15 Apr 2012

The role of librarians in primary and secondary education

The role of the school librarian increasingly converges with the functions and duties of teachers in the classroom. Teachers seek to achieve desired results within their students. They do this by ensuring that students attend to pertinent subject knowledge and meet specific learning objectives. Librarians play a constructive role in this process as providers of learning resources and teachers in their own right.

The idea of blending roles between librarian and teacher still does not seem a common perception outside LIS. Andrew Shenton (2011) surveyed various statements about the role of school librarians. Traditionally, school librarians are considered intermediaries between the library user and materials. They channel “the flow of information to individuals” (Gorman, 1998, cited in Shenton, 2011 p. 533), and function as “human mediators” (Brier, 2008, cited in Shenton, 2011 p. 533). School librarians facilitate the education process by backing up tuition in the classroom; their role is primarily concerned with organising and managing information in the library. Minton and Shenton (1987, p. 60), for example, developed a structural diagram for secondary and primary schools that does not afford the library a role as part of its “strategic apex” (see diagram here). Shenton (2011) supposes that the school library is somewhere buried within the “support structure” of the diagram. The message here is that the library still seems to be relegated to the margins within the organisational framework of quite a few primary/secondary schools.

Certainly, school librarians fulfil the traditional role of facilitating access to learning resources, but they also adopt an active teaching role  in, and outside of, the classroom. Their area of expertise lies within the LIS sub-discipline of information behaviour, which deals with information needs, information-seeking and information use. Information-seeking and information use are cognitive activities and, therefore, an integral part of the learning process (Shenton, 2011). In other words, such activities are about “the transformation and integration of found information into existing knowledge, and the creation of new knowledge” (Todd, 2006). 

In this sense, school librarians equip students with information skills that come in handy later on at university - for example, where independent research skills are needed from day one. The phenomenon of library anxiety is significantly reduced from the outset if students arrive prepared (see Brown (2011) for a review of the current literature on the issue).

The teaching role of librarians is not new. User education and bibliographic instruction has been around since the 1970s (Shenton, 2011 p.535). However, information literacy (IL) teaching covers exponentially more than telling students “where to go to find what you need”. IL embraces the broader aspects of strategic and critical thinking, and problem solving; it forms the basis for lifelong learning. School librarians encourage students to develop independent learning and research skills at an early stage. This means 1) inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge, 2) draw conclusions, make informed decisions, apply knowledge to new situations, and create new knowledge, 3) share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of democratic society, 4) pursue personal and aesthetic growth. (see AASL Standards for the 21st-Century Learner). Those goals do not diverge from information literacy competency standards for higher education (see ACRLstandards). They match.

It is therefore vital that primary and secondary educational environments offer their students access to adequate library and information services. Given the importance of IL teaching, school administrators and teachers should regard school librarians as equal partners and co-instructors, in addition to their traditional function as providers of learning materials and resources.

Add. ref.
Anna Marie Johnson, Claudene Sproles, Robert Detmering, (2011),"Library instruction and information literacy 2010", Reference Services Review, Vol. 39 Iss: 4 pp. 551 - 627


  1. I've always been curious about why there are so few trained librarians in our schools here in Ireland - from the school libraries I have seen it seems the input of specialists could be of great use to both teachers providing the service and to students who, more than ever, need good information skills (beyond Google and Facebook).

  2. SLARI put together a rationale for the establishment of school libraries + an explanation why Ireland is struggling in this effort. See http://www.slari.ie/Policy/SLARIpolicy.pdf