Academic Column: The Rewards of Research

Thank you to the MSLA Awards Committee for recognizing with a research grant the work done in the course of writing my dissertation Transitioning a high school library to a learning commons: Avoiding the tragedy of the commons. The ongoing support of MSLA colleagues has been deeply appreciated.


In July of 2012 I began a doctoral program with Northeastern University. If I had known how difficult it was going to be I never would have started, and now that I am finished I encourage everyone to consider pursuing a doctorate. If I can do it, so can you. It is a three-year quest that consumes all free time, forces the brain to work harder and establish new pathways of learning, and most valuable for me, renewed my appreciation of how demanding it is to be a student. This quest experience has directly impacted how I teach my high school students, how I organize online materials, how I conduct both formative and summative assessments, and the value of clear communication on everything from rubrics to due dates.

The Doctor of Education process consists of course work designed to teach research skills as well as critical content on topics ranging from educational pedagogy to organizational structures. Throughout the process the researcher is building a literature review, and iterating the research question(s) that will ultimately determine the topic of the dissertation and the direction of the research. Each course requires research and writing that informs the research question with a new lens.

The research conducted for the dissertation focused on the process of transitioning a traditional high school library to the learning commons service model, identified the requirements of the model, and the factors that either promoted or undermined the success of the transition.

A general inductive approach based on a qualitative methodology was used to collect and analyze data obtained from three Massachusetts high school librarians who self-identified as having successfully transitioned a high school library to a learning commons, were all members of the MSLA, and worked in public high schools. The two research questions for the study were:

(1) What factors determine a successful transition?

(2) What factors undermine or threaten the transition?

Data was collected through multiple methods including: field notes from site visits, review of participant created websites, as well as interviews conducted in person, by telephone, and by video conference. Coding was used to sort and evaluate data that identified categories and themes that influenced the success of the transition.

The transition to a learning commons was analyzed in the context of the tragedy of the commons scenario (Hardin, 1968). The tragedy scenario has its roots in pre-Roman England when farmers grazed their livestock in communally held fields. The growth in demand for the common fields led to increasing herd sizes with no corresponding incentive to maintain the shared resource, leading ultimately to overuse, depletion, herd starvation, and collapse. The tragedy scenario has been applied to analogous issues such as over-fishing, deforestation, and in this study, the highly demanded resources of a modern learning commons.

Through analysis of the transition experiences of the three participants, the trust of the building principal was identified as the primary hallmark of success. The attributes of the school librarian that positively influence the trust of principals are identified as vision and an implementation plan, data-driven practice, communication, and consensus building skills.

Based on research relating to the learning commons service model, a successful transition includes a reduction and reorganization of the book collection to increase space for collaborative activities. An integral part of the shift in the mission of the library collection is a de-emphasis on print reference and a transition to e-books to replace print reference, with priority placed on purchasing high interest young adult fiction and narrative nonfiction to promote curriculum and pleasure reading for students.

The revitalization of the former school library to a learning commons requires diverse seating, working, and production options for students, as well as access to technology for equity, learning, creation, and sharing. The virtual learning commons is a space that promotes curated access to curriculum content as well as communication and scheduling for students and faculty.

In conclusion, the learning commons is a model designed to support student learning and achievement in a period of evolving and dynamic change in curriculum and digital information and presentation technologies. This study situates the learning commons as central to school change, and identifies the factors that promote a successful transition. The tragedy of the commons scenario represents a transition process that is undermined by lack of support in key domains.  Without the trust of the building principal, the school librarian faces challenges in implementing the model, and positioning the learning commons at the heart of student and faculty work within the school. With trust, the learning commons can play a central role in school goals, school change, and student achievement.

The experience of conducting authentic research on school librarianship was both challenging and invigorating. I am filled with gratitude for the generosity of the three participants in sharing their time, work, and expertise. My third reader, Dr. Mary Frances Zilonis, was extraordinary in identifying gaps in the research, as well as highlighting the opportunities for advocacy for the profession. Dr. Zilonis was truly a transformational partner, and immeasurably improved the caliber of the research and findings. Deeply engaging in various aspects and domains of school librarianship through research has been deeply rewarding. I look forward to future opportunities to work with data from our profession in order to continue advocating and contributing towards greater understanding and appreciation for the substantial benefits school librarians bring to student learning.

Work Cited

Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science162(3859), 1243-1248.

Northeastern University. (2015). Doctor of Education. Retrieved March 29, 2015,
from Northeastern University College of Professional Studies website:

Robin Cicchetti is the librarian at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School


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