February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Soapbox: Not Fast Enough

In reviewing the results of School Library Journal’s 2012 School Technology Survey of U.S. school libraries, I’m drawn to several poker analogies. And I know enough about the game and the profession of school librarianship to recognize a weak hand. As a 20-year teacher librarian and now a manager of instructional technology and library services, I see firsthand how the game has changed—and how libraries must change to embrace technology, digital resources, and new ways of working.

Districts are using technology to innovate and change the ways students learn and teachers teach. For example, the Vancouver (WA) Public Schools have a roadmap for student learning that includes blended and online courses, Bring Your Own Device, 1:1 programs, and an increasing use of mobile devices by students, teachers, and administrators. We are not alone. Many districts are experimenting with similar initiatives, not to mention learning management systems and the increased use of digital resources in lieu of textbooks and library books.

Given this shift to mobile and personalized learning, teacher librarians must ante up for digital resources to meet the needs of students and teachers. As I look at the survey’s statistics on the use of ebooks and digital resources, I don’t see a widespread or sufficient commitment among school libraries. One of the highest levels of reported technology growth in the 2012 survey was the use of ebooks. Forty seven percent of respondents indicated usage with students and teachers, up from 31 percent in 2011. Additionally, 25 percent indicated that they planned to use ebooks in the next year. If those intentions translate to action, that would mean that in 2013, 72 percent of libraries would have and use ebooks.

But the willingness to play is not matched by a commitment to pay for these resources. When measuring ebooks as part of library collections, data reveals that digital titles remain more a novelty than a core resource. For those with ebooks in their libraries, the average number of titles owned was 265. And only 31 percent reported having reference or noncirculating ebooks in their collections. Many school library collections boast tens of thousands of print titles. This gap speaks for itself.

The survey also suggests that many libraries haven’t transitioned to online. A number of libraries fail to provide (or even provide access to) any digital information resources. Nine percent of school libraries indicated that they do not have a library website of any kind. Among those that do, one in five lacks links to electronic resources on that site. Despite an apparent two-fold increase from 2011, the number of teacher librarians who report using free Web-based resources in 2012 (78 percent), begs two questions: What were they using in 2011, and what are the others using? In many cases, it’s not a digital subscription: only 62 percent of teacher librarians report using digital subscriptions in 2012, up from 54 percent the previous year.

To use another poker analogy, school libraries have no choice but to be “all in” with ebooks, etexts, online databases, and digital resources. In my district and others, 1:1 programs now exist in which students are issued laptops or tablets, which they can use both at home and in school. In many cases, these initiatives include the use of learning management systems, online textbooks, and digital content that provides a wealth of information and content, often embedded in the courses themselves. For the first time, there’s no good reason for a print textbook. More ominously, there are also fewer reasons for a school library, especially one with only 265 ebooks. While we have strong libraries and teacher librarians throughout our district, our newest STEM magnet school opened last fall with no physical library and is currently without a teacher librarian.

Teacher librarians need to learn and master a new game. The knowledge and use of technology and digital resources must be ubiquitous, pervasive, effective, and thorough. The survey clearly demonstrates this is not happening. For every teacher librarian who uses a tablet computer, there are three who don’t. For every school librarian who uses Web 2.0 tools such as Edmodo, Diigo, and Pinterest, many colleagues do not. Aside from ebooks and subscription databases, most teacher librarians report that they play no role in purchasing or recommending purchase of technology for their schools.

Respondents listed several reasons why they haven’t embraced digital resources and educational technology in their libraries and schools—funding, training, and uncertainty. Vancouver has found ways to address these issues so that teacher librarians stay in the game, lead and support student learning, and align their school library programs with the strategic needs and direction of the district.

Funding. Everyone faces budgetary challenges. But teacher librarians have choices about where and how monies are spent. In Vancouver, our teacher librarians have begun several collaborative efforts to invest in ebooks, building on a longstanding district-wide suite of digital resources. There’s a conscious and coordinated effort to build and grow digital collections to support student learning. As iPads become more common, we are now seeking ways to leverage these tools to access ebooks and other online resources.

Training. Vancouver trains teacher librarians to be technology leaders in their schools. Now in its fifth year, this program has built valuable confidence and expertise so that teacher librarians are the first—rather than the last—to learn and adopt educational technologies. Teacher librarians have learned how to use Web 2.0 tools like Google Drive, Wallwisher, and Prezi to lead both building and district training efforts.

Uncertainty. As an early adopter of online resources and now ebooks, I understand the uncertainty associated with digital publishing. With competing platforms, vendors, and formats, there’s a chance of putting money on the table and being dealt a difficult hand. Despite that, I don’t think we have a choice. We’ve placed some bets on promising vendors knowing that our savvy populations require our collections to be mobile, digital, and relevant now, not next year.

As a longtime teacher librarian, I believe that we are perfectly poised to lead, teach, and support students and teachers in 21st-century schools. We have a small pile of chips in the form of information skills, systemic vision, and a longtime role as collaborators and educational leaders. But here’s the hand we’ve been dealt—our students, our teachers, and our schools are digital. And in many cases, our libraries, collections, and skills are not. The average age of survey respondents was 50 years old, meaning that like me, most of us knew libraries when the rules were different. The good news from the 2012 survey is that many teacher librarians are very much in the game. Now all us need to see that bet and raise it. Game on!

Mark Ray is the Vancouver (WA) Public Schools’ manager of instructional technology and library services and a former state teacher of the year.



  1. I recently started a job as a middle/high school librarian at an independent school that realized it needed a library program, a stronger one. One of the challenges I’m finding is trying to explain the balance that’s needed in technology education and how having a website is part of it, but having a good website, using the right tools at the right time is hard. There are many administrators who are also older and so only see, we need technology and don’t understand the complexities of getting the right tool in the right place. It makes it tricky but its possible, but I”m sure I’m not the only one with this problem of trying to explain that having a website is only part of what’s needed. This is a thought provoking article but I worry that you’re preaching to the choir at this point since sometimes as school librarians, we can create and teach and explain. Yet teachers and administrators have to say, yes, we want this and will use it.

  2. I found this article very enlightening and encouraging, especially as a new library technician in an elementary school library. I am wondering, though, about the steps we need to take to be on top. Should we be prepared to set up a library website ourselves, knowing code and programming language, etc.? With library promotion, for example, and setting up a library website or a blog, how technically savy should we be in order to get things running? Half of the job is promoting the idea (of setting up a website, linking to this or that) and the other half is actually, technically, setting it up. That used to be an “IT” thing, but it seems we’re heading in the direction where library staff are taking on those kinds of tasks…


  1. […] Soapbox: Not Fast Enough | School Library Journal […]