The New Librarians


They aren't merely no-nonsense bookproviders anymore. In the digital age, theyare multitasking information managers—part teacher, part technologist.

The New Librarians AT THE LIBRARY ON THE CAMPUS of SandraDay O'Connor High School in Helotes, TX, you'll see afew things you may not have anticipated, such as 60-footceilings and four television sets, all housed in 19,000square feet of technologically augmented space. Every fiveyears, the facility gets new computers and printers. In twoyears, it'll be getting digital LCD projectors, which will behooked up to workstations.

Oh, and there's this, too: a coffee bistro—park benches with pillows, glass-top tables, students playing guitar. National Honor Society students are the baristas, making 300 cups of Starbucks each day, to be doled out for free before and after school. Who picks up the tab for the joe? Meet Jack Strawn, school librarian.

Whether through coffee or computers, Strawn is a huge believer in getting with the times. "We're trying to reach the kids where they are," he says. "If our students see that we can't text-message or use an iPod or do a blog, they tune us out. If we're going to be effective educators, we need to speak their language."

When he's not being a cafemeister, Strawn conducts classes, guides students who drop in for help with research, and leads a workshop for parents on how the teenage brain works. Recently he facilitated a blog for his students that focused on Macbeth. The students applied psychological testing and analysis to the play's six main characters and then posted the information online. "I think it had a dramatic effect on students and their achievements," says Strawn. "Their test scores were extremely high."

Strawn is among the vanguard of the new breed of school librarian, with responsibilities extending far beyond the conventional perception of librarians as blue-haired "shushers" and Dewey Decimal savants. Today's school librarians do much more than stock shelves with books. They may do any or all of the following:

  • facilitate "library" classes that help students understand how to use technology to conduct research, doling out homework and conducting assessments
  • meet with teachers to help them infuse technology into their curricula, sometimes by doing online searches for information, using interactive whiteboards for presentations, or creating videotapes and DVDs
  • attend conferences with other school librarians and media directors to learn about the latest technology for information management

In general, modern school librarians help usher in the technological changes that schools must address, and it can be the attitude and skill of the librarians that determines how smoothly and productively the transition to the 21st-century classroom goes.


The New Librarians A 1998 book by Thomas C.Wilson, The Systems Librarian: Designing Roles, Defining Skills (American Library Association), identified the typical responsibilities of systems librarians:

  • integrated library system management
  • network design and management
  • server and host administration
  • desktop computing
  • training, documentation, and support
  • application development
  • planning and budgeting
  • specification and purchasing
  • technology exploration and evaluation
  • miscellaneous technology support
  • technical risk management
  • communication and coordination

Compare the above list to an updated list that spells out the same challenges. An article published in April by the Association of College and Research Libraries, "Top 10 Assumptions for the Future of Academic Libraries and Librarians: A Report from the ACRL Research Committee" (C&R L News), focuses on college libraries, but could just as easily have been detailing the circumstances faced by K-12 librarians:

  • increased emphasis on digitizing collections, preserving archives, and improving methods of data storage and retrieval
  • continuing evolvement of skill sets for librarians
  • demand for faster and greater access to services increasingly common debates about intellectual property
  • growing demand for technology-related services and additional funding
  • focus on fund raising, maximizing revenue, reducing costs, and optimizing physical space
  • students viewing themselves as customers and consumers, expecting high-quality facilities and services
  • distance learning becoming a more common option
  • growing free public access to information stemming from publicly funded research
  • privacy continuing to be an important issue

In fact, the changing times are reflected in the title of the job itself. No longer mere librarians, they are library information specialists.

