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


Why #Membership matters: One Librarian’s Take

Last fall, I attended the AASL conference in Hartford, CT (membership in a national organization is just as important as in a local one). One of the many excellent sessions I attended came from our very own Newton Public School librarians on the topic of elementary learning commons. Though I’d only been working in Carlisle for about ten weeks, I returned to Massachusetts brimming with ideas, new perspectives, and a mission: somehow, I would transform my library into a genuine learning commons.

The first step was to begin gathering information on the rare elementary learning commons out there. I downloaded the Newton presentation from AASL’s eCOLLAB platform (another membership benefit), and put out a query to the MSLA listserv (again, a membership benefit) asking for resources. Within 24 hours, I had a wealth of information from librarians around the state: bibliographies, links, suggestions and more. Over the summer, I began to formulate my proposal, and in the fall, I presented it to my superintendent, who in turn shared it with our parent-led education foundation. They jumped at the chance to get involved, a return to their origins (they were founded to save the library during budget cuts), and I was asked to start thinking about this project in earnest.

Now I had to start thinking more carefully about what I would include on my wishlist. This seems like an easy, fun activity – scouring websites, blogs, and Pinterest for inspiration – but the reality is that it’s more than a little overwhelming. So once again, I turned to the listserv to crowdsource suggestions, and just as before, the suggestions came pouring in: a TV to show digital work, a media lab, makerspaces, a spot for reader’s theater, and more. Some were ideas I’d come up with on my own, but others made me go “what a WONDERFUL idea! I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of that before!” Especially as someone who is the sole librarian in my district, I value having a virtual “team” more than I can say.

Flash forward to March and the MSLA unconference and conference in Amherst. Sunday morning dawned, and the fantastic Laura D’Elia and Dan Callahan kicked off the Unconference. The morning session I attended focused on makerspaces, and I loved hearing about technology-centric makerspaces (video production/green screens/stop-motion apps) as well as the more practical ones, like knitting or sewing. My afternoon session of choice focused on learning commons – about 20 of us, representing a variety of schools and different stages of the process. Ellen Brandt from Westford shared her experiences (which she’s also been documenting on the listserv), but it was also great to hear from others who have started to make small changes, or who are trying to figure out where to begin. The beauty of an unconference is that each of us had a voice instead of one presenter who answered a handful of questions at the end of a session. I am looking forward to participating in a more general unconference at some point in the future, but only MSLA can provide a library-specific unconference where we can share experiences and topics that are directly relevant to our work.

I also attended a fabulous Monday session by Jessica Lodge, where she shared how she’s incorporated learning centers into her library. A learning center is a dedicated activity students can do after they’ve checked out books, and Jess has managed to incorporate fun and learning into her stations. As someone who’s followed her blog for years, it was great to see some of her learning center materials in person and to have the opportunity to ask her questions. It was great to get inspired with simple, easy ideas, like the genius thought of putting straws and tape in a bin and having kids create original structures. Makerspace, engineering, and fun all in one! I also loved Zoinks the Robot, a small creation who asks students a weekly question that they must use a library resource (PebbleGo, BrainPop, Britannica, etc.) to answer.

When my superintendent offered specialists the chance to visit other schools during parent-teacher conferences this past week, I knew exactly what I was going to do. Using the MSLA directory (you guessed it, another membership goodie), I reached out to Jess, Jennifer Reed, and Sheila Packard, all of whom work in Newton and have made changes to their spaces that I wanted to see in person. They graciously welcomed me into their schools, answered my questions, and let me take as many photographs as I wanted. I saw how Jess has used the side of a shelf to mount a Lego board, and how she uses a flat space under her circulation desk for a Boggle board. I saw how Jen has implemented great signage and made good use of limited display space, and got to test out collaboration-friendly tables in Sheila’s space.

Being a librarian is not always easy. We’re usually the only one in our building who does what we do, and some of us don’t even have a team. MSLA has allowed me to build a professional network of librarians across the state who I can turn to for advice (my superintendent, who attended the conference with me, came away highly impressed by just how many people I know from across the state). MSLA provides me with relevant professional development that directly benefits my students (I walked away from this summer’s Better Together conference with at least two projects that are now in development). Most of all, it has allowed me to make friends with colleagues whose names I recognize from the listserv when I take a class or go to a workshop, colleagues who are funny, wise, helpful, encouraging and just generally fabulous company whenever we meet. I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing without the support I’ve gained from being an MSLA member, and I’ll be sure to keep you all posted as my library begins its transition in the hopes that my experience can help others. #membershipmatters

Maya Bery is the librarian at The Carlisle School in Carlisle

Secondary School Column: The Soulful Nature of Change

NOTE: This article is reprinted with permission from the author. The original article appeared on MassCue’s On Cue Online blog.

