February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Dick and Jane Go to the Head Of the Class

What do students need in order to succeed? The latest research insists they need strong library media programs

Library media specialists now have new empirical proof that school libraries matter. According to the recent findings of three statewide studies, a strong library media program helps students learn more and score higher on standardized achievement tests than their peers in library-impoverished schools. The findings–from studies by the Colorado State Library’s Library Research Service and the University of Denver’s Library and Information Services Department–hold true for every school and in every grade level tested, in states as dissimilar as Alaska, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.

The findings offer good news to educators, who–pressured by parents and legislators–are scrambling to come up with solutions to improve learning. For the most part, these would-be solutions–everything from upping the hours or days students spend in school each year, to shrinking the size of classes, adding online technologies and testing more frequently–have yielded mixed results. We are reminded, once again, that educating young people is a difficult and complex proposition–with no magic formula. There is, however, one clear and consistent finding that is supported by our research: a school library media program with a full-time library media specialist, support staff, and a strong computer network (one that connects the library’s resources to classrooms and labs) leads to higher student achievement, regardless of social and economic factors in a community.

The Latest Evidence

Although the independent studies in Alaska, Pennsylvania, and Colorado examined the same factors (see ‘About the Studies’) and reached the same basic conclusions about the importance of libraries, the three states were hardly similar. Here’s some of the research highlights from each.

The Alaska study demonstrated the importance of a full-time library media specialist who is involved in instructional activities. In elementary schools with well-developed library media programs, 86 percent of the students scored proficient or above on state reading tests, compared with 73 percent of the students in schools with less-developed library media programs. The findings show that students’ test scores tended to be higher when:

  • schools had a library media specialist, preferably
    full time (that is, 35 to 40 hours per week);
  • library staff spent time teaching information
    literacy to students, planning instructional units with teachers, and
    providing in-service training to teachers;
  • the library media center was open longer hours (as
    opposed to shorter hours);
  • the library media center had a cooperative
    relationship with the public library;
  • the library media center provided access to the
  • the library had a collection development policy.

In Pennsylvania, the success of the school library media program in promoting high academic achievement was dependent on adequate staffing at all three grade levels tested. What constitutes adequate staffing? At least one full-time, certified library media specialist and one full-time support staff member. In schools with adequately staffed libraries, test scores in grades 5, 8, and 11 increased by four percent, five percent, and eight percent, respectively. One reason for this, according to the study, is that as library media center staffing increased, so did the amount of time that librarians spent on instructional activities. In Pennsylvania schools, the payoffs of well-developed library media programs grew over time. Test scores increased as library media specialists spent more time:

  • teaching cooperatively with classroom teachers;
  • teaching information literacy skills independently of
    classroom teachers;
  • providing in-service training to teachers; serving on
    curriculum and standards committees;
  • managing information technology.

At this point, only preliminary results are available for the new Colorado study. The findings confirm much of the earlier Colorado research (Lance, Keith Curry, L. Welborn, and C. Hamilton-Pennell. The Impact of School Library Media Centers on Academic Achievement. Castle Rock, CO: Hi Willow Research and Publishing, 1993) and add new factors as well. For the 4th and 7th grades, student-reading scores on the Colorado State Assessment correlated with the quality of the library media programs and the involvement of the library media specialist in instructional and leadership activities. In elementary and middle schools with the strongest library media programs, students scored 15 percent higher than their counterparts in schools with the weakest programs. Students scored higher on tests when there was an increase in:

  • total library media center staff per 100 students;
  • size of the library media center collection,
    including books, magazines, and newspapers;
  • library media center operating expenditures per
  • computers with access to library resources,
    databases, and the Internet;
  • weekly hours the librarian spent being a leader in
    the school (for example, attending faculty meetings);
  • hours the librarian met with the principal, served on
    standards and curriculum committees, helped teachers access and use standards
    information, and met with other library media professionals;
  • weekly hours the librarian spent collaborating with teachers (for example, planning cooperatively, providing teacher training, teaching independently, supporting technology that links library media centers and classrooms).

In addition, at the 7th grade level, student test scores tended to rise with an increase in:

  • the number of professional librarians;
  • the number of individual student visits to the library media center.

Getting the Research into the Right Hands

Thirty-five years of educational and library research have demonstrated a strong link between the school library media program and student academic achievement. With so much evidence available, why have so many schools failed to recognize the power of the library media program? Perhaps the evidence has not fallen into the right hands. Here are some suggestions for sharing our information with decision-makers and others.


Share the results of these studies with your community, local news media,
parent organization, teachers, principal, superintendent, and school board at
every available opportunity.

Build partnerships.

Ask your state professional association’s leaders to solicit the support of state education agencies to develop new policies, practices, and funding to assist library media programs.

Act locally.

Take the initiative to create opportunities to be more directly and actively involved with students and teachers, technology, and the curriculum.


Teach information literacy, preferably in conjunction with classroom teachers–and teach them how to utilize you and your program more effectively.


Don’t wait to be asked to serve on curriculum and standards committees.
Insist that the library be included in all curricular decisions.


