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The Work of the ALA Task Force on School Libraries [Available Full-Text, Free]

By Katherine Lowe - Posted Jul 1, 2006
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Consider the following:

* Students do better academically in schools that have good libraries, but reports of the elimination of school librarians—and even entire school library programs—persist, despite numerous studies documenting the positive impact on student achievement of well-funded libraries staffed by qualified professionals. (See the Library Research Services Web site at

* "Today's school librarian may be caught in a paradigm gap between the rigidity of schools structured around 19th- or 20th-century needs and the flexibility required by the 21st-century learner in an information-rich world. Pressure from laws and public accountability may be leading some schools to increase their control of the curriculum and the assessment of learning, while their school libraries may be moving in the opposite direction, to a model of student empowerment, independent thinking and inquiry-based learning" (from the Interim Report to the ALA [American Library Association] Executive Board, School Libraries Task Force, January 2006).

These trends, coupled with an aging population of school librarians who are retiring faster than new professionals can enter the field, point to a crisis-in-the-making for school library programs across the country.

In response to this potential crisis and to "the urgent need to support and maintain school library programs and certified school librarians," the Executive Board of the ALA called for action to reverse this trend by forming a Special Task Force on School Libraries in June 2005. The 12-member Task Force, on which I serve, is headed by Barbara Stripling, director of library services for the New York City Public Schools. It includes representatives from many types of libraries and related state and federal agencies. They come from Texas, Illinois, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, California, Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.

ALA charged the Task Force to the following:

* Provide an assessment of the current state of school library service in America.

* Identify the most-critical issues and trends affecting school libraries.

* Evaluate options for responding to threats and/or reversing erosion in school library services nationwide.

* Make recommendations for practical strategies to prevent further erosion of school library services in America and assist in the restoration of services where the services have been reduced or eliminated.

The Task Force was given 6 months to complete its work. With members from all over the country and only one opportunity to meet face-to-face (at the June 2005 ALA annual conference in Chicago), most of the work of the Task Force had to be done via e-mail. In her introductory message to the participants, Stripling outlined the work of the committee and asked members to decide how they could contribute. In order to collect sufficient data to analyze the current status of school library programs and identify critical issues affecting the field, she asked Task Force members to review professional literature and seek out key stakeholders for their input. The group was expected to present a summary and analysis of its findings to the ALA Executive Board in San Antonio at the midwinter meeting in January 2006.

It soon became apparent that 6 months was not nearly enough time for the Task Force to complete this enormous undertaking. Instead of the final report that was originally requested, Stripling presented an interim report to the Executive Board at ALA's midwinter 2006 meeting. In the report, Stripling provided an analysis of the implications and demands that societal contexts, the changing information environment, 21st-century learner characteristics, and the educational environment place on today's school librarians and school library programs.

Societal Contexts

The world that today's high school graduates will enter is already quite different from the one that existed when they entered school. Increasing globalization has changed the nature of available jobs and created global competition. Our students now must understand cultures and issues beyond our borders. Individuals need to develop independent work skills and the ability to collaborate virtually, but our education system has not changed to meet the new needs of the workforce. There has been a marked increase in public accountability. Schools must show value—and that value is increasingly being measured by standardized testing.

Information Environment

Evolving technologies, the exploding volume of information, and the rapidly expanding Internet are particularly problematic for school libraries. Today's students are digital natives, but the structures and curricula of many schools have not changed to integrate the new information environment in which our students live. Many school librarians have a difficult time acquiring the funds for online resources, and some administrators and teachers believe that school libraries can be eliminated because all information is available online.

While our students are increasingly functioning in the virtual arena, teachers' fear of plagiarism sometimes results in restricting the use of electronic resources, and mandated filters in schools block student research in legitimate areas. Bans on student e-mail, chat, and blogs, although intended to protect students and keep them focused on academics, result in students becoming disengaged from school. Once students leave school, they will be called upon to collaborate with their colleagues at the workplace, in both real and virtual environments, but the methods used by many teachers do not allow for virtual collaboration.

School librarians develop Web pages, electronic pathfinders, portals, and other tools to teach and support students as they search for information through the maze of print and electronic resources. Librarians recognize that today's information environment demands a much higher level of information fluency than ever before.

Learner Characteristics

Today's students have grown up in a digital environment. They think and process information differently than previous generations did. They multitask and expect interactivity in their learning experiences. They expect to have a seamless learning environment and to be able to shift among work, play, and study easily and at any time, anywhere. They want their access to resources and information to be personalized with no loss of privacy, and they expect to collaborate with others and interact with the content to do their own learning.

Although students desire independence and express confidence in their information-gathering capabilities, they often do not have the skills that enable them to be critical and successful users of information. In order to help students become knowledgeable and successful in their independent information gathering and to provoke and inspire them to inquire and engage with the world, school librarians have responded to the changing needs of learners with an increased emphasis on teaching inquiry and thoughtful information skills.       