One such title holder is Joyce Valenza of Springfield Township High School in Erdenheim, PA. Valenza has actually created a chart that documents the changes to school libraries over the years (see Links, page 28). Here are some examples from it:

  • Reference sources: from encyclopedias, CD databases, books, magazines, and newspapers to Wikipedia, Google,, MapQuest, subscription databases, and e-books
  • Modes of communication: from letters, phone calls, and e-mail to cell phones, texting, social networking, blogs, and wikis
  • Service: from personal interaction with staff at the desk to expectations of immediate and continual service at school, home, or anywhere else
  • Student projects: from term papers, essays, dioramas, and speeches to PowerPoint presentations, podcasts, video editing, teleconferencing, and digital storytelling
  • Collections: from books, magazines, filmstrips, cassette tapes, and software on disk to e-books, streaming audio and video, blogs, webcasts, podcasts, software, and web-based applications

Naturally, the physical space has changed too: Before, there were desks and chairs and the centerpiece card catalog. Now there's room in the library for events, group planning, microphones, cameras, and, of course, computers. And the card catalog? Whisked away to a new home online.

“Twenty years ago, you checked out books, got a story from thelibrarian, and that was really about it. [Now] we’re a portal for thekids. We’re information brokers.”
—Linda Miller, Blattman Elementary School

Valenza isn't just charged with managing the physical grounds and all of the attendant hardware. She also oversees Spring- field's virtual library, which allows users to perform a host of functions—everything from linking to the school's home page, to searching for information about colleges and careers, to downloading lessons and handouts and submitting papers. Valenza says the school's students are now becoming friendly with blogs and wikis, so they can engage in task-focused online discussions. She has several of them engaged in a literature blog.

"When they discuss their enthusiasm about writing," Valenza says, "it's stunning. They're concerned about people seeing their work." It's not unheard of, she says, to see comments posted at 2 in the morning. She even has a friend who created a wiki for his daughter's lacrosse team, and it resulted in more than 300 discussions. Valenza says working with technology engages students, but also has a practical benefit: "We're modeling how the tools can be used in your real life—how you present yourself digitally."

The changes are visible up and down the grade levels. Linda Miller and Jennifer Langford are the librarians at Patricia J. Blattman Elementary School and Gregory Luna Middle School, respectively, both part of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, TX. "Twenty years ago," says Miller, "you checked out books, got a story from the librarian, and that was really about it." Now, she says, "we're a portal for the kids. We're information brokers."

They're also teaching students how to conduct research. "You're never too young to learn how to do things the right way," Miller says, and the right way these days is often to go online. That means using discrimination: "One child just printed out pages from the internet. It was a good teaching point: Not everything's relevant, not everything's useful, and you can't just copy things." She facilitates an activity called "trash and treasure" in which students look for only the pertinent research.

Miller expects to continue seeing a heavy reliance on databases. "Teaching students how to access information on the database is going to be very critical as we move on to the technology of blogs and other means of communication," she says. She gets notes all the time from students saying, "This is the best library in the world." Miller thinks that staff development is critical in all this: "You want to make sure that they're teaching students and other teachers" about the resources they discover. She works with her campus instructional technologist to infuse technology into the curricula, "as opposed to using technology for technology's sake, which I think is a waste of time," Miller says.

For her part, Langford has seen her middle school students change dramatically, even through working with such low-tech tools as videotapes. One example: Seventh-grade students were required to write either a commercial, a segment from a talk show, or a movie review that embedded information about an event related to the Texas Revolution. They wrote scripts, videotaped themselves, and used Windows Movie Maker to edit what they produced. Working with the seventh-grade Texas history teacher, Langford tried to get students to participate in public speaking, and found that some of them were reluctant—until they watched themselves on video and were able to offer self-critiques. "I saw kids who were quiet and reading off a script, and then after a little coaching, becoming hams," she says.

The key to making modern libraries work, according to Langford, is collaboration between the librarian and classroom teachers. "I do my best to meld the classroom and library whenever possible," she says. "[That] offers the students the best possible scenario. The student-to-teacher ratio is better, and it has the added benefit of exposing students to varied points of view and teaching styles."

Confronting Obstacles

As with any time technology enters the discussion, funding becomes a decisive issue. In Bethesda, MD, Erica Lodish, the media specialist at the Walter Johnson High School Media Center, says the school is currently experiencing its third and fourth upgrades of both hardware and software. Her book collection has been negatively affected because she has to put so much money into her online resources. "For getting those extra things like whiteboards, notebook pads, clickers for assessments, and all the other tools that are coming out," she asks, "where does that money come from?"