Lance, Keith Curry, Christine Hamilton-Pennell, and Marcia J. Rodney. Information Empowered: The School Librarian as an Agent of Academic Achievement in Alaska Schools. Juneau: Alaska State Library, 1999. (A summary of the Alaska study is available at www.educ.state.ak.us/lam/library/dev/infoemp.html. For information on how to receive a free copy of this study, see ‘$30 and Under,’ p. 35.)

Lance, Keith Curry, Marcia J. Rodney, and Christine Hamilton-Pennell. Measuring Up to Standards: The Impact of School Library Programs & Information Literacy in Pennsylvania Schools. Camp Hill, PA: Pennsylvania Citizens for Better Libraries, forthcoming.

Lance, Keith Curry, Marcia J. Rodney, and Christine Hamilton-Pennell. How School Librarians Help Kids Achieve Standards. Castle Rock, CO: Hi Willow Research and Publishing, 2000.

For more information, consult Colorado’s Library Research Service Web site at www.lrs.org.


A Review of Library Research Literature

From 1965 to 1998, more than 60 education and library research studies produced evidence that school library media programs and library media specialists have a positive impact on student achievement. A full review of this research is included in all three of the new state research reports mentioned in the main article. Following are a few of the highlights of past research, focusing on the three roles of the library media specialist as identified in the 1998 edition of Information Power (ALA): learning and teaching, information access and delivery, and program administration.

Learning and Teaching

Some of the earliest research studies demonstrated a relationship between the library media specialist’s teaching role and student achievement. Aaron (1975) showed that a full-time media specialist added to the teaching team improved student achievement in language arts, spelling, and math computation. Bailey (1970) found that disadvantaged students increased their language skills by participating in a library resource program. Gengler (1965) reported that students’ problem-solving skills increased when they worked with a librarian as well as a teacher.

More recently, Lance, Welborn, and Hamilton-Pennell (1993) found that students earned higher standardized test scores in language arts when the library media specialist played an instructional role. Several researchers reported that successful library media specialists saw teaching as their primary function and were viewed by their colleagues as a vital part of the instructional process (Yetter, 1994; K. G. Alexander, 1992; Gehlken, 1994; Bell and Totten, 1992). Student achievement increased when teachers and library media specialists collaborated and integrated information skills into subject content (Grover and Lakin, 1998; Todd, Lamb, and McNicholas, 1993). Both flexible scheduling in the library media center and availability of technology were found to expand the possibilities for teacher-librarian partnerships in curriculum development and teaching (Fedora, 1993; van Deusen, 1993; van Deusen and Tallman, 1994; Everhart, 1992; van Deusen, 1996; Jones, 1994).

Information Access and Delivery

Several research studies have shown that students achieve higher reading comprehension scores when there is greater access to print resources and more time spent in free voluntary reading (Krashen, 1993; McQuillan, 1997; Digiovanna, 1994; Halliwell, 1995; Lipscomb, 1993). More student visits to the library media center have been linked to higher student achievement (Koga and Harada, 1989; Library Research Service #149), and student test scores have also risen as library services such as reference, information skills instruction, curriculum integration, and reading guidance have increased (Martin, 1996). The Library Research Service (#150, 1998) found that students had higher achievement scores when the library media specialist had a cooperative relationship with the local public library.

Lance, Welborn, and Hamilton-Pennell (1993) demonstrated that the size of a library media center’s staff and collection was the best school predictor of academic achievement. Schools employing more media center staff had higher achievement test scores. Several researchers found that high-achieving schools had more technological resources in the library media program (Baule, 1997; Yetter, 1994; Gehlken, 1994; Library Research Service #141, 1998).

Program Administration

The research shows that library media specialist leadership, program management skills, an adequate budget, and administrative support are also linked to student achievement. Student achievement was higher when the library media specialist had good planning skills and a plan for the development of the library media center (Yetter, 1994; Library Research Service #150, 1998). Successful collaboration with classroom teachers depended on library media specialist leadership and strong principal support (Yetter, 1994; Farwell, 1998; Gehlken, 1994; Lumley, 1994).

In terms of funding, Lance, Welborn and Hamilton-Pennell (1993) and Bruning (1994) found that students achieved higher test scores when library media centers were better funded, regardless of the socioeconomic conditions of the community. Increasing expenditures for school library media materials and staff had a positive effect on student achievement.


Aaron, S. L.

(1975). Personalizing Instruction for the Middle School Learner: The Instructional Role of the School Library Media Specialist. Tallahassee: Florida Department of Education.

Alexander, K. G.

(1992). Profiles of Four Exemplary School Media Specialists. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Miami.

Bailey, G. M

. (1970). The Use of a Library Resource Program for the Improvement of Language Abilities of Disadvantaged First Grade Pupils of an Urban Community. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Boston College.

Baule, S. M.

(1997). The Technology Planning Process and the School Library Media Specialist. Unpublished doctoral dissertation., Northern Illinois University.

Becker, D. E.

(1970). Social Studies Achievement of Pupils in Schools with Libraries and Schools without Libraries. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Bell, M., & Totten, H. L.

