The role of the teacher librarian: Current and future pathways

The role of the teacher librarian is progressively evolving, therefore what is expected of a Teacher Librarian and what they are accountable for is also changing. To shift the common misconception that teacher librarians sit at a desk all day and occasionally scan a barcode, is a slow and challenging task, as it has been this view for so long. However, with the Digital Education Revolution here, teacher librarians as media specialists have an opportunity to significantly change that misconception and lead their school into the 21st century. What is current is only the beginning for what is to come in the future. So what exactly do we do as Teacher Librarians and how can we lead the school into the 21st century?

 The Current Role of the Teacher Librarian

The role of the Teacher Librarian is complex. As Teacher Librarians, we have the exciting task of being multitasking magicians with the various roles we play within the library; many of which goes unnoticed. So what is it we actually do?

The ASLA Standards (Australian School Library Association) have listed the standards of professional excellence for Teacher Librarians within a broad framework of professional practice, professional knowledge and professional commitment. It is after reading the standards that fall under this umbrella, that you truly begin to appreciate and understand the complex and demanding role that we face as a Teacher Librarian. The ASLA Standards describe the role as having two key components, a teacher and an information specialist. As Librarians, we evoke life-long learning, collaboratively work with colleagues, resource the curriculum, understand and collaborate with the school community, continually develop our knowledge of teaching and learning across the curriculum as well as our knowledge of information resources, technology and library management. If that is not enough; we are also responsible for planning and budgeting the school resources.

Yet somehow, we are not appreciated and are just simply used as relief from face-to-face teachers. Now I am not claiming that every school has this view in common, however we can’t deny that this perspective and attitude is shared by the majority. “One of the major reasons why librarians are often overlooked by teachers is the lack of exposure during their teacher training programs to the types of value-added services librarians can provide. Collaboration cannot be fully realised without creating a collaborative culture in which all partners see the importance and understand the benefits of collaboration to themselves, each other and their students” (Teachers Connecting with Teacher Librarians, 2014). Our current role as the Teacher Librarian, information specialist can be highlighted as:


Image retrieved 25th August 2014 from

Image retrieved 25th August 2014 from

A teacher and educator involved in programming, teaching and assessing and responsible for literacy and information literacy skills development and the promotion of literature. We as collaborative teaching partners, support teaching and learning programs in information literacy, recognising that students need to be inspired, challenged and empowered with new knowledge.

A resource manager who develops the school collection to suit the needs of teachers and students and manages both the physical and virtual environment. Gibbons (2013) states that ‘a good school library supplements the prescribed curriculum with that other curriculum, the world of favourite books, comics, DVDs and websites’. Herring (2007), unlike Purcell (2010), refers to enabling students to use learning resources within and outside of the school. This is important given that students today have almost constant access to a wide range of resources and tools through the Internet. There is an expectation from the school community that the library is accessible beyond school hours and the physical constraints of the building (Lamb & Johnson, 2008).

An information specialist who makes information available for students and teachers. ‘Even though inquiry is a natural process for children, we help students with information retrieval through questioning and scaffolding.’ (Lupton, 2012)

The teacher librarian’s information specialist role is now more important than ever. Students need to be educated to become competent, ethical seekers and users of information in a technological world (Mann, 2011). Students need the help of the teacher librarian to confront the challenges of their information needs and develop knowledge and skills they will use for the rest of their lives (Harris, 2011).

In the learning environment of today, students demand access to information and ICT (Hay, 2006). Many authors including Herring (2007), Purcell (2010), Mann (2011), Twomey (2007) and Leppard (2003) agree that we need to be skilled information specialists who are able to select, locate, organise and use a range of information resources and technologies. However, our role as information specialist is more than just being able to locate relevant information for a particular topic or subject area. The knowledge that the teacher librarian can impart in the application of the information skills process has significant benefits in planning, the development of units of work and assessment tasks and strategies (Gibbs, 2003; Lamb & Johnson, 2008). We need to interpret and evaluate the library’s collection on a given topic in the context of the curriculum program, as well as developing information literacy skills (Herring, 2007; Purcell, 2010).  In addition, the teacher librarian must teach students the skill of evaluation (Harris, 2011; Sample job description: School library media specialist, 2009).