Jana Knezek, director of library and textbook services at Northside ISD, the fourth-largest district in Texas, has been on both ends of the digital divide. In 1989, Knezek worked in a small district, "and we were real happy to get microfiche of the magazines in the nearby university so students could see what articles were available. Now we have online database subscriptions, and the articles themselves are online." This is largely due to a decision by the Texas Legislature to give database subscriptions to districts that have a librarian and at least three computers with dial-up internet access.

That was more than a decade ago. Next year, all of Northside ISD will be wireless. Knezek says the typical Northside media center has computers, digital projectors, whiteboards, video distribution systems, ceiling-mounted projectors, and Playaways (small devices, like iPods, that each play one preloaded audio book). But Knezek recently interviewed an applicant to be a school librarian who came from a district that didn't even have internet access.

This "incredible inequity," as she puts it, worries Springfield Township's Valenza also. While she notes the changes borne by technology with excitement ("I'm so charged!"), Valenza says that some school administrations "are blocking things blindly. They're either unaware or afraid of it." Some teachers, she says, don't even know what a database does.

When budgets don't get in the way, fear can. Jeff Small, library media specialist at Cony High School in Augusta, ME, says a big part of his work is trying to calm teachers who aren't comfortable with the rapidity of the changes. Small, who in the fall will become president of the Maine Association of School Libraries, expects no falloff in the push toward new technologies. "As we get more younger teachers, they're going to expect it," he says. "They grew up with computers; we had to learn about them as they became part of our world."

Small grew up on a farm and carried a paperback in his pocket, which he'd often read sitting under a tree. Today he sees students with graphic novels, Playaways, and online books. The card catalogs have gone electronic, the opaque projectors are now LCD, and the DVDs have given way to video-streaming. "The teachers have to keep an open mind," he says. "These technologies are just different tools in the toolbox. The tools will be different, but the job will be the same."

The More Things Change...

While the school library environment and the role of the librarian has transformed, the ultimate purpose of the building and its resources is no different. "The role of the library," says Barry Bishop, director of libraries for Houston's Spring Branch Independent School District, "hasn't changed: how to teach students to access and use information."

Bishop's been in the field for 30 years. He oversaw the cabling of 25 schools for a telecommunications network, assisted in the design of more than 30 new libraries, helped in purchasing new furniture and renovating libraries on more than 20 campuses, and is currently in charge of 38 Texas school libraries/library resource centers/learning resource centers. He's been a witness to the revolution, but Bishop maintains that no matter how many electronic devices find their way to the library, no matter how sophisticated the technology becomes, there will still be librarians. Students will be gathering information in new ways, but after all, he says, "we're information managers, not book managers."

Bishop says the changes have been difficult because the old stereotype of the school still exists, if only in the minds of school staff. "Almost everybody we're dealing with—principals, superintendents, the majority of teachers—have a view of librarians as 'shushers,'" he says. "There's a huge misperception. They don't understand that the librarian of today is a master teacher."

As Bishop says, the librarian, too, has to find money to replace old technologies, has to help revise curricula so that the technology is used effectively. Bishop recalls a superintendent asking a group of high school students, "When you come to school, do you power up or power down?" They answered that, except in the school library, they power down, because all the technology is outdated. But Bishop has faith in some of the old technology, too—namely, books. "As long as books add value to our lives," he says, "they'll be here."

It's a thought echoed by Blattman Elementary School's Miller. She says the traditional notion of the library as a book provider will last, because "a good story will never go out of style." Her students are still reading "Nancy Drew" and "The Hardy Boys." And her first-graders this past school year studied desert animals with both a nonfiction book and a fiction book, then made rattlesnakes out of egg cartons, using rice for the rattles.

Effective school librarians take the technology in stride, and they try to get their colleagues to do the same. Although Valenza does everything from running a website to facilitating in-services to buying materials, she describes her job simply: "I help teachers teach. I help learners learn."

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-Neal Starkman is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.