(1992). Cooperation in Instruction between Classroom Teachers and School Library Media Specialists: A Look at Teacher Characteristics in Texas Elementary Schools. School Library Media Quarterly, 20 (2), 79-85.

Bruning, M.

(1994). Is Money Spent on Libraries a Wise Investment? Ohio Media Spectrum, 46 (3), 18-20.

Digiovanna, L. M.

(1994). The Importance of Recreational Reading, and Its Impact on Children’s Motivation, Attitude towards Reading, As Well As Reading Achievement. Unpublished master’s thesis, Grand Valley State University.

Everhart, N.

(1992). An Analysis of Work Activities of High School Library Media Specialists in Automated and Nonautomated Library Media Centers. School Library Media Quarterly, 20 (2), 86-99.

Farwell, S. M.

(1998). Profile of Planning: A Study of a Three-Year Project on the Implementation of Collaborative Library Media Programs. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Florida International University.

Fedora, A. P.

(1993). An Exploration of the Scheduling Patterns of Two Exemplary School Media Centers. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Gehlken, V. S.

(1994). The Role of the High School Library Media Program in Three Nationally Recognized South Carolina Blue Ribbon Secondary Schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of South Carolina.

Gengler, C. R.

(1965). A Study of Selected Problem-Solving Skills Comparing Teacher-Instructed Students with Library/Teacher-Instructed Students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Oregon.

Grover, R., & Lakin, J. M.

(1998). Learning Across the Curriculum. CSLA Journal, 21(2), 8-10.

Halliwell, C.

(1995). Relationships between Free Voluntary Reading and the Eighth Grade Missouri Writing Assessment. Unpublished master’s thesis, Central Missouri State University.

Jones, J. R. (1994).

The Teacher-Librarian Partnership in a Literature-Based Approach. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Arizona State University.

Koga, S. & Harada, T.

(1989). Academic Achievement and the School Library: An International Study. Paper presented at International Federation of Library Association General Conference and Council Meeting, School Libraries Section, Paris.

Krashen, S. D.

(1993). The Power of Reading. Culver City, Calif.: Language Education Associates.

Lance, K. C., Welborn, L., and Hamilton-Pennell, C.

(1993). The Impact of School Library Media Centers on Academic Achievement. Castle Rock, Colo.: Hi Willow Research and Publishing.

Library Research Service, Colorado State Library.

(1998). Library Media Specialists & Technology Linked to Higher CSAP Test Scores. Fast Facts: Recent Statistics from the Library Research Service (141).

Library Research Service, Colorado State Library.

(1998). Student Use of Library Media Programs Key to NAEP Success. Fast Facts: Recent Statistics from the Library Research Service (149).

Library Research Service, Colorado State Library.

(1998). Well-Managed Library Media Programs that Cooperate with Local Public Libraries Linked to Higher CSAP Test Scores. Fast Facts: Recent Statistics from the Library Research Service (150).

Lipscomb, L. A.

(1993). Recreational Reading and Its Effects on the Reading Achievement of First through Third Graders. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin.

Lumley, A. M.

(1994). The Change Process and the Change Outcomes in the Development of an Innovative Elementary School Library Media Program. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Kansas State University.

Martin, B. A.

(1996). The Relationship of School Library Media Center Collections, Expenditures, Staffing, and Services to Student Academic Achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Auburn University.

McQuillan, J. L.

(1997). Access to Print and Formal Instruction in Reading Acquisition. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California.

Todd, R. J., Lamb, L., & McNicholas, C.

(1993). Information Skills and Learning: Some Research Findings. Access, 7(1), 14-16.

van Deusen, J. D.

(1993). The Effects of Fixed versus Flexible Scheduling on Curriculum Involvement and Skills Integration in Elementary School Library Media Programs. School Library Media Quarterly, 21 (3), 173-182.

van Deusen, J. D.

(1996a). An Analysis of the Time Use of Elementary School Library Media Specialists and Factors That Influence It. School Library Media Quarterly, 24 (2), 85-92.

van Deusen, J. D.

(1996b). The School Library Media Specialist As a Member of the Teaching Team: ‘Insider’ and ‘Outsider.’. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 11 (3), 229-248.

van Deusen, J. D., & Tallman, J. I.

(1994). The Impact of Scheduling on Curriculum Consultation and Information Skills Instruction: Part One: The 1993-94 AALS/Highsmith Research Award Study. School Library Media Quarterly, 23 (1), 17-25.

Yetter, C. L.

(1994). Resource-Based Learning in the Information Age School: The Intersection of Roles and Relationships of the School Library Media Specialist, Teachers, and Principal. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Seattle University.

Christine Hamilton-Pennell is an independent researcher and former director of the Resource Center and the Standards and Assessment Resource Bank, Colorado Department of Education. Keith Curry Lance is director of the Library Research Service, Colorado State Library. Marcia J. Rodney is a senior research analyst with the Library Research Service, Colorado State Library. And Eugene Hainer is the senior consultant for school library media centers, Colorado State Library.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
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