As an information specialist, we are in an ideal position to assist with the integration of critical thinking skills (Johnstone, 2009). Purcell (2010) identifies that the development of higher order thinking skills and enabling students to take part in the process of constructing knowledge is part of the role of the information specialist.

A collaborator who is a partner in curriculum planning and design, a resource creator who re-shapes tasks to suit the learners. Purcell (2010) discussed Teacher Librarians as being ‘instructional partners’, helping teachers develop the curriculum further. It is with collaboration that great things can happen. But it’s not only important to work collaboratively with the staff, but also with your Principal. The Principal and Teacher Librarian relationship is crucial. Without the support of the Principal, it can make the task of effectively carrying out the many roles of the Teacher Librarian more challenging than it ever should be. Farewell (1998) and Haycock (2002) share that the Principal plays a vital role as teacher-librarians and the principal share in the role of leadership (though the type of leadership differs) and both promote a shared vision. As the leader of the school, the Principal is naturally the person that the school staff looks up to and therefore for the majority, staff respect the decisions made by them. Therefore, if you have a principal who is passionate and supportive of your library, collaboration between you and your colleagues will be strongly promoted. Principals should support school libraries because it is in both their students’ and their own best interests to do so. Quality library media programs can enhance student achievement, and informed, committed librarians can help principals enhance their own administrative practice (Hartzell, 2003). As Haycock (2002, pg.32) states, “collaboration is not easy. But it is the single professional behaviour of teacher-librarians that most affects student achievement”. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about? (Waldron-Lamotte, 2014b).

Herring (2007) and Diggs (2011) agree that our role is to provide training and assistance in the effective use of information resources and tools. When a new technology is introduced, we as the teacher librarian can present it to our colleagues in the context of the learning philosophy of the school and not as just another abstract training session (Lamb & Johnson, 2008).  Purcell (2010) takes this role a step further, stating that we should model effective use of emerging technologies. This would have more impact on teachers and students than training and assistance alone and is more likely to result in the community embracing the change for the benefit of learning.

A leader.  Another important role that we need to acknowledge is that of a leader. A leader who leads by example, e.g. implementing a guided inquiry approach to learning. Mann (2011) suggests that leadership may be considered the most important role of the teacher librarian because it provides the foundation on which to build the various other roles. It is interesting to note that both Herring (2007) and Purcell (2010) begin their discussions on the role of the teacher librarian with the leadership role. This alone serves to highlight its importance. We as teachers have already committed to becoming effective leaders just by choosing to be teachers (Collay, 2008, p.28). So whether we realise it or not, we naturally develop a leadership style within our everyday teaching. We support and guide our students through their educational journey and this is succeeded through change (Waldron-Lamotte, M. (2014a).

The Debate

It seems as though there are many roles that we as Teacher Librarians are responsible for, whom supposably “sit and read all day and occasionally check out books” (Purcell, 2010, p. 30). While there are many that would argue that we don’t fulfil these roles, there are others who agree that the job of a Teacher Librarian is never done because there are so many roles involved. However they express that we should prioritise one role over another as this would make our jobs more manageable. Admittedly yes, we do have a lot to be responsible for, and yes it is expected of us to multitask. But should we prioritise?

Herring (2007) believes that teaching and learning should be a top priority and that resources should follow. As a teacher, we build upon and extend the student’s knowledge about the topics being covered in the classroom. He says that, “while the physical environment may contract, the information and knowledge environments created by the Teacher Librarian in collaboration with the teachers will greatly expand” (Herring, 2007, p. 40). Valenza (2010) shares a similar view on what the roles a Teacher Librarian play and shares this in a very extensive list, all of which are a vital contribution to the success students achieve throughout their academic journey. Most points from this list align with Herring’s (2010) view that teaching is the prominent role and the rest follow.

