The vital work of teacher librarians in the digital age
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The vital work of teacher librarians in the digital age

Fourteen-year old Tom has his own laptop for school and a smartphone. He has a social media account that he often uses. Tom has trouble focusing on his assignments, which now come thick and fast. He searches for information but is overwhelmed by the amount of it, gets frustrated when he can’t Google the answer to the teacher’s question and is unable to synthesize content.

Tom is not alone in needing help to navigate the ocean of data available to him. His parents know he can be fooled by fake news and sometimes cuts and pastes information that isn’t reliable.

Only 4 in 10 ACT public schools have a qualified teacher librarian.

Only 4 in 10 ACT public schools have a qualified teacher librarian.

A 2016 study of high school and college students by Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, found that, “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak. When it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

The report goes on: “Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite.”

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Ready to counter this worrying phenomenon are the school’s teacher librarians. They are at the front-line for students who need to know how to be savvy consumers and constructors of information as well as how to be safe digital citizens, creating positive digital footprints for life.

But today only 4 in 10 ACT public schools have a qualified teacher librarian, down from 6 in 10 just five years ago. The decline is less dramatic in the Catholic sector and far less marked in the non-Catholic or Independent private sector.

Independent schools boast an average of one full-time teacher librarian and one full-time library support staff member per school. Catholic schools have one half-time teacher librarian and one half-time support staff member, while on average, government schools have a teacher librarian for 1.5 days a week and a library support staff member for three days a week.

With my fellow Australian Education Union member Holly Godfree, I have been tracking the disappearance of ACT teacher librarians using data from the Australian School Library Survey and other sources. We’ve found that the decline is greatest in early childhood and primary schools. Retiring teacher librarians and library staff who move to other schools aren’t being replaced.

The impact is most keenly felt when students move into high school. Many students don’t have the information and digital literacy skills they need to use libraries and to research effectively. Secondary and tertiary institutions have to go ‘back to basics’ to teach them things they should already know.

Primary students who get tailored tuition in libraries understand the benefits. “You teach us how to do note-taking and how to research information so we will know what to do in high school. It’s fun choosing which topic we want to research and deciding how we want to present it,” 12-year-old Jessica told me.

Too many students are unable to access quality information and use it in the ways they will need to in the workforce. They know how to type things into Google, but they don’t know how to use other trusted sources to uncover what they need. Often their schools subscribe to databases. Often they are unused.

If children are not accessing a range of literature, they are not being challenged.

If children are not accessing a range of literature, they are not being challenged.

A 2013 international study of computer and information literacy - Preparing for Life in a Digital Age - finds that more than 94 per cent of Year 8 Australian students feel confident about finding information on the internet. Far fewer ask critical questions to get the information they really need.

Of course, teacher librarians also support wide and deep reading. They are the masters of finding ‘that’ book for each student.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development finds that the performance of Australian 15-year-olds in reading, maths and scientific literacy has fallen, while the performance of 15-year-olds in other countries has improved.

If children are not accessing a range of literature, they are not being challenged. In schools that don't have teacher librarians, what tends to happen is classroom teachers may take the kids in to borrow books. They don’t have the thorough knowledge of the library collection that a teacher librarian does, so it’s much harder for them to know what’s available to meet or extend a student’s reading interests.

A teacher librarian can take students to the next level. Many students get hooked on reading Andy Griffiths, which is excellent fun but not that taxing to read. The teacher librarian tries to encourage them in a way that sees them access and enjoy something a bit richer; that tempts them and pushes them to take the next step. Smartphones and other devices encourage skim reading and multitasking. They can supplant deep reading and a capacity to focus for long.

It's all the more important that kids who aren't reading gain a love for it. But once they’ve caught the reading bug, we don't just want them to read the same sort of thing over and over, without ever being challenged or thinking deeply. Students risk stagnating.

The skills young people will need to succeed in coming decades include problem solving, multidisciplinary learning, critical thinking, and the need to use technology well (not just to use technology). An essential component to reversing these trends, solving many of these problems and preparing today’s young people for their futures is the reinvigoration and staffing of school libraries with qualified staff.

Olivia Neilson is a teacher librarian who has taught in ACT primary schools for nearly 20 years. She is a member of the Australian Education Union.

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