Librarians: a vital cyber resource

In the information age, librarians are needed more than ever, says Mega Subramaniam.

Child choosing booksThe past few years have been intense for school librarians, in the US as in the UK. Traditionally viewed as champions of reading in schools (although they are more than that), school librarians have been the first educator to be removed from schools when there are budget cuts (American Library Association, 2014; Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group, 2014). As a result, school libraries remain understaffed and unattended, and often end up as meeting and testing venues, or worse, as detention centres.

The most common justifications that I have heard for axing school librarians include:

  • we don’t need a librarian to check out books
  • librarians are not needed when we have teachers who are trained to teach reading, writing and technology
  • Google and other search engines provide the direct information and reference services that librarians normally provide
  • people under 18 actively use computers and digital devices daily, so they can teach themselves how to select, retrieve, and share digital information.

In addressing the above, I would argue that we need school librarians more than ever. In this era of connected learning (Ito et al, 2013), information sources can be used in a variety of settings to promote learning experiences that are interest-driven, peer-supported, academically oriented, and connected to the in-school and out-of-school experiences of young people. Librarians, with their specialised skills and training, have a vital role to play in this.

The way young people select, read, and develop communities around books, the genres of books that they read, and the format these books are in, have changed dramatically in recent years. In a recent study in the United States, 16- and 17-year-olds self-report that they are more likely to get reading recommendations from librarians (compared to sources such as family, friends, online bookstores, etc.), than other older age groups are (Zickhur, et. al, 2012). Young people’s choice of reading genre is influenced by the movies and television series that they watch, the games that they play, and peer and online recommendations. School librarians provide advice to young people on the authors and book series that they should read, based upon their reading levels and interests.

School librarians have the skills to facilitate reading and writing, as well as STEM dispositions and literacies (Subramaniam, et. al, 2013). Conducting online research, integrating technology, and nurturing new media literacy are now embedded within all subject content. Teachers may be well-equipped to teach these 21st century skills. However, collaborating with a school librarian will help ensure that they are taught by an educator trained in these areas. School librarians can also connect young people to STEM concepts through science fiction, sci-fi movies, and sci-fi games, and leverage these resources to help young people see the value and applicability of STEM in their everyday lives. Igniting STEM interest through STEM media is especially beneficial for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds (Subramaniam, et. al., 2012).

In the era of Google, and of avid content creation on social media, blogs, and personal websites, young people need information literacy skills to find information that is useful and credible. Some of the issues they seek information on, such as health, are critical to their wellbeing. Knowing the strategies to find accurate information is therefore vital and school librarians can provide these.

The idea that children and young adults are digital natives (Prensky, 2001) has been refuted by many recent studies (Hargittai, 2010; Subramaniam et. al, in press). Their relative lack of life experience, and of experience with the information-seeking process, means that young people cannot frame their information problem, cannot assess the credibility of the information that they have found, and often do not know the ethical considerations in creating and sharing content. They also have trouble managing privacy and online threats, and many are on social media even before they are legally allowed to sign up (Subramaniam, et. al, 2014). There are many skills that young people must have in order to be engaged and responsible online users. School librarians are the only professionals specially trained to provide instruction on such matters.

Notice that I don’t talk about the need for school libraries. Instead, I argue the need for school librarians. The two should come as a package and not be discussed in isolation from one another. If we remove the school librarian from the school, we are depriving the next generation of critical 21st century skills that they need to function as effective and ethical citizens of the technology age. Now is the time to reimagine the role of school libraries in schools, and to include school librarians in this conversation.

Mega Subramaniam is an Assistant Professor at the College of Information Studies, and Associate Director for the Information Policy and Access Center, at the University of Maryland. 

References: 
  1. American Library Association. (2014). The state of America’s libraries. Retrieved September 27, 2014, from http://www.ala.org/news/sites/ala.org.news/files/content/2014-State-of-Americas-Libraries-Report.pdf
  2. Hargittai, E. (2010). Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses among Members of the “Net Generation”. Sociological Inquiry, 80(1), 92–113.
  3. Ito, M., Gutierrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, W. R., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., et al. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.
  4. Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group. (2014). The beating heart of the school. Retrieved September 27, 2014, from http://www.cilip.org.uk/sites/default/files/documents/BeatingHeartoftheSchool.pdf
  5. Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants: Part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6.
  6. Subramaniam, M., Valdivia, C., Pellicone, A. & Neigh, Z. (2014). Teach me and trust me: Creating an empowered online community of tweens and parents. Proceedings of the 2014 iConference, 244–258. Retrieved from https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/handle/2142/46401/browse?value=Subramaniam%2C+Mega&type=author
  7. Subramaniam, M., Taylor, N. G., St. Jean, B., Follman, R., Kodama, C. & Casciotti, D. (in press). As simple as that?: Tween credibility assessment in a complex online world. Journal of Documentation.
  8. Subramaniam, M., Ahn, J., Waugh, A., Taylor, N. G., Druin, A., Fleischmann, K., et al. (2013). Crosswalk between the framework for K-12 science education and Standards for the 21st century learner: School librarians as the crucial link. School Library Research, 16. Retrieved September 27, 2014, from ‪http://ter.ps/2r1
  9. Subramaniam, M., Ahn, J., Fleischmann, K. & Druin, A.  (2012). Reimagining the role of school libraries in STEM education: Creating hybrid spaces for exploration. Library Quarterly, 82(2), 161–182.
  10. Zickhur, K., Rainie, L., Purcell, K., Madden, M. & Brenner, J. (2012). Younger Americans reading and library habits. Retrieved September 27, 2014, from http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/10/23/younger-americans-reading-and-library-habits/

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