What does a good school library look like? What role does a good school library play in educating New Jersey students? These are the questions that Ross Todd, Ph.D., and Carol Gordon, Ph.D., co-directors of the Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries (CISSL), sought to define in a recent two-phase study they conducted in public elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the state.
Todd and Gordon began looking to study NJ school libraries several years ago at the behest of Lucille Davy, then NJ Education Commissioner, who prompted the New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL) to commission the study from CISSL. The New Jersey Study of School Libraries: One Common Goal—Student Learning had two phases: the first was a detailed survey of over 700 librarians, and the second involved focus groups with administrators, teachers, and librarians from 12 schools that were deemed to have successful libraries from diverse geographical regions, economic levels, and educational levels.
The findings of the second phase were released in 2012, and presented again at the American Library Association’s midwinter meeting in Seattle this year. School Library Journal checked in with Dr. Todd and Dr. Gordon to find out what steps they have been taking to promote the research this year, and their best practices recommendations for how other schools can better build successful libraries. They also shared with us some of their most surprising and illuminating findings.
How did you choose the schools that participated in the focus groups phase of the study? What criteria did you use to classify the schools that are “doing it right?”
Ross Todd: They had to have a certified librarian, and, first and foremost, [the librarian had to] distinguish themselves as playing a strong instructional role…centering on informational literacy, the engagement with information technology, and also their engagement with reading and literacy development. In other words, the hallmarks of quality school libraries.
Carol Gordon: Yes, we selected those 12 schools through the high levels of instructional collaboration between the school librarian and the classroom teachers. We weren’t looking at the size of the collections, how much money they spend on their materials, whether they had high test scores. We simply wanted to concentrate on the school librarian as the agent of this facility. Was she a collaborator? Was she a teacher? Did she exploit the instructional role, and if she did, what does her library look like? What do the teachers think, and what does her principal think?
There are hundreds of other factors that could explain why a school library is successful in a school, but I can tell you—we’ve been in many libraries that have beautiful collections and lots of computers, but they’re not successful in the way that these libraries perform. We were looking at the quality of teaching and learning from the perspective of the educators.
Were these instructional collaborations a product of good school leadership, or due to the ability of individual librarians to forge relationships with colleagues?
RT: Is it one factor, simply the school principal? Is it the school librarian? No it’s not. There are a whole lot of factors working together: the culture of learning in a school, the culture of collaboration, the personality of the librarian, the vision of the school librarian as a committed teacher in the school, the school librarian having a powerful vision for the nature of learning that is going to come through that role. [It was] the vision of the library [being] the mission of the school. All of these things work together.
How did you go about conducting the focus groups?
RT: What was really, really exciting was, in fact, the reported number of high levels of instructional collaboration. If you’ve got your ear to the grindstone with instructional library research, often the reporting of participation in instructional collaborations is actually quite low, even though it is part of the mantra, even though it’s part of the rhetoric. So we were really, really delighted.
Fundamentally, we put them to the test in many ways. This was a validation of the self-reporting, because when we approached these schools to understand what’s going on, and try to tease out perhaps the dimensions surrounding effective school libraries, they were prepared to do that. The principal was there, we often had either a curriculum supervisor in the school or a district curriculum leader, and up to five or six classroom teachers [that the librarian] collaborated with. It’s quite a coup! And that was the exciting bit. We were welcomed with open arms when we went into these schools.
CG: We were really taken aback by the openness and the enthusiasm that the focus groups showed for the school library program, and of course the principal was a major player in these focus groups. And I think we found what surprised us was how the principal reacted to some of our questions.
What areas did the focus groups seek to address?
RT: The first question centered on identifying the dimensions of library infrastructure, personnel, services, and instruction, and their relationship—whatever they saw that was the foundation. Secondly we wanted to tease out what students actually learned, the learning outcomes in terms of engagement with the school library (and this is from the perspective of the principal and the classroom teachers.) The third area was asking them to think outside of the box: ‘if you could change things, if you had a magic wand, unlimited resources, what would you do?’ And that was really enlightening and surprising.