Educational Environment

Several factors in the national educational environment have placed the school library and librarian in a highly endangered position by laying all accountability for school success at the door of test results in reading and math, while at the same time denying the instructional value of the library and the teaching role of the librarian.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation mandated a high level of accountability on reading and math scores, and now some teachers and schools are "teaching to the test." This undermines a library program that is designed to teach students to think independently and to read freely. In addition, the NCLB legislation did not include librarians in the mandate for "highly qualified" teachers, which has resulted in nonlibrary teachers and paraprofessionals replacing credentialed librarians.

Another serious threat comes from a nonprofit group called First Class Education that has proposed a financial accountability program called the "65% Solution," restricting local educational spending to 65 percent in the classroom and 35 percent out of the classroom. The group is using the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) definition of "Instruction Expenditure," which does not include libraries or librarians.

Professional development has not been widely available to enable experienced librarians to keep pace with their dramatically changing roles, especially in the area of technology and information access and use. There are increasing shortages in the number of qualified school librarians ready to take the place of those retiring from the profession and a dearth of graduate programs to prepare school librarians. Graduate programs are developing innovative methods, such as online degrees, distance education, and distance/local collaborations to extend their reach and to bring more school librarians into the profession.


Foremost among the recommendations in the interim report, the Task Force asked ALA to address the critical issues that threaten the existence of school libraries by supporting the agenda laid out in the ALA Resolution on the Instructional Classification of School Librarians, which advocates for the inclusion of certified school librarians as part of the NCES "Instruction" classification. (See the "AASL Position Statement on Instructional Classification" sidebar and the end of this story.)

In addition, the report calls for the following:

* ALA's support for a new professional paradigm for school libraries through the revision of national standards for school library media programs

* Research in the field

* Collaboration with national organizations in technology, administration, and content areas

* Definition of skills taught through the library

It further urges ALA to integrate the new professional paradigm into strategic planning, programming, communications, and policy statements; to develop a strategy to respond to threats to school library programs; and to leverage national acceptance by constituencies outside of the school library field of the new professional paradigm.

The ALA Executive Board accepted the report in January and gave the Task Force permission to defer its final report until the 2006 ALA Annual Conference. The Board also allocated funding for a Delphi study seeking the judgments of school librarians on critical school library issues and recommendations for actions they wanted ALA to take. Forty school librarians from across the country were invited to participate in the study.

Will school libraries that are models of "student empowerment, independent thinking and inquiry-based learning" become the norm? Will there be national acceptance of a new "professional paradigm" for school librarians?

As I write this in May, the Delphi study is nearly complete, and Stripling and the rest of us on the Task Force are preparing our final report, which will be presented in late June at the ALA annual conference in New Orleans. We hope and intend that the vision expressed in that report will ensure that the answer to those questions is, ultimately, yes!

[Editor's Note: As you read this in July, the Task Force has submitted its final report, and Katherine Lowe has writen a brief update with links to the actual final report. We've posted it in the Breaking News section of our Web site. Click HERE to read it now.]

Katherine Lowe is a member of the ALA Task Force on School Libraries. She is president of the Massachusetts School Library Media Association (MSLMA) and soon-to-be-retired director of the Boston Arts Academy/Fenway High School Library & Boston Symphony Orchestra Education Resource Center, 2004 AASL School Library Media Program of the Year. She may be contacted at


AASL Position Statement on Instructional Classification

AASL supports the inclusion of certified school library media specialists as part of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) "Instruction" classification.

School library media centers are classrooms in which school library media specialists teach and students and teachers learn. In school library media centers, students read, utilize print, non-print, and technology resources,
and learn to evaluate and use information for projects and reports efficiently, effectively, and ethically, with the goal of developing lifelong learning and literacy skills and strategies. In school library media programs, classroom teachers and school library media specialists collaborate for instruction and support the development of each other's teaching skills. Multiple research studies, more than 60 since 1965, have affirmed that there is a clear link between school library media programs staffed by state-certified school library media specialists and increased student achievement (Library Research Services Web site at

School library media specialists are recognized by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) as teachers whose teaching can be measured to meet standards for professional teaching excellence and by the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS) as teachers who are critically important for student achievement ( School library media specialists are teachers who serve as crucial partners in ensuring that states and school districts meet the reading requirements that are part of No Child Left Behind (P.L. 107-110). In Part B, Subpart 1, Section 1208 of No Child Left Behind (P.L. 107-110), Instructional Staff is defined as "principals, teachers, supervisors of instruction, librarians, and school library media specialists".

Despite the vital role school library media specialists play as teachers and collaborators with classroom teachers, NCES classifies school library media specialists as "Support Staff— Instruction" rather than "Instruction" along with classroom teachers. School library media specialists were placed in the instructional support category by NCES in the 1950s and, despite the evolution of school library media specialists' work from book warehouse managers to instructional leaders and partners, school library media specialists remain in this support staff classification. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and NCES conflict in their classification of school library media specialists.

Failure to classify school library media specialists as instructional staff and to recognize the impact of state-certified school library media specialists on student achievement, especially in reading, may result in a critical loss of funding for library positions and resources and a dangerous deterioration of library services for our nation's children. AASL will take a lead role over the next several years to communicate with state and national government leaders as well as the leadership of educational organizations about the importance of, and the role played by, school library media specialists in student achievement.

Issued April 2006

Reprinted with permission from the American Library Association/American Association of School Librarians.

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