“If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s,

we rob them of tomorrow” – John Dewey 

Over the past month, I have weeded (discarded) approximately 4,000 outdated, older books from our library’s collection as part of current renovation efforts to create an updated, modernized, technology-rich environment for our students at Sharon High School. These renovation efforts were initiated several years ago by our Library Task Force of parents, teachers and students as we surveyed the wider school community to assess and prioritize necessary changes to our library’s design in alignment with our school-wide and district-wide goals.

It’s an exciting time for the library and library program as we work toward expanded possibilities that will meet students where they are today while also reinforcing traditional research skills. In order to prepare our students to thrive in a digital world that values collaborative team work, problem solving and creativity, our learning spaces need to foster those skills. In a world where information is instantaneously available through devices, we need to shift the focus toward teaching our students how to evaluate that information in order make new meaning out of it. The library as learning commons becomes a center of inquiry and beyond that, a hub of project-based learning, digital literacy, collaboration and creativity.

Nonetheless, even as a librarian who fully embraces the learning commons philosophy, I found myself in tears when I reached the poetry section and needed to discard the yellowed, dusty, older volumes of Frost, Dickinson and Yeats, to name a few. First and foremost, as a librarian, I am a lover of beautiful language, ideas and poetry. Essential Question: How to make peace with this process of change?

For many of us, books are sacred, soulful objects. They carry a symbolic weight that extends beyond their mere content and size. As physical objects, they are imbued with the gravity of the past and offer themselves to us as transmitters not only of knowledge but also, at times, of personal and collective history. As I discard the outdated copy of Yeats, I read with amusement the graffiti inside the cover, “John S. has the cutest buns in room 107.” John is more than likely now a grandfather. Still, I am discarding a tiny, if insignificant piece of my school’s history as I move that book to the discard pile. The ghost of my own father, a high school English teacher who wall-papered my childhood home with bookshelves lined with volume upon volume, is with me, and I feel the need to fully convince both of us that what I am doing is right.

What helps me is the knowledge that it is not about me and I don’t dare take this personally. It’s about my students, and what they need in order to succeed. They do not need moldy copies of yellowed, dusty books. Which is not to say that some of those classic poetry books don’t need replacing. But perhaps, in addition, I can work with our English Dept. to collaborate on signing up some student teams for the national “Poetry Out Loud” competition, to bring the essence of those poems to life as performance pieces. Perhaps, students could also create videos of their poems as interpretive art through Animoto, incorporating music and sound to learn valuable visual literacy and technology skills as well as literary analysis. I am excited about these new possibilities that allow for the teaching of trans-literacies.

As I complete the weeding process, I look to models such as Brown University’s Digital Scholarship lab: an amazing space designed specifically for collaboration, flexibility, and ease of use for scholars working on data-rich and visually oriented research, and at the high school level, Tenafly High School’s Lalor Library in Tenafly, New Jersey.

Moving full circle between past and future, I also look to the writing on the inside cover of the last book my father gave me before he left this world, “They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators,” by Harold Evans. The handwritten page reads, “To Cathy- Here is your surprise Xmas present. It may, or may not, be useful, but it will certainly impress you, just as you have impressed me. Love, Daddy p.s. I hope it fits in your suitcase.”

Reading these words, I am reminded that even my bibliophile father would have supported my efforts as a librarian to pave the way for an innovative learning space for students. He was first and foremost, a teacher who embraced unconventional teaching methods to engage his students.

The very large book did indeed fit in my suitcase and made its way along with several other treasured volumes from California to Kathmandu and back home to Massachusetts. Of course, their owner valued the knowledge inside the books more so than a few unnecessary pairs of socks or sweaters.

Perhaps, it is possible to be forward thinking, innovative, sentimental and impractical all at once. Answer to Essential Question:

“Come gather ‘round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’.”

–Bob Dylan

Cathy Collins is the librarian at Sharon High School