CG: This is when budget cuts were first on the horizon in a big way in New Jersey, and what they told us was, ‘we actually want a bigger library.’ This was pretty unanimous across the groups. And the reason was because they realized that it was important for all children to get this kind of instruction; they needed to teach more in this inquiry mode, integrating technology and literacy techniques into inquiry-based learning. And they wanted space where kids could collaborate with each other, where teachers could collaborate with each other, where teachers could collaborate with students. They saw the need for more technology, which takes up room. And so they had a vision of what this would look like if everyone could take advantage and benefit from it, and that was really a surprise to us.
So you weren’t expecting that to be on their wish lists?
RT: It was a surprise because there is so much discussion surrounding the closure of school libraries, that libraries as a physical space are redundant, and yet—without a flicker of an eyelid—everyone across the board said ‘we’d double the space of this library.’ At the heart of this desire to have a bigger physical space goes to what we saw as one of the key findings: the library [in these schools] was seen as a pedagogical center. It provided the instructional support for teachers [and] for students to engage with information in all of its forms to build knowledge. And also they saw it as a common ground across the school to develop the whole arena of digital citizenship.
So the library was portrayed very much as this learning center, this place that the whole school owned, where teachers could experiment, where teachers and school librarians could take risks and play with ideas and play with technology that supported inquiry. And of course, at the heart of this…was the primary conception of the school librarian as a co-teacher. In these schools, librarians [are] seen as teachers, because they play such a strong and pervasive teaching role.
Principals are in a position where they have to make very very difficult budget choices. When they see the school librarian as an effective teacher, as a powerful teacher—they’re not going to let that person go in budget cuts. And what’s more, principals were willing to invest the money to provide the instruction, the resources, and the technology to support that rich learning.
What did these schools have in common?
CG: It was interesting for us to analyze the different perspectives on the school library. The principals characterized their school libraries with metaphors: a “candy store,” “Emerald City,” “a place of business, where serious learning goes on.” The teachers saw it as a place where the disciplines come together, and also as a place that was an extension of their classroom, where they could find materials that enriched what they taught. So there were different perspectives, very interesting ways that they talked about their school libraries, but this culture was very similar from one school to the other.
The schools were very progressively run. The principals were participatory managers. They wanted teachers to work together, they wanted to see collaboration, they trusted their teachers, and they trusted their librarians, that good things were going to happen if they just let them do their jobs. They valued the school library as a place where learning went beyond testing.
The principals were very emphatic about the fact that they care about testing, but the most important thing to them was the kind of learning that went beyond testing—deep learning that called for thinking, inquiry, and discovery. They were very adamant about that.
Did that surprise you, too?
RT: This was one of the greatest surprises for me. We built as researchers a vast body of important research on the relationship between school libraries and test scores, achievement on standardized testing. And that research is highly important and very, very valuable. All of the school library impact studies, Keith Curry Lance’s work, the Ohio study—that’s really, really important work.
But this really opened my eyes: As I was listening to the classroom teachers and the school principals, they weren’t even wanting to be specific about test scores. They don’t even question that. They were saying that test score achievement is temporal, it’s transitory. School libraries give much more than test scores. There’s a value added: literacy development, empowering these kids to be critical thinkers in their engagement with information outside of school, the lifelong learning, the independent skills of working with information, the career support, giving them the skills to think critically.
What did these librarians have in common?
CG: We did tease out the qualities that the principal and the teachers mentioned about their school librarians, and one is, ‘she’s not judgmental about us. we feel safe, we feel comfortable in going to her to ask a question or to collaborate.’ I think a really important aspect of this is that the school librarian did not impose a curriculum. The librarian did not impose library language and labels in the conversion or in her practice. I think what we had here was a meeting of minds in terms of a common goal.
RT: In the work that we do, one of the things I pick up on is the bashing of teachers. The school library community has to stop this kind of putting down of others in the profession. We often so easily and so unwittingly get caught up in this kind of judgment. [In these schools] the teachers felt safe. They felt that they could make mistakes. They could do things together to learn together. There was this nurturing. They all talked about the school librarians and the culture of help.