Purcell (2010) shares some common views with Herring; particular in her example of the study she performed. She says that by reflecting on how you spend your time, you will be able to identify barriers. For example she shares that, “if you see that 25 percent of your time is spent shelving and doing other clerical tasks, then you need to overcome this barrier to spend more time actively engaging students” (Purcell, 2010, p. 31). Whilst she admits that teaching is extremely important, like Herring, she feels that a collegial work environment is an integral role that we play. She believes that it is vital for the Teacher Librarian to work with the entire school community to decide what should be taught and the resources purchased for the library. There are many misconceptions about what a Teacher Librarian does, so by working collegially with the school community it promotes the profession. Consequently, this should have a positive impact on colleagues and will hopefully begin to change the misconstrued views on what it is we actually do.

As suggested by the article’s title: Bursting with Potential: Mixing a Media Specialist’s Palette, Lamb (2011) believes that a Teacher Librarian should not favour one role over another, rather approach each role equally and taking a bit from each “colour” on the palette: People, Administration, Learning, Electronic information, Technology, Teaching and Environments. This would be a much more appropriate method to cope with and manage the ominous tasks that we endure on a daily basis.

The Future Pathways for Teacher Librarians

Now is an exciting time to be involved in educating our next generation. The way we think about education and our approach to teaching is continually evolving, and our libraries are also undertaking a parallel evolution. They are no longer dusty, silent spaces where the main function is to store and catalogue books. Today’s libraries are becoming vibrant spaces for information seeking, sharing, creating, and communicating new learning. They encompass the best traditions of our old-world libraries while embracing multiple pathways to supporting, connecting and collaborating in our new educational environments. Twenty-first century librarians are still there with the right book for the right reader at the right time, but we are also enthusiastic mavens, passionate knowledge-seekers, and committed communicators in this burgeoning landscape.

We can no longer predict knowledge needed for the future, which has significant implications for contemporary literacy programmes. Reconceptualising current literacy approaches will support teachers to develop future-focused literacy teaching.

Image retrieved 25th August 2014 from

Image retrieved 25th August 2014 from

With changes to the outside world occurring, are we an endangered species? “If school library media specialists are doing their job well, they are making a difference in the ways teachers teach and in the ways students learn. On any given day, a media specialist performs a wide variety of roles that serve to strengthen the entire school community” (Purcell, 2010). “Global connectivity, smart machines, and new media are just some of the drivers reshaping how we think about work, what constitutes work, and the skills we will need to be productive contributors in the future” (Future Work Skills 2020, 2011). With this being said, you get an idea about what we should be thinking about in terms of our own future for school libraries and the role we will play in the future.

However, there has been much stir circling in the media of late as to whether or not we would eventually become extinct. Many have said that there has been a slow erosion of the uniquely qualified Teacher Librarians. It was once that a Teacher Librarian would be a permanent member of staff that would work full-time, without being dictated by the number of students that attended the school. “And with the NSW government proposing that Principals make their own decisions on funds allocation, a Principal with no particular passion for literature may decide the library and its computer already exists, and so let the specialist go” (Fienberg, A. 2012).

With that being said…

For every Teacher Librarian, defining their role is an important issue and much continues to be written about describing and defining the role (Diggs, 2011; Hamilton, 2011; Herring, 2007; Lamb & Johnson, 2008; Martineau, 2010; McKenzie, 2010; Purcell, 2010). The role is multi-faceted, has the potential to drive change in a school and to impact on student learning (Todd, 2004). It is the teacher librarian’s role to value-add to teaching (Green, 2004). Teacher Librarians must be genuine instructional partners and take an active role in contributing to the learning culture of the school. Teacher Librarians must be proactive, have a clear vision and the ability to articulate and demonstrate the importance of their role.  The role is dynamic and evolving, active, creative and innovative. Teacher Librarians need to be enthusiastic, skilful and knowledgeable; able to invigorate others and draw them into working together for improved learning outcomes for students. Often, Teacher Librarians have to be creative with the use of their time because of the demanding nature of the role (Terrell, 2011).


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