Academic Column: School Libraries: Historical Context

School libraries and the profession of school librarianship have a rich history that reflects global changes in politics and culture. As we face the ongoing challenges of reduced budgets and mandated testing, school librarians and the critical information, media, digital skills and associated characteristics of citizenship that comprise out content area, are more stressed than ever. A quick overview of how school libraries evolved accomplishes two goals: reaffirming that we are an integral part of the dynamic and evolving story of U.S. education, and developing research-based strategies that will allow us to continue this story.

Schools and school libraries evolved in a series of waves that have reflected the transition of U.S. society at large. The first wave covered the transition from agricultural workers (production) to industrial workers (consumption) to the third wave that saw the shift to today’s information society, labeled “prosumer,” or one who both produces and consumes information (Martin, 2011). School libraries in the production phase began as storehouses of books and materials chosen to support the curricular goals of the school, and in the subsequent consumption phase evolved to more sophisticated sources of information that included digital, database, and multimedia resources. In the current prosumer phase the school librarian is a certified teacher of the information literacy skills required to locate, evaluate, and ethically use content to make and share new learning. The instructional role of the library teacher has gone from managing materials to instructing students in sophisticated information tasks that promote high level critical thinking (Loertscher, 2009).

School library studies traditionally focus on determining the impact of the school library program on student achievement. Within the environment of standards-based testing and increased teacher accountability it has been challenging for teacher librarians to assume effective leadership roles because test-based curriculum has squeezed out constructivist pedagogy (Eisner, 2013). The barriers to effective school library leadership have a number of roots, but the result is diminished effectiveness at establishing collaborative planning relationships with teachers, and diminished opportunities to provide information literacy instruction to students (Martin, 2011).

History of School Library Impact Studies

Research studies designed to determine the impact of school libraries on student achievement began in 1963 with the Gaver study (Callison, 2005). Gaver compared test scores of students in schools that had classroom-based libraries to students in schools with separate libraries staffed by professionally trained librarians. The results showed that students from schools with professionally staffed libraries outperformed those from schools without libraries and qualified librarians. There were obstacles to the study that included the challenges of managing such large amounts of raw data and the inability to control for a wide range of variables such as community conditions. From the Gaver study through the 1970’s and 80’s impact studies took the form of literature reviews, with little original research.

In 1987 National Public Radio conducted an interview with William L. Bainbridge, a commercial vendor of school data (Callison, 2005). The topic of the interview was how parents who were relocating to another community could find data and identify the best school districts for their children. Bainbridge’s company, School Match, conducted analysis of schools and school districts using a wide variety of data points, and had a deep databank of in-house analysis. When the interviewer asked what single factor had the greatest impact or influence on a schools performance Bainbridge immediately said spending on the school library was the greatest correlation to school performance and student achievement. This response created a surge of publicity and a new era of research.

The era of research conducted in the 1990’s reflects the early efforts of the Gaver study, and as a result of the School Match research, focused on quantitative research and analysis. The Colorado study in 1993 confirmed that students who attended schools with well-funded library media centers performed better on standardized reading tests, regardless of socioeconomic background (Martin, 2011; Callison, 2005). Building on numerous quantitative studies conducted in a number of U.S. states and Canada since then, the Ohio Study took a qualitative approach that explored the perceptions of students and teachers about the “help” they received from their school library and teacher librarians (Todd & Kuhlthau, 2004). It is important to note that participating Ohio schools were required to submit a self-assessment that determined whether their programs met the criteria of “effective” as defined by the study as adequately budgeted and staffed. This is crucial, because the findings of the study are tied to principal support in the form of adequate funding and staffing.

The results of the study validated the previous quantitative results, and confirmed that effective school libraries positively impact student achievement, regardless of other socioeconomic factors. The Ohio Study also established that perceptions of “help” contributed to the understanding of what it means to be an effective school librarian. The results of the many previous quantitative school library impact studies were confirmed by the results of the qualitative Ohio study on the positive impact of effective school library media programs on student achievement.

The quantitative studies of the 1990’s and early 2000’s have confirmed that schools with effective school libraries positively impact student achievement. The perceptions of “help” established by the qualitative Ohio Study confirmed the positive impact on student learning, but did not provide specific interventions for teacher librarians on how to transform their practice to improve their overall effectiveness.

The perceptions of principals and administrators have been identified as crucial in setting the staffing and budgetary conditions of the school library, as well as the opportunities for effective leadership (Castiglione, 2006). Research studies have been conducted on identifying the variables that influence the perceptions of principals; yet determining how these variables should be implemented remains to be addressed (Levitov, 2009). The perceptions held by building principals of their school libraries, and research-based strategies that can be used to influence those perceptions, will be addressed in the March edition of The Forum.

Works Cited

Callison, D. (2005). An interview with Keith Curry Lance, Director, Library Research Service, Colorado State Library & University of Denver.

Castiglione, J. (2006). Organizational learning and transformational leadership in the library environment. Library Management, 27(4/5), 289-299.

Eisner, E. W. (2013). What does it mean to say a school is doing well? In D. J. Flinders, & S. J. Thornton (Eds.), The curriculum studies reader (4th ed., pp. 279-288). New York, NY: Routledge.

Levitov, D. D. (2009). Perspectives of school administrators related to school library media programs after participating in an online course, “School library advocacy for administrators” (Doctoral dissertation).

Loertscher, D. V. (2009). Evidence-based practice: Evolution or revolution? Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 4(2), 178-181.

Martin, V. D. (2011). Perceptions of school library media specialists regarding the practice of instructional leadership. Advances in Library Administration and Organization, 30(), 207-287.

Todd, R. J., & Kuhlthau, C. C. (2004). Student learning through Ohio school libraries: Background, methodology and report of findings. Retrieved from http:/

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