CG: Yes. ‘The librarian never says no’ was the phrase we heard over and over again. For instance, the teachers felt, when asking for the materials they needed, that the librarian did everything she could to help them, and she listened to what they needed. There wasn’t a pre-conceived idea of what a good library is, and the type of collection [he or she had] to build. It wasn’t isolated like that. It was completely open, where the librarian was flexible and ready to listen and let her library become what people needed it to be. These librarians were very different people, but they were all very open-minded. They were good listeners. They were not judgmental. They were helpful. They were highly skilled. Definitely there were commonalities in attitude, personality, interpersonal skills, vision.
RT: And the vision was not a library-centered vision. It was a vision for helping that school reach the goals for learning for these kids.
CG: The commonality among these schools was striking.
What else emerged in your discussions?
RT: One of the other key things that came out was the notion of teacher of teachers. We had so many teachers who said that the school librarians help them be better teachers, and that’s the collaborative notion of opening up teachers to the insight of kids being more effective, inquiry-based researchers, engaging teachers with technology tools that will help the students. The librarians actually played a strong role in professional development in their schools; they were seen as having effective professional relationships with the teachers in their schools, and principals were prepared to invest money in the further education of their school librarians, to send the school librarians off to meetings and conferences. They knew that those librarians would come back and would be eager to run professional development in their schools…in the context of instructional collaboration.
CG: When the teachers began talking about their relationship with the school librarian, they became very emotional. We had a couple of teachers break down and cry, because they were overcome by the gratitude they had to the school librarian. And the principals brought this out, too, when they [said] that they don’t know how the school librarians do it—that the librarians seem to be the person they depended on in the school to keep up with the information explosion, to keep up with technological advances, so they felt as though their school was moving along and growing and keeping up with the pace of the information age. And this is a real revolution in a sense.
So the relationship between school librarians and classroom teachers is changing?
CG: In [these schools], the school librarian facilitated the technology integration in a context where teachers felt their students were learning all these other things, like authority, accuracy, plagiarism versus original work, issues of censorship, digital citizenship, Internet safety—all of the burning questions around the use of technology for children. [Teachers] felt as though all of this was being taken care of, but is wasn’t viewed as one more thing they had to do and still cover their curriculum. All the stress is taken away when they can teach in a situation where they are learning as they teach, where they feel as though they have a safety net, when they have someone they’re comfortable with to ask questions. So this is a dramatic revolution in the way we train teachers, and how we keep them trained.
The librarian is emerging in these data as a master teacher—not just a teacher of teachers, but as a master teacher of the digital age. And this is really significant, because librarians have had a difficult time in not being invisible, especially now with digital materials, where the print collections are getting smaller. This is the area where librarians can shine. They are seen as leaders. They’re far from invisible in these schools that we studied.
Your study also addressed the civil rights of school libraries. Can you tell us more?
RT: The schools that we went into with effective school libraries were all public schools. Some of them are actually in quite poor areas. And the principal of social justice emerged so strongly. The people working in these communities saw the school library as a center for equitable access, where all kids—no matter their circumstances, no matter their access to resources outside of school— have equal opportunity. The school library represents a great social equalizer. We use the terms “surrogate home” and “safe haven” because of the notion of safety, to engage with resources, multiple viewpoints and different opinions, in safety. To have access to expert help.
CG: It’s important to know that not all of these schools were well resourced, big budget schools. A lot of these schools were poor schools in poor areas. Some of the librarians [said] that, for many of these children, the library was the nicest place they could go to. It was a place they were comfortable in, where they could find lots of computers and lots of books. So I think the social justice aspect of these findings is important, because we still do have a digital divide.
How are you publicizing the data?
CG: We intend to present at administrative conferences, to educational leaders. We plan to try to publish something in Educational Leadership. The publicity around this study is really in the hands of NJASL, who commissioned the study, and the president of NJASL, Amy Rominiecki, is putting a lot of energy into that (and she was my partner in presenting at ALA). She is very supportive of the findings, and we have had a liaison from CISSL [partnering] with the NJASL board in publicizing this study.
RT: We’ve put out a number of scholarly publications, and we’re working really closely with NJASL. They have an evidence-based advocacy group, they’ve been working with the state legislature, they’ve been working with development of media releases based on the study, they’ve developed advocacy materials, they’ve developed a fantastic Youtube clip. I think they’re doing a fantastic job.