. March 26, 2020. https://kappanonline.org/linking-librarians-inquiry-learning-information-literacy-lance-maniotes/
iii. Lance, K. C., & Kachel, D. E.. Perspectives on School Librarian Employment in the United States, 2009-10 to 2018-19: National Perspective. July 2021. https://libslide.org/pubs/Perspectives-National-Perspective.pdf
Since joining the WebJunction team in 2005, Betha has contributed to the continuing education for library staff through defining competencies (editor-in-chief of Competency Index for the Library Field), developing curriculum, delivering presentations and training both in-person and online, and exploring new strategies in learning.